A Life Exiled

Harwood woman had taken a stand against drug dealers

September 19, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

Edna McAbier cannot go home again.

She will never again sit alone in her rowhouse off East Lorraine Avenue and gaze at the framed Declaration of Independence that her niece boasted to friends was real. She'll never again admire the Tuscany Tan paint on her walls or the original tin ceiling in her kitchen or the fake brick wall that she says fooled everyone.

More than 18 months after her home was firebombed by drug dealers now in prison, she remains in exile.

She doesn't hand out a card anymore with her address and telephone number. The former community association president who shoveled rat feces out of a local playground at 6 a.m. on Sundays and shouted at drug dealers who preyed on her corners now won't even tell people her last name.

She has spent months in hiding, appearing only to testify against the men who threatened her. Earlier this month, a federal judge sent away the last of her tormentors, the people who plotted against her because she cooperated with police, the men who tried to silence her that awful January night.

At this point, she once thought, she'd be home.

But those men, those drug dealers, those gang leaders, have friends. And friends don't forget. So after 30 years, beloved and beleaguered Harwood has lost Miss Edna, its greatest champion.

"I think the only community life I wanted," the 60-year-old said in her first interview about the attack, "is the one I had."

Born in West Virginia, then raised in Ohio, McAbier had little support from her large family when she announced in the early 1970s that she was moving so far away. She worked first at a fabric store in Baltimore County before renting a place on Guilford Avenue in 1974 to start a new Welfare Department job.

By 1983, she bought a home of her own on the 300 block of Lorraine. The streets seemed safe and clean, she says, but "I wasn't really aware of my surroundings."

During that time, she remembered a three-night class sponsored by the Police Department on the history of drug use in Baltimore. The seminars awakened her. "The place was packed. It was very informative. I started to understand what was going on."

After that, her splendid isolation was no more. She attended her first community meeting with police in North Baltimore.

"I wasn't politically correct," she said. Residents of Roland Park and other affluent communities complained about overgrown bushes and litter. She wanted to talk about drug dealing.

"They had an officer take me over to the side and talk to me," she said. "He gave me a ride home and said I should move out."

But McAbier would not be quiet. And no one would persuade her to leave, even when the criminals came to her doorstep. "Wait a minute," McAbier recalls telling the officer who drove her home that night. "This is my home."

She had work to do.

McAbier started with the playground on 27th Street near Greenmount Avenue.

"I went at 6 a.m. on Sundays and joined the drug dealers and the prostitutes. I was cleaning. They were doing something else," she said. "They thought I was nuts."

By July 4, 2000, she had organized and joined the community association. Two years later, McAbier was president.

McAbier felt conflicted, drawn to cajoling, if not confronting the dealers.

She couldn't help herself, she said, from approaching the young men she had known for years. Now they were standing on the corners, selling drugs, stashing their wares in abandoned houses.

"I'd say, `I don't want you on this corner,'" McAbier said. "`I don't know why you are doing this to our neighborhood.'"

She shook her head at the memory.

"I know, it was probably wrong. But I couldn't stay silent." But, she said, "No one was talking to them. No one else held them accountable."

McAbier didn't stop there.

When her neighbors grew so rowdy that the banging through her walls knocked her belonging off a shelf, she called the police.

When she saw a drug deal, she called the police.

She wasn't the only one. But McAbier said neighbors trusted her with their complaints to be passed on to authorities. They'd drop her a secret note in her mailbox. They'd call her with a tip. They'd slip her a piece of paper as she cleaned her block.

Others saw her activism as needlessly reckless.

"I guess she was block captain in the neighborhood and it went to her head," said Nathaniel Wilson, a retired city employee who has lived on McAbier's block for more than 30 years. "I think sometimes she thought she was the police."

One of her strongest allies came from an ironic place. It was Maj. Regis Phelan, commander of the Northern District where she had first felt so shunned, so outclassed.

"It was my first day when I met Edna and she's on fire. She was like off the hook," said Phelan, who is now retired.

The new commander and the fearless activist toured Harwood.

"She would walk around, pointing to places" where drug dealers worked, Phelan said. Dozens of e-mails from McAbier soon filled the commander's inbox.

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