Attacker invades homes of seniors in brutal spree Neighbors are fearful after violent crime comes to the doorstep

November 10, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Margaret Brown, 82, was tied up with a telephone cord and shoved into her closet. James Chilis, 79, was beaten unconscious and left for dead in his hallway. Joseph Vowels, 75, was pounded into a coma in his upholstery shop and died nearly two weeks later.

Baltimore police say they are looking for one man in a series of attacks targeting the elderly in four city neighborhoods, from century-old stone rowhouses in Mid-Town Belvedere to brick ranchers in Kernewood, north of Guilford.

Seven people have fallen victim since Oct. 13. The youngest is 70; the oldest, 88. All were attacked in late morning or early afternoon and their houses ransacked. Only money and small trinkets were taken.

"We aren't surprised by home invasions," said Maj. Robert F. Biemiller, the commander of the Northern District. "But this kind of trauma makes it unusual. Most of these people can be `D overpowered pretty easily, and it's not necessary to inflict this kind of injury."

The viciousness of the attacks has left victims' families, friends and neighbors angry that the city's most vulnerable residents are being targeted in their homes.

"I don't understand why somebody had to hurt an elderly man," cried Chilis' granddaughter, Dorthea Tsakiris, 15. "He would have given them everything."

Chilis had been robbed three times in the past month and was scheduled to move out Nov. 30.

His family was particularly angry that an elderly neighbor had been attacked in much the same way Oct. 13 and police hadn't notified the community.

"It's up to us to take care of the elderly," said the victim's son-in-law, Savas Tsakiris. "We can't expect police to do everything. They are doing their best. But there was another attack just down the street. We need to know about those things."

None of the victims has been able to provide more than a scant description of the assailant. Robbery detectives said they are tying to obtain enough information to draw a composite sketch.

Margaret Skirka, 88, insisted to police that she had hurt herself in a fall Oct. 20, even after paramedics found evidence that she had been hit in the head. It wasn't until she got to the hospital that she remembered answering her door and seeing a man on her porch.

"After that, she can't remember anything," according to the police report.

Police said they do not know what the assailant used as a weapon, and they will not comment on whether they recovered fingerprints or other evidence.

Investigators said the man gets inside by knocking on the front door and forcing his way in or by waiting for the resident to enter or leave.

Once inside, "he immediately strikes them in the head," said Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes, a police spokeswoman.

Yesterday, police cars criss-crossed Kernewood and Guilford -- where homeowners pay for a private security force -- as officers urged residents to take precautions, such as not opening their doors to strangers.

Questions about fear

Residents in neighborhoods unused to violent crime, where houses can sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, found themselves answering questions about fear.

Ingrid Carlson, who moved to Guilford in June, wouldn't come to the door for a television news station.

"Of course I'm concerned," she said later. "When they knocked, I hung my head out my second-floor window. I wouldn't answer the door until I knew who they were and what they wanted."

Residents planned a community meeting for next week. They e-mailed one another with safety tips and concerns.

"It's pretty awful," said Jeff Zaraya, an engineer who lives in Guilford with his wife, a violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

About two miles to the south in Mid-Town Belvedere, residents were remembering Vowels, a beloved neighbor who did not survive the beating. Posters offering a $2,000 reward hung on light poles.

Words of bitterness

Mike Singer, a board member of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Community Association who lives a few doors from where Vowels worked as an interior designer, stood outside the strip of 100-year-old rowhouses and talked of a city in decline.

Break-ins and petty crime are commonplace, he said. Contractors won't come to his street because they're afraid their trucks will be stolen.

"People commit crimes and they aren't prosecuted," Singer said. "The police don't have the time to bring criminals through the formality of incarceration. All the neighborhoods in his city have the problems we are having. When something like this happens, everything goes downhill."

A string of attacks

Police said the beatings and burglaries began Oct. 13 when Brown answered the door to her home on Underwood Road about 11: 30 a.m. and was met by a punch to her forehead.

Police said the 82-year-old was beaten, tied up with telephone cord and forced into an upstairs closet. She managed to free herself and call for help.

Seven days later, on Oct. 20, the man apparently struck again in neighboring Guilford, ringing Skirka's doorbell and hitting her when she answered, police said.

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