Drive-up drug buyers find neighbors are watching

November 23, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer Staff writer Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

For more than two years Olivia Reid and her neighbors have watched the visitors come to their modest West Baltimore neighborhood from Hagerstown, Arnold, Reisterstown, Lutherville, Severna Park and Columbia.

Most are white suburbanites who come to predominantly black Forest Heights for only one reason: to buy drugs.

Ms. Reid and her neighbors have gone to battle against the drug dealers and their customers with a novel strategy. They take down tag numbers of suspicious cars and have the City Council president send the owners a letter saying the car was spotted at a drug market.

"It lets [drug] customers know that we know who they are -- and it lets the vehicle owners know that somebody is using their car to get into trouble," said Mary Pat Clarke, the council president.

"It's a way of saying: 'We're watching you,' " she said.

Forest Heights is an obscure community of 320 rental townhouses tucked away off Forest Park Avenue, just inside the city's western border. But to out-of-towners seeking drugs, it is known as a convenient place to buy, with easy access from the Beltway and Interstate 70.

Since the Forest Heights Tenants Council, with Ms. Reid as its president, began the campaign against drug dealing this year, more than 50 letters have been mailed to vehicle owners from suburbs of the city and Washington and as far away as Hagerstown.

The tag numbers collected by residents are turned over to Ms. Clarke's staffers, who track the vehicle owners through Motor Vehicle Administration records.

Most of the unwanted visitors seem to be coming from the adjoining Security and Woodlawn areas of Baltimore County.

Ms. Clarke's office even sent a letter to the director of a city agency after one of the agency's vans was spotted in a neighborhood drug hot spot. The letter said that the van's driver was "among those surveyed as probable clients of the [drug] trade."

Ms. Clarke said that her office has received several phone calls from irate recipients of the letters.

"One gentleman called and threatened me. One lady called and said her boyfriend had been driving her car through the neighborhood, but he was just delivering pizzas," she said.

The residents say they often see expensive vehicles passing through, including Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Jaguars.

After Ms. Clarke began sending the letters, there was a decline in the number of suspicious vehicles.

"But new ones started coming. Sometimes as many as 50 a day. They start in the morning before work, they come at lunch, dinner time and after dinner," Ms. Reid said.

Taking down tag numbers has become so routine that Ms. Reid keeps her binoculars by her door. She has saved hundreds of tag numbers her neighbors have collected on scraps of paper, used envelopes, lottery tickets, paper towels and grocery receipts.

Ms. Reid says residents are frustrated with the Police Department's inability to make a dent in the drug trade.

"I certainly think more should be done to clean up the community, but police would always say our community isn't as bad as Booth Street," she said, referring to a well-known drug market in Southwest Baltimore.

Sgt. J. C. Smith of the neighborhood services unit at the Police Department's Southwestern District said that "police have had arrests and surveillance at Forest Heights . . . but we have a large district of 9.2 square miles."

"We lock them up. Our job is finished once there is an arrest. It's up to the penal and court system to do the rest," he said.

He said police have made 42 arrests in drug cases in Forest Heights from January to October. He did not know how many of the people arrested were dealers and how many were buyers.

He said he believes Forest Heights is "nowhere near the worst area" for drugs in the Southwestern District. Nevertheless, he said, "we're actively involved in drug investigations in that area."

The residents recently persuaded their landlord -- Allegheny Properties Inc. -- to hire a security company to patrol the community and videotape suspicious visitors and their license tags.

The security firm, Off Duty Police Security Services, hit the streets of Forest Heights last month. Some visiting motorists fled after they saw video cameras mounted on marked security cars, said Larry A. Hicks, president of the company.

The Forest Heights tenants have tried other tactics to drive out the drug trade. This summer, Ms. Reid and her neighbors began having cookouts where the drug dealers often stand on the street.

"We would sit out and cook hot dogs and hamburgers and take down tag numbers," said Ms. Reid.

The tenants say they have become fearful because the drug traffic has been accompanied by gunfights on numerous occasions.

In 1991 Ms. Reid's son Frederick Young, 20, was slain in the neighborhood. Police said Mr. Young was on Beechwood Avenue near Forest Park Avenue when a man drove past and fired. No one has been charged.

"I always felt somebody's child's going to die. God knows it was going to be mine," Ms. Reid said.

Her son's death has intensified her fight against the drug dealers.

"After that happened to my son, I knew that I wanted to live in this community to see it change. I don't care how hard I have to work to change it. My son's death has made me even stronger."

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