Dundalk bar owner is slain, leaving patrons with questions

Police say two men lay in wait outside bar, then shot him to death

May 24, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

On Dundalk's Railway Avenue, everyone knew Lee Martin. As the owner of Hop's Inn, he would stand you a drink if you were short of cash. Sometimes, if things were bad, he'd lend you a few bucks. On New Year's Eve every year, his patrons recall, drinks were on the house.

That's why no one in the neighborhood seems to understand why anyone would want to kill him. Martin, 43, was fatally shot early Saturday by two assailants just after he had closed for the night and was walking the few steps to his house next door.

"Lee was like a father figure to me, especially since my father passed away," Reo Denisuk, a 24-year-old bartender who had worked at Hop's for 3 1/2 years, said Monday through tears. "Any time I needed anything, he'd take care of me. He's been family to me since we were little kids."

Baltimore County police said Monday they had little to go on except a vague description of the assailants. Two men were seen running from the scene, said Lt. Robert McCullough, a police spokesman.

An autopsy on Martin was conducted Monday, McCullough said, but his department had yet to receive its conclusions Monday afternoon. He said that Martin had been shot multiple times, but he could not account for a discrepancy between initial reports that nine shots were fired and neighbors' recollections on Monday that they had heard only three.

Neighbors said that detectives went door to door Sunday, and they showed some of the residents photographs from surveillance cameras Martin had installed inside and outside the bar.

Friends and neighbors placed flowers on the front deck of the bar and on the porch of the house just to the east, where Martin lived. At the house on the west side of the bar, where Martin's parents live, a woman leaned from a window Monday and said the family sought privacy and would not be ready to talk about what happened "for a couple of days."

Hop's Inn stands in the front of what was once a two-story apartment building in the 7000 block of Railway Avenue, a quiet street filled mostly with single-family homes. Most of the lawns are neatly mowed, some behind chain-link fences.

One neighbor, Rosa Salvino, said that in the 40 years she has lived on the block, she has never set foot in Hop's Inn or met Martin.

"The women don't go in the bar," she said in Italian, referring to members of her family. "We stay in the back — we have a garden."

Neighbors said Martin — his first name was Robert, but everyone called him by his middle name, Lee — had two sons with former wife, Christine, from whom he is divorced. In January 2007, Martin, who had worked at the family-owned bar for years, assumed ownership from his relatives, employees said.

"It's been in his family for 70 years," Denisuk said. "He had all these plans to remodel, to being back live music, to make it a real cool place."

In January 2008, Martin published the first issue of a newsletter in which he informed his patrons that in the preceding 12 months he had installed central air conditioning, new sidewalks, an ATM, a pool table, a new large-screen television. He told customers that "most of you feel like family," and that referring to them as regulars "doesn't sound like a good enough description." Instead, he suggested calling them "resident alcohol engineers."

"I thank you for being part of our family," Martin wrote, and went on to describe the bar's most recent New Year's Eve party, a tradition to which any regular customer was welcome. Martin provided drinks, a buffet, door prizes and party favors. "All of this was free to all of our guests because we appreciate you as our customer," Martin wrote.

Hop's has a pinochle league, and its dart league, founded in 1965, is one of the oldest in Maryland, the newsletter said.

"There was never no problems around here," Joseph Baranowski, 74, who has lived on Railway Avenue for 42 years, said on Sunday. "It's a pretty quiet neighborhood."

Martin "always looked out for me," Baranowski said. "When the snow came, he shoveled my snow, him and his boys."

At midday Monday, several patrons and employees of Hop's gathered at the Railway Inn, a tavern a block away, and remembered Martin.

"He called all the girls 'sweetie,' '' said Susan Adams, who lives nearby. She was in the Railway Inn when Martin was attacked shortly after 2 a.m. and did not hear the shooting. Her boyfriend did, however, she said.

" 'I just heard three gunshots,' '' she recalled him as saying. " 'Something must have happened at Hop's.' ''

Adams said when the police came around, they learned from witnesses that the two assailants had hidden under a staircase that Martin recently had built on the east side of the building that houses the bar. "They popped out," she said. "They were waiting for him."

Residents said police told them it did not appear that Martin was robbed, and that he was still carrying cash from the bar. Police said the case was under investigation and would not discuss details.

"He's the only bar owner I know who would always introduce himself to everyone who came into the bar," said Angie Thompkins, 35, a bartender at Hop's, who wonders whether she still has a job. "You will not find anyone who will say anything bad about him."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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