At home in a dangerous city Investigator: To Baltimore homicide Detective Bobby Patton, there's no such thing as a routine slaying.

November 09, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Bobby Patton's witness is handcuffed in the back of a marked squad car, parked in the middle of a crime scene next to Jolly Tsang's Chinese Food Carryout on Greenmount Avenue, where all the neighbors can see.

Patton knows the man saw the whole thing go down -- the stabbing, the shooting. Maybe even popped off a few rounds himself. It happened on the corner of East 23rd, not down some other street, as the man insists.

The blood trail tells the detective that much.

He angrily grabs a cell phone and pretends to punch the numbers: "I'm calling the judge and saying that you are right here at the crime scene and you're lying."

Only a few hours before, the man had dragged his wounded friend into Johns Hopkins Hospital, leaving blood splattered in the emergency room hallway.

"Who had the gun?" Patton shouts into the car.

The witness had appeared helpful. But now the help has turned into a hindrance. A five-hour waste of time. So Patton drives back to his downtown office. "I already taped the lie. Now I got to do it all over."

Bobby Patton is one of 58 homicide detectives assigned to what are considered the hardest cases to solve. The group has been lionized in a book and on national television, yet humbled by teen-agers with guns who can blow someone away over drugs and get away with it.

Patton would be the first to say he's just one of many hard-working detectives. But his bosses set him apart as an example to Baltimore: unassuming, congenial to family members suffering a loss, unwilling to be duped.

He is soft-spoken but firm. He waits for the precise moment in a conversation to slip in a biting comment. He is as patient as he is thorough, content to sit for hours at a computer screen running nicknames of suspects.

He is a black detective in a city where 95 percent of the people he locks up for murder, and 90 percent of the victims, are African-American. The situation is what some city leaders have grimly called a genocide of black youth.

Racism in the department? He tells you he's encountered none. On the street? Only the reluctance of white family members to talk openly to a black detective, forcing him to prove himself time and time again.

The bosses brought in the 42-year-old to solve the politically sensitive Volcano's case -- two college kids with bright futures gunned down this summer as they emerged from a nightclub, innocents caught in someone else's drug dispute. He stepped up when Korean merchants were being robbed and shot and worrying that they were being targeted by bigots.

Patton grew up in rural Indiana. He joined the force only after he lost his job at the local auto plant and was recruited at a Kokomo shopping mall. Baltimore wanted minorities. Patton didn't know anything about Baltimore.

But now, 17 years later, Patton finds himself sitting at a government-issued metal desk in a worn, drab office on the sixth floor of Police Headquarters, painstakingly clipping an article from the Afro newspaper on another black youth lost, this time in an unsolved shooting outside a club on Eutaw Street.

The article is next to another story headlined "Black on Black Crime." A photo shows tennis shoes hanging from a telephone line -- an inner-city sign of a slaying scene, copied from the gang movie "Colors." A Los Angeles tradition moves east.

Meanwhile, the frustrations in the homicide office are mounting. Marvin Sydnor is talking to the mother of a young man shot on Broadway. The detective is shouting, his screams carry from the witness room to the squad room.

"You don't care. You don't care."

The mother said she heard the shots, saw her son fall to the ground. But she doesn't know who opened fire. Sydnor doesn't buy it.

"You don't care. You don't care."

Few heads turn in the office. Patton stares down at the Afro, scanning a list of names of homicide victims, picking out the ones that are his.

"I get tired of it," he says. "It's senseless. There is no reason for it. It's pure senseless mayhem. You try to play it off like you don't care. But you do care."

He is reminded of when he once tried to pry information from a reluctant woman who watched a drug dealer get killed. "I got her into the office, and I'm begging her to tell me who did the killing, and she wouldn't," Patton says.

But in a city like Baltimore, on the deadly Eastside, that hardly mattered. The woman's life ended on East Biddle Street shortly after she walked out of the homicide office. "They found her wearing the same clothes she was wearing when she was in here," Patton said.

But even more frustrating for the detective is that he can't remember her name. He plows through binder after binder -- 1994, 1995, 1996. Nothing.

"Those years are all a blur," he says. "I don't remember a significant thing that happened because I was here."

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