Taking aim at city's worst ills amid daily life-death struggle

January 06, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HE SAYS HIS name is Albert Brown. At 8:30 yesterday morning, with rain falling from a dreary West Baltimore sky, he stands outside the 7-Eleven on Hollins Ferry Road and says he needs money for a hot dog to fill his empty stomach. He can buy one inside the 7-Eleven. It is also the place where Sylvester McLaughlin, 30, lay on the floor on New Year's Eve with the life spilling out of him and became the first homicide victim of the brand new year.

"I know, I heard all about it," says Brown, brushing off talk of the killing. "My wife threw me out of the house six days ago, and I haven't ate since then. Could you give me something?"

He wears a hooded corduroy overcoat against the morning chill and glances inside the 7-Eleven, where a beefy cashier waves him away from the building. Brown pretends not to notice. The police say Sylvester McLaughlin was shot on this parking lot and went inside, and his assailant followed him in and kept firing.

"I'm cold, I'm hungry," says Brown. He says he is 50. "Why did she throw me out?"

The cashier inside the 7-Eleven motions him away again. The place is located out near the west-side city-county line, a craggy mix of business and working-class residences a few blocks from Lansdowne High School. Brown, standing in the rain, weeps at his troubles. McLaughlin, shedding no tears, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead 78 minutes into the new year.

Kevin Clark heard about it while McLaughlin still clung to his last shred of life. The Baltimore police commissioner spent the night overseeing efforts to keep New Year's Eve calm. Where thousands gathered at the Inner Harbor, there was little trouble; out there in the shadows of Hollins Ferry Road, McLaughlin was the first of two New Year's Eve homicides in the city, where murder was committed 271 times last year.

"At first glance," Clark was saying now, "it looks like a typical city killing. Narcotics, somewhere along the line, and it slips into violence. All the stuff in this city, the perception that affects the mind of the city, the quality of life, it all stems from narcotics. People out late at night, guns all over the place ... "

On New Year's Eve alone, he says, police took 79 guns off the streets in the course of 40 arrests. Last year, detectives in the department's organized crime division made more than 5,000 felony drug arrests. The homicide total bumped slightly upward, but overall street crime was reportedly down by about 15 percent.

It is, as Clark notes, a sign that we live in two different cities: that city where the drug traffic drives the vast majority of violence, and the city where citizens lead productive lives and see crime as a somewhat distant but psychologically menacing overlay.

"The way I see it," Clark says, "there are two types of criminals. There's the element that sees a lady's pocketbook and swipes it. And there's the other element, where it's their job to commit crimes. Those are our [main targets]. It could happen quickly, or take a couple of years, but there will be a big reduction in murder in Baltimore - by relentless enforcement that forces the drug people to change behavior, because it costs them big money every time a body hits the ground."

In the last six months, Clark says, police confiscated more than $3 million in cash from drug dealers, plus more than 200 guns.

"Every time they go to war over turf," says Clark, "we get a synchronized attack on that area with warrants, with detectives. You shut them down, you go after stashes, you put wires on them. You make it too hot for customers to come in there. These guys are paying for lawyers. They're paying for financial analysts who tell them where to put their money. They're paying to bail their people out of jail. We want to make the cost of doing business prohibitive."

In the last half of 2003, Clark said, "Our vice and narcotics units surpassed everything done in the last five years in arrests and seizures." Besides $3 million in cash, he said, it included seizure of 185 kilos of cocaine, worth about $100,000 per kilo - before it is cut and distributed - and 36 kilos of heroin, worth about $25,000 per kilo.

"What that returns," said Clark, "is six or seven times the original cost. So I'm optimistic about the new year, yeah. We're making good cases. We had all those people at the harbor, and it was pretty calm. And even though we started out with those two homicides on New Year's Eve ... "

The first one happened out there on Hollins Ferry Road, at the 7-Eleven where Albert Brown made his pitch yesterday morning. He stood there in the dreary rain and said, yeah, he'd heard about the New Year's Eve killing. But he brushed it away. Right now, he was six days without a roof over his head and needed a little money for a hot dog to warm his insides. There is killing, and there is also a murderous way of life.

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