Downtown homicides fuel fears of spreading crime

Death of homeless man found on lawn is area's 2nd killing in three weeks

October 08, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The weekend killing of a homeless man in an affluent neighborhood in downtown Annapolis has renewed fears of crime in a city still shaken from a killing in the historic district three weeks ago.

The victims and the means of death were different, but both crimes occurred on quiet, dead-end streets in wealthy areas where violent crime mostly is relegated to television.

For residents of Murray Hill - a downtown neighborhood with wide yards and large homes - that sense of security was shattered Saturday when a Stewart Avenue resident picking up his newspaper around 7:30 a.m. discovered a badly beaten man lying semiconscious near his yard.

The victim, Joseph Alexander Tasker, 40, died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore at 4:40 a.m. Sunday, becoming the fourth homicide victim in the state capital this year.

His death follows the killing Sept. 19 of Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, who was shot in the head and then run over during a carjacking in front of his Cumberland Court home, less than two blocks from the State House. Police have no suspects in either case.

"All of my neighbors have been talking about how scary this is," said Stewart Avenue resident Jan Pitcairn, 37.

Added her husband, Dwight Pitcairn, also 37: "You just don't think of murder here. You don't see murder except on television and in the newspaper."

Police said Tasker, of no fixed address, suffered massive injuries to the head. Autopsy results today could reveal more details of the crime, including whether a weapon was used.

Officer Hal Dalton, an Annapolis police spokesman, said police are investigating whether Tasker's death is connected with prostitution. Tasker - who Dalton said was found naked from the waist down with his pants lying nearby - pleaded guilty to a charge of prostitution in August.

"That has to be a vein of inquiry, for sure," said Dalton, who noted that an area of West Street a few blocks away is known as a hangout for prostitutes.

Tasker's criminal record stretches back more than 15 years and includes convictions for third- and second-degree burglary in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

Toni Graff, director of the Light House homeless shelter on West Street, said that Tasker told shelter employees he had been homeless for five years when he stayed there for one night in June. Police said Tasker has relatives in the Annapolis area, but they could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Several Murray Hill residents speculated yesterday that the crime might have occurred elsewhere and Tasker's body left in their neighborhood, since no residents reported hearing a confrontation. But Dalton said Tasker told police before he died that the beating happened where he was found, on a grassy path between Stewart and Steele avenues.

"No one is exempt anymore - no area exempt," said Robert Flynn, 69, of Stewart Avenue.

Several Annapolis residents speculated yesterday that the two recent killings have awakened wealthier residents to the violent crime that has been simmering in less-prosperous areas of the city for years.

In April, Dan Allen Johnson Jr., 16, was fatally shot in daylight in the College Creek Terrace public housing neighborhood. In August, Damon Michael Rhodes, 32, of Baltimore was shot during a party at American Legion Cook Pinkney Post on Forest Drive.

Four homicides occurred last year and two in 2000 in the city of 36,000.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said yesterday that the recent murders are symptomatic of a global epidemic of violence.

"We haven't confronted the issues of violence that we have seen here," Moyer said. "And it has spread from the areas where we are used to seeing it."

Last week, about 50 people gathered at Stanton Center for a community forum on violence, which was sponsored by the nonprofit organization We Care And Friends. Suggestions for stopping violence ranged from imposing curfews to employing a security force for particularly dangerous streets in Annapolis.

Another forum at the Stanton Center is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 16. The event was planned before Tasker's death, but We Care's president, Larry Griffin, said he believes the killing will help mobilize more city residents.

"I think a lot of people realize now that anything can happen to anybody - it's hitting everywhere, not just the public housing neighborhoods," Griffin said.

Jan Pitcairn said she is more worried now about the safety of her children and wants to become more involved in Neighborhood Watch because crime has come into her neighborhood, where residents thought they were safe.

"You feel like those margins are being blurred," she said. "Where does it end - is there a safe spot?"

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz and Andrea F. Siegel and researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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