Families seek answers in mothers' killings Next-door neighbors slain in similar ways

October 14, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Jane Thomas and Mary Dorsey lived next door to each other for four decades, raising sons and daughters with a strong arm and loving heart -- matriarchs not only of their families but of a city block.

Their children played together, ate at each other's dinner tables and were sternly disciplined by each other's parents. Now grown with families of their own, they are thrust together once again.

Only this time it's to mourn.

Mary Dorsey, 70, who used a wheelchair, was beaten to death in 1991, her body found on a sofa of the rowhouse at 1715 N. Wolfe St. where she had lived since 1952. In June this year, 77-year-old Jane Thomas was fatally beaten in her rowhouse at 1717 N. Wolfe St., where she had lived since 1951.

Police have made no arrests in either case and won't conclusively say whether they think the same killer is responsible for both slayings. But they have reopened the 1991 case and say dTC the killings are strikingly similar, from motive -- believed to be money -- to the way the women were killed.

Family members are convinced there is a link. They think the killer is someone in their neighborhood north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, maybe someone they've met.

"Somebody out there knows something," said Diane Carter, Jane Thomas' daughter. "But everyone is so afraid. We pray every day that someone will come forward. I live in a constant hell. Every few moments I think of it. Who? Why?"

Family members, joined by Detective William Ritz of the homicide unit, met with a reporter last week around a large conference table at police headquarters in hopes that publicity would lead to a suspect.

Stories soon tumbled out, memory piling upon memory, bringing Jane Thomas and Mary Dorsey to life and illuminating a family-oriented East Baltimore of parades and churchgoing homeowners.

Both women lived alone in their final years. They ran their households with firm hands, with strict scolding that their children remembered well but did not frown upon. Two of the children became police officers. Among the others are a child counselor, a postal worker, a soldier and a travel consultant.

In a neighborhood many people have given up on -- overrun with drugs and violence -- the Thomas and Dorsey families are a testament to hope. "You see what can come out of that neighborhood," Carter said, scanning the packed room. "We came up the right way."

Both women refused to be run out of their neighborhood by encroaching crime, blight and the dueling drug dealers that drove most other longtime homeowners to the suburbs years ago.

Mary Dorsey moved to the Wolfe Street rowhouse five years after her husband, Michael, a railroad worker, died. She raised four children, using Fountain Baptist Church on Monument Street as her family's foundation.

The secretary at Sparrows Point loved parades, boxing and baseball -- Eddie Murray was her favorite Oriole. She was known for her fast walks to Memorial Stadium and for her endurance. She missed one PTA meeting -- because she gave birth to a daughter that day.

Dinner was promptly at 6. The family watched local news and debated the topics of the day, culled from newspapers, school or work. "What we did, we did together," said her 48-year-old son, James Dorsey.

Her eldest daughter, Diana Pemberton, said, "We were a huggy-kissy family. She always told us to be close, to love each other and to stay in church."

Mary Dorsey suffered a stroke on Mother's Day 1979 that left the grandmother of five paralyzed on one side of her body. A Department of Social Services employee made routine checks to help Dorsey, who left her front door open for the aide.

Police think the killer got in through the open door on Oct. 2, 1991. The social worker found Dorsey's body face-down on a couch in a front room, dressed in her nightgown, a bloody towel nearby. The house had been ransacked.

James Dorsey remembers rushing to his mother's house after getting a message that something was wrong. He turned south on Wolfe Street from North Avenue and saw the police cars and the crowd. "It hurt me so bad when I was told what had happened," he recalled.

Jane Thomas had lived on Wolfe Street for a year when Mary Dorsey moved in next door. Thomas' family had moved around East Baltimore, on Dallas and Barnes streets, before settling on Wolfe street.

Thomas had dropped out of school at age 16 after her mother's death and had helped raise four brothers and two sisters. She later married, had children and moved to Wolfe Street.

Thomas dominated household conversations, loved music, was known for her rice pudding and enjoyed wearing her Sunday best to shop downtown on Howard Street. Religion -- the family attended Centennial-Caroline Street United Methodist Church on East Monument Street -- was central to growing up.

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