Killing of Hopkins student a crime of opportunity, commissioner says

Charles Village area `target-rich,' Clark asserts

April 20, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark described yesterday the killing of a Johns Hopkins University student over the weekend as an attack driven by the same factor that causes most crime around the school -- opportunity.

"This is the perfect environment for the opportunist, not so much the professional, but the opportunistic criminal," Clark said after a news conference in the Charles Village neighborhood where Christopher Elser was killed.

The police commissioner described the neighborhood surrounding the campus as "target-rich," with a mix of homeowners whose houses have escalated in value and students who typically carry money and aren't likely to put up a fight.

Local officials said the area experienced a spate of armed robberies about two months ago. And late last year, there was a surge in thefts from cars.

But the apparently random attack on Elser, a junior from Camden, S.C., marks the first homicide in Charles Village since 2000, police said. Clark described the stabbing -- the killing of a student at one of Baltimore's most prominent institutions -- as a case that "affects the city's reputation."

Police have said the killer probably entered the three-story building where Elser was sleeping through a rear door that had been left unlocked after a party. Elser had attended a party on Friday night in the 10-unit apartment house rented to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on the southwest corner of St. Paul and 30th streets.

The 20-year-old stayed the night, trading his room a few blocks away with a fraternity brother seeking a place to study.

The party broke up about 4 a.m. on Saturday, and nearly two hours later, Elser entered a nearby bedroom, seeking help for the stab wounds.

Police have not released a description of a suspect, and Clark described the investigation as being "at the very beginning." He gave no indication that police have recovered a weapon. And while Elser gave some description to his roommates, he never spoke with police, Clark said.

Yesterday, officers distributed fliers around the north central neighborhood seeking information about the attack.

A crime such as Saturday's stabbing is shocking, said Wesley Tolbert, director of field operations for the Charles Village Community Benefits District.

"But if you leave a door open," he said, "it's not unexpected."

Although the city's overall crime rates are down this year, police said, the Northern District -- which includes Charles Village -- has seen an increase in nearly all types of crime, Clark said.

Tolbert noted that many Hopkins students are from smaller towns.

"Our residents are streetwise enough that you lock your doors, but we've got to educate the Hopkins students and new residents," he said.

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said university officials regularly talk with students about safety, particularly while they are out at night.

The university will hold a memorial service for Elser at 10 a.m. today at Keyser Quadrangle on campus.

Clark told reporters that his department treats all homicides seriously, but holding a news conference after a homicide -- the city had 271 last year -- is not typical.

The police commissioner said of Elser: "He's somebody you never expected it to happen to."

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