A shirtless boy of about 14 slurps from a plastic cup and jaws with two other teenagers in oversized T-shirts. They stand at the edge of a playground in the Oswego Mall public housing complex, enveloped in the summertime whoops and laughter of children playing all around them.
The teenagers occasionally turn toward a fourth figure, at first standing a bit apart. He is older, more man than boy, with short dreadlocks and wearing a striped polo shirt. They clearly defer to him, competing, it seems, for his approval as they dance in place and bump fists with him. To a casual observer, he could be an older brother or a favorite uncle.
But the undercover officer videotaping the scene from a second-story window knows Cyrus Lee Beads to be something else, a 19-year-old drug dealer, already the author of a six-year rap sheet testifying to a distinctly violent bent.
The video camera pulls back to show Beads walking off, and the shirtless boy calls out a farewell, chilling to the officer who is watching. "Hey Cyrus," the boy shouts after him, "I want to be just like you when I grow up."
It wasn't an idle wish. The cleverness of Beads and his partner, 23-year-old Joseph Omar Smith, was in building a drug-dealing operation on a network of teenagers. They called themselves "Cutthroat" and worked in Northwest Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood.
It is a model that law enforcement officials increasingly see repeated across the city, a modern-day version of Oliver Twist, with youngsters doing the bidding of older members whom they fervently wish to emulate one day in criminal enterprise.
Janet S. Hankin, deputy state's attorney of the juvenile division, calls what happened in Park Heights "Baltimore in miniature."
It is a dynamic that helps explain why more than 5,000 youths - some not even yet teenagers -- were arrested on serious drug-dealing charges in Baltimore between January 2004 and September 2005. This year a 10-year-old was arrested for cocaine distribution. Last year, a 9-year-old was booked on charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
The drug dealing has been accompanied by ruthlessness. At least 20 youngsters have been arrested this year on murder charges, about double last year's total of 11. One 15-year-old has been charged in two separate killings and is a suspect in a third.
"The younger they get, the more lack of respect they have for human life," says Sgt. Melvin Russell, a 27-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and the undercover officer who manned the video camera that day in June 2005 as part of the investigation into Cutthroat.
`The wolves come in'
The people who live in the communities ravaged by drugs have a more nuanced view of the young dealers. "The kids - they are pawns. ... The wolves come in, start smelling sheep," says Bryant Jones, a 22-year-old who grew up in Park Heights. "I don't look at them as kids selling drugs or as kids killing. I look at them as not yet knowing right from wrong."
Beads and Smith didn't prove clever enough to avoid criminal prosecution. They were convicted of murder and sentenced this fall to life prison terms.
Court documents and hearings from their cases, as well as police surveillance footage, provide a rare window into the apprenticeship of children and teenagers in Baltimore drug organizations and the distorted cycle of life that prevails in them.
"Cyrus and Joseph were role models for a whole group of kids who were the same ages that they were when they started to be arrested," says Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Shaffer, who prosecuted the suspects.
Beads and Smith set up shop in a troubled area between Greenspring and Park Heights avenues. The focus of their activities was Oswego Mall, a salmon and tan public housing complex of 35 townhouses lining a concrete courtyard.
Bryant Jones, a baggage handler at BWI, once lived in Oswego, and his mother and some of his siblings still do. He calls Oswego "Mother Mall" because women and children predominate here. The lack of adult males is what he believes makes it so attractive for drug dealers.
"Men are not going to let no boy sell drugs in his yard," he says. Women, he says, are more easily intimidated by drug dealers.
Jones says his teenage brothers and sister have grown up seeing drug dealing and killing.
"This world in this mall has some of the hardest people you have ever met. Some of these kids here will scare you."
Longtime residents remember when the neighborhood of rowhouses around Oswego was the kind of place where families have cookouts and children play outside. Now, towering police floodlights and flashing blue lights on police cameras mar the landscape.
"There's no togetherness," says Roslyn Peterson, 44, who grew up in one of the rowhouses outside the public housing complex but moved after her longtime boyfriend, Lawrence Johnson, was killed. "Everybody is afraid of somebody.