Drug corner turns deadlier

Slain officer was questioning 2 men at open-air market

Suspect at Shock Trauma

March 14, 2001|By Peter Hermann and Neal Thompson | Peter Hermann and Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore police officer who was killed Monday night as his colleagues questioned two men might have disrupted commerce at a thriving corner drug market and been shot as a consequence, investigators said yesterday.

But homicide detectives have been unable to establish a clear reason why Agent Michael J. Cowdery Jr. - who was in plain clothes but wearing a badge - was gunned down.

"Anything is possible," said Sgt. Ernest M. Anderson of the homicide unit. "We're running all angles out."

Investigators said they did not know whether the gunman knew he was shooting a police officer or thought members of his crew were about to be robbed. Police said the shooter might have known one of the men being questioned by officers in the 2300 block of Harford Road, where Cowdery was shot.

The suspect in the shooting was identified by police as Howard T. Whitworth, 31, of the 4900 block of Crenshaw Ave. in Northeast Baltimore.

He was wounded once in the side during what police described as a running gunbattle with another officer, who also was wounded, after Cowdery was shot in front of the Joy Garden Carryout about 10:10 p.m.

Police said they were preparing a warrant last night to charge Whitworth with first-degree murder, to be served when he is released from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was in serious condition last night. He was under police guard.

Whitworth has been arrested six times as an adult since 1991, court records show. He was convicted once of drug possession in 1996 and spent 90 days in jail, records show.

Whitworth's relatives could not be reached yesterday, and no one was home at his apartment.

Police said they had taken into custody one of the men the officers were originally questioning and were detaining him last night. No charges had been filed against the man, whose name was not released. They were searching for the second man, identified as William A. Houston, 20, who ran away during the commotion, as a material witness.

Ragina C. Averella, a city police spokeswoman, released more details of the incident yesterday, saying that seconds before the shooting a female officer saw a man run toward their group, "reach into his waistband and pull out a gun."

"She yells, `Gun,' and he immediately opens fire," hitting Cowdery once in the head and once in the upper body, the spokeswoman said. Cowdery, 31, was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 10:43 p.m.

He is the 104th city officer to die in the line of duty since 1870, and the fifth since March 2000. He is the first to be fatally shot in nearly four years. The others were victims of car or helicopter crashes.

Cowdery is the first casualty of a high-profile, extra-duty force formed in August and sent to the crime-battered Eastern District. Officers had targeted the area along Harford Road just north of East North Avenue because of a recent spate of violence that included a homicide and complaints about drug dealers.

"This underscores what a dangerous job it is to rescue this city from a chokehold of violent crime," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who had driven past the location a half-hour before the officer was shot.

Police said the shooting occurred without apparent provocation and during one of the most routine duties of an officer: stopping and questioning suspicious individuals on the street. Members of the east-side deployment have conducted 20,000 "field interviews" since August.

"The people of the city just have to remember how dangerous this job is, and how there are people out there who are willing to risk their lives for people they barely know every day," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said outside the Hopkins hospital hours after Cowdery died.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered Maryland flags to be flown at half-staff, and black bunting was draped across the Eastern District station house.

"A courageous man was killed by the most cowardly of acts," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "Michael Cowdery was on the front lines of our struggle for a safer Baltimore."

People who live near the 2300 block of Harford Road said Cowdery's death was yet another blow to their drug-plagued, trash-strewn neighborhood. Of 14 rowhouses across the street from the shooting scene, eight are boarded up, vacant and covered with graffiti.

Mary Bryan, a 35-year resident of one of the few occupied rowhouses, said she waves and smiles at the officers who occasionally patrol her streets.

"I feel like it was part of my family who got killed. That's all the protection I have," she said. "I'm about ready to cry. It's so sad."

Gregory Davis, who works at the Nature beauty salon, said a police van used to be parked on Harford Road that would deter the drug dealers. "And when they moved that away, stuff just started going crazy," he said.

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