Boy's unsolved slaying casts pall Mistrust, fear silence neighborhood

November 19, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

The street where Tauris Johnson lived is quiet these days. No children play on the sidewalk. No neighbors sit on their marble front steps. No drug dealers hawk their products from corners and alleys.

More than two weeks have passed since the 10-year-old was hit by a stray bullet as he played football in front of his home in the 1700 block of E. Oliver St.

The killer has not been arrested, and neighborhood residents have provided little information to homicide detectives who are trying to crack the case.

The killing has changed the neighborhood. Homicide investigators are greeted with stony silence while details of the killing are whispered through the neighborhood grapevine. Fear and mistrust hang heavy in the air, and most residents shy away from strangers.

Several residents say they have spoken with neighbors who claim to have witnessed the killing. The witnesses have not stepped forward out of fear of reprisals and because they don't trust the city police, the residents say.

"People know but [aren't] saying nothing," said Gurnie Edwards, 55, who says he was not home when Tauris was killed.

Tauris was playing catch with a friend when he was hit in the head by a stray hollow-point bullet fired during a drive-by shooting at the corner of East Oliver and Regester streets. "I have a few neighbors who are thinking about talking but want to go right to the mayor because they don't trust the Police Department," Mr. Edwards said.

Mr. Edwards questioned the thoroughness of the police investigation. His front door was hit by gunfire during the shooting, and he says he found a spent 9-mm bullet in his living room and turned it over to police. But he says the police did not bother to question him.

"I guess it never occurred to them to see what I know," he says.

Homicide Detective Christopher Graul dismisses any suggestion that the investigation has been less than thorough. He says that the "investigation is coming along slow" and that investigators have knocked on doors throughout the community and tried to interview anyone who may have witnessed the shooting.

But, Detective Graul says, he realizes that there are witnesses who "just don't want to talk to police."

William Morton, Tauris' father, says detectives have kept in touch with him and are doing all they can. But he also understands the hesitation of witnesses. "Residents are a little afraid," Mr. Morton says. "They're afraid for their lives."

Since the shooting, the community -- located one block east of Broadway -- has been free of dealers and the steady stream of traffic the drug trade draws, residents say.

Mr. Edwards, who is self-employed and does home improvement work, lives in a two-story Formstone-clad rowhouse at the corner of Regester and East Oliver streets. He says that before the shooting, drug dealing was frequent at almost any hour along Regester Street, especially at the intersection of Crystal Avenue, a block from his home.

Mr. Edwards says he is "ashamed" and "embarrassed" by witnesses who have not contacted police and has encouraged neighbors who may have witnessed the shooting to contact either Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke or Maj. Alvin Winkler, the Eastern District commander.

Mayor Schmoke went to the neighborhood and talked with residents after the shooting. He says he welcomes anyone with information on Tauris' slaying to talk to him -- anonymously or otherwise.

"I know that there are a number of people out there who are concerned, some of whom have had bad relations with police," the mayor says. "But I think the majority of our citizens still have faith in the police and are willing to participate with them." Mayor Schmoke also says he is surprised that investigators have few leads in the shooting.

"I was down there after Tauris was killed [and] I talked to a number of people in the area who knew not the shooter but they knew the guy who was being shot at and that they were willing to come forward with that information," he said.

Gearie Bowman, 44, a contractor who has lived in 1700 block of E. Oliver St. for two years, says he knows at least two neighbors who say they witnessed the shooting but have not told investigators.

Although he feels it is wrong for witnesses not to talk to police, he says officers have made themselves unapproachable in recent years.

"They don't make it easy for you to talk to them. They drive by and don't look at you and don't help when you need help," Mr. Bowman says. "It's ignorance. Now, people are conditioned to the negative if they report what they saw. Whenever a child gets killed, it should be a warranty for them to take the first step.

"Most of the people I spoke to are Christians and do God's work. But how can you do God's work when you see a child slain and do nothing," he says.

Mr. Bowman says that the police do not have a strong presence in the community. Few stop to talk to residents as they patrol by car, and foot officers are rarely seen.

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