Scared to speak up' against the drug trade
Risk: The fire that killed Angela Dawson and her family shows why people fear to confront criminals.
By M. Dion Thompson, Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella
October 20, 2002
Many of the old homes in the East Oliver neighborhood have been knocked down or stand empty now. Weeds overpower abandoned front yards. RIP tags are spray-painted on walls and the fronts of vacant houses lining block after block of East Preston Street, where the drug boys who call themselves the "283 crew" own some corners. It can be a safe street, as long as you mind your own business.
Dorothy Knight and the other volunteers who run the soup kitchen every Friday at Knox Presbyterian Church know the rules and say they are not afraid to walk through the sometimes violent world around them. They just go about their mission of feeding the hungry.
Barbara Roles, a longtime resident, knows that the way to be safe is to go to work, come home and stay indoors. David Parker knows that silence helps ensure survival.
"These drug dealers have it set up around here that people are scared to speak up because of what they will do if you try to disrupt their drug trade. They got it so if you speak up, you will be dealt with," said Parker, 47, who lives in the 1800 block of E. Eager St.
"When night falls around here, the older people don't come out, and you can't blame them. Half the time you can't even walk down the street."
Last Wednesday, in the rainy, early-morning hours, Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her five children died in a raging fire that authorities believe was set in retaliation for her refusal to ignore the drug dealing in her neighborhood.
Keith and Kevin Dawson, 8; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 10; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, perished on the upper floors of their three-story rowhouse.
Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped by jumping out of a second-story window. He remains in critical condition, with second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.
What happened at 1401 E. Preston St. has forced people across Baltimore to decide where they stand in the fight against crime and drugs. The mayor and other politicians have vowed to take action so that the deaths will not be in vain and the fear that cripples so many communities will be brought to an end.
But the people living in neighborhoods like Preston and Eden streets might have a better understanding of what's required to save Baltimore than those at City Hall.
In East Oliver and elsewhere, families are often unwilling to join the battle against crime because it would mean turning in a child, grandchild, cousin or uncle. Wary residents still may have to coexist with neighbors who might be criminals.
Some make small gestures with "Keep Off Step" signs in their doorways. Few go as far as Dawson and not only call police, but make themselves a visible nuisance.
Raymond Thompson, 80, president of the Oliver Community Association, said he has never been afraid to report criminal activity in the nearly 60 years that he has lived in the neighborhood. He believes the events of this past week will make more of his neighbors report crimes, even if that means turning in family members.
"After seeing such things as happened the other day, I think there will be big change in a lot of people," he said. "A lot of people might have changed their minds."
Since last Thursday, Solomon Selby, a retired truck driver, has spent his days outside the Dawson home, standing guard over a plastic water jug set up to receive donations. He said one man drove up from Annapolis on Friday and put in $100.
Selby lives across Broadway. There, too, the drug boys work their trade. Time and time again, Selby has shooed them from his steps. Time and time again, he has watched the police make arrests. "Then they come back; new ones come," he said.
He came to the corner of East Preston and Eden streets because being there seemed necessary, even when the sidewalk was still soot-blackened and choked with burned debris, the air smelled of smoke and the sky showed through empty windows and charred timbers.
"We're going to take a stand. We have children to raise. It's not only East Baltimore. It's about all of Baltimore City not letting this happen again," he said. "It's a war going on, and we're not going to let them win."
Those are strong words, but much more will be needed.
In August 2001, a single mother in Oliver started having trouble with young men who dealt drugs from her front steps and used her back alley as a drug stash. When she confronted them, they threatened her and hit her on the head with a bottle, said the Rev. Calvin Keene, the woman's pastor at Memorial Baptist Church.
Fearing for her life and the safety of her school-age son, the woman turned to Keene, who gathered 200 people to escort her from his church to her home. It was a symbolic victory, a perfect picture of a community taking back its streets.
A month later, the woman, still fearful, moved out of the city.
