Old Business: Martin O’Malley’s Failed Promise As Baltimore Mayor Will Stay With Him, No Matter Who Wins The Governor’s Race

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 1 2006

book

In the summer of 1999, when then-City Councilman Martin O’Malley was running for mayor of Baltimore at age 36, he wrote With Change There Is Hope: A Blueprint for Baltimore’s Future. It was a two-part, two-booklet title (pictured), one bound in a green cover, the other blue. They were handed out far and wide during the last weeks of the 1999 campaign. O’Malley dubbed them collectively as “my epistle” or “my book,” and separately as “the Green Book” and “the Blue Book.”

Today, With Change There Is Hope represents a sweeping archive of O’Malley’s promises to voters. In politics, that’s a contract, a document that sets down what’s expected of the victor in return for votes. There is no penalty for failing to uphold the contract, but when its terms aren’t met, elections–such as the gubernatorial one that will decide between Democrat O’Malley, Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich, and Green Party candidate Ed Boyd on Nov. 7–can result either in punishment or forgiveness.

Baltimore’s voters held up their end of the bargain with O’Malley when they first backed him seven years ago. O’Malley was expected to deliver–a lot. He’d set his plan down in the 40-page Green Book, which focused on crime reduction, and the 80-page Blue Book, which covered everything else–and how all of it is tied to the crime rate. Those who supported O’Malley’s re-election in the 2004 election did so despite the fact that many of his pledges remained unmet. Now, joined by voters in the rest of the state, they will decide whether to back him again in his bid for governor. O’Malley still owes Baltimore. If he wins the election, he’ll be expected to pay it back from the statehouse. If he loses, he’ll work off his debt at City Hall.

O’Malley focuses on the debt paid, not the debt remaining, as he makes the campaign rounds for governor. He has plenty of accomplishments with which to fill speeches. The main one, perhaps, was described in an Oct. 5 speech at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health: “Instead of wallowing in a culture of failure and excuses, we came together to take on the tough challenges and made progress.”

Running to replace Ehrlich this year, O’Malley recites a concisely packaged 10-point plan instead of handing out lengthy manifestos. Copies of With Change There Is Hope are hard to come by today. They are not available online. Google its title with the word “Baltimore,” and all that comes up is a link to City Paper‘s 2002 Best of Baltimore “Best Scandal: Police Corruption” blurb. But O’Malley’s 7-year-old collection of green and blue IOUs remains in the archives of history, ready to be dusted off once again.

“My approach as mayor will focus on two basic concepts–urgency and accountability,” he wrote in the Blue Book’s conclusion, after setting the bar for his own performance. He wanted change, urgently, and change came after he became mayor. But it often came not as promised, or sometimes not at all. That’s not surprising, given O’Malley’s great expectations. Urgency is hard to measure (he certainly seemed urgent), but accountability is O’Malley’s middle name. Now he’s accountable for how things changed, or have not.

Just as the mayor’s CitiStat program tries to keep city agencies on their toes by measuring government activities, journalists can apply statistical yardsticks to O’Malley’s promises. There are two sources of information for this exercise: what O’Malley said would happen, and what happened according to the numbers and known circumstances. (Numerous phone messages and e-mails to the mayor’s communications director, Steve Kearney, and O’Malley spokespersons Rick Abbruzzese and Raquel Guillory, were not returned.) Given the vast landscape of his panoramic vision for Baltimore in With Change There Is Hope, it’s best to begin by concentrating, as O’Malley did when he first ran for mayor, on a single issue: crime, and how everything hinges on it.

 

O’Malley’s June 23, 1999, mayoral campaign announcement speech, delivered at the corner of Harford Road and the Alameda, drew a small crowd. He made up for the lack of attention by using the speech’s text as the Green Book’s opener: “My name is Martin O’Malley. I believe I can turn this city around by making it a safer place, and I mean to begin doing it now.”

First, though, O’Malley had to get elected, and right off the bat his credibility was questioned. He told a story in the speech about having been to the same corner the previous midnight, when he was approached by a drug dealer, who asked, “What do you want?” The exchange gave O’Malley a rhetorical hook for his announcement.

“That’s a question,” the would-be mayor said to 30 or so supporters gathered to hear his speech, “that each of us in this city needs to answer in this important election year.”

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks suspected the hook was hogwash and immediately got on the case. Rodricks visited the neighborhood and found a resident who said that Harford Road and the Alameda is not a drug corner, but a “hackin’ corner” where “guys hang out lookin’ for rides.” O’Malley told Rodricks “it’s no big deal,” and explained that the guy on the corner who gave him his “What do you want?” line for the speech “was doing that hand motion they do when the markets open. It’s a notorious corner. That’s what they do there.” But, Rodricks reported, O’Malley “can’t say for sure that the young guy wanted to sell him drugs. It’s a hunch.” The columnist gave O’Malley’s poetic license its propers: “Good stuff, councilman. Even without that Monday-midnight story.”

O’Malley is prone to hunches, and has thus far benefited from people forgiving him when they don’t pan out. His main hunch as a councilman with mayoral ambitions was that if you solve the crime problem, everything else will fall into place. From O’Malley’s perspective, the revival of schools, housing, health, jobs, population, investment, tax revenues, the real-estate market–in short, all that makes cities tick–depended on public safety, government’s primary responsibility. He waxed on this theme in the Green Book, asking voters to “Imagine how quickly our great City will come back to life when we get hold of public safety and start closing down our expanding drug markets.” He pointed to other cities, such as New York, as crime-fighting models and suggested we simply copy what worked elsewhere.

In a 1999 phone interview about his crime plan, O’Malley was emphatic. “There is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets. So that’s first and foremost,” he asserted. “It affects everything.” He went on to spell out his policing strategy, which had various names: “quality of life,” “zero tolerance,” and “broken windows.” The idea, he said, was to “improve the reality of public safety” by “changing enforcement priorities, by redefining the mission of the police as restoring public order on our corners and improving quality of life on our corners. When you do that the bigger crimes become easier to solve and easier to deter, and you drive the drug markets indoors, which drives down the random violence that is inflating our numbers to be some of the worst in the nation.”

At O’Malley’s announcement, he called the corner where he was standing an “open-air drug market,” and promised within six months to make it and nine others like it “things of our city’s past.” He added that “in the second year, 20 more open-air drug markets will likewise be shut down, and thus will the people of this city easily measure our success or failure.”

After six months in office, in a letter to The Sun, the mayor explained that he’d taken care of the 10 drug corners. And he described how it had happened: Police, city inspectors, and public-works crews had tidied them up, pronto. It was that easy.

The two-year mark in 2002, by which time O’Malley promised 20 more cleaned-up corners came and went without fanfare. As 2003 began, public frustration about the continuing crime problem was evident.

“We still have open-air drug markets on our corners,” City Councilman Bernard “Jack” Young (D-12th District)–usually, like most members of the council, an O’Malley ally–told the Baltimore Afro American in late January 2003. “Point-blank, nothing’s changed. We’re paying all of this overtime to the police. Where is the change?” O’Malley’s hunch was being called into question.

The experience of crime in Baltimore neighborhoods is as varied as the neighborhoods themselves. What feels to many like improvements under Mayor O’Malley–seemingly safer and clearly more prosperous communities around the waterfront, along the north-south axis of Charles Street, along the Northeast Baltimore thoroughfares of Belair and Harford roads, and in certain other key neighborhoods like Hampden–feels to others like it’s not happening in their neighborhoods. Because the improvements are concentrated in waterfront neighborhoods and the central north-south spine of the city, they are more evident than the sluggish expanses of the east and west sides, where change has come more slowly, if at all.

With or without dramatic crime reductions, though, the city has been rebounding in many ways, and O’Malley’s re-election in 2004 affirmed and affixed the notion that he was doing alright as mayor. Many understood that he would soon run for governor. Once he announced his candidacy for state office, O’Malley’s record as mayor became Republicans’ main message when promoting Ehrlich. They can do that because O’Malley’s hunch hasn’t worked itself out yet.

