Threat implicit in attack on family home

Graffiti left in burned and ransacked house appear to be an attempt at witness intimidation

October 23, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Baltimore police are investigating what appears to be the city's latest case of witness intimidation - the ransacking and burning of a Northwest Baltimore family's home.

The family, who have been living in Howard Park since 1999, found the phrase "rats must be killed" spray-painted in bright red on a wall inside their burned-out foyer last week.

In addition to the graffiti and fire, intruders had upended furniture, tipped over a cabinet and smashed drinking glasses in the two-story, four-bedroom home that had been renovated by the family over the years.

"It's amazing how you take 10 years to build something and it takes 10 minutes to ruin it," said the woman, 41. Her husband, 40, waiting outside the home for an insurance adjustor, said: "The only thing I know is that we can't come back here."

The couple fears that the intimidation might be aimed at the woman's 20-year-old daughter, who is mentioned by name in the graffiti. She does not live at home and has been jailed since July on charges she helped rob a taxi driver.

Sterling Clifford, a Baltimore police spokesman, said the attack is "being investigated aggressively by detectives in the Northwestern District and being monitored by senior members of the department." He said investigators are trying to determine whether there is a connection between the woman's daughter and what happened and whether the incident amounts to witness intimidation.

"The circumstances are a little different than [other witness intimidation] cases, but no less important," Clifford said. "Investigators are looking for, first, the exact motive."

Fearing for their safety, the couple asked that their names not be published, and The Sun agreed to the request.

Witness intimidation has been a problem in Baltimore, a city in which the homes of people who call police on drug dealers have been firebombed and where other people willing to cooperate with police have been threatened, attacked and even killed.

In August, a Waverly woman who frequently called police about drug dealers on her street saw her house damaged in a firebombing.

A month earlier, Carl Stanley Lackl was killed in Rosedale because, police said, he had vowed to testify about a murder he witnessed in the city.

Two years ago, the Harwood home of community activist Edna McAbier was firebombed because of her attempts to rid the neighborhood of drug dealers. The assailants were convicted in federal court and given long prison sentences.

And in 2002, Angela Dawson and her five children were killed by a man who firebombed their house after the mother confronted drug dealers near her East Baltimore home. Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley said at the time: "These children will not have died in vain. This is not the future of our city. This has to become part of our past."

The victims of Thursday's attack run three Baltimore-area art and gift shops. Together for the last 13 years and married for the past two, they live in the home with a son, 17, and a daughter, 4. Their street is lined with old trees and single-family houses with generous yards that are beginning to fill with fallen autumn leaves.

But that tranquil scene contrasts with the destruction inside the home. Their older daughter's first name was spray-painted on one of the couches. In other parts of the house, the word "Blood" - a common gang affiliation in Baltimore - appeared.

Other words and phrases found spray-painted throughout the first floor included: "Rats Die," "Die Rats," and the word "Snitch" crossed out with X's. The intruders also wrote expletives, but some appeared to be misspelled.

Most of the second floor had been damaged by fire. The young daughter's bedroom - with Hello Kitty dolls and a "Dora the Explorer" design motif - was dark, her clothes piled on her bed and covered in soot.

The couple said that, since the fire, they have learned that neighbors have had problems with drug dealers, and residents have traded stories. They said one neighbor installed video cameras around his house. Another found graffiti spray-painted on the back of his house.

The husband said he and his wife were working at one of their stores in Montgomery County when he got a call on his cell phone from a city police officer, who told him to go to his home. When they arrived, they found their house smoldering. Red Cross workers helped relocate them to a hotel for two days, and then they were placed in temporary rental housing.

He remembers going into a Sam's Club on Saturday and telling his wife and the children to buy "five and five" - five pairs of socks, five pairs of underwear, and just enough other personal items to take them through the next few weeks.

"Our little girl just tells people that our house broke," he said. "She's too young to know what's happening."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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