"The one-time rally wasn't enough," Keene said. "We needed some consistent vigilance on the part of the community and the police to ensure the residents felt safe."
A troubled place
Oliver boasted a drugstore, dry cleaners, barbershop, hair salon, insurance company and well-kept rowhouses and brownstones in 1966 when Calvin and Bernardine Scruggs opened their funeral home on East Preston Street.
Although the funeral home operates across the street from where Dawson and her children died, the other businesses closed long ago. The fire station and library are gone.
The jobs that sustained a blue-collar neighborhood - work in Bethlehem Steel, the Western Electric factory, the American Smelting and Refining Co. - disappeared, too.
Now, the neighborhood is among the city's most troubled. "It is the epicenter of AIDS on the east side," said City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson. The area has one of the top 10 rates of infant mortality and gonorrhea, and lead poisoning is a severe problem.
In a community that once had doctors, teachers and lawyers, now one-third of the adults have never completed high school or received a GED, according to 2000 census figures. Twenty percent live below the poverty level. The median annual income is $30,446. In the past decade, the population of the community has dropped nearly 35 percent.
Blocks are pockmarked with vacant homes. There are seven derelict houses in the 1400 block of E. Preston St., where the Dawsons lived, nearly a dozen in the 1200 block.
In 1999, there were five homicides in Oliver; in 2001, there was one. Over the same period, the number of robberies, assaults and arsons dropped. Only car thefts increased.
Some residents see signs of revival. Blocks of dilapidated rowhouses have made way for Nehemiah Homes, a federal affordable-housing program.
Plans for a biotech park near Johns Hopkins Hospital offer the promise of jobs and continued redevelopment. And several churches have anchored the community for decades.
"If you look between the abandoned houses, you'll see houses that are painted," Scruggs said. "Hard-working people are still in the neighborhood and are still trying to survive."
To accomplish that, many say, the community will have to deal with young men caught up in the drug trade.
They can turn a simple evening walk to the corner store into a tense experience better left for the light of day. Changing East Oliver requires changing these young men, many of whom have grown up in broken families and see little escape from their bleak neighborhoods.
Some of the dealers in the drug trade are referred to as "crack baby children ... the children of the crack users coming of age," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, who lives in Ashland Mews, a short walk from where the Dawson family lived.
Pauletta Smith, who like so many others came to the corner of East Preston and Eden streets last week to pay her respects, said the drug dealing and loitering are commonplace.
"That's all we deal with," she said with resignation. "They're just trying to put bread and butter on the table. That's why they're hustling, not because they want to. There's no jobs out here."
The silence that allows the drug trade to flourish is not just due to fear, residents say, but loyalty to friends and family. "Every drug dealer is a child or grandchild," said Skip Harrison, director of the Oliver Community Association. "That individual and that family has to make a decision when enough is enough. That's a very tough situation for someone to be in."
The spoils of the drug trade also lead some to turn a blind eye, McFadden said: "Those who are turning the other eye are very often benefiting from it."
Family ties helped protect thugs who harassed the Dawsons, according to a statement Angela Dawson gave prosecutors this month. Someone threw a brick through one of her windows one night, and Dawson said she saw the vandal run across the street.
"There [were] many witnesses across the street from our home 1401 E. Preston St.," Dawson said in her handwritten statement. "No one would assist. Most of the people who were sitting on the steps are [the suspect's] family and friends."
The Dawsons arrived on Preston Street in 1998, moving into a rented corner rowhouse that had four bedrooms.
The parents were devoted to their children. While Carnell Dawson Sr. was working construction jobs, Angela, known as Angel, stayed home. Mornings, she walked her children to Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School; afternoons, she would often shoot hoops with the boys in the concrete back yard.
It's not clear when the trouble started, but neighbors remember tensions building all year. Worried about her family's safety, Angela Dawson called police 36 times between June 26 and Oct. 9, according to police records. She reported suspicious people, disorderly conduct, narcotics violations.