Page25-2

If O’Malley was wrong about crime being the foremost determinant of the city’s fortunes, then there’s room for forgiveness. Crime in many ways has trended downward, particularly in some parts of the city and for some types of crime. But low interest rates, not reduced bloodshed, likely had more to do with the city’s improved performance under O’Malley.

In the Blue Book, O’Malley noted that in 1999 “City houses fetch roughly one half of what they do in Baltimore County,” because of the prevalence of crime in the city. Since 1999, “thanks to reductions in crime and increased investment in the city, average home values in Baltimore have risen 120%,” according to O’Malley’s campaign web site.

Crime reductions may have helped, but the key factor was the residential real-estate market boom created by historically low interest rates and rising demand. The 2004 median sales price for a Baltimore single-family home was $130,500, compared to $215,000 in Baltimore County. Thus, instead of city houses selling for half the value of county houses, under O’Malley they began selling at about 60 percent of what county houses get. The value of city single-family homes gained slightly more than 35 percent between 2002 and 2004, an amount a tad higher than in Baltimore County.

Real-estate values and tax revenues tend to rise and fall together, and they both jumped under O’Malley, as expected during times of cheap money. In 2000, city revenues stood at about $1.4 billion. In 2004, they broke $2 billion, and stood at $2.1 billion in 2005. Increasing real-estate values helped a lot on the property-tax front, aided by new taxes instituted by O’Malley.

The level of private investment in the city, likewise, has increased substantially. Little scaffolding and few cranes were part of Baltimore’s streetscape in the 1990s, but they are common sights today. The O’Malley administration says the value of development activity under way in 2005 was estimated to be $2 billion, whereas ongoing projects in 2000 added up to a little less than $900 million.

O’Malley’s gubernatorial campaign biography states that, as mayor, he has “promoted job growth by attracting over $10 billion in economic development” and “nearly ended Baltimore’s decades-long population loss.” But jobs and population declined in the city, and unemployment rose from 5.9 percent in 2000 to 7.1 percent in 2005. Job loss from 1999 to ’04 hit Baltimore hard, taking away about 40,000 jobs–the most among Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, as was the city’s loss of about 15,000 residents from 2000 to ’05. A 2002 U.S. Census snapshot of the city’s unemployment situation pointed out key disparities: While the overall unemployment rate was 6.8 percent, white men were at 2.1 percent and black men at 11.8 percent. The city made the top-10 list in the country for average weekly wage growth in 2005, but at the same time lost more jobs–5,800–than almost all of the 323 large cities and counties studied. While the city’s employment outlook hits some harder than others, the jobs that remain are paying better, and the loss of jobs went along with ongoing loss in population.

The jobs lost under O’Malley came on the heels of all the jobs lost before him. In the Blue Book, O’Malley painted a bleak picture of the Kurt Schmoke years, describing job declines in manufacturing, transportation, retail, banking, and hospitals. The situation hardly improved after O’Malley was elected. Between 2001 and ’04, Baltimore lost nearly 5 percent of its jobs. A quarter of its manufacturing jobs, 15 percent of its banking and finance jobs, 5 percent of its retail jobs–all disappeared in a four-year span. The drop in public employment was pronounced, especially local government jobs, which fell by nearly 4,000 positions, more than 12 percent. Only three sectors posted major job gains: hospitals, educational services, and the hotel and restaurant industry.

Under Mayor Schmoke, the city lost an average of 722 jobs per month, O’Malley calculated in the Blue Book. Between 2001 and ’04 under O’Malley, the city lost an average of 432 jobs per month. That’s a dramatic improvement, but it is still a drastic rate of job loss–especially when the surrounding counties are alive with job growth. The Blue Book pointed out that the surrounding counties posted a gain of 104,000 jobs when Schmoke was mayor, an average of 963 new jobs each month. Between 2001 and ’04, with O’Malley as mayor, the surrounding counties added nearly 63,500 new jobs, an average of 1,322 jobs per month.

Thus, while the city’s job loss has slowed under O’Malley, it has not reversed, as O’Malley predicted. And the surrounding counties’ job growth accelerated by about 40 percent. Baltimore remains the hole in the doughnut of regional employment trends.

The public schools, well, they’re still a mess, but there are bright spots. As the city’s population declines, so does school enrollment–by an average of 2,900 students per year since O’Malley became mayor, bringing the total down to about 85,000. While some of the trends in standardized test scores are good, many others are not. Graduation rates are up for seniors getting a regular education, but down dramatically for the increasing share of students in special education. The money spent to achieve these results has increased dramatically on a cost-per-student basis, and has been the target of near-permanent scandal over the school system’s financial accountability.

In the Blue Book, O’Malley reported that in 1997 only 16.6 percent of third-graders’ scores were “satisfactory” under the state reading tests. This statistic is recited again on O’Malley’s campaign web site, and updated with the claim that O’Malley “helped 61% of the third graders meet those state standards last year.” The standardized tests were changed in 2002. Under the new ones, the percent of third-graders with “proficient” reading scores has risen annually, from 38 percent in 2003 to 59 percent in ’06, when the statewide scores had risen from 50 percent to 63 percent. The same happened with third-grade math scores, with the percent of proficient third-graders rising to 52 today from 40 in 2003, when the statewide scores had jumped only four points, from 50 to 54. That’s some of the good news.

Some of the bad news is that only 2 percent of special-education high-school students passed the high-school English standardized test in 2005. That 2.1 percent passed in 2006 is nothing to brag about, since it indicates that students in the city’s large special-education program don’t have much of an education to look forward to.

As students continue in school, their improved scores in earlier grades should be reflected in improvements as they reach higher grades. In some cases, this has happened, but not in others. The third-grade class of 2004, for instance, was tested again as fifth-graders this year, when its proficiency in math and reading both were significantly higher than those of prior fifth-grade classes. But the sixth-grade class of 2004, which was entering first grade when O’Malley was elected mayor, is another story. When the class reached eighth-grade this year, its share of students scoring proficiently dropped in both math and reading compared to its sixth-grade scores.

O’Malley’s Blue Book measured city schools’ graduation rates harshly, saying that “only 25 percent of ninth graders . . . ever graduate. This is unacceptable.” The percent of regular-education 12th-graders graduating is rising, from 58 percent in 2002 to 64 percent today. But the drop in the share of special-education 12th-graders graduating went from 65 percent in 2002 to 35 percent today.

When running for mayor, O’Malley’s intentions about special education were clear: He wanted significant improvements, and a reduction in the size of the program. He said that, at the time, 18 percent of the student population was enrolled in special education, and he wanted that number to drop to 13. By 2000, it had dropped to 17 percent, which is where it remained in 2005. Meanwhile, by O’Malley’s figures from his first mayoral campaign, the cost of educating each special-education student per year was $9,680. Since then, it has increased by a fifth, and stands at $11,722 per student.

In his governor’s campaign biography, O’Malley expresses pride in city schools, claiming that “for the past three years, elementary school students have posted higher scores in reading, language arts, and mathematics at every grade level.” That’s an accomplishment that would make any mayor proud. But O’Malley, by law, does not control the city school system. As mayor, he is an equal partner with the state in its success or failure–an equal partner with the government headed by his gubernatorial opponent, Robert Ehrlich. “Our children should not suffer due to adult disagreements,” O’Malley wrote in the Blue Book. “In the future, Baltimore should, once again, take greater responsibility for our school system. But we also must build continually on the partnership we have established with Annapolis–it is in the best interest of our children.”

