Hamm stepdaughter found dead on street

City police treating long-time addict's death as homicide

June 28, 2008|By Kelly Brewington and Dennis O'Brien | Kelly Brewington and Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporters

On Thursday, the night of her 39th birthday, friends saw Nicole Sesker walking along a dingy street in Northwest Baltimore dressed in a T-shirt and flip-flops, with just a shawl tied around her waist and a scarf on her head.

The next morning, Sesker, the stepdaughter of former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm - a woman who struggled for years with drug addiction, buying drugs and selling her body on street corners like that one - was found dead in the 3500 block of Garrison Blvd.

During his time as the head of Baltimore's Police Department, Hamm's relationship with Sesker became the focus of national attention, a symbol of the personal toll the city's decades-long battle with drugs and violence took on thousands of families.

"He's heartbroken," said Matt Jablow, who was the police spokesman under Hamm. The former commissioner, who resigned last summer after 2 1/2 years at the helm, declined to comment. "He is trying to stay strong for his family, but this has just broken his heart," Jablow said.

The Baltimore Police Department is treating Sesker's death as a homicide and would not release details about where or how her body was found.

Her killing has rocked the department in which Hamm served for more than 30 years. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III called Hamm personally to deliver the news. Yesterday, police detectives and commanders visited Hamm's home to pay their respects and offer their help with the case, said Sterling Clifford, the current police spokesman.

"There are a number of detectives and command staff who are working diligently to solve a homicide," Clifford said. "And there is a large group of people who worked with Commissioner Hamm who are grieving that loss as well and trying to be whatever help they can be to him and his family."

City leaders also offered their respects. Mayor Sheila Dixon said she was saddened to learn of Sesker's death.

"Commissioner Hamm often spoke of his love and affection for Nicole," Dixon said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with the Hamm and Sesker families."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy also offered her sympathy to the Hamm family.

"It is a heartfelt tragedy when any parent suffers the loss of a child, and this speaks to each of us that we are never immune from such devastating loss," she said in a statement. "I extend my condolences to Commissioner Hamm and his family during this difficult time."

The family's struggle with Sesker's addiction was chronicled in a 2005 New York Times front-page article, thrusting Baltimore's drug problem into the national spotlight while offering a window into Hamm's anguish. While he did not speak of Sesker's troubles often, Hamm did not hide them either.

"I would ask him every so often how Nicole was doing, and often the answer was 'Not very well,' and you could see it troubled him, it saddened him," Jablow said. "What can you say? It's a terrible, tragic story."

As a teenager, Sesker was a star athlete at Woodlawn High School and remained close to her stepfather. The pair exchanged letters recently, Jablow said, but there were also long stretches during which Hamm lost contact with his stepdaughter, intervals during which he assumed she was living on the street, Jablow said.

Over the years of her heroin abuse, Hamm tried being sympathetic, offered tough love and helped get Sesker into treatment facilities. But nothing seemed to get her to quit for good.

"He loved her very much," Jablow said. "He made it clear to her that he would always be there for her to help her break her addiction, when she was ready to break it herself."

City leaders have said that Hamm's personal experiences with his stepdaughter influenced his philosophy on fighting drug crimes. For example, he began a program called Get out of the Game, which helped provide nonviolent drug users with information on how to get treatment.

"I think Leonard realized you couldn't prosecute your way out of the drug problem," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who advocated treating drug abuse as a public health issue.

"Prosecution is part of the answer, but not the answer. Leonard had been on the street long enough and had seen people involved long enough to understand how complicated a problem it was."

Still, it is likely that Hamm struggled to balance the duties of police commissioner with the role of a parent, said Schmoke, who was a classmate of Hamm's at City College.

"You have feelings as a parent, and then you have feelings as a public official and trying to set the right tone for your community as well as do the right thing for [your] child," he said. "It's a tough balance."

Those who knew her along Belvedere Avenue in Northwest Baltimore said Sesker battled addiction until her last night.

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