Detective T. Holt, now in the Police Department's arson squad, knew the family well from his years as a beat officer in the Eastern District:
"I can understand why they're afraid - shootings, drug sales. It's definitely one of the city's rougher neighborhoods.
"I'd come up to her and ask her was everything OK. She'd be out on the street, and I'd stop by and say, 'How are things going?' and she'd say, 'OK today.'"
Many admired Dawson for her efforts to improve life on her block. "All she was trying to do was protect her kids," said Smith, the neighbor.
But some in the neighborhood saw her as a nuisance, a lady who never let up. Some residents felt she couldn't distinguish between the troublemakers and the good teen-agers.
On Aug. 23, Dawson called police to report that a young neighbor had slapped her while she was cleaning up a curse word that had been spray-painted on her house the day before.
John L. Henry, 18 and on probation for carrying a handgun, was charged three days later with malicious destruction and assault. The trial was set for Sept. 30.
During the next month, Dawson made 20 calls to the police, reporting drug dealing, disorderly behavior and assaults.
On Sept. 30, Henry requested a jury trial and spent two days in jail on the outstanding arrest warrant. A day after his release, he appeared in Circuit Court with the Dawsons and was ordered to pay $275 restitution. The case was placed on the court's inactive docket, and Henry went home.
At 3:51 a.m. the next day, two Molotov cocktails crashed through the Dawsons' kitchen windows.
"My husband and I gathered our babies and led them to safety," Angela Dawson said in a handwritten account to court officers. "Before getting out of the [house], we experienced choking from the smoke and could hardly see how to get to the door. The heat was very intense coming from the kitchen. ... Every time I threw water on the fire, it flared up even more. I finally got the fire under control and went outside with my family."
The Dawsons believed the fire was a warning from the drug dealers.
"When they stepped up their attack and different things like that, she felt like now it was a little much," said her brother, John Robert Harrington Jr., 33. "They started putting their threats into action."
Dr. Laura Seidel, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and clinical director for the Baltimore Child Development Community Policing Program, met with the Dawson children on the day of the firebombing.
All five crowded together on the couch, telling her their names, where they went to school, what they were going to eat for dinner that night (take-out chicken, because their kitchen had been destroyed) and how scared they were by what had happened.
"They said they were afraid because they didn't know who did it," she said.
City officials say they stepped up patrols and made offers of witness protection. They also encouraged the family to
The family stayed on East Preston Street. Dawson, undeterred by what had happened, kept making her calls. The last one came Oct. 9, a report of an assault.
Police say that about 2:20 a.m. last Wednesday, Darrell Brooks, 21, who lives next door to John Henry on Eden Street, kicked in the front door, poured gasoline on the floor and set the house ablaze. Fire units arrived within three minutes of the call, but the blaze was out of control. Flames raced through the building's three floors and roof.
In the days since, angry family members and neighbors, community leaders, police and politicians have pointed fingers and accused each other of not doing enough to protect the family. Should they have had 24-hour police protection? Should they have been moved?
And there is this question: Will the family's sacrifice have any meaning?
"I would hope that not only does the community start galvanizing its effort to rebuild and demand that this community be rebuilt," said the Rev. Iris Tucker of Knox Presbyterian, "but also that we look at how we support families who do stand up, so that they do not go it alone."
Delores Best, an East Oliver resident for 63 years, keeps coming back to the corner where the Dawson family died.
"There is no way the spirit of six or seven people can be upon you and you be at peace," said Best.
"We know this had a reason, to open the eyes of the community that if we don't band together, this is going to happen again," she said. "But I'm here to pray that this doesn't happen again in our community."
Sun staff writers Johnathon E. Briggs, Erika Niedowski, Mike Himowitz and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.
Copyright (c) 2002, The Baltimore Sun
Link to the article: http://www.sunspot.net/bal-te.md.fire20oct20.story