The city-state partnership has suffered from scandal after scandal arising from lack of accountability in recent years, leaving the city school system in such a shambles that it is surprising some children are able to learn adequately. Neither the city nor the state has stepped up to take unilateral responsibility, though their collective responsibility is there for all to see. O’Malley takes credit for the good where he can–with some improved test scores in some grades–and, either as governor or as mayor, may be in a position to do more for at least a couple more years. But he’ll also have to live with the bad, until the system gets fixed.

Page26

Baltimore under O’Malley is a mixed bag of results, and it’s hard to say changes in the crime rate made it so. By the raw numbers, though, Baltimore is safer now than when O’Malley started. In the first six months of 2000, when he was working off his obligation to clear the 10 corners, the city logged 141 murders, 161 rapes, 3,010 robberies, and 4,530 aggravated assaults, including 700 nonfatal shootings. In 2005, the totals from January to June were much rosier. Murder was down 3 percent, rape had dropped by more than half, robbery saw a 40 percent reduction, and aggravated assaults were reduced nearly a quarter, including a near 30 percent drop in shootings. The same number of under-18-year-olds–47–were murdered in 2002 as were in 1996, but in the first 10 months of this year 22 kids were killed, and all of last year saw only 14 juvenile homicides, so the situation appears to be getting less bloody for Baltimore’s teens.

Yet, despite these numbers and O’Malley’s optimism and declarations of success, frustrations and distrust about the prevalence of crime abound. Some of O’Malley’s crime numbers remain under the pall of a state effort to audit his numbers this year, an effort that the mayor rebuffed. And O’Malley’s earlier use of an audit of the 1999 figures to establish the baseline for his claims of crime reduction has been called into question.

O’Malley’s handpicked benchmarks in the Green Book set a high bar, and, although he didn’t meet many of them, they often moved in the direction he promised. His Green Book said public-safety improvements in the first two years of the O’Malley administration, for instance, should reflect New York’s as it first adopted quality-of-life policing under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the mid-1990s. When Giuliani was first starting out, murder went down 40 percent, robbery 30 percent, burglary a quarter, and rape by 8 percent, according to the Green Book’s figures.

By three of these measures, O’Malley fell short. His first two years saw nearly a fifth fewer murders and burglaries, and a quarter fewer robberies–all smaller drops than what Giuliani delivered. (Given the doubts about the Baltimore’s 1999 crime numbers, 1998 was used as the base year for this analysis, giving O’Malley three years to accomplish what Giuliani did in two.) But on the fourth category, rape, O’Malley achieved a reduction of about 40 percent, more than five times larger than New York’s. Rape later became a category of crime suspected in 2003 of being under-reported by Baltimore police, and, after an audit, a 15 percent upward correction in the 2002 numbers was ordered.

O’Malley’s second-guessed crime numbers have historical poignancy. When he was a councilman, O’Malley made a name for himself by proving that then-Mayor Schmoke’s police department was cooking its books to augment its mid-1990s crime-reduction claims. Today’s data-accuracy doubts suggest that perhaps O’Malley’s police department somehow has been aping the bad behavior of Schmoke’s department, though hard evidence of this has yet to arrive. Pending future findings, which themselves may end up subject to charges of inaccuracy, the numbers O’Malley’s police department reported to the FBI are the best available data about Baltimore crime.

The raw numbers about crime reduction that O’Malley likes to cite, though, tend not to take into account the decline in the city’s population. Do so, and Baltimore’s murder rate goes from 40.3 murders for every 100,000 residents in 2000 to 42 in 2005. Thus, it makes sense that many people believe Baltimore remains as murderous as it was before O’Malley became mayor–because Baltimore was, in fact, a bit more murderous, per capita, in 2005 than it was in 2000.

O’Malley pledged in the Green Book to make Baltimore a lot less murderous, by taking the toll down to 175 homicides in 2002. This bold goal helped him get elected 1999, when there were 305 murders. But when 2002 closed out, there were 78 more homicides than he’d promised. Boston, a city of a little less than 600,000 people, and one which the Green Book points to as a model for Baltimore to follow, had 60 murders that year, by way of comparison.

Baltimore’s crime rates look bad when compared to other large U.S. cities, and the numbers hardly improved from 2000 to 2005. After five years of O’Malley, there were 17.6 violent crimes for every 1,000 Baltimore residents in 2005, nearly 80 percent more than the big-city average. In 2000, as in 2005, the city’s murder rate was nearly three times higher than the average for cities of between a half-million and a million people. Robberies in 2000 were 2.6 times more common in Baltimore than in other large cities, and aggravated assaults (including shootings) were 2.2 times more prevalent. Five years into the O’Malley administration, the violence had fallen off, but still occurred at nearly double the rates in other large cities.

In With Change There Is Hope, O’Malley observed that “Baltimore is today the fourth deadliest city in the nation, and the city’s murder rate is seven times higher than in the average city.” Time hasn’t changed much in that regard. In 2005, Baltimore’s murder rate was still seven times the average for U.S. cities. In the 2005 Detroit mayoral race, the fact that only Baltimore had a higher murder rate than Detroit was put in play on the campaign trail. This year, in a ranking against 31 other cities with populations over a half-million, Baltimore was second most dangerous, with Detroit earning the top dishonor.

Where violence is concentrated is where the greatest crime reductions are possible. Traditionally in contemporary Baltimore, the brunt of the violence has disproportionately fallen on the Eastern and Western police districts, compared to the other seven districts. After a period of increasing violence in O’Malley’s first term, it is here, in the Eastern and Western districts, where crime numbers show improvements–fulfilling some of the expectations O’Malley created.

From 1999 to ’02, the share of the citywide homicides happening in the Eastern and Western districts rose from nearly 30 percent to more than 40 percent. Murders were dropping in the city (from 305 in 1999 to 253 in 2002), yet these two districts were showing substantial increases in their body count. That’s now changed. In 2005, the Eastern and Western’s combined tally had dropped 30 percent from 2002’s level, while the rest of the city’s homicides had jumped up a quarter. The burden is shared now by four other districts–the Southern, Southwestern, Northern, and Southeastern–joining the Western with more murders in 2005 than they’d had in 1999.

The recent geographical shift in Baltimore homicides suggests O’Malley in some ways is starting to mirror Giuliani’s 1990s crime-fighting success in New York. In 1999, just before O’Malley declared for mayor, the New Republic ran a cover story on Giuliani that examined an important trend in the Big Apple’s crime reduction: The sharpest crime drops were seen in the area’s that needed them the most. Harlem’s crime fell 61 percent between 1994 and ’98, for example, and East New York’s murders went from 110 in 1993 to 37 in ’98. Similarly, in Baltimore, the Eastern and Western police districts have recently shown substantial improvements, although several other districts have experienced increases in crime.

Overall, though, the picture on the crime front is pretty bleak compared to O’Malley’s expectations and how it compares to the rest of urban America. “With public will, energy and political leadership,” O’Malley wrote in the Blue Book in 1999, “Baltimore will join the ranks of America’s great rejuvenated cities that are growing safer, larger, and more diverse . . . That is my pledge.” Now it’s seven years later, and Baltimore continues to earn its title as one of the most violent cities in America.

Page27

Unlike his crime figures, O’Malley’s budget figures aren’t a matter for debate. In the Green Book, O’Malley indicated that the added cost of his crime plan was, well, nothing, or not much more. “The real solution in Baltimore is not to double size of the broken system,” he wrote about the police department, “but to implement the simple procedural reforms that will make greater use of the substantial resources already in place.” And in the 1999 phone interview, he said crime reductions under his watch would cover the reform costs, explaining that he planned to “increase city revenues by making this city a dramatically safer place quickly, and thereby reversing our loss of population.” He predicted that crime reduction would pay for everything, and then he pulled a George Bush I, promising that “I am dead-set opposed to raising taxes.”

