Park Heights pastor fatally shot

Minister was leaving home to get breakfast

July 16, 1999|By Peter Hermann and John Rivera | Peter Hermann and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A 73-year-old Baptist preacher on his way to buy eggs for breakfast yesterday was shot twice in the head and killed outside his home in Park Heights in what Baltimore police said was a botched robbery.

The Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, who handed out gumdrops to children and drove neighbors to jobs and on shopping trips, was accosted as he searched the trunk of his Buick LeSabre for a bottle of windshield cleaner. He was shot moments later.

The pastor's affection for children made him a de facto grandfather to the youngsters on and around Quantico Avenue, where he had lived for more than a decade. "Anybody's child was his child," said his nephew, the Rev. Joe Barnwell.

Gamble, who retired from the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, was the pastor of Bibleway Free Will Baptist Church on Maine Avenue, a short distance from his home. He was known as an old-school preacher, firm and to the point, who spoke out against city violence but espoused forgiveness rather than condemnation.

"He said we have to pray together and we have to stick together," said Gamble's granddaughter, Thernesia M. Johnson, 22. "He would always say that God is going to make a better day."

The 8: 30 a.m. shooting in the 2800 block of Quantico Ave., off Reisterstown Road, left his neighbors shaken as they gathered on their front steps to watch police detectives examine the pastor's car.

A stream of family members and friends passed under yellow police tape and huddled inside Gamble's two-story brick rowhouse, many pausing to look at the blood-stained street along the way. Parishioners rushed to Sinai Hospital, where Gamble was pronounced dead.

Police spent more than three hours examining the scene, but did not find shell casings from a gun and did not immediately know what type of weapon was used. Neighbors reported hearing two shots in quick succession.

"I heard two pops and I didn't pay much attention," said Willa Needam, 54, who lives on the block. "Then I heard someone yell, `Is he shot?' Then a woman screamed, `Oh my Lord, he's shot.'"

Needam said she ran outside and saw Gamble lying on his back next to his car, which had the trunk and driver's-side door open. "I don't understand how somebody could just take a life like that," she said, as she broke down in tears.

Police said investigators do not believe anything was taken and do not know whether Gamble tried to fend off the attack. Family members said the minister had $15 in his wallet, which was still in his back pocket when he was killed.

Detective Gregory S. MacGillivary of the homicide unit said he believes robbery to be the motive. He said investigators have talked with two people who gave a partial description of the gunman, who was seen running into the nearby woods.

Gamble was the 136th person killed in Baltimore this year, compared with 168 at the same time last year. Homicides are at a 10-year low, and if the downward trend continues, this year could be first in a decade to end with fewer than 300 killings.

But the Park Heights area has experienced an upsurge of violence this month, with killings July 1, July 3, Friday and Sunday. Sgt. Scott Rowe, a police spokesman, said police "are working vigorously to address the increase in violence in that part of the city."

Violence drug related

Investigators said yesterday that the recent spurt in Park Heights appears to be drug related, and not connected to yesterday's shooting of Gamble. But the violence troubles community leaders who said their neighborhood had been quiet for the past few years.

"We had moved away from" violence, said Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council. "We were feeling comparatively safe. We haven't had the shootings. We haven't heard the gunfire."

Yesterday's killing was particularly troublesome for area clergy, who said an attack on a minister was highly unusual. "To assault a pastor is like committing personal assault against a prophet of God," said the Rev. Robert Douglas, a police chaplain.

Forgiveness for shooter

But Gamble's family and friends said they forgave whoever pulled the trigger. Johnson, his granddaughter, held up a large wood-framed portrait of Gamble dressed in his purple robe. "We want people to know who he is," she said.

"He was the kindest, the sweetest, the most humble man that anyone could every meet," said Mary Kennedy, a member of Gamble's church for 20 years. "Right now, our church is praying for the salvation of whoever did this."

Gamble was born and raised in North Carolina, but moved to Baltimore with his wife of more than 40 years, Geraldine, 63, soon after they were married. He was pastor of Bibleway Free Will for more than 30 years, which moved from Wabash Avenue to its present location on Maine Avenue in 1984.

The couple had two daughters and a son, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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