Holiday visit to his old street is deadly

Threatened and shot, a witness in a murder trial testified - and kept going home

November 29, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz and Matthew Dolan | Julie Bykowicz and Matthew Dolan,Sun reporters

Not long after John P. Dowery Jr. became a witness in a Baltimore murder case, he became a victim.

People accused him of being a snitch. A man he was to testify against called him twice on the phone. "Why are you going to [expletive] me over?" the man said.

Then, in October of last year, two men pumped at least six bullets into him in what police believe was an attempt to silence him. He survived and, undeterred, promised to testify when it was time.

Dowery was sent to live outside Baltimore and, as the case spiraled into a federal prosecution, he waited to take the stand.

He came home to East Baltimore at Thanksgiving to share a meal with his large, close-knit family. After dinner, he went to a corner bar. There, someone fatally shot the 38-year-old father of nine.

"He was assassinated," said Assistant Federal Defender Joseph L. Evans, who represented Dowery. Evans said he based that belief on the earlier shooting of his client.

City police and the FBI are investigating the killing of Dowery and whether it was related to his cooperation with authorities. Police would not give details about the night Dowery died.

It's unclear what impact his death will have on future trials of defendants against whom he was planning to testify.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said he would bring the weight of his office, with a possible penalty of a death sentence or life in prison, down on anyone who killed or contracted to kill a witness.

The killing of Dowery has raised questions about what protection is given to Baltimore's witnesses - and what can be done to keep them from putting themselves in harm's way.

Dowery had been given witness assistance.

After he was shot and wounded in October 2005, city police and prosecutors persuaded him to go to a safe house and helped him move out of Baltimore.

And when the U.S. Attorney's Office indicted the case in which Dowery was a witness, he began receiving money from federal agents for living expenses. Sources did not say how much or for how long.

Bartlett Avenue was a dangerous place for Dowery. It's where he had become a witness to the October 2004 killing, where he had been shot in his own doorway in October 2005 and where two of the men he had planned to testify against had lived before their arrests.

Local and federal authorities said they warned Dowery not to return to his old neighborhood. Yet Bartlett Avenue is where he was killed.

One of the chronic problems with protecting witnesses, whether at the local or federal level, is persuading them to stay away from their familiar surroundings.

"We cannot take their safety more seriously than they take their own safety," said Gloria Luckett, a victim-witness assistance coordinator for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office.

Evans said his client might not have fully understood the danger he was in, despite the earlier shooting.

"It's not appropriate to blame John Dowery," Evans said, predicting there would be "a lot of covering one's backside" for what happened.

Dowery's tangle with the justice system - and perhaps with street justice - began Oct. 13, 2004, as he stood in his doorway at 604 Bartlett Ave.

His friend James Wise walked up and told him about a plan to rob the drug dealers on the corner. Dowery advised Wise and Wise's younger companion against the robbery, but he watched as they walked down the street and committed it anyway.

Then Dowery said he saw the drug dealers' bosses, two brothers who controlled the small, tough neighborhood, hop into a white Lexus and chase after the robbers.

Later, the bosses walked past Dowery and, he said, they spoke about a shooting. One man said he "got" the victim six times in the chest. "I'm tired of killing [people]," he said, according to Dowery.

When Dowery read in the newspaper that it was his friend Wise who had died, he decided to tell police what he knew. He also told them he would testify.

The men Dowery identified were Tamall Parker and Tracy Love, who lived just a block away on Bartlett.

In his taped interview with police, Dowery said he wanted justice for his friend. "So, basically, I'm just coming to give you information on my own," Dowery said. "It's not like y'all promised me anything."

Authorities did say they would consider Dowery's help when they sentenced him in his own case. About eight months before Wise was killed, Dowery had been indicted on federal charges of being a felon in possession of a handgun, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

After agreeing to cooperate, Dowery told police he was worried about his safety: "Yeah, somebody approached me about saying, yeah, you snitching on us."

But Dowery didn't leave Bartlett Avenue.

The short road of two-story rowhouses, some vacant and dilapidated but some cheery and already decorated for Christmas, was a place that Dowery knew well, his family said.

His mother has owned a house nearby for decades, and many other relatives are well within walking distance.

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