The upshot from the police budget trends is this: a growing proportion of cops at desks, costing a larger amount of money. The department’s budget went up 25 percent from 2002 to ’07, the current fiscal year. Two parts of the departmental budget went up more than 100 percent: Administrative Direction and Control jumped from to $15.5 million to $32 million, while money for the Office of Criminal Justice Policy more than tripled, from $3.5 million to $12 million. Together, the administrative and policy slices of the police pie grew from 7 to 13 percent, while all other parts of the department saw their slices shrink. Though the overall budget went up, department-wide staffing levels dropped by nearly 5 percent from 2002 to today. Administrative staffing jumped nearly 8 percent–the only kind of police staffing that grew. Yet O’Malley’s campaign web site states that he “put more cops on the streets as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce crime.”

The five-year growth of the police budget wasn’t paid for with revenue resulting from an increased city population, as O’Malley had predicted. Population continued to fall, though more slowly. Rather, money was available to expand the police budget because of rising real-estate values and the mayor’s new taxes on energy, cell phones, and real-estate transactions, O’Malley’s prior no-new-taxes pledge notwithstanding. Because of the additional revenues, he was able to keep some promises.

O’Malley vowed in the Green Book to increase funding for the State’s Attorney’s Office “as long as it stays committed to the path of reform, and committed to keeping repeat violent offenders off the street.” The city’s contribution to State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy’s office has been boosted from $21.6 million in 2002 to $30.4 million today, a more than 40 percent raise that has allowed staffing levels for prosecutions to increase by 55 positions.

The mayor has been true to drug treatment, too. “Since 1996, annual funding for drug treatment in Baltimore has doubled from $16.5 million to $33 million,” O’Malley wrote in the Green Book, indicating this is a positive trend he’d like to continue. And he has. Drug treatment funding under O’Malley increased to $53 million in 2005.

Teen motherhood and other health indicators affect crime trends over the long term, and O’Malley aimed to oversee their decline. He pointed out that in 1997 “nearly 10 percent” of city girls aged 15 to 19 had babies. There was a steep decline after O’Malley took office, and in 2004 the proportion of girls that age who had babies was 6.8 percent. He wanted infant mortality to decline, reporting that the city in 1997 lost newborns at a rate of 14.4 babies per 1,000 live births, “nearly double the state’s rate,” he wrote. It dropped significantly. In 2005, the infant mortality rate had declined to 11.3, half again as high as the state’s.

O’Malley pointed out in the Green Book–as Jay Leno was saying, too, on The Tonight Show at the time–that Baltimore is “the syphilis capital of the United States.” As O’Malley wrote those words, the syphilis rate was in steep decline. In 1999, Indianapolis became the syphilis capital, after Baltimore’s rate had dropped 45 percent in one year. In 2002, Baltimore was ranked 11th among U.S. cities, with an incidence rate of 18.6 cases per 100,000 people. That year, 120 cases were reported. But the disease jumped sharply in 2004, when 209 cases were reported for a rate of 33.2, placing Baltimore third in the nation, behind San Francisco and Atlanta.

Two other sexually transmissible diseases were mentioned in O’Malley’s book, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Baltimore “is rated number two in the U.S. for active cases of gonorrhea,” he wrote at the time. It has dropped significantly since then, but Baltimore was still the fourth-highest city on the list for active cases of gonorrhea in 2004, the most recent ranking available. When O’Malley sought to become mayor, he explained that Baltimore’s national rank was “third for active cases of chlamydia.” The city’s chlamydia rate has actually risen significantly since then, yet its national ranking dropped to seventh highest–an improvement, of sorts.

O’Malley recently summed up his disease-fighting record much more succinctly, and no less truthfully: “Syphillis [sic] is down 75% since 1997 and Gonorrhea is down 45% since 1995.” These surgically selected statistics are posted, along with the rest of O’Malley’s Oct. 5 Hopkins speech, on his campaign web site (www.martinomalley.com).

Baltimore’s improved status on drug-related emergency-room visits, an important indicator of drug abuse, is impressive, but still marginal in the national context. In 1999, O’Malley wrote that Baltimore is “rated number one in the nation for hospital emergency room admissions involving substance abuse.” In 2005, it was tied with New York and Boston for third in the nation.

Page28

But O’Malley failed on some important other promises, such as the one about reducing the need to arrest people. The Green Book was adamant about giving police expanded power to issue civil citations for minor crimes, which was expected to free the courts of petty cases. “Through the use of citations–which make fewer arrests necessary–and courthouse reforms that keep innocent people and minor criminals from languishing in jail for weeks before trial,” O’Malley predicted that “fewer people may actually be locked up using quality-of-life policing strategies.” At the very least, he promised that “quality-of-life policing does not mean arresting and locking up our city’s young men indiscriminately.”

Under Schmoke, there had been 70,000 arrests in 1997 and 85,000 in 1998. After several years of quality-of-life police work, in 2004 O’Malley’s expanded civil-citation powers were put in place. In 2005, city police logged around 100,000 arrests. In 2006, the city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who raised charges of widespread indiscriminate arrests. So much for the less-arrests theory of zero-tolerance policing.

O’Malley’s record on police corruption and misconduct has a level of intrigue appropriate to the cloak-and-dagger milieu of internal investigations. His campaign pledges on the issue were zealous. “We know,” he wrote in the Green Book, “that when the police are encouraged to be more assertive, government must become more assertive and open in its policing of the police.” He’d been complaining about police corruption and misconduct under Schmoke’s commissioners for years, and yet “our problem has only gotten worse,” he insisted, adding that “There is nothing more harmful to effective law enforcement, and more devastating to the morale of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement officers, than police misconduct.”

To fight it, O’Malley pledged in the Green Book to “open the Police Department’s internal investigation process, to assure the public that police problems are not being swept under the rug by colleagues’ complicity.”

Immediately after gaining City Hall, O’Malley asked outside consultants to look at the department’s problems. Among their tasks was a survey of police personnel about street-level corruption, which showed that 23 percent of the department believed that more than a quarter of its officers were “involved in stealing money or drugs from drug dealers.” The survey put numbers on the idea that the Baltimore police had a corruption problem.

And yet nothing much happened. Not for years. There were two corruption arrests that didn’t pan out. The case against officer Brian Sewell, suspected in 2000 of planting drugs on an innocent suspect, became suspicious when police evidence against him disappeared during a break-in at internal investigators’ offices, and the charges were dropped by prosecutors in 2001. Officer Jacqueline Folio, accused of a false drug arrest, was found not guilty in a 2003 criminal trial, and the department’s administrative case against her was so full of exculpatory evidence and apparent attempts at cover-ups that she was cleared entirely–and settled her own lawsuit against the city over the whole, career-ending episode. At the end of 2003, police said they had conducted 202 “random integrity tests” to catch bad cops since 2000, yet the only cops nabbed were Sewell and Folio.

The quiet continued. In early January of this year, The Washington Post reported that O’Malley had been booed at a legislative hearing over his department’s high volume of arrests, and that the mayor countered that aggressive arrests would be reflected in increased misconduct complaints, which were down. He was soon to lose the use of that argument at hearings, for 2006 quickly became a memorable year in the annals of Baltimore police misbehavior.

Two days after the legislative hearing, on Jan. 6, a city grand jury charged three officers with rape, unearthing evidence that their undercover squad was corrupt in other ways as well. In April, a federal jury convicted two Baltimore police detectives for robbing drug dealers, a city grand jury charged an officer with stealing rims off a car belonging to an arrested citizen, and an officer caught a gambling conviction. In July, two officers were charged in Baltimore County in separate crimes–fraud and theft in one case, and burglary and stalking in the other. And in August, a Baltimore officer was charged with identity theft in Pennsylvania.

As a councilman and mayoral candidate, O’Malley was passionate about the idea that the police department needed a housecleaning. Police officers “after all are only human,” he said in the 1999 phone interview, so they must be policed “to insure that temptation, unchecked anger, and prejudice do not tarnish the moral authority necessary for a police department to effectively perform its job.” After five years of relative quiet punctuated by weak corruption cases under O’Malley, what he predicted in 1999–“well publicized arrests of clusters of officers who are lured away by the easy money and lucrative money of the drug trade,” as he put it in a 1999 phone interview–is finally coming true.

