Arrest a child, rescue a life

Officers try to keep troubled teens from becoming a statistic

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

December 23, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

The officer shouts a warning to his colleague staking out the backyard of the Northeast Baltimore house: "He's a small, little dude. And he's fast."

Fists pound the front door. "Police!" It's 8:15 in the morning.

The door swings open, and two officers rush in, past the toddler in the entryway, around the silver-and-gold decorated Christmas tree, down the basement staircase. There, they find their man: a 13-year old boy on a mattress, wiping sleep from his eyes.

"Why are you home today?" asks Leo Zilka, as another officer slides plastic handcuffs on the boy. "You knew I was working. You knew I'd come find you."

Twice a week, Zilka, a state Juvenile Services officer, and a pair of city police officers search for teens who have broken the rules of their pretrial release, about two dozen at any given time. The 13-year-old had been ordered to live with his mother while awaiting trial on drug charges. But he didn't always stay home, triggering an arrest warrant.

The consequences of not making these arrests can be dire. The youths may commit acts of violence. Paradoxically, with these arrests the officers are trying to save the youths from themselves.

Just last month, two 17-year-olds were shot to death in Baltimore. Both had active arrest warrants because they'd violated their pretrial release conditions.

This year, 28 of the city's 278 homicide victims were age 17 or younger; that matches last year's total of 28. The number of teenage shooting victims this year is up, 88 at the end of last month, compared with 76 all of last year.

Juvenile criminal records are not public, but The Sun obtained and reviewed court documents of this year's teenage homicide victims. It appears that as many as 11 of them were slain after a juvenile judge decided they could live at home until their trials.

Successful programs

Zilka, who has an easy demeanor, is passionate about a job he's had for 12 years.

"I know a lot of these kids," he says. "I want to get them off the streets before something bad happens. They don't understand it."

There were 365 cases pending trial in city juvenile court at the end of last month. The Department of Juvenile Services supervises about 200 of those young defendants through Community Detention, its largest and most intensive pretrial release program.

The DJS officials call it one of their more successful programs. Of the 2,063 city participants in the fiscal year that ended June 30, about 15 percent violated rules by skipping court, running away or picking up a new criminal charge, according to agency statistics.

But the ultimate measure of any DJS program's success, says John Dixon, deputy secretary of operations, is the number of juvenile-related homicides and shootings.

Multiple violations

In some cases, it's unclear whether the youths were obeying pretrial release conditions. But with Kendrick Bowman and Lawrence Jones, the 17-year-olds killed last month, there's no doubt they were in violation - twice over.

At 16, Lawrence Jones admitted to drug possession, theft and assault. This year, just after turning 17, he was charged again, with assault and drug dealing.

While he waited for trial in those cases, a judge allowed him on Sept. 5 to live at home with his mother, under Community Detention and with the added supervision of electronic home monitoring. A DJS officer visited him at home and school daily.

Within a week, Lawrence ran away, and a DJS officer requested an arrest warrant. His name went onto Zilka's list of kids to find.

Lawrence's mother told a juvenile judge Oct. 12 - the day of a hearing he skipped - that she'd seen him on a corner near their O'Donnell Heights home. The judge issued a second warrant.

On the afternoon of Nov. 2, Lawrence was shot to death two blocks from that corner. A 23-year-old has been charged with his murder.

Like Lawrence, Kendrick was ordered to stay at home until trial, on charges of stealing a car and running from police. He was placed in the Community Detention program in early October, and a judge kept him in it after a hearing Oct. 19. He was to live with his father, Keith Bowman, at his home near Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore.

Within hours of the court hearing, however, Kendrick had packed up some clothes and left, according to court documents.

Saving lives

The DJS officer who checked in the next day found him missing and sought an arrest warrant. Then Kendrick skipped court Nov. 9, triggering a second warrant.

But he eluded Zilka and the police. In the early morning hours of Nov. 15, someone burst into a house on McClean Boulevard and shot him in the head. A 33-year-old has been charged with his murder.

Conard Carnell, director of Community Detention, says DJS officers know they "literally have the power to save lives" by checking on youths frequently and immediately reporting when they go missing. In these two cases, those measures weren't enough, and Carnell says his staff was deeply troubled by the deaths.

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