Hack driver latest victim in growing violence trend

Police are warning against driving or riding in illegal taxis

April 18, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Juanita Cooper knew her husband sometimes used his 1989 Chrysler Fifth Avenue as an illegal taxicab, but she didn't worry about the danger. He hacked infrequently and rarely provided rides to strangers, she said.

So when her husband hopped in the car around 1:20 a.m. on April 6 to make a run to a neighborhood convenience store, she didn't think anything of it. He was just going to buy juice for the kids at the Sportsmen's Lounge, a bar that sells chips, sodas and other items near where they live in Northwest Baltimore.

When Damon Cooper hadn't returned home by 4 a.m., worry turned to panic.

Two days later, Juanita Cooper's worst fears were confirmed when police told her that fingerprints on a body found in an alley off Tivoly Avenue, across town near Harford Road, matched her husband's.

On April 11, five days after Damon Cooper was killed, police recovered his car parked in the 800 block of Winston Ave., about a mile north of where he was killed. He was the city's 64th homicide victim this year.

Police say Cooper, 34, was killed while hacking, making him the latest casualty of an increasingly popular practice for which homicide statistics are not available. His death has led police to step up their warnings against illegal taxis.

"It's a risk both ways," homicide Detective Dennis M. Raftery said of hacking, which is commonplace in major cities, especially in poor neighborhoods where residents often lack transportation. "That's what makes it so bad. You get in the car of a person who says he's a hack, and you're dead. You pick up a person who says he legitimately wants a ride somewhere, and you're dead."

In April 1996, three hacks - or hackers - were killed in four days before police recovered a weapon and arrested a suspect. The first killing took place early on April 26. Hack Melvin P. Alexander, 32, was found dead in his car in the 800 block of Beaumont Ave. The next night, another hack, Alphonso Spencer, 37, was shot in the head and killed during a robbery in the 4500 block of S. Franklintown Road. Spencer was found lying next to his car. Two days later, a third hack, Maurice Coates, 24, was killed in the 400 block of Uplands Parkway during a robbery. His car was taken, and Coates' body was dumped on the street.

Later that day, Officer Charles D. Carroll was patrolling near Edmondson Village when dispatchers broadcast descriptions of two suspects in a robbery in Rognel Heights. As Carroll drove along Kevin Road, he saw someone run to the back of the 4200 block of Flowerton Road. Carroll followed. A man turned and fired at him, hitting him in the right arm, police said. After twice returning fire, the officer dropped his weapon. When he turned to take cover, the gunman shot him in the buttocks.

After a standoff, police arrested one man and charged him with two counts of attempted murder. They also found the revolver allegedly used in the hack killings and a second man was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Homicide investigators gave Damon Cooper's case added attention last week. Fifteen officers canvassed the neighborhood where his body was found to talk to residents about the dangers of hacking and circulate Cooper's photograph on about 200 fliers. So far, their search for evidence, witnesses and suspects has turned up little, police said.

Detective Bobby Patton, Raftery's partner, said police frequently canvass areas after a killing, especially when leads are scarce. Patton acknowledged that canvasses don't always provide helpful clues and are all but useless in some communities.

"This is a real tough neighborhood to solve cases in," Patton said of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area. "There are a lot of prisoners living up here. People are afraid to come out of their houses. People are scared to talk ... because of retaliation, and they don't trust the police."

Police have not said whether Cooper, who was stripped of his clothing, was killed in Northeast Baltimore where he was found. Juanita Cooper said he must have been forced to drive to the other side of town.

Though she acknowledges her husband has been in trouble with the law before - police had his fingerprints because of previous drug arrests, but they do not suspect drugs were connected to the killing - she insists he was simply going to the store. She knows of no reason why anyone would want to harm him, much less pump four bullets into his back.

"If you met him, you liked him automatically," said Juanita Cooper, 36. "He had no enemies."

Family friend Leon Nelson agreed. "He was a good husband, a good father, a good role model, a hard worker and a good friend," Nelson said.

The Coopers were married for 10 years and have a son, Damon Jr., who turned 3 on Friday. He hasn't stopped asking for his father. Juanita Cooper said her husband loved her other two children, ages 11 and 15, as his own. The couple worked at Suburban Club of Baltimore County, a Pikesville country club, he as banquet manager and she as a bartender.

As police continued investigating his death, Juanita Cooper buried her husband on Monday. And she kept praying that someone calls police with information.

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