Burglar's victims fear, fret and flee

Spree: In a city beset by theft and violence, one man's crimes have changed how many people feel about their safety and life in Baltimore.

December 21, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Cornell Anderson Jr. shuffled down a dark, tree-lined alley on a warm spring night in North Baltimore when he spotted light seeping from a rowhouse's rear screen door.

No longer high, he felt groggy as he stared at his next target. Slipping a small knife from his pocket, Anderson slashed through the screen, popped the latch and stepped inside.

His eyes adjusted to the light as he grabbed a cellular phone and a black leather purse from a kitchen countertop. He hustled down a narrow hallway, swiping a leather bag dangling from the handle of the front door. Pivoting, he scurried back toward the alley.

A short time later, Kelly Williams, a 32-year-old mother of two young children, walked downstairs to clean up after an evening barbecue.

As she reached the kitchen, Williams sensed something out of place and noticed the sliced screen door swinging in a breeze. Her purse, wallet, credit cards and car keys. Her cellular phone. All gone.

Panicked, Williams flew up the stairs to find her son and daughter tucked into bed, asleep. At that moment - before calling police, before discovering that her minivan was also stolen, and before beginning hours on the phone with credit card companies - Williams felt that her family was no longer safe. The home was no longer theirs.

This summer, the family left Baltimore.

Anderson and Williams have never met, but they are linked in a struggle that plays out every day between criminals and their victims in Baltimore. Although the city's street violence and homicides attract the most attention, they tend to be concentrated in certain hard-hit areas. But burglaries and property offenses affect far more residents, in every neighborhood. And it is those crimes that determine, for many people, whether Baltimore is a vibrant city or a dangerous one.

By his own admission, Anderson is a 28-year-old career criminal, having committed hundreds of thefts and burglaries over the years. The North Baltimore neighborhoods of Guilford, Charles Village and Oakenshawe were his favored targets. Kelly Williams' rowhouse was just one of more than 40 homes Anderson hit during a four-month spree last year.

His break-ins were costly. Anderson's victims lost wallets, cellular phones, cameras and expensive bicycles, but also such irreplaceable belongings as a mother's engagement ring and a grandfather clock that had been passed down through three generations. His victims had to repair broken doors and shattered windows, and forfeit hours of their time to deal with police investigators, banks, and credit card and insurance companies.

Some installed bars on their windows and expensive alarm systems. One man nailed two-by-four boards to his back door. Another stopped walking in his neighborhood at night. A Charles Village woman peeked over her shoulder for nearly a year. Another woman who lived nearby moved to the eighth floor of a gated complex. Like the Williamses, another family gave up on city life and moved to the suburbs.

"Burglary is probably one of the most intrusive crimes that can happen to someone," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark. "Property crimes, ultimately, are going to deal with people's true thoughts about whether they feel safe in the city."

Baltimore endured high rates of property and violent crime in the 1990s, much of it attributed to the drug trade. In that same decade, the population declined 11.5 percent. Although crime was not the only factor - others included high taxes, proximity to jobs, and underperforming schools - many of those leaving the city spoke of concerns about safety.

To attract and retain residents, Mayor Martin O'Malley launched a new attack on crime three years ago. He beefed up the Police Department and insisted that officers, who once treated property offenses largely as an afterthought, be more accountable for solving crimes. He also increased the number of drug treatment slots, hoping to reduce the number of addicts, like Anderson, who prey on neighborhoods.

The tactics appear to be making a difference - the city recorded a 15 percent decrease in overall crime and an 18 percent decline in burglaries from 2000 to 2002. Still, nearly 9,000 break-ins were reported last year in Baltimore.

"One of the fundamentals of bringing our city back is restoring a sense of security to our neighborhoods," said O'Malley, who remembers feeling violated when his home was burglarized in the mid-1990s.

Community leaders agree with him, saying property crimes have driven out residents and torn the fabric of many neighborhoods.

"When someone comes in uninvited and ransacks your drawers looking for money or jewelry, you just feel violated," said Beth Bullamore, president of the Charles Village Civic Association. "And people say they've had enough, and they leave. They worry about their children. ... Why in the world should anybody be expected to put up with being victimized?"

The burglaries

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