Police still puzzled by waterfront killing Police try new angles in death of businessman.

October 14, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Evening Sun Staff

John R. "Jack" Shotto, a handsome, take-no-prisoners entrepreneur on the Baltimore waterfront, had just finished a lengthy business meeting at the Baltimore International Warehouse Company's office on Broening Highway.

As he and three associates stepped into the nearly-empty parking lot on the evening of Sept. 4, Shotto was unaware of two men watching his movements from a sedan parked nearby.

As Shotto, 52, walked toward his powder-blue Mercedes Benz with his keys in his hand, the sedan lurched toward him.

The car, its front right window rolled down, stopped about 10 feet away. The passenger, a white man with tufts of gray hair above his ears, didn't say a word as he quickly aimed a .44-caliber Magnum revolver at Shotto and fired twice.

The first bullet crashed into the left side of Shotto's head. He died almost instantly.

The second struck Raymond Nicholson, a vice president of the Hechinger home-improvement chain. The bullet struck the 38-year-old father of three young children in the pelvic region and shattered a major blood vessel. Nicholson died within minutes from shock and blood loss.

Two others on the parking lot -- another Hechinger official and William Romberger Sr., a consultant with BIW -- were not injured in the flash of violence.

Later, when city homicide detectives would arrive at the southeast Baltimore site to collect details and statements, they would curse a hard rain that was falling, erasing the chalk marks that outlined where the dead had fallen.

*

Now, more than a month after the shooting, one police conclusion remains constant: Shotto was the intended victim and Nicholson a bystander. But police have changed their initial theory about a Colombian drug connection and are pursuing new angles.

At first, police and federal agents worked on the belief the shooting was an assassination ordered by one of the world's largest cocaine cartels. Shotto, federal investigators informed city police, had extensive business contacts in Baltimore with Ernesto Forero-Orjuela, described by the government as a trusted operative of the Cali cocaine organization.

Forero-Orjuela, a Colombian national, helped launder narcotics money through Baltimore, federal agents said in an affidavit filed U.S. District Court.

The government said Shotto had acted as a front man to purchase a freighter for a company owned by Forero-Orjuela. The freighter was to ship coffee from South America to the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

The allegations were made in an affidavit filed in a civil forfeiture proceeding against the funds seized from the sale of ship, the M/V Liberty. The government claimed the ship had been purchased with money from the sale of illegal narcotics, making it a target for forfeiture.

Immediately after the shooting, Shotto's links with Forero-Orjuela Baltimore and his presence in Colombia on three separate occasions raised suspicions -- but offered no solid answers.

As detectives probed deeper into Shotto's background and business dealings, they found a man who, although deeply in debt, was a responsible father, respected and trusted neighbor in his community near Belair and a businessman who lived by his "can-do" credo.

"His philosophy in business was 'take no prisoners'; he always had a positive attitude," said Shotto's oldest son, Scott, a graduate of the Citadel military academy and a local stockbroker. "He wouldn't stand for somebody who said they couldn't do something. He always looked for a way to do it."

The day after Shotto was slain, city detectives met with representatives of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs Service. The city investigators, beginning a painstaking process of elimination, were told a compelling tale about Shotto and his connection to Forero-Orjuela.

Shotto had purchased the Liberty in 1988 through a company named Maryland Ship Inc. Following a tip from an informant, it was determined through a federal probe that $3.6 million used to purchase, repair and operate the Liberty was provided by Liberty Shipment Enterprises, Inc., another Maryland firm headed by Forero-Orjuela.

Investigators believe Shotto was approached to make the purchase because a foreign national cannot own a U.S. flag ship. The Maryland Port Administration had referred Forero-Orjuela to Shotto because his company, Meridian Ship Agency, was the only Baltimore-based firm with the expertise to purchase a vessel like the Liberty, according to Shotto's son.

Christopher Hayes, an official with the Steamship Trade Association in Baltimore, said Shotto "had a wide knowledge of world markets. He was probably one of the sharpest individuals I knew."

"Jack would make a dollar where he could make a dollar; he was a businessman," Hayes said. "But he'd never knowingly involve himself in any drug dealings."

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