Stray bullet kills girl in front of her home

Police say shooting over drugs claimed 13-year-old's life

`She was innocent'

July 22, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Shenea Counts, suffering through another humid night in Baltimore, grabbed a quarter, stepped onto South Bentalou Street and walked to Rosie's corner bar, where a sign in the window advertises: "Cup of ice: 25."

The 13-year-old, slurping on the fast-melting cubes, walked back toward her small rowhouse across the street. She was shot just steps from her front door -- struck in the chest by a stray bullet fired during what police said was a drug dispute at the corner.

Shenea ran inside and collapsed. The little girl, who wore her hair in cornrows, who loved music so much that she named her new puppy Beethoven, was dead less than three months after she had entered her teen-age years.

"She was my baby, my precious one," said her mother, Trina Branch, 30, who was working -- tending bar at a nearby tavern -- when her daughter was shot about 12: 30 a.m. yesterday. "She was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was innocent, and I want her back."

Recent shootings have brought unwanted attention to a city that has struggled with more than 300 homicides a year for the past decade, but with 140 killings since January, is on a pace to fall below that mark.

Shenea's death comes a week after a Park Heights pastor was killed in a robbery outside his home, an attack that resonated from church pulpits to City Hall. The Rev. Junior Lee Gamble is to be buried today.

"Even though murders are down in Baltimore, it doesn't diminish the fact that tragedies such as this still impact families, citizens and communities," said police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr.

Police have made no arrest in Shenea's death, the latest of five since March in Carrollton Ridge and neighboring Shipley Hill.

The target of the attack, police said, was Michael Clemons, 21, who had walked out of Rosie's at South Bentalou and Ashton streets and climbed into a friend's truck. Police said two men, who apparently had been lying in wait outside the bar, approached Clemons and his companion. One was armed with a .45-caliber handgun.

Police said the driver jumped out of the truck and ran across the street. Clemons tried to run away as the gunman opened fire. He was hit in the right leg and right buttocks. An errant bullet hit Shenea.

Investigators have questioned Clemons, who was in stable condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, and his friend, but would not say whether they cooperated. Neither could be reached for comment yesterday. Several witnesses said the gunman tried to force Clemons out of the truck in what looked like a carjacking.

Maj. John L. Bergbower, the commander of the Southwestern District, said the attack appears "to be drug-related, and it was over territory." He said the gunman was seen driving away in a Jeep Cherokee.

The Carrollton Ridge neighborhood is a struggling 35-square block enclave of mostly two-story rowhouses and corner bars north of Wilkens Avenue, south of West Pratt Street and east of the West Side Shopping Center.

Its community association, run by Connie Fowler, is in constant contact with police, who have tried for years to oust drug dealers and addicts from the residential streets.

Carrollton Ridge is one of five designated "hot spot" areas in Baltimore, targeted in a statewide initiative to pump money into neighborhoods overtaken by crime. About $3.5 million in state and federal grants has been distributed to rid 36 such communities of crime across Maryland.

Two years ago, the neighborhood was one of the city's few successful comeback stories. Now, it is on the verge of slipping back. Five killings last year between March and June; five more this year, all in the past four months.

Crime in the neighborhood is down 16 percent this year. But violent acts, including armed robberies and shootings, are up nearly 8 percent. "It had quieted down significantly at the beginning of the year," Bergbower said.

Fowler called yesterday's shooting "disgusting" but praised police for doing their best. "I think things were getting better," she said. "Then all of a sudden we got the drug traffic back."

Rosie's bartender Buddy McCrady has a different view. He had served Shenea her cup of ice; had poured drinks for Clemons and his friends; then had dialed 911 when Clemons raced back into the bar, spilling his blood on the white tile floor.

"It could have been anybody's child who got shot last night," said McCrady, 38. He lives above the corner bar, the center of activity at Bentalou and Ashton, which throws open its doors at 6 a.m., where a 40-ounce "Steel Reserve" malt liquor sells for $2, where bar stools fill before noon.

Every day, he said, is a struggle to keep the corners clear of drug dealers, lookouts and addicts. "We try to keep them away, but it's impossible."

Francis J. Smidt, who has lived near Carrollton Ridge for 56 years and is running for a 6th District City Council seat, said the neighborhood is "just like Beirut. The police just ride by. They need to walk in this neighborhood."

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