`They killed him over 15 dollars'

Neighbors mourn Park Heights pastor

no suspects in slaying

July 17, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Jim Haner | Peter Hermann and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

The blood washed off with the spray of a hose and ran pink down the gutter of Quantico Avenue.

Gary Gamble stood back and looked at the fender of his father's silver Buick, where the crimson stain had been. Then, he bent down and started scrubbing again. Then, he sprayed again. Then he scrubbed some more.

"He would have hated to see his car looking this way," Gamble said, as a circle of sweat spread across the back of his T-shirt. "All that blood, his blood. Oh, my God. He's really gone."

A day after the Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, 73, was gunned down outside his home in one of the few secure enclaves of Northwest Baltimore, family, friends and neighbors wandered from door to door yesterday in a trance of grief.

Some leaned on the hoods of cars; others slumped on their front steps, coming together and drifting apart, whispering prayers for justice into the blue of heaven.

Neighbor Chris Johnson, 30, could not sleep when he got home from a long night of stocking supermarket shelves. So he sat on his steps, his gaze fixed on the spot where the old man fell Thursday morning.

"It's all I can think about," Johnson muttered, barely able to hold a sentence together. "Who in their right mind, why would, he was a man of God, a bishop, an innocent old man! For God's sake, why? What kind of person could do something like that?

"Who could pull the trigger on a reverend?"

On the police blotter, the Baptist preacher and retired iron worker was homicide victim number 136 of 1999. But in a city numb to cries of murder, his death has been profoundly felt beyond the red brick walls of one family's rented row house.

For Baltimore homicide investigators, the case is a "red ball" -- a killing that focuses public outrage on one address and one victim's name, drawing attention from reporters and politicians and the city's powerful African-American churches.

"This will not be tolerated," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "The Baltimore Police will do everything possible to bring those responsible to justice."

But even as detectives and uniformed officers flooded into the neighborhood, putting a helicopter and a dozen squad cars into one small grid on the map known as Post 12, they acknowledged that they had no suspects in what they believe was an attempted robbery.

"Fifteen dollars," the minister's son said yesterday. "That's what he had in his wallet. They killed him over 15 dollars."

`The Woods'

And no one -- not the police, nor the neighbors, nor Gamble's family -- expects the case to go down easy.

Up and down Quantico yesterday, everyone pointed to "The Woods," a tangle of brambled forest that marks the western border of this tidy working class neighborhood off Reisterstown Road in Park Heights.

For generations, this thin band of forest has embraced the residents of Quantico and Oswego and Classen Avenues in cool green shade, but in recent years it has became a Sherwood of thieves and dope addicts landscaped with syringes, liquor bottles and discarded stolen goods.

A gang rape, a hanging and robberies numerous enough to call routine have taken place in the thickets in the past two years.

Even the presence of a Police Athletic League center has not discouraged the interlopers, who lounge by the wading pool at night snorting heroin and littering the soccer field with empty drug vials.

It was here that the killer made his escape, witnesses say, disappearing into the dank hollow where local children are now warned not to tread.

Prized possession

"The Rev" loved his car.

It was his only luxury -- a silver Buick Le Sabre adorned with a Shaw College window sticker given to him by a proud young member of his congregation at the Bibleway Free Will Baptist Church on Main Avenue, where he hammered the virtue of education into the minds of his flock.

Every morning, sometimes before breakfast, Junior Gamble would pop open the trunk of his car, pull out his bottle of Windex and clean the Buick's windows.

Then, he'd turn on the hose and water his shrubs.

"After that, he'd water the neighbors' yards on both sides," recalled his son. "That was his routine. He'd be out here every morning, saying hello to people and taking care of his business."

`Beautiful day'

And so he was on Thursday.

"It's a beautiful day," he called out to Geraldine Gamble, his wife of more than 40 years, as he swung the front door wide and stepped out to pick up some eggs for breakfast.

Across the street, Chris Johnson had just gotten home from work and was talking to his girlfriend in an upstairs bedroom.

Two doors down, Bernice Wright, 77, was having her first cup of coffee and getting ready to step outside for her customary morning chat with The Rev.

Around the corner on Towanda Street, Carolyn Dunnmoodie, 60, was relaxing on her porch after a night tending to elderly residents at the Rosewood Center. She checked her watch. It was 8: 30.

"POW! POW!"

Everyone thought it was kids playing with leftover Fourth of July fireworks.

Everyone except Johnson.

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