Killing draws attention to kids on street

Oswego: Tragedy in a Park Heights community points to problems residents have seen for years.

June 30, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

In the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Park Heights, which includes the Oswego Mall townhouses, kids have little to do and no place to go, residents say.

The nearby parks are run-down, vacant rowhouses pock-mark block after block, and most residents keep to themselves as a maelstrom of drugs, guns and violence regularly swirls around them.

It wasn't always that way, but the Oswego Mall area is now a place where vigilant parents would rather keep their children inside playing video games than outside on the streets, especially after dark, residents say.

The 13-year-old boy who became a murder suspect last weekend used to frequent those streets, where he racked up arrests over the past two years for fighting and drug dealing.

But police now accuse him of a far worse crime: The boy is accused of covering his face with a black bandana, borrowing a gun and fatally shooting Jerrod Hamlett, 23, about 1:25 a.m. Saturday on the sidewalks of Oswego Mall. A man who came to Hamlett's aid also was shot but survived.

Residents say the shooting has called attention to problems that the neighborhood has been experiencing for years.

"Now we have police all up our butts, which is a good thing," said Antionette Johnson, president of the public housing complex's tenant council and an eight-year resident. "But it takes a tragedy to get the police involved."

Marcus Brown, deputy police commissioner and former commander of the city's Northwest District, said police have focused on problems with drugs and violence in Park Heights over the past five years. Publicly subsidized housing complexes, such as the cluster of 35 two- and three-story concrete-and-brick units known as Oswego Mall, are flooded with drugs, he said.

But the shooting last weekend apparently was not drug-related. The boy was part of a group of juveniles who threw a wine bottle at the man and exchanged words with him, authorities said. A half-hour later, the boy returned and started shooting.

The mother of the boy arrested for last weekend's shooting has said that the boy never came to terms with the death of his father when he was about 4 years old. The boy idolized his 18-year-old brother and hung out with friends she did not know, she said.

The Sun is not identifying the boy or his mother because he has been charged as a juvenile. But prosecutors could decide to charge the boy as an adult with first-degree murder and attempted murder.

Earlier this month, police dedicated more officers and resources to the area around Oswego Mall because of a recent increase in crime, Brown said.

"In that neighborhood, you see a wide range of youths hanging out on known drug corners," Brown said, "from teenagers up through people in their early 20s."

Rose Cox, 66, who lives near where the shooting occurred, said she raised nine children in the neighborhood and managed to keep them out of trouble. She now cares for three young grandchildren, who stay inside most of the time during the summer, she said.

"I've been here when it was a good neighborhood. ... Now I'm here with the worst," said Cox, as she finished arranging letters on the sign outside the New Life Inspirational Church next to the Oswego Mall townhouses. The church sign read: "Sin is a disease. Christ is the cure."

Most residents declined to be quoted directly and were leery of speaking about last weekend's shooting, which occurred in the 4000 block of Oswego Court, or about other specific problems in the neighborhood.

But they said the area has been gripped in at least a decade-long decline, caused by drug-dealing interlopers from other neighborhoods, poverty, addiction, broken families and neglect by the city and the police.

Renovated 10 years ago, Oswego Mall is a few blocks from where neighborhood youths are believed to have burned in April the playground area and side of a building that houses a family support center. In 1994, a 10-year-old killed his best friend, also 10, with a shotgun blast to the chest three blocks away from the complex.

The area around Oswego Mall is a small parcel within Park Heights, which encompasses a broad geographic swath of the northwestern city -- about 1,500 acres -- and contains a dozen distinct neighborhoods.

According to statistics from a city master plan for Park Heights released last fall, the area's demographics were in worse shape than Baltimore's overall average in several key categories. More than a quarter of its households consist of single women with children, compared with the city average of 17 percent. Another indicator -- the percentage of family households with children that don't include married couples -- totaled 43 percent in Park Heights, compared with a citywide average of 30 percent.

And the percentage of married people in Park Heights, 23 percent, was lower than the city average of 27 percent, according to the master plan statistics.

"If there is an issue, then the issue is the absence of an intact household," said Timothy Mercer, 50, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council two years ago. He and his wife live on Park Heights Avenue, about two blocks from the 11-story senior housing tower where the 13-year-old boy lived with his grandmother. The boy's mother lives nearby.

"Our youth are more susceptible to peer pressure from other youths who suffer from the same absence," Mercer said.

"The bottom line is, we've got a problem with kids following the wrong peers," Mercer added. "This is a Christian community. We've got a church on every other corner. ... We've got more good neighbors than bad neighbors, but the bad neighbors are the ones making all the news."

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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