An Ex-gang Lieutenant Looks Back At 30 Years Of Violence

Crime Scenes

July 16, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

Back one day in 1966, at a house party in North Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood, two teenage boys asked the same girl to dance.

One boy lived on Old York Road, the other on McCabe Avenue.

The two fought, first inside, then on the street, and a feud began that turned two neighborhood groups into gangs that terrorized a collection of blighted blocks for more than three decades.

Street wars between the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys and the McCabe Avenue Boys would become legendary and deadly. Corner disputes turned into drug disputes, and battles with knives, fists and bats turned into fights with rifles, revolvers and automatic handguns.

Police now say the two gangs are all but gone, their victims memorialized in a park, their leaders eviscerated by the law and their own hands, and residents living in the old turf proclaim a new day.

But the gang names are more difficult to suppress - a recent indictment briefly mentioned the groups and police blamed a recent fatal stabbing on McCabe Avenue on gang activity. Monday evening, a man was shot and killed on a basketball court off Old York Road, and if it was not a gang hit, it was certainly a stark reminder of violence the community thought was in its past.

The recent violence brought back memories to a man who grew up on Old York Road in the 1960s and was one of the boys who had asked the girl to dance. He's 56 now, an Air Force veteran and a college graduate with an accounting degree. He has two children and runs his own consulting business.

Back in the day, he was an original lieutenant for the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys. He asked that his name not be used because he still has relatives in Pen Lucy and they fear for their safety.

The man grew up with a father who was an Army World War II vet and a strong-willed mother, both of whom are now deceased. Children back then had two choices - be a corner kid or a porch kid - and he was without doubt a corner kid. His father taught him to box and he proved himself the way corner kids do, by punching out everyone else.

In 1966, his group was called Willow Avenue, and the McCabe Boys were farther south on East 41st Street.

Once, a frustrated Old York boy grabbed his father's rifle and chased down three McCabe boys, shooting them in an alley. That was the first time the violence got real, the former leader said. He got cut and threatened with knives and guns, and once got arrested on the west side when cops who stopped his car found a BB gun that resembled a .45 automatic - dubbed the "Fabulous Fake" - in his glove box.

His mother made him walk home from the police station in the rain: "She told me I got into this, I have to get myself out."

He soon realized he would have to leave Baltimore to escape.

He graduated from City College, went to Morgan but dropped out to join the Air Force. He returned and got an accounting degree from the University of Baltimore, started a family and opened his own business. He chose the suburbs over the inner city, but about a decade ago he took his 10- and 12-year-old sons to a family gathering in the old neighborhood.

There, he saw some men he used to hang with, now in their 40s but still strung out on the corners, still trapped in the old game, one that had long passed them by with violence and heroin. One son looked up incredulously and said, "Dad, do you know these bad people?"

Stunned, the man looked down and answered: "They're not bad people. They're people who made bad choices."

As he thinks back at the violence that engulfed Pen Lucy, he's sorry about the fight over the girl - she rejected both suitors, but that didn't seem to matter to boys fighting for honor - and wonders if any of the members of the gangs even know why they started fighting.

He suspects that the pattern in Pen Lucy was and is repeated all over the city. A simple dispute escalates, turns to drugs and guns, then jail and death. But he's encouraged because he sees others like him - men who escaped the game and, "like me, made something of themselves."

If it's a silent majority, it needs to be heard.

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