Giant slaying suspect often in trouble He had 16 arrests in 11 years, mostly on minor charges

'A lifetime of problems'

Thomas said to typify repeat offenders who strain prison system

November 23, 1996|By Michael James and Brenda Buote | Michael James and Brenda Buote,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 26, Charles Anthony Thomas' mother wrote to a Baltimore judge, asking that he help her "to try and get Charles back on track."

"I feel that basically he is a good man," Rose M. Jackson, 47, wrote of her 28-year-old son, then awaiting trial on a drug distribution charge. "With education and guidance, perhaps we could straighten him out."

But the court system wasn't able to straighten out Charles Anthony Thomas before he was accused of killing someone. After being arrested 16 times in 11 years in minor drug offenses, petty larcenies and being a neighborhood nuisance, his 17th arrest was in a murder.

While being detained Tuesday on suspicion of shoplifting toothbrushes, Thomas is alleged to have wrested a gun from a security guard in a Northeast Baltimore Giant Food store and fatally shot a supermarket clerk, Steve B. Bowers, 44, city police say.

He also is suspected of seriously wounding the security guard -- Terrence Callahan -- then firing two errant shots at a city police officer who had arrived at the store in the 5100 block of Sinclair Lane to investigate, according to court documents.

Thomas, of the 3100 block of Mareco Ave., was arrested 12 hours later, after police learned his identity from clues left at the crime scene -- a photo identification card, a pager and a small amount of crack cocaine.

It wasn't his first brush with the law, but it was by far his most serious. Since he was 17, the Baltimore judicial system has been well-acquainted with Thomas as a suspected neighborhood drug user, pusher, burglar, shoplifter, trespasser and crank telephone caller, court records show.

"Practically every one of my officers has arrested him or knows of him," said Maj. Bert Shirey, commander of the Northeast District.

"The types of crimes he committed don't normally result in long-term incarceration," Shirey said. "The criminals are well aware of the limitations of the system. Thomas has obviously had a lifetime of problems that ends in this tragedy, and then we are left asking, who do we blame?"

While the knee-jerk reaction might be to blame justice officials for not keeping him in prison, prosecutors say Thomas' criminal history didn't provide them with enough ammunition to keep him behind bars. The mainly petty offenses he committed had netted him a fair share of prison time, court records show.

Since 1985, Thomas has been sentenced to serve seven years and five months in Maryland prisons, an uncharacteristically high amount considering the nature of his offenses: minor drug violations, a probation violation, battery and misdemeanor theft.

Charges stemming from eight other arrests -- which included resisting arrest, drug distribution, and felony theft -- were dropped during the 11-year period, court records show.

While the dropping of charges often brings criticism from the public, the reality is that city prosecutors can't try every case, says Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

"If you look at the system, the fact is you'll find a lot of people like [Thomas] who get time," Jessamy said yesterday. "The public's perception that people committing petty crime never get any time is wrong. They are. They just don't get put away for life."

In the cases where charges are dismissed, mitigating factors often come into play, she said. A burglary case filed against Thomas in April, for instance, was dropped after he paid restitution to the victim, Jessamy said.

But Mildred Hines, 65, whose home on Garrett Avenue Thomas had allegedly broken into while trying to elude police, said she wanted her chance to testify against Thomas.

"I was hoping that something would happen to deter him from committing another crime," Hines said. "My husband and I sat in court for more than five hours, waiting for his case to be called. They dropped the charges. No one ever told me why."

Prosecutors say they haven't dropped the most serious charge that was pending against Thomas at the time of the shooting. He was awaiting trial for felony drug distribution, a case that was scheduled to begin Thursday. It was postponed because Thomas was attending a bail hearing on the murder charge.

The drug distribution case stems from a July 11 city police raid at an apartment in the 5200 block of Frankford Ave. Neighbors had called police with numerous reports of drug dealing inside, and arresting officers forced their way in and found Thomas lying in bed, court papers said.

Thomas told the officers "he had sold out of drugs and that he may have one leftover bag of cocaine under the lamp in the bedroom," one court document said. The officers searched under the lamp and found a green bag with $20 worth of cocaine in it, the document said.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland prisons system, said Thomas was released March 27 of this year, having earned mandatory release after serving roughly three years and seven months of a five-year term for narcotics and probation violations.

Thomas served 72 percent of his sentence, which is well above the national average of roughly 40 percent, Sipes said. &r Considering that Thomas had been in prison for nonviolent offenses, the sentence is a lengthy stay, he said.

"There are 22,000 prison beds in Maryland and 286,000 arrests made in this state each year," Sipes said. "The point is the system is at or near the breaking point, under the strain of massive numbers of intakes and arrests."

The violent offenders often crowd out the nonviolent offenders when it comes to placing inmates in prisons, he said.

In her September letter, Thomas' mother asked that the court system consider alternatives to prison for her son.

"Prison atmosphere, I think, would do nothing beneficial for Charles," she wrote. "I will pray that any sentence you feel is justified will be in Charles' best interest."

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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