Grocery called front for drugs

Police ask judge to close store and order it demolished

February 24, 1999|By Jim Haner and Amy Oakes | Jim Haner and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

In the opening salvo of a planned assault on drug houses in Baltimore, prosecutors asked a judge yesterday to evict the operator of a west side grocery store that police say is a front for a narcotics operation -- and to order the building torn down immediately.

Bused downtown to housing court by police, elderly neighbors of the store at 2900 Springhill Ave. in Park Heights nodded their heads emphatically as Northwestern District officers testified about receiving more than 1,300 reports of criminal activity at the grocery since 1995, including 486 drug transactions.

"It's a drug store," said Assistant State's Attorney Ann Refolo in an interview, "a one-stop shopping center for illegal substances in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And it's dragging down the entire community."

The case gives fresh evidence to housing activists and state legislators working to draft new laws in Annapolis to make it easier for the city to confiscate 40,000 abandoned houses and other properties connected to crime. A state attorney general's opinion released yesterday concludes that the effort faces major constitutional hurdles in the weeks ahead.

The groundswell of concern came after a story in The Sun on Feb. 14 about George A. Dangerfield Jr., a 29-year-old convicted drug dealer who allegedly plowed his profits into more than 120 slum rental houses in East Baltimore.

As Refolo presented her evidence in court yesterday morning, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III held a press conference a half-block away. After naming Dangerfield one of the 10 most negligent landlords in the city, he pointed to the Springhill Market case as further proof that drug dealers are exploiting slum buildings for profit.

More prosecutors

To combat the problem, Henson announced that he was doubling the number of housing prosecutors in his office to 10 and intends to drastically step up the use of the city's nuisance-property law to demolish buildings used by criminals.

"We're about as aggressive as anybody in the world on these things," Henson said. "And we intend to be twice as aggressive" in coming months.

As he spoke, five police officers testified in housing court that the Springhill Market has become the focal point of the drug trade, threatening to ruin a fledgling urban renewal and anti-crime initiative in Park Heights.

Known as HotSpots, the crime-fighting effort has poured some $41,000 in state law enforcement grants into the neighborhood.

In court, Officer Herbert Lindemeyr of the Northwestern District called the market one of the worst drug dens in his terrority, charging that operator Ulysses Holmes, 64, allows dope dealers to use his business as an informal headquarters and refuge from police.

"They need a habitat," Lindemeyr testified, "and it's my belief Mr. Holmes provides that habitat."

Holmes, who lives in a small apartment at the rear of the building and runs the store from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., protested that he works hard to pay his bills and maintain the property on his $500 to $600 in monthly earnings. The city's demand to demolish it, he testified, "will cost me my life."

Area's problems.

Holmes said he did not know of any criminal activity in his store. But he acknowledged that outside his door "the entire area is littered with drugs."

"I've been caught up in the uncontrollable water of a rain flood," Holmes said.

Police told a different story, recounting three incidents since April in which they have seized cocaine, weapons and drug paraphernalia inside the Springhill Market. In a May raid, they seized two large boxes of tiny plastic bags commonly used for drug packaging, a crack pipe crusted with cocaine residue and a semi-automatic handgun.

Holmes testified yesterday that the bags were for packaging buttons and jewelry.

Although police have charged Holmes five times with drug offenses since 1994, he has never been convicted.

For their part, residents declined to testify for fear of retaliation.

But they said in interviews that the store has been a blight for years. Cans, bottles, drug paraphernalia and trash litter the corner, and drug runners loiter at Holmes' business at all hours.

One 60-year-old woman recalled that when neighbors met for a prayer gathering near the grocery last summer, one of the runners approached them and offered to sell drugs to her pastor.

"We invited him to church," she said. "But I've never seen him there."

Allen Becker, who sold Holmes the grocery store in a lease-to-buy agreement in 1992, complained that prosecutors had wrongly named him as a defendant in the case and asked District Court Judge Timothy J. Doory to dismiss him from the complaint.

"This is not my matter," Becker said. "All I did was sell the property to Mr. Holmes, and he took it from there."

Controls grocery

Doory pointed out that Becker -- who has owned three more rundown properties in the neighborhood for years -- controls the grocery because Holmes has yet to pay off the debt under their agreement.

He gave the two men until 9 a.m. Friday to come up with a plan to stop the store from being used by drug traffickers, or face a demolition order. In the meantime, Doory ruled, the Springhill Market is closed for business.

Research librarian Robert Schrott and staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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