Man held in one of 4 killings

March 23, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

A police task force investigating whether a serial killer was responsible for strangling four women in a Southeast Baltimore neighborhood has arrested a man and charged him in one of the slayings.

Meanwhile, police are investigating whether a link exists between the 36-year-old suspect and the deaths of the three other women, all of whom shared distinctive lifestyles and died in similar ways within one city block of one another.

"Drugs and sex are a common denominator in all the homicides," said Lt. Wendell M. France, of the homicide unit.

The suspect, John Dean Powell, was charged with first-degree murder Tuesday night. At the time, he was in the Baltimore City Detention Center on charges that he assaulted and threatened to kill a woman three doors from his own house in the 300 block of Herring Court.

Mr. Powell was charged in the death of 27-year-old Cecilia Mosca, whose body was found March 15 in a recessed stairwell of Lombard Middle School by a sixth-grader chasing an errant football.

His arrest represents another twist in the case, which at first had police fearing there was a serial killer, then discounting it, only to reconsider it this week. The women were thought to have met their killer near Patterson Park and to have been slain a few blocks from touristy Fells Point.

The first of four women slain was Mary Ann Fisher, 46, whose body was found under a bed at her house at 221 Herring Court, in Perkins Homes, Oct. 27, 1993.

Two more bodies were found at a boarded-up, city-owned rowhouse at 203 S. Bethel St., across from Ms. Fisher's back yard. Queen Esther Watson, 29, was found dead on the second floor May 18, 1994, and the body of Glenice Cornish, 38, was found six months later in the same room.

The body of the latest victim, Ms. Mosca, was found within viewing distance of the Bethel Street slaying scene on the Pratt Street side of the school. Like the others, police said, she had been beaten and strangled. Trash was piled on her body.

The slayings occurred on the northern edge of the Perkins Homes public housing project and the southern edge of Washington Hill. Debris-strewn lots and boarded-up rowhouses are common in the two areas, nestled between the tourist draws of Little Italy restaurants, Fells Point bars and nightclubs and Butchers Hill rowhouses.

Sylvia Holland, president of the Perkins Homes tenant council for the past three years, said she has been saddened by the deaths, each of which she remembers.

"If you cut off the source, you will cut out a lot of this," Ms. Holland said. "A lot of it is just drugs."

She described the housing project as troubled, with drug dealers plying their trade on debris-covered play grounds. A shooting occurred there Tuesday.

"I just do what I have to do early in the morning and come home and lock myself in," Ms. Holland said. "I shouldn't have to do that."

Court documents filed yesterday show that police got a break in the Mosca case Monday, when a witness who has known Mr. Powell for 10 years picked him out of a photo lineup. He told police he saw a man beat a woman fitting Ms. Mosca's general description outside the school about 9:30 a.m. March 14. Her body was found 23 hours later.

The documents say the unidentified witness was walking on East Pratt Street, headed toward Broadway, "when he saw John Dean Powell beating a white girl with his fists.

"The white female looked scared trying to get away from him, yelling at him to stop," the court documents say. "The witness continued on and came back shortly and saw John Dean Powell holding on to her with his arm around her chest."

Police said they took Mr. Powell to police headquarters and charged him in the slaying Tuesday at 7 p.m. The motive, they said, was drugs.

The suspect signed a written statement denying any knowledge of the incident, investigators said.

Lieutenant France said the suspect is well known around the neighborhood and frequently trades crack cocaine for sex. He said residents helped them solve the case. "They've been great," the lieutenant said.

Mr. Powell has been in and out of jail since 1991. Aside from stints in the state Division of Correction -- which could not be learned yesterday -- he has been incarcerated in the city detention center eight times in the past four years. He was not in jail at the times the four slayings occurred, records show.

Two days after police said Ms. Mosca was slain -- and the day after her body was found -- Mr. Powell was arrested and charged with assaulting and threatening a neighbor.

Court documents say he burst into a house, pulled out a brown-handled kitchen knife and waved it about the room. The documents say he told the woman "that he was going to kill her and if he couldn't do it, that he would pay someone to do it for him."

He is scheduled for a hearing on this case April 18.

Three other cases dating from 1992 show a similar pattern. After being arrested in one assault case May 28, 1992, he reportedly told a police officer that he would kill the victim "and anyone in her family," court documents show.

And in November 1992, Mr. Powell is alleged to have jumped into the back seat of a car driven by an acquaintance, accused the woman driver of stealing money from him and then "took a rope that was in the back seat, put it around her neck and began yanking her back," court documents show.

The court records show that the four assault cases -- all involving women -- were either dropped or placed on an inactive docket. His two convictions in Circuit Court involve drug and theft charges.

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