 

The Green Book set down an anecdote about Schmoke’s police commissioner Thomas Frazier coming before the City Council in September 1996, on the heels of councilman O’Malley’s return from New York to study its policing strategies. “You don’t have to tell me about zero tolerance. I know what they do in New York,” Frazier was quoted as saying. “They’re doing the same thing I started doing here with Greenmount Avenue–close down the open-air drug markets, drive them indoors, and you reduce the violence. . . . I have to be a team player. When we start closing down the open-air drug markets, the judges complain that we’re crowding their courts and the Mayor makes me back off. . . . Tell the judges. I’m only one piece of this criminal justice system.”

And so is Mayor O’Malley only one piece of the city’s public-safety complex, though you’d never know that from reading the Green Book. To get elected, he made it seem like he was a one-man crime-fighting machine, that all he had to do was hire a police commissioner to deploy known policing strategies proven successful in other cities, and it would all fall in place–an instant urban revival. It’s doubtful any mayor could have met the expectations O’Malley set for himself, much less one who hasn’t gone through four police commissioners and three interim commissioners the way O’Malley has. Still, he scored points for seeming to try and for being in power when interest rates dropped. This Nov. 7, the state’s voters will decide whether he tried hard enough. Either way, he still owes.

Late Discovery: A New Twist in the Redwood Trust Double-Murder Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 2006

IMG_7624-2

“I don’t know why they’re digging into my past,” remarks 56-year old Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, a local developer and owner of the now-defunct downtown nightclub Redwood Trust. He’s on the phone with a reporter, commenting about the double-murder case involving the club’s former manager, Jason Convertino (pictured, above left), who was shot to death in April 2003 in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment, along with Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right), who worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company that held events at Redwood Trust. Suspect Anthony Jerome Miller‘s trial in the case, which turns largely on the presence of DNA consistent with Miller’s found in latex gloves discovered at the crime scene, is scheduled to start in January. But Piscatelli is concerned about recent indications that the case is delving into the possibility that he had something to do with the crime.

“I see what they’re going to do, which is a shame,” Piscatelli continues, referring to Miller’s defense, mounted by attorney Paul Polansky. “Which is to cast doubt and get this guy off.” Neither Polansky nor prosecutor Sharon Holback will discuss the case, and there is no indication that information about Piscatelli will be used by either side at Miller’s trial.

Casting doubt to get people off is what criminal-defense attorneys do for a living, and part of that effort involves understanding the evidence that police and prosecutors gather to bring charges against their clients. In Miller’s case, the nature of that evidence had been limited for the most part to the DNA analysis–until recently, when a new prosecutor took over the case and, as the law requires, submitted to Polansky voluminous documentation about the lengthy investigative process that led to Miller’s indictment in January. Delays in “discovery,” as this process is called, in large part have been responsible for rescheduling the trial date, which was reset four times and is now scheduled to start Jan. 24, 2007.

In October, Polansky argued in court that the state’s discovery failures had been so severe that the charges should be dismissed. A judge disagreed, so the case is proceeding, and on Dec. 5 Miller’s request for a change in his no-bail status was denied. Meanwhile, the late-arriving discovery has fattened the case file with information stating, among other things, that Convertino’s mother was told shortly after the murders that Piscatelli ordered them.

On Oct. 27, Holback disclosed in a memorandum to the defense that “Pam Morgan [Convertino’s mother] has stated that an unknown man approached her at a benefit in Binghamton, New York, held for her son’s child shortly after his murder. The man advised her that Nick Piscatelli was behind her son’s murder, he covered his tracks and hired someone to kill him.” The memo does not indicate when Morgan shared this information with investigators, but she told City Paper during a Nov. 30 phone interview that the event was held in May 2003, just weeks after the murders.

“At the benefit, this guy comes up to me and he says he knows who was behind my son’s murder” Morgan recalls. “I didn’t know Nick [Piscatelli] at that point.” Since then, though, Morgan says she has kept in regular, friendly phone contact with Piscatelli.

“Oh boy! She said that?” Piscatelli says when informed of Morgan’s statement about the man’s visit to the Binghamton gathering. “That’s unfortunate. I’ve spoken to her several times, and she’s never mentioned anything like that to me. That’s certainly sad to hear. There has been no animosity between us.”

Over the phone from her home outside of Binghamton, Morgan describes the man who dropped Piscatelli’s name at the benefit as white, in his 30s, several inches shy of six feet tall, with “lightish hair,” of “medium build,” and “wearing a long coat, like a trench coat.”

“He came in, talked, and left,” she continues. “I was like, `Whoa!’ And that’s when I first started questioning the club, and had these theories [that Piscatelli might be involved]. And I also thought, did [the man] do it purposefully, to throw it off someone else by naming Nick? Because there is no evidence against Nick.”

Still, she says she’s fearful of Piscatelli, and now that her suspicions have been made public in Miller’s case file she says she will stop calling him. “That was my last call to him, probably in September,” Morgan recalls, when she says she discussed with Piscatelli items still in his possession that belonged to her son. (The Oct. 27 memo also discloses that Morgan told investigators that this reporter shared with her information about Piscatelli obtained through unnamed sources.)

Morgan’s statements are not the only ones mentioning Piscatelli in the discovery documents. A Nov. 9 discovery memo states that “a record of firearms owned and registered to Nicholas Piscatelli” was shared with the defense. Piscatelli reacts to this news by saying that “it was years ago–during the 1990s, or the 1980s–that I bought a couple of guns for hunting or target practice,” and asserts again that Polansky and Miller are “trying to use whatever they can to cast a shadow of a doubt.”

On Oct. 24, court documents also show prosecutor Holback shared with the defense “notes of detective’s interview of Carl Weaver (who is believed to be also known as Carl Curry)” that provide information about Weaver’s relationship with Piscatelli and “several other men,” including one that “obtained drugs for Nick Piscatelli.” Neither Weaver nor the two men whose names are mentioned could be located by City Paper in time for this article, and Piscatelli asserts he doesn’t know them. As for Weaver’s allegation about drugs, Piscatelli, who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Howard County, doesn’t directly respond but says that “there were no drugs in that club and no evidence of that going on.”

In fact, as City Paper has previously reported (“Club Trouble,” Mobtown Beat, June 11, 2003), evidence of drugs at the Redwood Trust does exist in the public record. In 2002, police executed a search-and-seizure warrant there and seized small amounts of cocaine and other drugs from the club. However, despite the evidence, the Baltimore City Liquor Board acquitted Redwood Trust of the resulting violations. “The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” then-liquor board Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the 2002 hearing.

In a November 2003 police report, Piscatelli stated that, while at the club, he was forced to sign a fraudulent promissory note for the sale of the nightclub business to another party, who, along with three armed men wearing masks, threatened Piscatelli and his business partner, Paul Chrzanowski, and asked them to sample “cocaine in a paper towel” (“Deadwood Bust,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2004). No criminal charges resulted from the incident, though competing lawsuits over the promissory note ended in October 2005, with Piscatelli winning a $1 million judgment against the buyer, Omar Haughton of Ellicott City.

Miller, meanwhile, worked for Redwood Trust, according to Piscatelli, who said prosecutors have asked him to produce Miller’s employment records. In court cases against him in the 1990s, Miller used an alias and three different dates of birth that today would place him in his mid-30s. One case, for murder in 1993, resulted in an assault conviction and two months of incarceration. Miller’s other conviction was for forgery in the mid-1990s, though he has dodged drug-conspiracy and other charges.

