`Call-in' affects felons differently

Some heed message to stop drug violence, others ignore talk

April 26, 2000|By Peter Hermann and Caitlin Francke | Peter Hermann and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

One by one, men and women with crisp suits and law degrees warned a group of convicted felons from Baltimore's troubled Park Heights community yesterday that they will be swiftly punished if they continue their violent ways.

Several scoffed. "Do you think black people make guns?" one woman called out. "Do you think guns are made in the 'hood?"

Then, members of their community -- recovering drug addicts, ministers and a woman who lives on Woodland Avenue -- told them they had to listen.

Ademola Ekulona, of the Afrikan Men's Group, who dressed in a white dashiki, told the 47 men and women that their ancestors did not fight the bonds of slavery "for us to run the streets wild and slay each other."

"Has it come to this -- that we are summoned into a white man's court and have to be lectured on how to change our behavior?" he said. "You have an obligation to take part in a resurrection of this community."

The convicts, all on parole or probation for crimes ranging from drug possession to murder, were called to the Baltimore District Courthouse on Wabash Avenue to confront an unusual consortium of law enforcement and community leaders, all carrying the same message: Stop the violence.

They were picked by a team of police and prosecutors from the state and federal levels who have joined forces in Operation Safe and Sound, which meets weekly in the basement of a downtown courthouse called the "War Room."

Park Heights has long been troubled by crime, with more than a dozen homicides last year, including that of a minister who was shot while searching his trunk for a bottle of windshield washing fluid.

"Because of your crimes, you are here today," Assistant State's Attorney Kim Morton told the group. "Because Baltimore is one of the bloodiest cities in the country, we are all here today. The choice truly is yours."

The offenders were told to show up under the threat of violating the terms of their release. Officials said all are believed by police to still be members of the drug world that sent them to prison in the first place.

Of the 57 invited, 45 came. Some brought their friends and children. Two babies, one in a bassinet, were in the courtroom. Slightly more than half took advantage of programs offered, signing up for employment help, drug treatment or church membership.

Tyshell Lee, 29, a convicted drug offender, said the "call-in" could help her. She put her name on the list for job counseling and placement.

"If it gets me a job, then it was worth coming," she said.

Her companion, Erica Freeman, 25, who said she was convicted of being a drug kingpin, was offended by the message and the messengers.

"The same people who say that they are going to give you 50 years for having a gun are the same ones bringing them in -- the government," she said. "I've got two jobs. I don't even smoke weed no more."

Community activists appealed to the felons by calling them "business people" and "CEOs" in the drug economy, urging them to put down their guns and send police to the unemployment lines.

"You all are creating jobs for everybody," said Jean Yahuda, a Park Heights activist who lives on Woodland Avenue.

"And look at how they are using us now," yelled one man, who said the call-in was just a way to "cheaply" send an anti-violence lesson to the streets. "They are going to threaten us to get us in here [and] deliver the message."

But the speakers did not accept excuses. Police named names. They showed mug shots. They told how they seized a $39,000 Acura from a drug dealer and then arrested his girlfriend.

"These are people you associate with and run the streets of Park Heights, and who are now in jail," said Art Gordon, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, pointing to a poster with the photos of four people convicted of gun charges.

"It's my job as a prosecutor to give you no deals, give you no breaks and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law," said Assistant State's Attorney Jill Myers. "I am not here to make deals with you or to tell you anything but put the guns down and stop the violence or we will go after you."

Officials say that crime has dropped 70 percent in the neighborhood since the first "call-in" three months ago. Only six shootings have occurred during that time span, and one was an accidental self-inflicted wound.

The power of prosecution aside, the strongest messages yesterday came from community members, the people who live and preach on the streets of Park Heights, a once-vibrant community in Northwest Baltimore that has been hit hard by drugs.

"The women and children are suffering," said Ekulona. "Men, if you consider yourselves men at all, we need you. We need every one of you, not to fill prisons, but to build a community."

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