How Itchy Man beat the rap

Charged in 2 deaths and 12 attempted murders, Solothal Thomas has dodged hard time

September 30, 2002|By John B. O'Donnell, Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell, Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

To his lawyer, he is a caring father, a gentleman unfairly targeted by police.

To police and prosecutors, he is one of the most violent inhabitants of the city. In the past six years, he has been charged repeatedly with assaults and shootings, including two killings and 12 attempted murders.

To jurors in four trials, he is a man not guilty because police and prosecutors failed to convince them.

His name is Solothal Deandre Thomas. On the street, he's called "Itchy Man."

He is a startling example of the problems that beset the criminal courts. His case shows how one man, repeatedly indicted for serious crimes, has been freed time after time by faulty and insufficient police investigations, prosecution missteps and frightened witnesses intimidated into silence by a culture of drugs and violence.

He has plenty of company. Between Jan. 1, 1997, and the end of last year, 1,449 people were murdered in Baltimore and more than 1,000 of those killings went unpunished or resulted in a light sentence for the accused. Indeed, in about half the cases, police couldn't even find anyone to charge.

Thomas is also a symptom of a wider problem confronting Baltimore.

Freed by a porous judicial system, these men have returned to neighborhoods ravaged by crime and violence for more than a decade. The Sun's computer analysis of homicide cases shows that 83 men who beat murder raps were subsequently rearrested and charged with serious crimes. In all, 24 were accused of another killing or of attempted murder.

"It just builds and builds and builds and snowballs," said Maj. Laurie A. Zuromski, head of the Police Department's homicide squad, describing the escalation of violence that results from a failure to imprison gunmen.

Most of the crimes attributed to Itchy Man occurred within a few blocks of the dusty construction site that was once the Murphy Homes, his address before the West Baltimore public housing project's demolition in 1999.

If there's a thread running through those crimes, it is brutality.

Alfonzo Rogers took a blast from a sawed-off shotgun after complaining that he was sold counterfeit drugs. Raymond Fortune's lower lip was ripped off and one eye knocked out in a beating with a ceiling fan and a baseball bat. Ellis Johnson was shot four times; Antiwan Lowe and Latrol Gross, six times each; Lewis Middleton, 10 times. One girlfriend's jaw was broken; another suffered a broken cheekbone.

Itchy Man once astounded police by scaling a public housing high-rise to elude capture, climbing from balcony to balcony until he disappeared into a vacant seventh-floor apartment.

For five hours, 50 officers and FBI agents searched the 14-story Murphy Homes building that November afternoon in 1996. They shut down nearby U.S. 40 and Martin Luther King Boulevard during the search.

Somehow, Itchy Man slipped away. A detective says he later claimed he hid in a trash chute. He was arrested Nov. 27, 1996, in Prince George's County on dozens of charges.

That arrest began an unusual sojourn in the criminal justice system. He would spend more than five of the next six years behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving a brief sentence. During that period, he would be tried four times and win four acquittals after juries heard cases rife with police missteps and reliance on lone witnesses who disavowed their identifications of him as the gunman.

His only conviction came in a January 1998 plea agreement that netted him a brief sentence and flushed away dozens of charges, including nine attempted-murder counts. That deal came three months after a jury had quickly acquitted him of attempted murder when Lowe refused to identify Itchy Man as the man who shot him.

"I've talked to him quite a bit, and I think he's been innocent in every single case," Margaret Mead says of Itchy Man. She's a veteran defense lawyer representing him in his latest encounters with the law.

"This is a classic case of persecution, not prosecution," she says.

Another run-in

By September 1998, Itchy Man was back on the street. It wouldn't be long before he and the police crossed paths again.

Two nights before Christmas, Baltimore was gripped by subfreezing temperatures and partially paralyzed by light snow, sleet and freezing rain.

Ellis Johnson, a lanky 16-year-old, was roaming the 1400 block of Argyle Ave., around the corner from his home, peddling $5 hits of crack cocaine.

Shortly before 9 p.m., he was at the corner of Argyle and Lafayette avenues when four guys approached him. He recognized three of them -- Itchy Man, Samuel "Sambo" Warren and Karlos Williams, a former classmate at Booker T. Washington Middle School and Itchy Man's nephew.

In a taped interview with police, Johnson said Itchy Man grabbed him by the jacket and pressed a gun to the back of his head. The unidentified man went through his pockets and pulled out money.

"Yo, he only got $9," Johnson recalled him saying.

At that, Johnson added, "Itchy Man said, `Where's the stuff?' and said, `Take me where it's at.'"

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