Coke, guns, young thugs take their terrible toll

BODY COUNT DOESN'T TELL WHOLE STORY

December 29, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer Staff Writer Joe Nawrozki contributed to this article.

"Is this the tying run or the winning run?" asks Brown.

"He's the tying run," says Constantine, his partner. "He's 330."

J. T. Brown pulls out a note pad and stares down. The blood has pooled and speckled on the dealer's Orlando Magic hat, on his U.N.L.V. shirt, on his Champion sweats, on his high-top Nikes. He lies in full street corner regalia between two West Fayette Street rowhouses, the city's 330th slaying, waiting only for the morgue wagon.

Three hundred and thirty: A staggering psychological milestone for a city where cocaine, semiautomatic pistols and a new generation of violent young men have turned once-stable neighborhoods into free-fire zones. The tying run -- a young man unidentified and unmourned by the Fayette Street crowd that gathered late Sunday night to watch him carted away -- has matched Baltimore's record for murders in a single year.

Two hours later and little more than half a mile away, the winning run will cross the plate. Detectives Brown and Constantine learn as much when Willie Cole and Donald Waltemeyer pull up on Fayette Street in another unmarked Cavalier.

"You all might have 330 lyin' there," Waltemeyer tells them. "But I got 331 right down the road."

"Where?"

"Linnard Street," says Waltemeyer, heading to his car. "The new all-time record, mister."

And from across Fayette Street, a crowd of 50 onlookers offers only silence. No grief, no rage, no backhanded banter between corner boys and cops -- only an empty quiet as the dead man is bagged and lifted. No one knows this kid. No one saw a thing. The people in the adjacent rowhouses say they heard a gunshot and went back to sleep.

"Probably true enough in this neighborhood," says a Western District uniform.

[About 11:35 p.m. yesterday, the record grew to 332 when an unidentified man was shot to death and another man was seriously wounded in a courtyard off the 900 block of W. Saratoga St., police said.]

There has always been something cold and vacant about the scene of an inner-city drug murder, something that defies the basic human instincts.

But even in the worst neighborhoods, a homicide detective could look up from a body and rely on some shard of community, some sense among the onlookers that what was taking place was a murder -- an extraordinary event.

No longer. In this, the most deadly and violent year in Baltimore, even the residual emotion has been drained.

There are now too many murders, too many crime scenes. And from the other side of Fayette Street comes not the usual, practiced silence, but the low hum of a machine, merciless and efficient.

At the police headquarters building, another kind of silence can also be heard.

Mid-level commanders acknowledge that members of the department hierarchy were hoping against hope this week that the bodies wouldn't fall until after New Year's, that the trauma units would save a few bleeders, that the city might avoid this milestone.

And yet by any careful reckoning, the tally of murders in a single year is a false standard by which to measure a city's violence. The bloodshed in Baltimore this year is not at all the equal of what occurred in 1972, when the city last recorded 330 murders. This year's violence is far worse. Consider:

In 1972, a total of 6,695 people were seriously assaulted in Baltimore and of that number, 330 were killed. At this year's current rate, the same city -- albeit with 170,000 fewer inhabitants, according to census figures -- may endure a record 8,800 serious assaults by the year's end, with the number of those dying of wounds only slightly exceeding the 1972 total. In short, the chance of being shot, shot at, stabbed or bludgeoned in Baltimore is greater than it ever has been, but the chance of dying from wounds has decreased dramatically.

In fact, if the victims of Baltimore in 1992 were subjected to the city's mortality rate of 20 years ago, there would have been about 430 murders this year.

The difference, many believe, is better emergency medical care in the city, with ambulance response times that are traditionally among the lowest in the nation, as well as three major trauma centers that came on line in the early 1970s to provide state-of-the-art treatment for complex multiple gunshot cases.

This contrast is even more striking when the proliferation of multiple-round semiautomatic handguns is considered. In 1972, the handgun of choice was typically a .38- or .32-caliber revolver with five or six bullets; now, a 9mm pistol can contain a more lethal 15-round clip.

"The save rate for shooting victims is real," says Harry Edgerton, a veteran homicide investigator. "I've had guys who should be dead and aren't."

All of which is no surprise to Donald Waltemeyer and his partner, Willie Cole, who arrive in the 600 block of Linnard St. in time to find the only sign of their victim to be a small bloodstain on asphalt. Charles Edward Leonard Jr. has already been raced to University Hospital, stabilized, with a bullet deep in his brain.

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