Pagotto-type cases loom as drugs, guns proliferate

March 04, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Five years ago, when she was working the city's Northeastern District, police Sgt. Jo Ann Voelker walked into a bank at Belair Road and Erdman Avenue, where a nervous security officer pointed to a fellow standing near the front door.

"Under his shirt," the security officer said. "He's got a gun."

Voelker moved quickly to intercept the man, who turned and fled like mad. The narrative is picked up, in a letter dated Jan. 16 of this year, from Voelker to Morris Goldman, an investigator for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

"A foot chase ensued, and his description was given over the radio. The subject was apprehended, searched, and a gun was recovered from his sweat pants. Charges were placed and the subject was found guilty. The subject was identified as Preston Barnes."

Barnes was 18 at the time, and commencing a pattern of self-destruction that led to his killing a year ago on Kirk Avenue. Jo Ann Voelker's letter was written in a vain attempt to bring some sanity into the case of former Sgt. Stephen Pagotto, who was sentenced last week to three years in prison for that killing, when Barnes and a couple of his buddies drove around with crack cocaine.

It is related here today for a little perspective on the potential dangers Pagotto faced that night in a city routinely brought to its knees by guns and drugs, and because of the ugliness of Saturday night on West Lanvale Street, which seemed to echo the words of Gary McLhinney.

McLhinney is president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. He was in court when Pagotto was handed three years in prison, and he stood there choking on his emotions and envisioning the kind of thing we saw on Lanvale Street barely 30 hours later.

"I'm scared," McLhinney said. "Tonight or tomorrow night, you're gonna have some officer in a gun situation, and he's gonna hesitate because of what happened here, and he's gonna be dead, and I'll have to explain to [See Olesker, 4b] the widow and children."

It could have ended that way Saturday night. Two veteran cops, Bradley Thomas and Mark Janicki, were responding to a tip that a man had a gun. They pursued 24-year-old Sean Freeland into a house in the 700 block of W. Lanvale and, in the gunshots, and in the confusion and despair that followed, the two cops were wounded, Freeland was killed, and there were hints of a pretty good disturbance building in West Baltimore.

Freeland was no stranger to police. His history over the past five years includes arrests on charges of a handgun violation, first-degree murder, assaulting a police officer and drug trafficking. As he ran up the stairs of a rowhouse Saturday night, police say, he tried several times to fire his gun. It jammed. In the dinginess and chaos of the cramped hallway, a backup officer fired four shots, hitting Freeland in the chest, and also wounding the two other police.

For about 90 minutes after the shooting, a crowd of more than a hundred people gathered, shouting threats and obscenities, some of them throwing bottles at police and news reporters. There were reports of the sound of gunshots. And police had to summon backup help.

Yesterday, the 700 block of W. Lanvale was pretty deserted in a cold morning rain. Wet trash was everywhere, clinging to gutters and sidewalks, and nearly a dozen rowhouses were abandoned and boarded up. At Lanvale and Myrtle, three corners had abandoned buildings and on the fourth, a liquor store was locked behind metal grating. You want a picture of a city on the skids, here it is.

"When I heard the news about Saturday's shooting, I thought, 'Oh, no, I hope it was nobody I know,'" Lynn Hauss was saying yesterday. She's the principal of the Upton School, in the middle of the block where the shooting happened. The school has some special education students, but mostly it's got administrative offices for sending hundreds of teachers around the city for home education visits to ailing kids.

"It's a rough neighborhood," Hauss said softly. "You can go along this block any sunny day, and there are lots of young guys out in the street dealing drugs. Dozens of high-school-age boys. They'll come right up to your car and offer you anything you want. They're on the street with their pit bulls and their Rottweilers, or they're dealing out of the abandoned houses.

"The people who live here, they're trapped. I've called the police. The other day, we had them dealing drugs right in the school driveway. I've called the school police. They show up, and the dealers move away, and then they come back. They're absolutely brazen. We've been lucky at the school. We haven't been broken into too often."

When the cops followed Sean Freeland into that rowhouse Saturday night, none of this was exactly news to them. They're out there specifically to stop such business, and they face the consequences. Stephen Pagotto, same thing.

So we wind up with Pagotto getting three years in prison, and the cops Thomas and Janicki with bullet wounds and only the greatest of luck to be alive, and the response in the neighborhood the closest anybody wants to get to a widespread street confrontation.

And we will now have City Hall urging calm, and the police throwing a few extra cars onto Lanvale Street for a little while, and eventually we will be back to business as usual, which is the continued decay of so many neighborhoods of this city while our alleged leaders look utterly clueless.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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