A city legend from early days of war on drugs

December 10, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JAMES WATKINS went to his grave this week with his secrets locked away forever. The Baltimore Police Department once made him a deputy chief, but the state's attorney's office called him a criminal. The courts haltingly gave Watkins legal vindication, and maybe even peace of mind. But, a quarter-century after his ordeal, only the Bear knew the final truth of things.

They called him the Bear for his bulk and his larger-than-life persona. One summer afternoon -- this goes back to 1971, before we had 14-year-olds running crack cocaine and Stop Snitching DVDs all over town, when people still had naive delusions about controlling drug traffic -- Watkins led his Tactical Division's Stop Squad onto Pennsylvania Avenue and randomly arrested 35 people for the crime of standing on a sidewalk in America.

That was it, nothing more. He held all of them for hours inside the Western District building as each man's records were checked. Afternoon drifted into night, and nobody uttered a word of complaint. Watkins knew they wouldn't. Almost all of them had some kind of off-the-books hustle in their lives, and none knew for certain how much the cops knew about it.

So they sat there silently, minus any civil libertarians crying foul, and when Watkins finally addressed them the cadences came up from his chest, like some Old Testament figure bringing down the wrath of a vengeful God.

"All of you are up there on the Avenue for one thing," he said. "Dealing that dope." Nobody demurred. He seemed, as he strode before them in that vacated Western District courtroom, policeman and judge and jury all in one.

"If you want to take a chance," he said, "be back out there. But tell your friends you've been warned. ... You better not be out there dealing that stuff. No use being out there at 2 or 3 in the morning, either, because sometimes I come down then."

I was with him one of those nights, riding in the back seat of his unmarked car between the 1200 and 2000 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue when that section of West Baltimore had the worst drug traffic in town. Even at 2 in the morning, the streets were busy. Then, when somebody spotted Watkins' face, the moment seemed electrically charged.

A shrill warning whistle blew. A teenage girl standing in a doorway exchanging things with passing hands moved quickly away. A dozen people on front stoops near the Dewey Cleaners bolted to their feet and moved off in different directions. Men in phone booths outside the Avenue Musical Bar hung up their phones and took off.

Watkins was a fearsome figure down there. But he was also a man astride two conflicting and sometimes overlapping cultures, which led to rumor, and later to indictment. A vicious whispering campaign, Watkins called it. Then came a photograph, widely circulated: Watkins seated at a table with some of the era's most notorious heroin dealers.

Big deal, he maintained. He was a cop doing his job, getting as close to the criminal class as he could, finding out what they knew. Then, inside a grand jury room, the rumors took on new life. Witnesses testified that Watkins was part of the drug trade. His lawyer, George L. Russell Jr., would call these witnesses "part of the garbage can of our society." They were nailing Watkins to cut sweet legal deals for themselves.

In court, some of them stuck by their grand jury testimony and some did not. A veteran dealer named Avon "Apex" Simmons, looking to cut short a four-year stretch he was doing at the House of Correction, talked loquaciously to a grand jury.

But in open court, asked about his relationship with Watkins, Simmons suffered instant amnesia. "I believe at this time I have a loss of memory," he declared. "The statements I give to the courtroom could be embarrassing, so I will refrain from making any more."

He was thus reflecting a mind-set that lingers to this day, when we have the infamous Stop Snitching DVD with basketball star Carmelo Anthony's unfortunate appearance, and a procession of furious young men announcing their anger toward anyone who might imagine turning in a dope dealer.

So it goes, over years and years. James Watkins was found guilty, but then a higher court overturned the verdict. A second trial produced a not guilty verdict. On Pennsylvania Avenue in his prime, he seemed an avenging angel arrived to smite all criminals. But they merely drifted from sight for a few moments and then came back. At the Western District, he produced great theater but then had to let everybody go. And then came his own days in court, which gripped the city.

So Watkins went to his grave this week, at 79, trailed by all manner of legend. He left the police when his legal troubles went away. All that remains are the dealers, swollen in number now, and spread into scores of neighborhoods, and brazen enough to produce DVDs warning everybody to keep their mouths shut. They're the eerie postscript to Watkins' time, a tumultuous time that was merely the beginning of things.

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