A mystery gunman looms in Murphy homes slaying

February 08, 1992|By David Simon

A young drug trafficker believed to have been shot to death this week by Baltimore police officers in a gunbattle at a high-rise housing project instead may have been killed by gunfire from someone who has yet to be identified by police.

Autopsy findings suggest that two of three bullets that struck 25-year-old Wayne D. Watts -- including one slug that fatally pierced the heart -- may have been fired by a .22-caliber revolver recovered by detectives at the scene, sources close to the investigation say.

A third wound to the groin was caused by 9mm jacketed ammunition, used by plainclothes officers who fired 15 rounds into a crowded fifth-floor hallway at 1058 Argyle Ave. after Watts shot at them with a .357-caliber Magnum handgun.

The gunbattle late Monday night resulted in the death of Watts and the wounding of five others in the hallway -- most of whom were apparently involved in drug transactions at the 11-story high-rise of the George B. Murphy Homes in West Baltimore.

But where homicide detectives initially believed they were dealing with a police shooting, the autopsy results now suggest that the case may be an unsolved slaying.

The state medical examiner's office is awaiting the results of additional tests on debris from a shattered bullet that hit the victim from behind.

If Watts was killed by someone other than police during the gunfight in the crowded hallway, the gunman could have been aiming at the officers down the hall -- or he could have intended to shoot Mr. Watts.

The groin wound was inflicted by a police bullet entering from Watts' front; the other two wounds were made by bullets stricking him from behind at similar trajectories, with one bullet shattering against the pelvis and the other exiting the chest after clipping the heart.

The autopsy findings aren't the only surprise in the investigation of the gunbattle, which now appears to have resulted from a confluence of unlikely actions on the part of police officers and drug dealers alike, sources say.

Initially, for example, detectives were at a loss to explain the actions of Watts, a small-time trafficker in the projects who, rather than enduring a minor drug arrest, chose the greater risk of firing on officers.

Some investigators say they now suspect that Watts, who lived in a nearby Lexington Terrace high-rise, began shooting before he was even sure he was aiming at plainclothes officers.

His nerves may have been frayed. A week earlier, he was shot five times on the ninth floor of the same high-rise.

Drug figures familiar with the west-side projects say Watts had for many years had a problem keeping track of his money and the narcotics he often sold on consignment for larger dealers.

"When I knew him he was selling for 'C.C.O,' " said Donnie Andrews, referring to Calvin Ford, a lieutenant in the drug group that ran the Lexington Terrace drug trade until 1988. Now serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison, Andrews recalls that when Watts failed to repay Ford for drugs, the ring's leader, Warren Boardley, ordered him killed.

"He was definitely on Warren's list," says Andrews, who had been one of several gunmen hunting Watts for Boardley, who is now serving a 47-year sentence.

Watts survived because the Boardley ring members were jailed three years ago, and police say he began to work as an independent drug seller in the Murphy homes. He apparently continued to make enemies.

"He's just out of the hospital and he's nervous and he's carrying a .357 when the police show up," says one police investigator. "It was a bad combination."

Another circumstance that led to the gunbattle: The young officers who responded to a report of drug activity in the building were working in plainclothes for the first time that night. As a result, they weren't recognized by paid lookouts who issue warnings when known officers approach the high-rises.

"These guys managed to get to the fifth floor undetected," says one detective. "That tells you that the either dealers at 1058 are disorganized or these kids weren't known to them."

When the officers arrived at the fifth-floor landing and saw Watts and others serving drug customers in the hallway, one officer held his badge outside the stairwell door to identify himself.

Watts -- and evidently someone armed with the .22-caliber pistol -- began firing immediately.

Investigators say there has been little criticism within the Police Department of the officers for electing to return fire in a narrow, crowded corridor.

"They were under fire from at least two suspects," says one detective. "It was an impossible situation."

Police officials believe community criticism has been muted because the officers -- like the victims -- are black, and because most of the other victims apparently were involved in drug activity. None was a resident of the building.

The police actions have been ruled legally justifiable by the state's attorney's office; an administrative review by police officials will follow.

If the slaying is determined to be a homicide rather than a police shooting, detectives will begin reinterviewing witnesses in an attempt to identify the missing gunman.

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