Life as a snitch: Anonymous to the end, 'Possum' tells secrets

March 16, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

"You don't look so good," says the cop, smiling. "You look like death."

Possum nods, the gaunt face bobbing. The Virus hangs on him, hangs on everything in the rented room. Three decades of firing heroin and thieving and turning over criminals to police at $50 to $100 a head, but it isn't a penitentiary or a bullet or a lethal dose that claims him.

"Yeah, I been sick, you know," says Possum in a mumble, his stick-leg stretched over a table. "I been sick but I'm back now."

Possum, showing some life, talking about working. The cop smiles.

They go back about 15 years, these two, back to Possum's glory days in West Baltimore, to the heart of his long run as the best police informant in the city. Possum out on the corner, marking faces. Possum calling cops at their homes. Possum getting paid. In a vocation dominated by rank amateurs and opportunists, this man was a professional.

"He worked for everybody -- FBI, DEA, city narcotics, homicide," recalls Ed Parker, a retired detective.

"He gave us at least 500 escapees," remembers Leo Smith, who worked with Mr. Parker in the Baltimore Police Department's escape-and-apprehension squad.

"His information was always dead-on," says Willie Cole, now a city homicide detective. "If he told me right now to go kick in a door, I'd kick in that door."

Testaments for the twilight of a unique career. On this fading February afternoon, as Possum inches toward death in a second-floor rowhouse room, he sits listening to more of the same.

"Tell him about the thing you did with the FBI with the hats," says the cop, conjuring up ancient history. "You remember that?"

"Hats?" asks Possum.

"The thing where the agents couldn't find the guy and you went to the corner and put the red hat on the guy they were looking for."

Possum smiles. The hat trick. He starts talking, giving up little pieces of his life, but soon enough, the conversation ends at the place where Possum always begins. If he's going to talk, it's got to pay cash money.

"Well, so," he says, looking at the reporter, "how's your finances?"

'I'm a watcher'

Possum is what they called him in New York, up on Amsterdam Avenue, in the stretch of Upper Manhattan everyone knows as Little Baltimore. For years Possum harvested that real estate for the FBI, turning up dozens of wanted men who had fled north from this city.

In Baltimore he was known by another street name, equally colorful. Officially, the police department here knew him as Larry Johnson, a name used on the weekly vouchers for informant money. He died last month at 48, but fearing retaliation, the family requested that Possum's real name not be printed. An informant's obituary is strange indeed.

He was born in South Baltimore, on an alley street now buried under the new stadium. At 15 an older friend paid him a debt with leftovers from a $6 bag of heroin. He got sick that first time but stayed curious.

Two years later he was firing drugs 'most every day and earning his keep as an a-rab street vendor by day and a sneak-thief at night. He liked to come down the roof caps and skylights of stores in South Baltimore and Pigtown, collecting goods, then busting a window on his way out to obscure the true point of entry.

One night in 1958, a crew Possum had worked with and trained broke into a South Charles Street pawn shop, coming down the skylight but forgetting to break the window. A city detective, Nelson by name, noticed the open skylight.

"That's what led him to me," Possum remembers. "He asks around and finds out that I'm always coming down the skylights. So he comes by my house and I tell him it ain't me and he says to me, 'Okay, but then you know who it was.' "

Either Possum would give up names or he'd go to the Southern District lockup.

"I gave him the names," says Possum. "And he paid me a few dollars."

And that began it. Detective Nelson became his first contact, but soon enough he was churning out information on burglaries, robberies and fugitives.

"I'm a watcher," he says proudly. "I can watch people and tell things about them. I can look at a face and remember it. I would go 'round a-rabing, or in my truck, or I'd ride my

bicycle even, and all the time, I'd be seeing what's up."

One minute, a Jessup escapee might be in a crowd on Division Street, Possum hanging near him; the next minute he was cuffed, waiting for the police wagon. And no one ever put two and two together.

1% "I was careful," he says proudly.

Photographic memory

Possum and the cop who sits next to him on the sofa met 15 years earlier at the corner of East Fayette Street and Fallsway, a block from police headquarters. Possum for years had been working with a string of detectives and agents, but in 1976 he himself was an escapee, a walkaway from a Maryland work camp and a 7-year drug term.

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