The two men seemed to come out of nowhere. They flashed a snub-nosed .38-caliber handgun before Michael Wolfe's eyes, pistol-whipped him, robbed him and shot at him before he was able to sprint away, bullets still flying.
His close friend Darryl "Tank" Dennis, whom he had been talking to on a Southwest Baltimore street corner before the attack in 2001, wasn't as lucky.
Dennis was kidnapped and shot, and his body was abandoned in a purple van hours later, five blocks from where he was abducted.
Although Wolfe escaped with his life, he said that at times he wishes he hadn't. He wonders whether dealing with the aftermath - cooperating with police and prosecutors - isn't worse than being killed.
"Sometimes I wish he took my life," said Wolfe, who has languished for months in a dreary room paid for by the city's witness assistance program, waiting to testify at trial.
One of about 140 witnesses each year to get aid from the Baltimore state's attorney's office, Wolfe is eligible for temporary housing, a voucher for permanent public housing, transportation to court proceedings and occasional food vouchers - but little else. Once they're done testifying, witnesses are basically on their own.
Unlike the federal protection program, which was founded in 1970, the city's witness assistance unit cannot offer witnesses a new name, face, job or identity. It doesn't provide the round-the-clock police protection that other cities such as New York can offer. It has a staff of three and a budget of about $455,000 a year.
"The witness protection program is designed to instill confidence in witnesses that they can testify, and it will be OK," said prominent criminal defense lawyer Warren A. Brown. "But the state's attorney's office doesn't have the resources to fulfill that promise. It's not much of a program."
Witnesses are a weak link in many criminal justice systems across the country, especially in urban areas where witnesses - such as Wolfe - often live within a few blocks of defendants.
Cases falter because witnesses refuse to cooperate with police and prosecutors, often out of fear of retribution. Other times, witnesses come forward, only to be killed before trial.
In February alone, city prosecutors dismissed 16 shooting cases in which witnesses could not be found by authorities or did not show up in court.
Wolfe said he understands why many witnesses to violent crimes will tell authorities they never saw anything.
"It isn't no witness protection program," said Wolfe, who has been in the program for 10 months. "They got me stuck out there [in temporary housing]. I feel like I'm in prison. I can't move around like a free man."
But he said he is willing to risk everything - including his life - to help lock up the men who killed his friend.
"It goes against my belief to talk to anyone about this stuff, but this nonsense has to be stopped," Wolfe said. "Nobody got the right to kill nobody. These two thugs need to be off the street."
Origins of program
Until 1995, the city had no formal witness assistance unit. Then State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy started with a single staff person to coordinate the program. It has since expanded, but out of the hundreds of witnesses who are waiting to testify before a jury about violent crimes, 10 are enrolled in the witness program.
Jessamy said that based on its limited resources and scope, the program is effective. "In light of what the program is designed to do, it is doing well," Jessamy said. "We don't change identifications or relocate people across the country."
Her spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, said the program has room for improvement, but Jessamy doesn't want it expanded to mirror the federal program.
"She doesn't feel Baltimore could ever offer what the feds do," Burns said. "The feds have the whole country. She is limited to what she can do in Baltimore."
Police usually defer to the state's attorney's office for most aspects of witness assistance because prosecutors have a formalized program, said Maj. Antonio Williams of the homicide unit.
"Most of what we do is referral," he said. But when there is no apparent danger, Williams said, they are in frequent communication with witnesses to reassure them they'll be safe.
After responding to a scene where there is trouble, officers might step up patrol in the neighborhood.
"We keep regular contact with people so witnesses know they're not out there by themselves," Williams said. "Sometimes it's a matter of just giving them a [detective's] phone number."
Other major cities, such as New York, have 24-hour police protection for witnesses in peril as well as the ability to move them out of state if necessary.
Thirteen states - including Maryland, Colorado, California and Kentucky - fund programs to protect witnesses who cooperate in criminal proceedings, according to a 2001 survey by the national Conference of State Legislatures.