The state has accused Miller not only of murder in the Redwood Trust case but also armed robbery. This is apparently due to the fate of Convertino’s laptop computer, which court documents show Miller pawned the day after the bodies were found on April 16, 2003. Court records also indicate that Miller used Convertino’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico. Miller was first interviewed by detectives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on May 14, 2003, when he and his wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, returned from their honeymoon. During that interview, according to a detective’s notes contained in the court file, Miller described Convertino as a friend.

“Jay was a good guy,” the detective wrote of Miller’s statements at the airport. “Jay was willing to help anyone out at any time.”

Miller has consistently maintained his innocence and asserted his right to a speedy trial since his arraignment this past March. Until the trial, it’s anyone’s guess how Miller’s DNA was found in the gloves left at the murder scene, what Miller was doing with Convertino’s laptop, and how Miller came to use the victim’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon.

Piscatelli says Miller also asked him for honeymoon money, though he declined to lend it. “I didn’t really know [Miller],” Piscatelli says, “and didn’t really hire him” to work at Redwood Trust. That, he maintains, was Convertino’s decision.

Piscatelli is bewildered by indications that the case against Miller is developing to include information that suggests Piscatelli is being investigated in connection with the crime. “It’s a shame this thing is going in this direction,” he states ruefully. “I wouldn’t ever dream of doing anything like that. . . . I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Trying Time: Double-Murder Suspect Pleads Not Guilty

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 22, 2006

IMG_7632

Pam Morgan drove to Baltimore from near Binghamton, N.Y., to attend the March 15 arraignment of the man she and city prosecutors believe murdered her son. Since April 16, 2003—the day the gunned-down bodies of her son, 31-year-old Jason Convertino, and Sean Wisniewski, 22, were found in a Fells Point apartment, about five days after the murders allegedly occurred—she has anticipated the day when a suspect would face reckoning for the crime.

That day is coming soon. Randallstown resident Anthony Jerome Miller, whose court records indicate he’s either 30, 33, or 35 years old, pleaded not guilty to the double-murder and related charges, after the indictments were read aloud to him as he stood before Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Shirley Watts. The case was then put on the court docket for trial starting June 19. The evidence against Miller includes DNA collected from latex gloves left at the crime scene. Miller and the victims were affiliated with the Redwood Trust nightclub downtown, which Convertino managed for owner Nicholas Piscatelli.

Outside the courtroom after the arraignment, Morgan, who had kept stoically dry-eyed during the proceeding, commented on how her son had tried to fight off his attacker. “Jason was a fighter, but look at Miller,” she said. Broad-shouldered and buff, Miller, according to court records, stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 225 pounds.

“I am so glad I came to see Miller,” Morgan wrote in an e-mail to City Paper the next day. “I said I didn’t know how I would react, and I really surprised myself. I felt a God-given strength all of a sudden, and felt like my son was standing right beside me. Strange, huh? I hope I’m that strong through the trial.”

Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, declined to comment on the case after the arraignment, other than to say his client is not guilty.

Polansky, standing with four of Miller’s friends and family members in the foyer outside the courtroom, also declined to discuss previous charges for which he represented Miller: a 1993 double-murder case in which Miller was found guilty of assault; the state declined to prosecute him on the murder charges. A request was made to the Baltimore City State’s Attorneys’ press office to speak with the prosecutor of that case, David Chiu. Chiu, however, was not available as of press time.

The court file for that 1993 case, retrieved from archives, paints a confusing picture. The police report describes not two victims but one: 28-year-old Joseph Earl Carter. Carter was found June 13, 1993, dead from a gunshot wound to the head, his body reposed in the middle of the 1800 block of Westwood Avenue in Sandtown-Winchester. A shot also was fired into Carter’s car, which struck another victim, Ramona Jones. According to the report, she “later pulled the deformed projectile from her hair (it did not penetrate the skin) and handed it to investigators.” Miller was identified by witnesses as being part of a group that had attacked Carter’s friend. Ultimately, though, it appears from the case file that the gunman was never arrested.

Miller’s wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, was interviewed over the phone by City Paper on Feb. 19, and stated that “I will definitely sue if my name is mentioned” in an article about the Redwood Trust murders. She said that Miller, who turned himself in on a warrant in January, never expected to be detained on the charges, and that he’s a religious man “in second-year discipleship at church.” In May 2003, shortly after the killings, “police kicked the door in” at her previous Randallstown residence, Fitzgerald claimed, and “took Anthony’s clothes and boots,” but that the “paperwork disappeared” regarding the incident. After the police raid, she said, she sold the house, and she and Miller moved to another house she purchased in Randallstown. She sold that home, which is Miller’s address in the charging documents, shortly before Miller surrendered.

Redwood Bust: Suspect Indicted in 2003 Double Murder of Nightclubbers

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2006

IMG_7632

On Feb. 17, a Baltimore City grand jury indicted Anthony Jerome Miller (pictured) for the April 11, 2003, murder of Jason Michael Convertino and Sean Michael Mietus Wisniewski in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment at 1917 Gough St. Convertino, 31, was the manager of Redwood Trust, a downtown nightclub, and Wisniewski, 22, worked for Buzzlife, a Washington, D.C.-based entertainment company that held events at Redwood Trust on Saturday nights. Miller, who is being held without bail, turned himself in Jan. 23, four days after a warrant was issued for his arrest. His arraignment is scheduled for March 15.

Miller’s arrest was the first break in the case, which has remained shrouded in mystery since three of Wisniewski’s friends discovered the bodies on April 16, 2003. Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan of Binghamton, N.Y., says that one of the initial homicide investigators “told me there was not any evidence at all. They [the perpetrators] covered all their tracks—that’s what he said about this. And I thought, Oh my god, no one’s going to be caught for this.” Since then, the case ended up in the hands of cold-case investigator William Ritz. “Thank God for Ritz,” Morgan says, “or we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Attempts to reach Wisniewski’s father to comment for this article were unsuccessful. Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli and Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, did not return messages. Ritz, reached by phone at the cold-case squad’s office Feb. 20, would not comment, since the case, he said, is still “in the early stages” of being investigated.

According to court records, the murder weapon was “a .38/.357 caliber handgun.” Wisniewski was killed by a single gunshot wound, court records show, and sources familiar with the case, who asked to remain unnamed, say it was delivered to his head. Convertino, court records reflect, died of multiple gunshot wounds. Sources close to the investigation say that two rounds were fired into Convertino’s head, and another was shot into his arm. Miller, according to some of these sources, worked at Redwood Trust during the time of the murders.

Court documents written by Ritz explain the case against Miller. On the day the bodies were discovered, a latex glove and a second partial latex glove were recovered from the apartment by crime-scene investigators. Shortly afterward, Ritz’s report continues, it was learned that Convertino’s laptop computer was missing. On May 12, 2003, investigators discovered that the computer had been pawned by Miller on April 17, 2003—the day after the bodies were found—at a pawnshop in Randallstown. Miller’s driver’s license was presented to the pawnshop during the transaction, and lists an address a few miles away, in the Rolling Ridge subdivision.

In March 2005—nearly two years after the murders—the police finished processing the physical evidence in the case, including the latex gloves, according to Ritz’s report. The gloves were found to contain skin cells inside of them. On Aug. 16, 2005, police collected blood from Miller to compare his DNA to the skin cells. The comparison was completed on Nov. 29, and the skin cells were found to be consistent with Miller’s DNA.

“[T]his investigator believes,” Ritz wrote in his report, “that the latex gloves found at the crime scene . . . [were] worn by the defendant as a precautionary measure so as not to leave any physical evidence . . . that would link him to the crimes of assault, armed robbery and premeditated murder of [the] victims.”

“With the gloves, it just amazes me that they didn’t do what they had to do earlier,” Morgan says. “They had them since the day the bodies were found.”

Morgan chalks it up to Miller’s “stupidity” that he left behind evidence, such as the gloves and driver’s license information, that could trace the crime back to him, as police allege.

