Slaying of lawyer rattles an already nervous city

June 01, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Sandy Banisky | JoAnna Daemmrich and Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writers

It was Baltimore's 107th homicide, another statistic in the continuing toll. Yet the weekend slaying of a lawyer on his way home from a chess club meeting has shaken more than one neighborhood in an already nervous city.

After two homicides in their area in as many weeks, residents of the quiet neighborhood of Oakenshawe in North Baltimore will gather tonight -- like residents of so many communities before them -- to discuss what to do about crime.

A somber Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke described as "an act of sheer evil" the fatal shooting early Saturday of Oakenshawe resident Marvin B. Cooper, who had just parked his car when he was accosted by a robber.

"Every single homicide diminishes the community," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday. "The thing we have to do now is to try to get as good leads as we possibly can, aggressively investigate it and make sure this guy is prosecuted and brought to justice."

Mr. Cooper's death came less than two weeks after William McClain, a retired Johns Hopkins University professor, died of injuries received in a robbery on the porch of his Oakenshawe home. Two men have been arrested in that attack.

The latest killings reverberated in other neighborhoods shocked by daily crime in their streets.

Last week, 17-year-old Vernon "Beethoven" Williams, who lived near Sinclair Lane, was killed while horsing around with friends. The teen-ager accidentally bumped into a parked car, setting off the alarm and prompting gunfire, apparently from a nearby house.

"I think a lot of people have come to accept sadly that crime is part of life," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "What I hear more than anything else is that you've got to be a lot more careful."

The frequent homicides beset a city trying to hold on to middle-class homeowners, cut the tax rate, improve schools and keep the streets safe.

"Obviously," Mr. Schmoke said, "it's no comfort to anyone to tell them that we are behind the rate of homicides last year." As of yesterday, the city had counted 112 homicides, down from 139 on the same date a year ago.

Volunteers in many neighborhoods are patrolling the streets for a few hours each night. Some communities, including affluent Guilford, have hired their own security forces. And yet, the sense of unease grows in many neighborhoods.

State Sen. Julian L. Lapides notes that for the first time in the 30 years he has lived in his Bolton Hill home, four houses on his block are for sale.

"People are becoming extremely depressed," Mr. Lapides said. "It's grim. Cedarcroft, Homeland, Guilford, Ashburton," he said, naming some of the city's more affluent neighborhoods. "Everywhere you go, you see for-sale signs."

"Everyone is disturbed," said 2nd District City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. "We're losing middle-class taxpayers."

Mr. Cummings was held up at gunpoint near his home in August. State Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said two of his cars have been stolen in four months.

"I do not allow my children out at night," Mr. Pica said. "I am literally scared to death when my children walk out of the house."

Baltimore Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said he hears the same concerns from wealthy and poor neighborhoods in his North Baltimore district. "People are getting even more nervous because it feels like people who are inclined to commit crimes are getting more cavalier about it," he said.

Some constituents, he said, are committed to living in the city, while others feel "too at risk" on Baltimore's streets.

"The question is, where do you go? This is not something that's peculiar to the city. It's in Prince George's County. It's in Montgomery. It's in Western Maryland."

What can be done?

Elected officials and residents want more police on the street. And they seem reassured by the energetic presence of Thomas C. Frazier, Baltimore's new police commissioner.

"We have to cut down on police administration and get more police officers on the streets," Mr. Lapides said. "We have plenty of bodies. They're just all sitting in offices."

Mr. Montague said the legislature began toughening sentences this year and has required juveniles to be tried as adults for some violent crimes.

Mr. Lapides said that isn't enough. People are tired of "everybody making excuses" for criminals, he said.

"I think people are tired of hearing about poverty. Poor people shouldn't be shooting people anymore than rich people should be shooting people," he said.

Councilman Carl Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat, disagrees. He said not enough attention has been paid to the link between crime and poverty and that "we're just not dealing honestly in this city with the issues of poverty and violence."

He also is angered by what he sees as more attention paid to crimes against white Baltimoreans.

"The media doesn't help the situation when they print the daily deaths of African-American males on the inside pages under very small captions while putting other deaths on the front page," he said.

Others see a sense of hope despite the crime statistics.

"The thing that works against flight," Mr. Cummings said, "is you have a lot of people who love the city, who want to be part of the city. They've been here all their lives, and they're going to be here no matter what."

One of those people is Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Network and Community Council in Northwest Baltimore.

"Most of us have gone through the bad times," she said. With the arrival of Commissioner Frazier, "we're very hopeful."

This weekend, her community organization is sponsoring a youth day celebration."

She said she is not moving to the suburbs. "I'm going to hang in here," Ms. Yarborough said, "because I know I can make a difference."

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