Baltimore clears thicket of crime

Killer's flight reveals squalid no man's land

August 03, 1999|By Peter Herman and Jim Haner | Peter Herman and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after a killer made his escape into the festering woods along Towanda Avenue, bright yellow Public Works trucks sloshing with 50-gallon drums of weedkiller advanced across a rundown Northwest Baltimore playground yesterday like an answered prayer.

Plumes of Roundup herbicide rained down, chain saws roared and a chipper devoured tons of scrub and gnarled limbs -- pushing back the overgrowth encroaching on a Police Athletic League complex off Reisterstown Road.

It was here that the gunman disappeared after shooting the Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, 73, twice in the head outside his home on nearby Quantico Avenue July 15.

Police arrived that morning to find residents reeling and all fingers pointing to the squalid strip of forest bordering the neighborhood in Park Heights.

"It did not look good," said Col. Alvin A. Winkler, who emerged from the tree line two days later with Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, sweat-soaked and aghast at the no man's land concealed in the thickets along the tracks of the old Western Maryland rail line.

"We would like to cut those woods back all the way to the train lines so there won't be an area for people to hide in," Winkler said.

Despite an infusion of detectives and plainclothes officers, the killing remains unsolved.

But the woods, which have teemed with drug addicts of every description in recent years -- from crack-heads and heroin junkies to glue and solvent abusers -- are finally being recognized as an ideal haven for criminals bedeviling this once-secure enclave.

Echoing the concerns of his officers who oversee the 350 kids at the PAL Center, Frazier wants the woods eliminated. Cut down. Bulldozed. Burned. Chemically denuded. Whatever it takes.

"Napalm might do it," said one Public Works supervisor yesterday.

"But there isn't enough Roundup in the world for this job."

Indeed, as city work crews have chewed away at the fringes, hacking and chopping one layer at a time, far larger problems have been revealed.

They begin at the rusted, collapsing fence that stands between them and the old rail line.

The smell of crime

An easterly breeze blew through Towanda woods yesterday -- picking up the essence of rot as it went. A soggy box with a dead dog inside. A muddy latrine. A burned-out campfire. A thousand empty liquor bottles buzzing with flies.

As it wafted hot through the bulging mesh of the fence and over the pale blue water of the Police Athletic League pool, the stench couldn't be missed.

"You smell that?" a lifeguard asked, as children scrunched their noses around her. "Does that smell like things are getting better?"

City officials were planning to spend $275,000 to restore and consolidate Towanda Park, which surrounds the PAL Center and the adjacent Malcolm X Elementary School, on the day that the neighborhood patriarch died.

With Gamble's killing, the plan leaped to the top of the priority list.

By last week, both baseball fields -- their dugouts littered with broken wine bottles and heroin vials -- were being dismantled for renovation.

New banks of lights

A crumbling basketball court at the end of Keyworth Avenue on the southern edge of the PAL complex was torn up almost overnight, depriving Park Heights drug hustlers of a favorite hunting ground.

Yesterday, electricians stood on a fresh asphalt pad immediately outside the PAL center, preparing to install banks of spotlights for a new court.

Yards of new fencing have gone up to secure the area, which neighborhood gangs once treated as their private pool-side patio at night.

"They've made tremendous strides," said Winkler, who runs the PAL program, adding that he wants the work done by the end of this month, when the center's football team, the Northwest Bulldogs, takes the field.

But all that labor and the best of intentions will be for naught, local residents say, if something isn't done about the woods that border the park -- a 200-foot-long stretch of jungle-like terrain that has become a magnet for criminals.

While officials from various city agencies say they are diligently working to clean up the parkland owned by the city, the question of who owns the woods has proven harder to answer.

Owner is out of business

The rail line that cuts through the tract is held by Florida-based CSX Corp., which also holds a 100-foot right of way on either side of its rails.

But it ends five feet short of the dilapidated fence along Towanda Park.

That property is owned, said CSX spokesman Robert L. Gould, by Flynn and Emrich Co., a Baltimore iron casting company that CSX insists is responsible for the hazardous fence.

The problem is that Flynn and Emrich went out of business at least 20 years ago.

Established in the late 1700s, the firm had plants scattered around the Baltimore area. Its Grantley Avenue foundry sat on what is now known as Towanda woods.

"We couldn't possibly own it," said David S. Cordish, a prominent Baltimore developer who served as a lawyer for Flynn and Emrich in the 1960s, adding that the company's assets were turned over to various banks when it closed its doors.

Zach Germroth, a spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, said it won't matter who owns it 72 hours from now.

By today, Germroth said, inspectors will post an order to clean up the entire swath.

That gives whoever is responsible three days to do the work, or city crews will do it and bill the owner.

"And we mean really clean it up, not just take out a couple of rakes," Germroth said.

"This is an egregious problem."

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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