Residents log on to fight crime

Bolton Hill uses its e-mail network to help find suspect

February 19, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A mugging victim with a keen sense of smell recently put Baltimore police on the scent of a cologne-reeking suspect authorities believe is responsible for 22 robberies on one residential edge of downtown.

Credit for catching a suspect with a fondness for Calvin Klein's Obsession goes to city police and a new crime-fighting tool: an e-mail network linking 400 Bolton Hill residents with frequent updates on suspicious activity -- from grand larceny to misappropriated trash cans.

Today, police and residents are taking bows for their vigilance -- and the construction of the electronic town crier -- within a historic Baltimore neighborhood of 1870 houses, marble steps, deep windows, lace curtains and corner churches.

"I remember heavy perfume. It got on my clothing," said Bonnie Hoback, the Bolton Street resident who was knocked down as she took an afternoon walk Jan. 20 past a terrace of Edwardian homes in the 1700 block of Linden Ave. Hoback's purse with little more than Kleenex and a house key was stolen. She was bruised and suffered neck and back injuries.

"I used the word `exotic perfume' when I gave a description to the police," Hoback recalled.

"I don't intend to stop my city walking. I do 25 miles a week."

While the Bolton Hill e-mail network is filled with chatter on many topics -- memorial services for residents, tips on house renovators -- the subject of crime remains the most compelling.

In the weeks after Christmas, residents who clicked on the e-mail network found a mugging advisory on their home computer screens. They also were told that police needed more details when residents described suspects.

It was somewhat unlikely that Hoback, who does not own a computer, would help break the case of a persistent mugger. A neighbor with a computer had passed on printouts of the alert to her, noting that police needed unusual identifying characteristics for a street robber who worked the Eutaw Place-Pennsylvania Avenue-Park Avenue area of Baltimore.

"He was slick. We had plainclothes officers and undercover people out there," said Maj. Steve McMahon, commander of the Central District. "Then, when Officer Danny Mitchell had a description, he approached the suspect and smelled the Obsession."

McMahon said that Alvin Gant, 34, of the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Ave. is charged with robbery, second-degree assault and theft less than $300. McMahon said the suspect has admitted 22 robberies. Gant is in Baltimore City Detention Center awaiting trial next month.

Residents say the neighborhood chatter -- including the crime updates -- makes them feel more secure. Many report their crime observations to the network, and they are distributed throughout the system.

"We're a pleasantly odd collection of folks committed to living in the city," said Dolph Druckman, a Lafayette Avenue resident. "It's my impression that crime has gone down."

The neighborhood's crime-fighting does not stop when an arrest is made. Residents realize that despite police action, the city's court system is bogged down and can free suspects before justice is served.

To confront this, Bolton Hill residents have a Court Watch program with e-mail messages soliciting residents to go to the courthouse, sign up with the state's attorney's office and request the maximum sentence, including a stay-away order when the person is paroled.

The Bolton Hill e-mail broadcast originated from the computer of Doreen Rosenthal, who lives on Lanvale Street and publishes the reports from a terminal in her Victorian study.

She is president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association (association membership is required to get on the e-mail network) and was assistant dean of the University of Maryland's law school.

"While the perception of crime is up because we're telling people of every crime that happens, I would say that Bolton Hill is as safe as any neighborhood in the area," Rosenthal said.

One of her advisories involves a man who frequently calls and identifies himself as "Mike." He launches into a scripted speech about his wife being in Sinai Hospital and his need to get there. He asks for $20 and then goes to the door of unwitting donors to accept their money.

"Crime is no worse than it was when I moved here in 1961," said Barbara C. White, who signs on the computer in a second-floor back study overlooking Howard Street. "But the network helps us all have a better handle on it."

McMahon of the Central District said, "If nobody knows what's going on in a neighborhood, they aren't going to be alert to fight crime."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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