Owings Mills woman killed in apartment

Man charged in stabbing of his live-in caretaker

Victim cared for mentally ill

Assisted-living group rented unit, being probed

July 11, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A resident of an apparently unlicensed assisted-living apartment for mentally ill men in Owings Mills was arrested and charged last night with the fatal stabbing of his live-in caretaker, police said.

Derrick Anthony Harris, 31, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Valerie Latrisha Johnson, 33, after an interview with homicide detectives at the Garrison Precinct, said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a Police Department spokeswoman. Harris was being held without bail early today at Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.

Warehime said Harris was being interviewed when police noticed he was wearing a shirt inside-out. When Harris removed the shirt and put it on properly, police said they noticed bloodstains on the apparel. Warehime said the bloodstains and other evidence she declined to identify led to the charges against Harris.

Warehime said a kitchen knife that may have been the weapon used in the killing was found in the apartment.

Johnson was found dead in the living room of the luxury apartment in the 9200 block of Appleford Circle in the Briarwood complex, where she took care of a half-dozen mentally ill men in what may have been an unlicensed group home. The arrangement is being investigated by Maryland's Office of Health Care Quality, according to state and Baltimore County officials.

The apartment and several other units are rented by A Touch of Love Assisted Living Group Inc., a Randallstown-based corporation, according to residents and court and property records.

No record was found of A Touch of Love having a license to operate assisted-living residences, state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials said. Carol Benner, director of the Office of Health Care Quality, said it was possible the group was in the process of applying for the proper certification, but it was unclear whether it was legal for the group to be offering care. "It depends on the level of care they were offering," she said.

But, she stressed, "We're taking a look at what's going on there."

Officials from Bozzuto & Associates, the company that manages the Briarwood complex, said the apartment was not a group home. A Bozzuto spokeswoman, Valerie Covarrubias, called the apartment a "corporate unit," saying it was "leased to a company."

That explanation was disputed by several residents in the complex. "It is a group home," said Brian Swick, 45, a manufacturer of hot dog carts who lives in a four-story apartment building across the street from the scene of the killing. "This is ugly. It's terrible what's happened here. You always hear about stuff like this happening in other places."

Several residents said they were becoming concerned about safety in Owings Mills. "I always felt this was a nice area, but all this makes you wonder," said Camela Chapman, 32, a University of Baltimore law student who lives in an apartment below two of the apartments rented by A Touch of Love.

Officials with A Touch of Love referred all questions about their operations to their attorney, Janice L. Bledsoe, who declined to comment.

Of the 2,000 assisted-living providers in the state, a little more than half are properly licensed, Benner said. "There's a whole underground network of providers caring for the elderly and mentally ill. When we find out about it, we act quickly," she said.

Benner said the Department of Adult Protective Services had been called to make sure the other patients living in the Briarwood complex were "safe and protected."

About a dozen mentally ill men in their 20s and 30s lived in the two apartments on the top floor of her building, Chapman said.

Chapman said she awoke yesterday to the sound of a thud, "like furniture being knocked over."

About 20 minutes later, she heard police sirens as officers converged on the apartment complex.

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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