Peter Hermann: In the details, catching the devil


  • The Violence Prevention Initiative helped police detain a suspect in July's fatal shooting of Joon Am Kang, 57, during an attempted robbery of his liquor store, above, in Fullerton.
The Violence Prevention Initiative helped police detain a… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
December 06, 2009|By Peter Hermann |

Baltimore County homicide detectives said they knew who pulled the trigger shortly after two men burst into a liquor store on Belair Road and fatally shot the owner in the head. The gunman had a stocking pulled over his head, but police said they could recognize him from a surveillance video.

Before making an arrest, they needed to assemble more evidence and build a conspiracy case against a gang police said was responsible for a string of city and county liquor store holdups that would total 16 in July. In the meantime, authorities wanted their prime suspect off the street.

So detectives turned to a program called Violence Prevention Initiative that was launched two years ago by state parole and probation agents to identify the area's most violent offenders and single them out for tight scrutiny. People on this list get arrested for violating the most minor rules they must follow to be released from prison and remain free.

The man police had identified as the ringleader in the July 16 slaying and the other robberies had been paroled on a drug conviction. The parole board ordered him to get a job as a condition of his early release.

He failed, and once police linked him to the killing, probation agents quickly obtained an arrest warrant to put him back behind bars.

He got out five weeks later, and detectives, along with senior parole and probation agent Phil Rossetti, who works side by side with officers in the county homicide office, found another way to get him locked up again. He had failed to register his car.

By early November, Baltimore County police had charged that man and five others in connection with the holdups and in the shooting of 57-year-old Joon Am Kang, who had owned Putty Hill Liquors.

Being able to keep the suspect in jail bought detectives time to fully investigate - and they said not a single robbery occurred after he was first locked up on the parole violations in early August. He was held until he was charged with first-degree murder and several armed robbery counts two months later.

With 77,000 Marylanders under the supervision of state parole and probation agents, it's impossible and impractical for all of them to be closely monitored. Each state agent typically watches more than 160 people at a time, and so-called "technical" violations, such as failing to register a car or get a job, might get noted and filed for future scrutiny at a hearing or by a judge, but rarely do such minor transgressions result in arrest warrants being issued.

Not so for the roughly 2,200 people in the Violence Prevention Initiative, more than half of whom are in Baltimore. Agents supervising these offenders watch over no more than 35 at a time, and during the past 18 months, more than 1,200 have had their parole or probation revoked.

This program for the first time puts parole and probation agents in the same offices and in the same meetings as local police. Rossetti works on the 10th floor of the Baltimore County Police Department's Crimes Against Person section, which includes detectives investigating homicides, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies, sex offenses and other violent crime.

"Our number one priority is to get the most violent offenders off the street as soon as possible," Rossetti said. Working closely with police allows him access to their files and their thoughts, and he knows immediately when an offender on his list is suspected in a crime.

Parole and probation agents used to work in entirely separate worlds, keeping tabs on an overwhelming number of offenders and only knowing that they committed other crimes when reports made it to their files, sometimes weeks or months after an arrest.

Police complained agents didn't do their jobs because so many of their suspects were out despite numerous violations, and agents complained they were overworked, overwhelmed and got information from police too late to be of any use.

"We just didn't trust a lot of probation agents," said Baltimore County homicide Lt. Jim Monahan. He noted that when the initiative began, "We were a little apprehensive," noting that cops, especially homicide detectives, don't like to share information with anybody. With murder, Monahan said, "You don't get a second chance."

Now, at least with a core group of violent offenders, that bickering is over. Referring to the Putty Hill liquor store investigation, the suspect's parole violation "was minor stuff," Monahan said. "But it mattered big."

Baltimore County Police Capt. John A. Campbell, who runs the Crimes Against Person division, said that before Rossetti joined his team, the idea of even talking to a probation agent "was probably an after-thought. Now, it's one of the first things that's done when a detective has a name."

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