In a series of coordinated raids over the past month, Baltimore police have arrested more than 200 people on drug and weapons charges in a notorious east-side neighborhood traveled every day by 350 children who attend the Dr. Rayner Browne elementary school.
Known by locals as "Zombieland" for the heroin addicts who squat in the area's numerous abandoned houses, the neighborhood is home to a major crack cocaine and marijuana market that stretches for three blocks on Biddle Street from Montford to Luzerne avenues.
One block south, at the corner of Chase and Bradford streets -- directly in front of the school -- another drug bazaar caters to addicts seeking heroin and other opiates.
Maj. Gary Lembach, head of the Baltimore police drug enforcement division, said undercover detectives, federal agents and Eastern District patrol officers began pouring into the area last month after a series of articles in The Sun describing the school's plight.
"We can't be everywhere, and we don't know everything," Lembach said. "Those stories put that neighborhood on everybody's radar screen. We sent some people down there to take a look around, and it was every bit as bad as the paper said it was."
In the most recent round of raids Wednesday, police arrested seven people on drug distribution charges -- seizing a pound of cocaine, four guns and $21,000 in cash, Lembach said.
"In total, we've executed nine warrants in the neighborhood in the past 21 days or so," he added. "And there will be more. This investigation is far from over."
Among other developments in recent weeks:
Following a high-level meeting of school, police and housing officials, the Department of Housing and CommunityDevelopment has condemned more than a dozen blighted properties on Biddle and Chase streets as a precursor to a major demolition campaign in the area in coming months.
Said housing spokesman Zack Germroth: "It's a priority with a capital P. We're months behind where we'd like to be, but you won't find this level of activity anywhere else in the city right now."
After months of delay, a family with two severely handicapped children was relocated from the 1100 block of N. Port St., clearing the way for the Public Works Department to complete the demolition of the entire block. Located 50 yards from Rayner Browne, an alley street once dotted with shooting galleries and spent needles, drug vials and trash is now an open field.
The nonprofit Abell Foundation has pledged $60,000 to install television surveillance cameras on the roof of the school to "drive away the drug activity," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the city's largest philanthropic trust.
"Drug dealers don't usually like to have their pictures taken," Embry said. "So it deters them from committing crimes within range of the equipment. And for the guys who keep doing it, the police can use their pictures to arrest them. We've put them up at another school that's been having similar problems, and it's had a very beneficial effect."
Doris L. Graham, principal of Rayner Browne, said: "The way the city agencies have all come together on behalf of our school has been remarkable, amazing really. It is having such a positive effect, we hope it will be permanent."
Meanwhile, Eastern District police have maintained nearly constant pressure on the neighborhood for more than a month -- beginning with an incident last month after a meeting of the Lakewood Chase Community Association at a church on Biddle Street.
Intent on seeing the area's problems firsthand, district Cmdr. Maj. James L. Hawkins Jr. climbed into a van driven by association president Donna Money for a tour of the blighted blocks.
In the back seat was state Del. Talmadge Branch.
The trio hardly had driven a block when they witnessed a drug deal at the corner of Biddle and Milton streets.
"I felt like God was with me," Money said. "Here I was trying to describe to them how bad the drug dealing is in my neighborhood, and all the sudden it happens right in front of their eyes."
Hawkins used Money's cellular phone to call for back-up officers, then popped out of the van -- white shirt, brass buttons and commander's stars glimmering under the streetlight -- to arrest the suspect.
"It was a nice bust, 50 caps of cocaine," Hawkins said yesterday. "We've been firing off our cannons in that neighborhood ever since, and we've definitely gotten their attention. They smashed out the windows of one of our patrol cars last night, at the same corner."
Pub Date: 11/14/98