Suspect in fire skirted probation

State officials admit to lax oversight, say he could've been jailed

Man, 21, is denied bail

Gas likely used to start blaze, prosecutor says

federal charges weighed

October 19, 2002|By Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella | Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A city man accused of torching a neighbor's home and killing six family members could have been jailed months ago because he never reported to his probation agent, state officials said.

They acknowledged yesterday that they failed to properly supervise Darrell L. Brooks, who was on probation at the time he is accused of setting a fire that killed Angela Dawson and her five children in their East Baltimore home early Wednesday morning.

"To date we have not found any documented contact [with a probation agent] and that is reprehensible," said Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

FOR THE RECORD - The original published version of this story incorrectly identified the ages of Keith and Kevin Dawson and of Juan Ortiz. This archived verssion has been corrected.

In District Court yesterday, Brooks was denied bail, and a preliminary hearing was set for Nov 21. Meanwhile, authorities said they are considering bringing federal charges in the arson - a move that could mean defendants would face a less forgiving jury pool and possibly harsher penalties than in the city courts.

Brooks had been on two years' probation after he was sentenced in April to a three-year suspended sentence for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Six other charges, including theft and drug possession, were dropped at that time. But Brooks never had any contact with his probation agent, whom he should have seen about twice a month, officials said. And Brooks' probation agent never reported his failure to appear, Simms said.

He said the agency was still reviewing the case.

"Staff could be held accountable if it is found, as it appears, that the management of the case was not consistent with agency standards," Simms said.

Bail hearing

During a bail hearing before District Court Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., Brooks, of the 1200 block of N. Eden St., stood shaking his head as Assistant State's Attorney David Chiu read a statement of facts detailing the blaze, which killed Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her children: Keith and Kevin Dawson, 9; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14. Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, who jumped from a second-floor window, was critically injured in the fire and remains in critical condition in an area hospital.

The fire - one of the worst arsons in the city's history - appeared to be in retaliation for Angela Dawson's repeated complaints against neighborhood drug dealers, police have said.

Chiu said witnesses reported seeing Brooks kick in the front door of the Dawsons' three-story rowhouse in the 1400 block of E. Preston St. and pour gasoline inside the home.

"Witnesses indicated [Brooks] told someone he killed the lady and her children," Chiu said.

The prosecutor went on to say that a bag containing a glass jar and a measuring pump that contained liquid that smelled like gasoline were found in Brooks' bedroom and are being tested. Brooks lives with his sister in the Oliver Street community, not far from the Dawson home, Chiu said.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said yesterday that prosecutors from his office are consulting with Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to determine whether the case should be tried in federal court. No decision had been made.

"We are looking at the case," DiBiagio said.

Jessamy declined to talk about the case. Through spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns, she declined to say whether she would seek the death penalty against Brooks.

Brooks has a long history of run-ins with city police, with a string of armed robbery, assault and other charges dating at least to 1998 - a fact that has fanned community anger over a criminal justice system perceived as not having done enough to keep criminals jailed.

In addition, some family members and friends feel that police and city officials did not do enough to protect the Dawson family. Angela Dawson frequently called police to complain about drug dealing in her neighborhood, and her home had been firebombed Oct 3. No one had been hurt in that incident.

City officials said they offered to relocate the Dawsons after that earlier fire, an assertion that John Robert Harrington Jr., Angela Dawson's brother, said he does not believe.

However, several police, city and community leaders insist the family was offered a chance at a better life somewhere else but declined.

Detective T. Holt, who works for the Baltimore Police Department's arson unit, spent 10 years as a patrol officer in the Eastern District until his promotion Aug. 15. He knows the Dawsons well and visited their home after the fire earlier this month, which was ignited by two Molotov cocktails thrown through first-floor windows.

"I had stayed in touch with the family," Holt said yesterday. "I did what I could. We tried to relocate them, but they were insistent on staying put. They said they did not want the drug dealers to run them out of the neighborhood."

Lt. Rick Hite, commander of the police's community outreach program, said three of his officers visited the Dawson home after the firebombing.

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