Miller has had some run-ins with Baltimore police in the past. In a 1993 case, court records show, he faced two murder charges and an assault charge. Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko says the state declined to prosecute him on the murder charges, but he was found guilty of assault in that case and received a one-year sentence, with 10 months suspended. In 1997, he was found guilty of forging a public document and received a $250 fine, a two-year suspended sentence, and 18 months of probation. Also in 1997, a drug-conspiracy case against him was shelved by prosecutors. In 1994, the state’s attorney declined to prosecute him on an assault charge and on a charge of playing dice. (In the 1994 dice case, Miller used an alias: Samuel Lester Miller. Sviatko says records show that Miller also used three different dates of birth: one in 1975, one in 1972, and one in 1970.)

Most recently, on Dec. 1, 2005, Miller was charged in Baltimore with providing unauthorized taxicab services. Court records show that the state’s attorney declined to prosecute the charge on Jan. 24, the day after he turned himself in on the murder charges.

Morgan says she believes that Miller, if he’s found guilty of the murders, did not act alone. She bases that on a conversation she had with the second set of detectives who handled the case, before Ritz took it over.

“They said that they felt from the scene that there were two people in the apartment,” Morgan recalls, stressing that the case is still under investigation, even though Miller is in custody and facing trial. The Baltimore City State’s Attorneys Office, Morgan says, told her Miller’s trial could start as soon as June, unless circumstances cause a delay.

The Great American Meatout 2006 Vegetarian Feast

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Mar. 15, 2006

Unknown

Fatback. Braised short ribs. Broiled lamb chops with papaya chutney. Pickled whale fat. Aitch bones. Pork tenderloin with raspberry mint sauce. Oxtails. Shad roe. Wild turkey with ginger chestnut stuffing. Headcheese. Rabbits stuffed with blood sausage. Cheek meats. Pecan-encrusted venison. Singed sheep heads. Cranberry-port pot roast. Brains. Liver. Oven-roasted rockfish with peppers and baby potatoes. Baby-seal flippers. You can forget about all of that today. It’s March 20, the day of the Great American Meatout. Tomorrow, though, get as greasy as you like: haggis, beef tongue, sturgeon filets in aspic, cracklings, chicken livers wrapped in bacon–you name it. Tomorrow, and whenever else you want it.

“Mr. Boh’s Brewery”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 8, 2006

15350809352_ef19ace93a_b

Mr. Boh’s co-option is complete. His one-eyed face, which has long graced the labels of the no-longer-local brew, National Bohemian, seemingly inspired the Shawn Belschwender cartoon character Refrigerator Johnny. Rocker Mary Prankster’s logo is a more direct rip, clearly “Mrs. Boh.” When drummer Rob Oswald snipped and pasted Boh cans all over his kit, Mr. Boh must’ve felt 12 full ounces of honor every time Oswald wailed on ’em. Now there’s a film about Mr. Boh’s mother, the National Brewery, screened courtesy of the erstwhile brewery’s redevelopers, who’ve perched a giant neon Mr. Boh atop the Canton skyline. He’s arrived, so go fete him.

Luck of the Draw: Police Bust Gunmen Robbing Greektown Poker Game

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 7, 2006

IN A 15-MINUTE PERIOD AROUND 11 P.M. on Thursday, May 25, Baltimore City racked up 21 victims of violent crime in Greektown: 18 armed robberies and three attempted armed robberies. The incident is a blow to the victims and to Mayor Martin O’Malley’s attempts to reduce violent crime in the city—a central theme of his campaign for governor. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the two suspects were caught while robbing $23,827 from a high-stakes poker game, an illegal activity that O’Malley made light of last fall, after police raided two poker games that netted charges against nearly 100 players.

Last Nov. 17, O’Malley discussed the poker raids on WBAL Radio, relating cheekily how he had asked police commanders, “‘How many people do we have assigned to the poker task force? Do you think we could reassign them to the violent-crime and drug task force?’” He continued, “It seems like we’ve become obsessed with poker games. I think there are more deadly challenges facing our city and our citizens.”

As of press time, the police department had not responded to City Paper’s request for information and comment about the Greektown poker robbery. When mayoral spokeswoman Raquel Guillory was asked if the mayor’s thoughts about poker enforcement had changed after the robbery, she had only this to say: “We have a vice squad who, along with other crimes, track these as well. These particular types of games pose a risk to the players because there is usually a large amount of money and the police don’t know about them. But these are illegal.”

One of the victims, criminal defense attorney Stephen L. Prevas (a brother of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas), rues that the poker-game heist chalked up a host of offenses on the city’s violent-crime tables. “One event that takes 10, 15 minutes,” he points out in a telephone interview after the robbery, “and it skews the statistics.”

Another victim, Jason Thomas Lantz, was pistol-whipped during the incident, according to a police report contained in the court records. “It opened up a nice gash on the guy’s head,” Prevas recalls. “It was ugly, but everybody remained rather calm.”

The timing of the robbery, Prevas adds, was perfect. “Of any time to strike,” he says, “that particular time on a Thursday night was good, to maximize the benefits” of a robbery, because more than the usual amounts of cash were on hand.

Prevas, who represented two dealers charged with gambling in one of last November’s poker raids, would like to see poker legalized and regulated in Maryland. However, “when it is done in this fashion”—illegally, with lots of money on the table—he opines, “the biggest negative is that someone will get robbed. Any time you put a bunch of people with a lot of money in their pockets in one place, it is going to put a gleam in someone’s eye. I may start going to Atlantic City again—it keeps you honest.” Or, he adds, “I may just stay in games that are in someone’s home where I’m familiar with people.” At any rate, Prevas says, “as I understand it, the game will not reopen at that particular place.”

Prevas, who has been a member of the Maryland Bar since 1973, had $1,700 taken from him during the robbery and says that money is now in police hands. He contends that, while a poker game was in progress at the time, he wasn’t playing. “You can infer what you want,” he asserts when asked why he had so much money while watching a poker game. “But in the scheme of things, it’s not that big of a bankroll. I am used to having cash on my person.”

Another victim, real-estate investor Jeremiah B. Landsman, says he had $900 in his wallet when it was taken from him by the robbers. “I got most of it back,” he says, after the police busted the perpetrators. He, too, contends that he wasn’t playing poker. “Everybody knows gambling is illegal,” he states in a phone interview. “And I don’t want to do anything illegal.” As for the amount of money he possessed at the time, he explains that “I’m in real estate, so I always carry a lot of cash.”

While police found $23,827 in the robbers’ bag once they were detained, court records indicate that only $15,429 was attributed to the 18 individuals who were robbed. The court records don’t explain the discrepancy, but the remainder may have belonged to the game’s organizers. “I have nothing to say about the house money,” Landsman says when asked about the differing sums.

The arrested suspects are 31-year-old Todd Mikal of Glen Burnie and 27-year-old Ronnie Lee Jones of Parkville. Mikal is charged with 131 counts, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, although a search of court records shows that this is the first time he’s been charged with a crime in Maryland. Jones was charged with 127 counts in connection with the poker robbery. Court records reveal that, since 1997, Jones has faced 17 charges for crimes including auto theft, illegal firearms, assault, robbery, theft, and juror intimidation. He was never convicted, though in 1999 he received two years of supervised probation before judgment for assault.

According to the police report, the crime was interrupted after one of the victims, Wayne Byers Long Jr., flagged down a passing patrol car and stated that a robbery was in progress at 4600 Eastern Ave. Long’s Parkville address is an apartment a few blocks away from Ronnie Jones’ home. Attempts to reach Long, in order to ask him if he knows the suspect, were unsuccessful.

The robbers, Prevas recalls, entered the back room of the premises through a side door.

“They came in behind a guy who’d been playing in the game fairly regularly,” he says. “[Someone] saw him through the peephole [in the door] and let him in.” One of the robbers “was doing all the talking, and was very loud and intimidating, and the other was the bag man,” who put the cash and wallets into a sack.

