Delving into untold stories - and the stories behind the stories

Baltimore Crime Beat

August 24, 2008|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

Rummaging through my desk preparing to launch this online crime blog and newspaper column, I came across a dusty video titled: "John Doe in Steamer Trunk."

Steamer trunks don't make the news much anymore, and a story about a corpse in one has a film noir feel to it.

I have all sorts of stuff like that in desk drawers, collected from years covering the Baltimore Police Department from 1994 to 2001, and supervising reporters covering criminal justice stories starting in 2005. Letters from cops and prosecutors, judges and lawyers, mothers of dead children and the people who killed them.

Now, I'll get a chance to reconnect with the people who endure the crime this newspaper reports every day, to engage people about one of the most vexing issues facing those whose front yards double as cracked city sidewalks and those whose driveways are the spokes of suburban cul-de-sacs.

I'm looking to hear from anyone and everyone - police officers with funny or interesting tales, stories from people who have been robbed, or shot, or wronged in some way. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and frightened homeowners - anyone frustrated with police, courts, or with each other.

Take this plea in a recent newsletter from the Citizens of Washington Hill, a neighborhood of neatly kept rowhouses near the ever-expanding Johns Hopkins Hospital: "Please if you hear arguing regardless of how insignificant, fighting, screaming, if the music is too loud, call the police."

Those concerns go to the heart of living in a vibrant and diverse - and yes, sometimes dangerous - metropolitan city. My aim is to offer a voice to people who have trouble getting heard, and get answers from police and prosecutors and anyone else paid to be a caretaker of a city struggling to rebound from years of blight.

I have learned over the years that many people really do care.

Jane Harrison wrote me in early March about a small article she spotted about a body found the previous month on Woodland Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. It was of a female who'd been shot, and for weeks she went unidentified.

Before she retired a few years ago to plant gardens in vacant city lots, Harrison studied poverty and drug addiction for the Abell Foundation. She wrote a poem - in haste, she told me later - because she was moved and saddened by the perfunctory reports that she believed failed to capture the tragedy.

I will run the poem in its entirety in today's online blog. In part, it says:

Wrap her close

in fabrics of unimaginable softness

and warmth - royal colors

to ennoble

a short and disposable life

that mostly hid in grays and grayer

Five days later, the victim's father gave a name to the body. She was Tyisha Brown. She was 15, and she had attended Woodlawn High School. How it took so long to report her missing and learn who she was went unanswered. Her killing remains unsolved.

Maybe this new column and blog can do more to help us pause and understand tragedies that seem to endlessly pile up, that occur so fast and so often that they blur into a fuzzy nightmare.

How could a teenage girl with ties to a family and a school go unidentified, unclaimed and unmourned for 19 days?

Harrison ended her poem with what could be this column's theme:

at least, at least; remember her

Peter Hermann's column also appears on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

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