Slaying victim tied to 7 killings

Police suspected man, but never proved cases

May 28, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A man fatally shot in West Baltimore Tuesday night was a suspect in seven homicides, and city police said yesterday that he is a prime example of how just a few people can commit a multitude of crimes.

Howard Bernard Rice, 31, was shot more than a dozen times after he tried to blend into a street corner dice game to escape a gunman who was chasing him.

While Rice was alive, homicide detectives said, they were unable to prove the murder cases against him, but police yesterday closed the books on the seven slayings. Those cases had been stalled because witnesses would not cooperate.

"We have a few bad apples out there who commit a number of the shootings and homicides," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of detectives. "These guys are well known on the street. They are known as hit men. These are folks we call the impact players."

Police said they have no suspect's in Rice's slaying.

Most of the killings linked to Rice involve drugs, but detectives said they are not sure whether the acts of violence can be associated with one particular group or were the result of isolated, unrelated disputes.

The incidents include a 1985 slaying at a nightclub on East North Avenue, four homicides in 1994 -- including three separate ones in one month -- and a double slaying in 1996 that took the life of a 15-year-old.

Two years ago, a Circuit Court jury found Rice not guilty in another case -- the shooting of Kenneth Sewell, a 27-year-old man who was struck by 10 bullets fired in broad daylight on an East Baltimore street in 1995.

Police said key witnesses, including women from the neighborhood who had known the suspect for a decade and had picked Rice out of a photo lineup, did not show up to testify at his trial.

"I can't believe he's dead," said attorney Jill Travis, a public defender who represented Rice on the murder charge. "He was very nice to me, very respectful of me. I really think he could have done a lot with his life if he had just had more opportunities."

But Travis acknowledged that police believed her client was responsible for other violence. "The detectives suspected him of a lot more crimes," she said. "I knew they were particularly anxious to get him."

Few details could be learned about Rice yesterday. Family members said he was separated from his wife and had three children. Neighbors said he once sold shoes out of boxes on the street and recently worked at a pet store.

"I knew a lot of people who were scared of my cousin," said Lisa Slappy, 14. "He was a gangster."

Rice told police he lived in the 2000 block of Linden Ave. in Reservoir Hill. Relatives live in the East Baltimore-Midway neighborhood. A woman who answered the phone at his grandmother's house on East 20th Street declined to comment. "We want to leave this alone," she said.

Police for years have been trying to identify and target the city's most notorious group of criminals. They believe that getting them off the street can help stem the tide of killings that has made Baltimore, with 314 last year, one of the deadliest urban centers in the nation.

Statistics from 1998 cases bolster police claims. Of the 203 people arrested on murder charges, statistics show that 65 percent had prior arrests, most for drugs, guns, shootings and robberies.

Police said 60 percent of the homicide victims in 1998 had arrest records, nearly half for drug offenses and one-fifth for shootings or gun possession. Police said 3 percent of the murder victims and suspects had been involved in an earlier slaying.

Court records show that Rice had been arrested 16 times since the early 1980s on a variety of charges, from loitering to drug dealing, theft and murder. Most cases were dropped by prosecutors.

In April 1986, records show Rice was convicted of attempted murder, using a handgun, robbery and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was released in 1993.

He returned briefly to prison several times over the next few years for parole or probation violations -- most for failing to attend drug rehabilitation -- and once was evaluated by psychologists at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

After one conviction on a probation violation, records show, he was incarcerated in December 1993 and was paroled again in February 1994. Police said four slayings linked to Rice occurred after his release that year -- one in March and three in September.

Police said they have linked the killings to Rice through witness and informant statements. But Rice had only been officially charged with one. In other cases, police said witnesses could not be found to testify before grand juries or, in some cases, were found killed.

"Witnesses were scared to come forward," Gavrilis said. "There is a big intimidation factor."

Most of the killings were particularly brutal in nature, with the victims shot many times at close range, most with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun. In the 1996 incident, a gunman stood outside a parked Honda Civic on Homewood Avenue and pumped dozens of bullets inside, hitting the three occupants. Two of them died.

Police said the target of the shooting, Richard Satterfield Jr., had been convicted of drug charges a few months earlier and was out on bail awaiting sentencing when he was killed. The youth, 15-year-old Ricco Peterson, happened to be in the car at the time.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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