Seeking safety in the city Vigilance: A blind man fights crime in his North Baltimore neighborhood by listening to the activities of drug dealers.

July 09, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Since the drug dealers riddled his house with bullets, slashed his tires and shot up his wife's car, Robert Nowlin Sr. no longer walks the Pen Lucy streets alone.

Eight years of calling police and leading marches against the drug dealers in his North Baltimore neighborhood have jeopardized Nowlin's safety.

But he continues to confront the "hoodlums," as he calls them, monitoring their trade on the police scanner, demanding better security from police and more money from politicians, and coaxing frightened neighbors to join the citizens' patrol.

To neighbors and to police, Nowlin stands out, not only for his continued vigilance, but because he's never seen the drug dealers who try to silence him.

Nowlin is blind.

"At one time I decided that because I was vision handicapped, I refused to be taken advantage of," says Nowlin, who lost his sight in infancy. "I have that inner strength through the Lord and my children."

The 57-year-old president of the Pen Lucy Association has made his crusade a full-time job. If Nowlin's not having breakfast with politicians who might find money for his community, he's fielding calls from neighbors too afraid to call police themselves to report the direction of fleeing drug dealers.

On a breezy June Tuesday just after lunch, Nowlin hears a police helicopter circling above

his porch. His 14-year-old daughter, Sheera, helps him tune his scanner to the right frequency.

Two blocks away on an Old York Road street corner pockmarked with old bullet holes, a plainclothes officer pins a man to the ground, urging him to spit out the drugs he is trying to swallow.

Nowlin's two sons, Robert Jr. and Justin, scamper outside their rowhouse, oblivious to the dangers nearby.

The phone begins to ring. Neighbors call to report details of the drug incident on Old York Road, in front of the neighborhood coin-operated laundry.

Friend and neighbor Carolyn Joyner calls to discuss the weekend's picnic where police will give away 25 dead-bolt locks. Nowlin hopes he can revive interest in the citizens' patrol if neighbors wear their bright yellow and green patrol T-shirts to the picnic.

Once off the phone, he notes in passing that he attended a breakfast that morning with Baltimore Democratic state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., hoping to get state aid for one of his neighborhood's more ambitious projects.

Nowlin's Pen Lucy Association has linked up with the Govans Economic Management Senate (GEMS), a neighborhood economic development corporation, to rebuild the seedy two-block strip of Old York Road where the dealers run their business.

With the help of a $10,000 start-up grant from the Goldseker Foundation, GEMS hopes to convert the laundry and a vacant Chinese restaurant into a community center and police substation.

Nowlin began his surveillance of drug dealers almost by accident, shortly after he moved his family to Pen Lucy eight years ago. As he walked the neighborhood alone, the "hoodlums" talked openly about their activities, assuming Nowlin was stupid, as well as blind.

He began telling police what he heard.

"They were talking just like I wasn't there. I heard a lot," he says, laughing. "Before they knew how alert I was, I got a lot of information. But once my cover was blown, that's when my woes began."

He says the dealers began calling him "Blind Five-O" after the old television detective show "Hawaii Five-O." Then they began throwing stones and sticks at him. Eventually their attacks became more violent.

In December 1994, hours after a drug raid at a neighboring house, Nowlin says drug dealers shot more than 30 bullets into his house while his family slept. No one was injured during the shooting, but his wife cut her foot later while stepping on glass, broken by the semiautomatic fire.

Nowlin responded by placing a cross on his tiny front yard, imprinted with a message to the hoodlums: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."

In the past year, the tires on his wife's car were slashed and someone fired a gun into the passenger side -- where Nowlin usually sits -- of the empty parked car.

No one has been arrested, although police say they believe drug dealers are responsible for the three incidents.

Nowlin says he's more careful now and never goes out alone. But he refuses to retreat.

In March, Nowlin won a national award, "Achievement Against All Odds," from the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the Allstate Foundation.

His crusade, he says, has caused many neighbors to shy away from him for fear of retaliation from the hoodlums.

Some residents, he says, accuse him of self-aggrandizement.

But "there's no way in the world I would be in the dangers I've been in just to promote myself," he says. "Sometimes it makes me very sad, almost to tears, that people say that about me."

While Nowlin says he has lost friends fearful of associating with him, he also has found new ones.

One is Col. Margaret Patten of the city Police Department, who met him while commanding the city's Northern District. She says she's never met anyone like him. "You forget he's blind," she says. "He's so wise. He has a vision. You don't need sight to have a vision for your family, your neighborhood, for the city."

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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