The city's sad march toward another 300 killings began when the year was just 45 minutes old, and a young father made a fateful stop.


December 23, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

New Year's Eve, 1997.

Why don't you stay home tonight? Cassandra Fair asked her husband. Since their marriage in 1994, Cassandra and Aaron Tracey Fair had brought in the new year together.

But Tracey, as everybody called him, wanted to go out with friends. Maybe go play video games at somebody's house. Tracey was a security guard for Johns Hopkins Hospital, was in the U.S. Army Reserves, was a husband and a father of two children -- but he still could be a kid. Still played tackle football with the guys, volunteered as a mentor at the Lafayette Square Community Center, still played video games.

Still, it's New Year's Eve, Cassandra grumbled. And she was, after all, seven months pregnant with their third child. (They didn't know its gender, but it was Tracey's turn to name her or him.) But around 9:30 p.m., Tracey left the house.

"I love you," Cassandra said, meaning it but miffed.

"I love you," Tracey said, knowing this might not cut it. "If I'm not with you now," her husband told her, "I'm with you always in spirit."

Yeah, yeah, Cassandra thought, smiling, sending him off. Just call me, she said.

The phone rang sometime in the second hour of the New Year. But it was Davon Fair, Tracey's younger brother, who woke Cassandra up. Tracey is dead, he told her.

Stop playing around, Cassandra chided Davon. Quit trying to pretend you're crying.

It was no joke. Her husband, 23-year-old Aaron Tracey Fair, had been shot to death outside a West Baltimore nightclub. "Mr. Fair (victim #1) was pronounced dead by medic at 0045," reads the police report. Meaning that 45 minutes into the new year, Fair had become the first murder victim of 1998 in Baltimore, the first of 300 murders and counting.

"Maybe they shot him in the leg," Cassandra had asked Davon that night nearly a year ago. "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

"They put the sheet over him, Cassandra," Davon told her.

Two hours into 1998, the newly widowed mother of Tracey's children fell to her knees.

Not since 1989 has the annual number of homicides in Baltimore been under 300. Last year, 312 people were murdered. The number has become a grisly yardstick by which some in Baltimore measure its habit of homicide. The gross volume of murders continues to breed news coverage here and elsewhere. "Homicides Haunt Baltimore" read the headline of a Dec. 18 Boston Globe story.

The story was prompted by a plan initiated this month by Baltimore police to try to reduce the annual murder count. By putting an additional 60 to 100 officers on the street each night, shutting down drug corners and targeting North Avenue -- considered a main drug thoroughfare -- police hoped to keep Baltimore from a ninth consecutive year of 300-plus murders.

Despite such efforts, the toll has kept climbing. At 2:38 a.m. Monday, the body of 16-year-old Donte Brooks was found in the 1900 block of West Lanvale Street. Brooks, an apparent robbery victim, had been shot twice. It was murder No. 300 for 1998.

Triple-digit murder figures strain not only police resources but the public's memory. With so many people murdered, how can anyone recall the details of any single one? Statistics may look good or bad on paper, but they rarely look human. What's the difference between the city's 300th murder and its 200th? Or the first murder, for that matter?

"It is just a statistic -- for somebody who doesn't have to live with it," says Scott Serio, a Baltimore homicide detective. "We don't forget about homicides. But it's like a friend of mine says, 'You never forget anything -- you just don't remember it.' "

Serio hasn't forgotten working the midnight shift last New Year's Eve. "You never know what to expect," he says. He's even half-thought the Baltimore-based television drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" should film an episode about a New Year's Eve in Charm City. People firing guns in the air. Bullets go up, bullets come down.

L "No one ever thinks about the ones that come down," he says.

Just five minutes into 1998, one such celebratory bullet hit 34-year-old Alvin Whitaker as he walked along Patterson Park Avenue. He survived. Less than a hour later, Serio responded to a call outside New Club 909 on North Calhoun Street. Two men had been fatally shot at close range. A nightclub patron had heard the gunfire, but thought people were just ringing in the New Year.

"On the steps of the 909 Club Mr. Fair was lying on his stomach, head facing west. Mr. Fair had multiple gun shot wounds to his face," the police report says. Fair's friend, 25-year-old Terrance Anderson, had also been shot. He died soon after.

Serio, scheduled to work the midnight shift again this New Year's Eve, won't say much more about the first murder of 1998. Police have made three arrests in the case, and with the trial coming up, he declines further comment. "We do feel confident we have the three people involved," he says.

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