Drivers queried about killing

Police stop motorists, seeking witnesses to shooting of pastor

`Show of respect by police'

Fliers are circulated on Reisterstown Road in plea for information

July 20, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police, struggling to find witnesses in the fatal shooting of a Baptist preacher, set up roadblocks on busy Reisterstown Road yesterday and searched for commuters who might have seen the gunman fleeing the scene.

The unusual police action was part a plea for information and part public relations -- a way to demonstrate to a community struggling to fight encroaching crime that the killing of a pastor will not go unnoticed.

"I know that a lot of people in the community hope we catch this guy," said Officer Charles Feaster, a neighborhood patrolman. "And they hope we catch him real fast."

Four marked cruisers were parked in the middle of a four-lane thoroughfare with strobe lights flashing as officers handed out hundreds of fliers with a photo of the Rev. Junior Lee Gamble and announced a $2,000 reward.

Gamble, 73, pastor of Bibleway Free Will Baptist Church, was shot twice under the chin about 8: 30 a.m. Thursday as he searched the trunk of his Buick LeSabre for a bottle of window cleaner. He was on his way to a store to buy eggs for breakfast.

"This is a show of respect by police," said Bland McNeill, 52, who works at Joe's Auto Body Shop at Reisterstown Road, one block from Gamble's house on Quantico Avenue. "It's tragic -- a life was taken for no reason."

The slaying, the fifth this month in Park Heights and adjoining Pimlico, has unnerved residents who said crime that once permeated many Northwest Baltimore communities had dropped noticeably over the past year.

Police said most of the slayings are drug-related and occurred on streets north of where Gamble lived. They do not believe people engaged in the drug skirmishes are responsible for the preacher's slaying, which is being investigated as a botched robbery.

Gamble, whose funeral is scheduled for Thursday at his church on Maine Avenue, was the 136th slaying victim this year. But it is one of the few that has caught the attention of City Hall.

"The death of Bishop Gamble is a loss to his family, the community and the citizens of Baltimore," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Friday. "This type of senseless violence will not be tolerated."

Lt. Timothy G. Keel of the homicide unit said that two witnesses have been found -- people who in a fleeting glance saw a man with a gun disappear into woods at the end of Quantico Avenue.

Investigators said they have a sketchy composite drawing of a potential suspect, but they won't release it publicly because they are afraid of tainting better recollections by other witnesses, should any be found.

The idea yesterday was to question people who might not live in the area, but who might have been driving by when the shooting occurred. Many people interviewed in the neighborhood, particularly on the street where Gamble lived, work nights and return home in the morning.

"We're out here because someone might have seen something unusual," Keel said. "The reality of it is we don't have anything solid yet. This may give us the push that we need. We know that a lot of people talk. I'm sure that this suspect is going to explain what he did to somebody."

For the past four days, police have hit the Reisterstown Road corridor hard, pressing addicts and suspected drug dealers for information.

Their efforts began the morning after the killing, as the first searing rays of sun cleared the rooftops of Quantico Avenue, turning the street below into an asphalt skillet. Bleary-eyed addicts began to drift downhill through the neighborhood for the shade of the nearby Towanda woods.

Standing squarely in their path was Officer Gregory Robinson, a stocky five-year veteran of Post 12 who was making his presence felt along Reisterstown Road.

"Excuse me, gentlemen, do you live here?" he asked two stick-thin wraiths in ragged clothes staggering down the block where Gamble was killed.

"What business is it of yours?" asked one of the men.

"Anybody who's not from the neighborhood is going to get questioned, sir." Robinson replied evenly. "It's my job."

"Well, I'm a citizen of the United States," the man erupted, adding a string of expletives. "You can't just harass people like this."

"It's not harassment, sir. There's been a murder."

"Still don't give you no right," the man sputtered.

"Can I see some ID?" Robinson asked, then moments later gave a stern, "Move along -- and stay out of the woods."

Most of the motorists stopped yesterday took the handout and promised they would call if they heard or remembered anything. Police stopped cars, pedestrians and climbed aboard city buses.

"It's great that they are paying attention to this," said Janie Garrett, visiting her son who lives near Gamble.

But an arrest might not bring closure.

"It's going to take some healing," said Coranzo Randy Wells, 39, who knew Gamble. "We just have to hold our heads up and pray."

Sun staff writer Jim Haner contributed to this article.

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