`Policeman's policeman' left mark as a man in charge

January 21, 2003|By Michael Olesker

WHEN MELVIN Williams, a former heroin dealer known as Little Melvin, found himself freed from prison last week, he walked out of the city's federal courthouse and declared he had heard the voice of God speaking to him. But maybe it was the ghost of Leon Tomlin, whispering in his ear like a conscience.

In one of the ironies of local law enforcement history, Williams, 61, was released from a 22-year sentence for a gun crime the day after Tomlin died of a heart attack. Tomlin would have been 64 today. Thirty years ago, in a time when each man began making his lasting mark, Williams was slipping heroin into the city's veins, and Tomlin was the narcotics cop trying to stop him.

Tomlin in his prime was a picture to behold: big, beefy, utterly unafraid. "I never put on boxing gloves when kid gloves will do," he'd say. But he was never reluctant to put on the boxing gloves.

One long-ago night on a West Baltimore raid, his narcotics officers raced down the hallway of a heroin dealer's house, trying to get to a bathroom before any drugs could be flushed down the toilet. Tomlin was the second man in line. The dope dealer appeared before them and reached his hand into a linen closet. When it emerged, it pointed a gun.

Tomlin leaped over his lead man, knocked the dealer to the floor and sent the gun bouncing down the hallway.

"The guy would have blown me away," said the lead cop, whose life Tomlin saved. That cop was Ron Sallow, now associate commissioner of the state's Insurance Fraud Division. Last week, when he heard about Tomlin's death, he called him "a policeman's policeman."

"That's what he was," agreed former Baltimore State's Attorney Bill Swisher as a large crowd of mourners gathered yesterday for a Mass of Christian burial at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. "If he told you something, you knew it was the truth."

"Growing up, watching him, the best I could hope for was to be half the cop he was," said Tomlin's son Mark, now chief of the Port Deposit police. "Everyone wanted to be like him. He had a combination of guts and brains that we all want to have and few of us do. He always knew the right thing to do. He knew how to treat other people with respect, but not take any crap, either."

Tomlin rose through the ranks and retired in 1998 as deputy commissioner. Along the way, he led security for Pope John Paul II's 1995 visit here. Yesterday, Monsignor Jeremiah Kenney remembered: "Leon was in charge. And, make no mistake about it, he was in charge. He was never indifferent or apathetic about anything."

For a decade, Tomlin was the city's first line of defense against its first generation of big-time drug dealers.

Today, decades into the fight, the nation holds endless debates: Should we lock up abusers? Treat them like patients? Legalize the stuff?

Tomlin didn't have the luxury (or the confusion) of such arguments. His job was to lock up those breaking the law. One day in his office, he outlined the problem that was beginning to haunt the whole country. This was 30 years ago, so imagine the inflation. Back then, each kilo of heroin purchased by local dealers cost about $35,000 - and could return more than $5 million.

"And everybody gets a cut," Tomlin said. "Dealers, lieutenants, runners, couriers, stash houses. You got 18-year-old kids out there running dope and making $1,000 a day." He smiled helplessly. "What am I gonna do?" he said. "Say to this kid, `Look, this ain't good for you, settle down and get a job?' They look at you like you're crazy."

Over the weekend Tomlin's wife, Connie, remembered how she worried about him each day. They were wed 45 years ago, when Leon graduated from Poly and Connie the old Eastern High. They were sweethearts through adolescence.

"You tell yourself, `That's how he makes his living, that's how he takes care of his family,'" she said. "He thought of the Police Department as his extended family. I'd say, `You work too hard, you put in too many extra hours.' He'd say, `As long as it's my job, I gotta do it the best I can.' He went out there every day with his head high."

His job was to face an angry, desperate, often violent cast of characters. In his years running the narcotics unit, this included such names as John "Liddie" Jones, with a gang of operatives that included a city junior high school teacher who regularly took the train to New York, where a dealer there filled her cosmetics case with heroin to be taken back to Baltimore.

And James Wesley "Big Head Brother" Carter, who parked his luxury car - with its back-seat bar and television - on Eutaw Street and held street-corner court each day.

And Melvin Williams, who sold as much heroin as anybody before he went off to prison, and now emerges as a man who says he hears God. But maybe it's Leon Tomlin he hears, whispering in Williams' ear, letting him know his spirit's still working overtime.

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