`Scared to speak up' against the drug trade

Risk: The fire that killed Angela Dawson and her family shows why people fear to confront criminals.

October 20, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson, Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella | M. Dion Thompson, Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Many of the old homes in the East Oliver neighborhood have been knocked down or stand empty now. Weeds overpower abandoned front yards. RIP tags are spray-painted on walls and the fronts of vacant houses lining block after block of East Preston Street, where the drug boys who call themselves the "283 crew" own some corners. It can be a safe street, as long as you mind your own business.

Dorothy Knight and the other volunteers who run the soup kitchen every Friday at Knox Presbyterian Church know the rules and say they are not afraid to walk through the sometimes violent world around them. They just go about their mission of feeding the hungry.

Barbara Roles, a longtime resident, knows that the way to be safe is to go to work, come home and stay indoors. David Parker knows that silence helps ensure survival.

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 version has been corrected.

"These drug dealers have it set up around here that people are scared to speak up because of what they will do if you try to disrupt their drug trade. They got it so if you speak up, you will be dealt with," said Parker, 47, who lives in the 1800 block of E. Eager St.

"When night falls around here, the older people don't come out, and you can't blame them. Half the time you can't even walk down the street."

Last Wednesday, in the rainy, early-morning hours, Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her five children died in a raging fire that authorities believe was set in retaliation for her refusal to ignore the drug dealing in her neighborhood.

Keith and Kevin Dawson, 9; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, perished on the upper floors of their three-story rowhouse.

Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped by jumping out of a second-story window. He remains in critical condition, with second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.

What happened at 1401 E. Preston St. has forced people across Baltimore to decide where they stand in the fight against crime and drugs. The mayor and other politicians have vowed to take action so that the deaths will not be in vain and the fear that cripples so many communities will be brought to an end.

But the people living in neighborhoods like Preston and Eden streets might have a better understanding of what's required to save Baltimore than those at City Hall.

In East Oliver and elsewhere, families are often unwilling to join the battle against crime because it would mean turning in a child, grandchild, cousin or uncle. Wary residents still may have to coexist with neighbors who might be criminals.

Some make small gestures with "Keep Off Step" signs in their doorways. Few go as far as Dawson and not only call police, but make themselves a visible nuisance.

Raymond Thompson, 80, president of the Oliver Community Association, said he has never been afraid to report criminal activity in the nearly 60 years that he has lived in the neighborhood. He believes the events of this past week will make more of his neighbors report crimes, even if that means turning in family members.

"After seeing such things as happened the other day, I think there will be big change in a lot of people," he said. "A lot of people might have changed their minds."

Since last Thursday, Solomon Selby, a retired truck driver, has spent his days outside the Dawson home, standing guard over a plastic water jug set up to receive donations. He said one man drove up from Annapolis on Friday and put in $100.

Selby lives across Broadway. There, too, the drug boys work their trade. Time and time again, Selby has shooed them from his steps. Time and time again, he has watched the police make arrests. "Then they come back; new ones come," he said.

He came to the corner of East Preston and Eden streets because being there seemed necessary, even when the sidewalk was still soot-blackened and choked with burned debris, the air smelled of smoke and the sky showed through empty windows and charred timbers.

"We're going to take a stand. We have children to raise. It's not only East Baltimore. It's about all of Baltimore City not letting this happen again," he said. "It's a war going on, and we're not going to let them win."

Those are strong words, but much more will be needed.

In August 2001, a single mother in Oliver started having trouble with young men who dealt drugs from her front steps and used her back alley as a drug stash. When she confronted them, they threatened her and hit her on the head with a bottle, said the Rev. Calvin Keene, the woman's pastor at Memorial Baptist Church.

Fearing for her life and the safety of her school-age son, the woman turned to Keene, who gathered 200 people to escort her from his church to her home. It was a symbolic victory, a perfect picture of a community taking back its streets.

A month later, the woman, still fearful, moved out of the city.

"The one-time rally wasn't enough," Keene said. "We needed some consistent vigilance on the part of the community and the police to ensure the residents felt safe."

A troubled place

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