Urban oasis turns into a graveyard Slaying victims are found frequently in city's Leakin Park

July 05, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Leakin Park is a place where a person can go from a crowded urban road to a secluded wooded path in minutes. But what makes the wilderness expanse a sanctuary for city dwellers makes it attractive for killers as well.

It has been dubbed "the city's largest unregistered graveyard" -- an urban forest in Dead Run Valley where children discover skeletons and city workers find bullet-riddled corpses draped over guardrails.

Established six decades ago on land once owned by a Prussian railroad industrialist, Leakin Park is simply the place to dump a body in Baltimore.

"If you want to get rid of a body, where are you going to take it?" asks Donald Worden, a retired city homicide detective with three decades of experience. "Dump it in Leakin Park and hope no one finds it."

Since the first recorded body dump in the park in 1968, the remains of 56 bodies have been spotted floating in streams, hidden behind trees or left in roadways.

And the pace doesn't seem to be slowing: four bodies in 1995, eight in 1996 and four so far this year. By contrast, only two murder victims have turned up in New York's Central Park in the past three years.

Preservationists are working hard to build the Gwynns Falls Trail through the park, which will eventually let people walk shrouded by trees from Dickeyville near the Baltimore County line to Pigtown in Southwest Baltimore. But even they realize that Leakin Park -- with its dark, lonely roads twisting through dense forest -- is equated with murder.

"It's Baltimore legend," said Jonathan Foley, president of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park. "It's something we live with, and it's something that holds us back in a lot of ways. The public perception of the park as a crime scene is a problem."

In other cities, too

Other cities have their notorious dumping grounds as well. There are the Pine Barrens and the Meadowlands in New Jersey, favorites of the mob. Philadelphia has Tacony Creek Park. Chicago has Humboldt Park. New York has the East River.

Of course, cities with their own body-dumping grounds are reluctant to acknowledge them. "We don't have a spot like that here," said Philadelphia police spokeswoman Stephanie McNeil, echoing her colleagues in other cities.

Leakin Park was built with money from the estate of J. Wilson Leakin, a well-known lawyer who died in 1922 and bequeathed four downtown properties to the city with the stipulation that they be sold five years after his death and the proceeds used to build a park.

The issue of where to build the park became a hot topic in the Baltimore City Council in the late 1930s -- delayed because of the stock market crash -- as members debated everything from buying an island to a golf course. The Dead Run Valley site won out.

The city acquired more than 220 acres in 1939 for $130,000. The park eventually grew to 1,200 acres when combined with adjacent Gwynns Falls Park.

For three decades, Leakin Park was known as a serene place where people could gaze at oaks and sycamores while wading through clean streams. Cars lined Franklintown, Wetheredsville and Windsor Mill roads at the height of the fishing season.

Even today, the park is well used. Residents of Dickeyville, Hunting Ridge and Ten Hills maintain miles of trails. Softball fields on the park's perimeter are routinely full. A miniature train still gives rides through a grassy field.

The Carrie Murray Outdoor Education Center tends to wounded bald eagles and teaches inner-city youngsters about nature. The annual herb festival draws thousands.

Neglected facilities

But the thick woods, poorly lighted roads and isolated hide-aways have led to neglect. City workers barricaded parking pads with logs years ago because people used the space to dump trash. Roadside picnic tables are hidden in overgrown grass. It is not uncommon to find piles of tires dumped along the roadside. Street signs are used for target practice.

And then there are the bodies. Most are found on or within yards of two main thoroughfares -- Franklintown and Wetheredsville roads.

Baltimore Police Officer Terry Smith has patrolled Leakin Park off and on for 23 years, and on a recent tour he pointed out some well-remembered dumping sites.

"I've been at the scene for one over there," he said, pointing to a bridge on Franklintown Road over the Gwynns Falls. "And one over there," he said, pointing down a ravine where a young girl was found dead.

He remembers a friend finding a skull in a bucket and tells a story of kids playing a joke on a construction crew by digging a fake shallow grave with tennis shoes sticking out of the ground -- prompting a call to the homicide unit.

Years ago, Smith said, killers made some effort to hide or bury their bodies. "Now, they just dump them along the roadside -- they just drive by and push the body out."

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