In the most dismal slums of East Baltimore, on narrow alley streets where sunlight barely shines, George A. Dangerfield Jr. roams like a feudal warlord.
He is only 29. But he controls an empire of more than 120 rental houses that includes long stretches of Biddle, Duncan, Eager and Regester streets. In the 400 block of East Federal Street alone, he holds the keys to seven rowhouse doors.
Dangerfield cruises his domain on rent day in a midnight-blue Rolls Royce touring sedan, shadowed by a squad of armed bodyguards in a white Humvee military vehicle. He points his finger, and a private army springs to do his bidding.
"Don't tell me about the law," witnesses recalled Dangerfield telling one tenant as his troops smashed the man's furniture and threw it into an alley. "As far as you're concerned, I am the law."
Dangerfield is among a little known subculture of property owners standing in the path of what many believe is East Baltimore's last shot at redemption.
Backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials are preparing to buy, demolish and renovate entire blocks of slum housing at a cost of $35 million -- more than 1,000 buildings in all.
But an extensive review of property records by The Sun reveals that an unforeseen pitfall threatens the plan from the outset.
Long exploited by tax cheats and slumlords, the city's worst ghetto has been infested in recent years by drug dealers, embezzlers and bankruptcy fraud artists using illegal profits to buy up rental properties.
Dispersed throughout the east side's 12,500 buildings, they lurk like wolves in tall timber.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is adamant that using tax dollars to purchase houses from predatory landlords is unconscionable.
But no one in city government has begun to grapple with the high concentration of felons who have invested in East Baltimore real estate, even as the city was laying plans to fix it.
"Unfortunately," Henson says, "this state is one of strong property owners' rights. So as deplorable as it may seem to taxpayers, we may end up having to buy these guys out.
"It's not something I'm happy about. But you can't hope to have a successful urban renewal project with a bunch of dope dealers and embezzlers in the middle of it."
Dangerfield is but one example.
A convicted cocaine dealer, he has been charged with eight drug offenses since 1992. He has been prosecuted as a slumlord at least 18 times and awaits legal action by the city on six dozen more housing violations.
And he now stands accused by federal prosecutors of masterminding a conspiracy that plowed untold thousands in dope profits into slum houses.
"I ain't saying nothing about that," Dangerfield told a reporter after a recent appearance in housing court. "No more questions!"
Epicenters of crime
The tale of Dangerfield's rise in the real estate market hardly surprises police, who speak with weary resignation about how self-styled gangsters have turned certain sections of the city into strongholds for illegal commerce.
Beset by caravans of suburban drug buyers, addicted squatters and gun-wielding enforcers, once-picturesque enclaves of working-class families have disintegrated, leaving behind blocks of empty houses that become epicenters of crime in the region.
In one east-side neighborhood known as "Zombieland" -- where police recently arrested 200 people on drug and weapons charges in a series of raids around Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School -- felons have bought up no fewer than 39 houses, records show.
A mile away, near Baltimore Cemetery, the scene is the same.
In one of the busiest and most violent drug corridors in the city, dope dealers and other felons hold title to at least 32 properties in the neighborhood around Lake Clifton-Eastern High School.
No one knows how serious the problem is citywide, mostly because overwhelmed officials have done little to identify and pursue pirate owners. But court, property and tax records suggest that the problem may be worse than previously understood.
Among recent cases:
Milton Tillman Jr., 42, is a nine-time convicted escapee, perjurer and tax evader who illegally skimmed profits from his bail bond business and nightclub, plowing the money into 31 slum dwellings. Although he was imprisoned in 1996 for income tax evasion, his houses continue to blight the east side -- including a gutted heroin den on Chase Street near Rayner Browne on which he owes $7,462 in unpaid city property taxes.
Darryl Jamison, 29, had been arrested nine times for robbery, assault and drug possession when federal agents raided his West Baltimore apartment in 1995 -- seizing $60,000 in drug profits and a 12-gauge shotgun. He was only 25 at the time, but he owned three impeccably restored rental houses and had set up a company called Jamos Properties Inc. with the expressed purpose of acquiring more when he was sent to prison for drug dealing.