Fear weaves path to serial-killer rumor

October 12, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

No one knows where or how the rumor originated, that a serial murderer is slashing the throats of women in Park Heights.

But officials say the rumor that has spread from the streets of Northwest Baltimore to the city's rumor control hot line and a local crime blog, even reaching as far as East Baltimore, is, in short - false.

According to Dr. David Fowler, the state's chief medical examiner, not one female homicide has been recorded in the Northwestern District since Aug. 1, and only one woman's death was listed as "undetermined."

"It's a false rumor," said Matt Jablow, a Police Department spokesman. "It's just not true."

Yet how to explain it? Even Tom Saunders, the man in charge of the city's rumor control hot line, whose job is to quash such urban legends, has no answers.

In one week, he fielded 17 calls ranging from reports of a woman being decapitated, to others that women had been dismembered. The word is that the attacker is targeting prostitutes.

"That one is as hot as can be," said Saunders. "It's widespread, and it's just not true."

The concerns have seized the Northwest Baltimore community in a way that few others have, a steep order in this part of Park Heights, known as Pimlico, which has been ravaged by drug-related violence and prostitution.

The back page of a community newsletter this month features an article titled "Killing Fields of Park Heights."

The topic surfaced on a recent radio talk show in which two callers called with concerns, said Del. Jill P. Carter, who represents the area. And a reference to the "serial murderer" rumor appears in an entry in a Baltimore crime blog.

Some business owners and residents wonder whether the news might be a reflection of fear gripping a crime-infested neighborhood they say is seeing more violent crime than usual, as well as an overall distrust of the police.

At the Park Heights Barbershop, owner Johnny Clinton, 64, presides as residents and business owners complain about crime and what they say are unwarranted police arrests.

"The bottom line is the community is in a crisis with regard to crime," said Carter. "No one in this neighborhood believes crime is down. Not one person."

Mark Hughes, 34, agreed. "People are generally concerned and upset," said Hughes. "There's a lot of crime occurring in the neighborhood. We're concerned, period."

Park Heights residents can't find comfort in the latest police crime statistics for the Northwestern District, which includes their neighborhood. Through Sept. 30, the district recorded 26 homicides, compared with 21 during the same period last year, and most of the victims have been young men.

Shootings are up 62 percent and robberies have increased 12 percent, police statistics show. Aggravated assaults are in decline this year, having fallen 18 percent, statistics show. Police officials said they expect the Northwestern District to receive several more patrol officers. About 70 officers in administrative jobs are being temporarily detailed to the city's nine districts to help boost the presence of police in neighborhoods.

Derrick Clinton, 41, cuts hair at the Park Heights Barbershop and points to the funeral fliers propped up on his desk. "Murder, murder, murder," he says, pointing to the pictures, all of young men. "All these guys have been killed."

Across the street at the Pimlico Loan Office, the same fear and anger can be heard. "This has been the worst year as far as violence up here," said Jay Davis, 55, manager of the loan office.

Michelle Lee, 45, says she stopped walking to her barbershop out of fear. "It definitely makes you scared," said Lee. And Graylin Berry says he and his wife are so scared that he walks her to the bus station every day at 5 a.m., and is there to meet her at 6 p.m.

"People are scared," said Berry, 59. "I'm afraid for my wife. It's terrible out here."

Berry, like others, says he has heard of reports of prostitutes' bodies being found, throats slashed and hands and feet bound. Reports range from four to a dozen bodies found. But the only victim's name that has surfaced is Tyra McClary, who was found to have died of a drug overdose, according to the state medical examiner's office.

McClary, 36, was found Aug. 30 in a rear lot behind the 5100 block of Beaufort Ave. The cause of her death was officially listed as "undetermined," but such a ruling is common in drug overdose cases where investigators can't conclude if the death was an accident or a suicide, Fowler said.

Fowler said of the more than a dozen female fatalities that remain under investigation across the city, none sustained any traumatic injuries from violence, meaning they likely died of other causes.

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