Robber breaks into councilwoman's condominium as she sleeps

September 17, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer Staff writer Roger Twigg contributed to this article

Paula Johnson Branch hears all too often about brazen crimes and random violence from her constituents. Early yesterday morning, she survived a horror story of her own.

The Baltimore councilwoman was sound asleep in her condominium in the Belvedere when an intruder kicked down the door about 5:45 a.m. She opened her eyes to find the man advancing, his fist clenched in his pocket as if he had a gun or a knife.

After demanding money and jewelry, the robber took some stockings from her dresser and tied her up. He then gagged her and forced her to lie face down on the bed while he rummaged through other rooms.

At one point, the man sat on the edge of the bed and pulled out a flask of Southern Comfort, Ms. Branch told police. He smoked a cigarette and told her about the hardships that had forced him into crime.

"He said he had a hard life, and he was sorry he had to do it," the 44-year-old councilwoman said in an interview several hours later. "He said there were no jobs out there except minimum wage ones, and you couldn't make a living."

As a "peace offering," the robber removed her gag and poured a drink down her throat, she said.

He also reassured her that he wouldn't rape or otherwise hurt her.

Almost half an hour after he first confronted her, the assailant replaced the gag, forced her into the closet and escaped with her videocassette recorder and a $300 portable computerized organizer. She also had given him $20.

Ms. Branch, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, did not identify herself to the robber. She only spoke to him once -- asking "what is it?" when he poured the blended whiskey into her mouth.

Although the man claimed he knew she had better jewelry after digging through her costume pieces, the councilwoman believes never met her. She managed to loosen her bound wrists and call the police after the robber left. City police had no suspects last night.

Her assailant was described as a black man, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing about 170 pounds and in his early 20s, police said. He was last seen wearing a pair of beige shorts, high-top tennis shoes and a turquoise and white warm-up jacket.

He accidentally dropped cigarette ash and burned her, but Ms. Branch was otherwise unharmed.

The ordeal crystallized for her again the relentless rate of crime in Baltimore. Only a year ago, her 22-year-old son, Antonio Johnson, was shot five times during a robbery attempt in South Clifton Park.

"When I go out in the community and hear about what's going on, I understand," said Ms. Branch, a first-term councilwoman whose district includes East Baltimore and Charles Village.

Sitting on her couch while maintenance workers hammered in a new door frame, Ms. Branch worried about reliving the frightening moments. She said she had nightmares for months after being robbed at gunpoint many years ago while living in a rowhouse in East Baltimore. "I dread closing my eyes," she said.

In her condominium high up in the Belvedere, once one of Baltimore's finest hotels, Ms. Branch thought she would be a little safer from the violence. She said she felt comfortable surrounded by the fading elegance of Mount Vernon.

"I felt safer up here, not being in a rowhome," she said, pointing out the window to the city skyline.

But after discovering that the deadbolt lock on her door was no match for a robber, she installed an alarm system yesterday.

The door of the condominium across the hall from her was also damaged, but police had no information on a second robbery.

A representative who refused to give her name at David O. Feldmann Inc., the company that manages the former hotel at Chase and Charles streets, said she's unsure "what went astray" with the security system. The building superintendent, Al Scholz, declined to comment.

Ms. Branch's colleagues from the 2nd District were disturbed and dismayed by the robbery.

"She and I hear about this every day. Crime is so pervasive now," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge.

Staff writer Roger Twigg contributed to this article.

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