Once Long had hailed the police, “in seconds there were bunches of police there,” Prevas continues. “The friendly perps were just finishing up their business, saying ‘Good night and thank you, gentlemen,’ or something to that effect, when three cops appeared at the landing with their guns drawn. One guy gave it up immediately, and the other guy took off out the door,” Prevas recalls. The police quickly chased him down.

“It was a sense of vindication that they actually got caught,” Prevas says.

State records show the owner of 4600 Eastern Ave. to be Pete Koroneos, whose other interests over the years include a strip club and a restaurant on the Block, a Fells Point bar, and the Broadway Diner, located just east of Greektown on Eastern Avenue. A sign for the diner graces the side of the nondescript building that hosted the ill-fated poker game, and is the only identifying mark on the newly painted building other than the street number affixed to the mailbox on the front door. Attempts to reach Koroneos at his Otterbein condominium, in order to ask him about the poker game held in his Greektown property, were unsuccessful.

Landsman and Prevas indicate that the property has long been a home for poker—though Landsman insists that it was “only for fun, only for chips, not money.”

“It’s a men’s club,” he continues, “where we would eat, drink, watch games. It was a really nice group of people and a really good time. I would go once a week. It was a great place to network with other professionals from Baltimore.”

Another victim, Gilbert Roden, is more direct. “It was a bunch of guys that get together and play poker,” he says over the phone.

The list of 21 robbery victims includes 11 people whose names also appear on the membership lists of two other poker clubs: the Owls Nest, which was raided by police last fall, and a related entity called the Orioles Nest (“Fouled Nests,” Nov. 23, 2005). Two of the Greektown victims had been arrested for gambling at the Owls Nest raid, and their charges were later dropped.

None of the poker-playing victims of the Greektown robbery has been charged with a crime—in contrast to the gambling charges that resulted from last November’s raids of the Owls Nest and another game at the Aces High Club on Harford Road. Without police comment, City Paper has not been able to determine whether the decision not to charge the gamblers resulted from O’Malley’s public statements that enforcing the law against poker games squanders police resources.

Landsman, however, says he believes “the police handled [the Greektown poker robbery] perfectly. It was a bad situation with the best possible outcome.” Nonetheless, he states, “obviously, these games draw crime. It’s unfortunate.”

D. Day: The Bengies Drive-In Theatre Turns 50

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 31, 2006

The original 1956 marquee at the Bengies Drive-In Theatre, which is named after its Middle River neighborhood, had a misplaced apostrophe in the name—“Bengie’s.” Proprietor D. Edward Vogel says there is a “very controversial” story behind the stray punctuation mark. He lights a cigarette in the bright May sun, stands on the asphalt before a newly repainted replica of the bygone sign affixed to the drive-in’s concessions building, and starts to tell it: “My natural father was A. Fred Serrao. You need to know this. He Americanized his Italian name. His father never forgave him.”

Hours pass. The apostrophe story still isn’t finished. By the time the punch line is delivered, the sun is sinking below the top of the Bengies’ 6,240-square-foot movie screen, the biggest on the East Coast, and Vogel (who goes by D.) has nearly emptied his pack of smokes. As it turns out, the apostrophe and the size of the screen are related—an epic story that takes an epoch for fast-talking D. to tell.

“You asked me about the Bengies,” Vogel explains. “The Bengies is my favorite subject, and I answered your question.” (While many patrons refer to the theater as “Bengies,” as if it belonged to a guy named Bengie, à la the original marquee, Vogel always includes the definite article—“the Bengies.”)

It’s easy to forgive Vogel’s multi-stranded yarn. First off, on June 6 the Bengies will turn 50 years old, a proper occasion for a full oral history of the place given by the guy who owns the business, books the slate of current-release movies that screen each weekend night, runs the projector, and handles the PA announcements. Secondly, after years of uncertainty over the theater’s fate, Vogel is about to own the land his business sits on, so—for the first time in decades—he believes the end of the Bengies is not near. Finally, Vogel was raised to talk endlessly, so he can hardly help it if his stories get away from him.

D. Vogel was born in Pennsylvania, the son of Serrao, a movie-theater developer who died when Vogel was 3. His mother, Aileen, then married an acquaintance of Serrao’s, Jack Vogel of Ohio, an architect-engineer who designed and helped build movie theaters, including more than 300 drive-ins. Thus, Jack Vogel (known in the business as the Frank Lloyd Wright of drive-ins, but known to D. as Dad) was often on the road checking in on his far-flung projects. Young D.—the youngest of the six Serrao children Jack Vogel adopted—was his father’s co-pilot on many such trips, assigned by his mother an important task: to talk nonstop in order to keep his dad alert at the wheel.

By the time Vogel was honing his storytelling skills in his dad’s car, the Bengies was already up and running. Jack Vogel was in business with his brothers, Hank and Paul, and they came to Maryland to build theaters for Durkee Enterprises—the company that gave Baltimore many theaters, of which only the Senator survives. Then, in 1954, they designed and built the erstwhile Edmondson Drive-In on Route 40 West in Catonsville for developer George Brehm. Two years later, after Hank Vogel found the Bengies property, the brothers bought it and built their own drive-in.

“Hank is the one that I really got close to,” D. Vogel says. Paul Vogel was an Army colonel, and the military was his life’s focus, though he had a stake in the business. Hank Vogel’s role was to build the drive-ins that Jack Vogel designed. “Once the Bengies was built, Uncle Hank chose to stay here,” Vogel continues. “And I started to work for him in the summers,” in the mid-1970s, staying in a rented apartment in a house right behind the Bengies’ screen. When Hank died in 1978, “we were all devastated,” Vogel remembers, but the Bengies never skipped a beat.

Vogel took a break from college after Hank died, to run the Bengies and two indoor Vogel-owned theaters nearby. But he soon grew resentful about his lack of a say in how the family business was run by Jack Vogel, who was in Ohio. So D. Vogel quit and resumed college while his older brother Fred took over the Bengies, which after a few years was leased to R/C Theatres. “The Bengies had left the Vogels’ hands,” Vogel says sadly. “And I refused to set foot in there.” The bitterness ran deep, and Vogel virtually stopped talking with his brother and father. In the meantime, he worked at the city’s old movie theaters—the Towne, Mayfair, New, and Hippodrome—and sold cars for Smith Motors.

Eventually, Vogel ran into the Bengies’ concessions manager around town, and she asked him to visit the eastern Baltimore County drive-in. “I did not like what I saw,” he says. “The place looked like a dump—sound poles were missing, the grass was knee-high.” The concessions manager asked Vogel to lease it. After much family debate and in-fighting, Vogel fulfilled her request in 1988 with a year-to-year lease.

He immediately set about trying to buy the land from his family. The heartache and haggling over this issue almost buried the Bengies in the late 1990s. But just before Vogel’s dad died in the fall of 2004, the last issue holding up the property sale—changing the zoning from residential to commercial—was approved, with a covenant restricting the land’s use to entertainment purposes. Today, D. awaits the final settlement papers to sign.

So why the apostrophe on the original marquee? That, after all, is how Vogel started this story. “Because Dad thought it was cute!” he exclaims.

Jack Vogel ordered it built that way—with his brothers’ blessings, though they hadn’t noticed the apostrophe in the marquee drawings. The sign arrived for installation just as the brothers were in the middle of a dispute over the size of the screen, causing the argument to escalate. Jack had designed the screen large; Hank wanted it that big, but Paul thought it was too expensive. “Everything’s big around here,” Hank argued. Just then, as D. Vogel recounts, a very large horse fly landed on Paul’s arm, so big that Paul didn’t know what it was. After Hank whacked it with a spade, smashing it into a gooey mess on Paul’s arm, he sealed the deal: “See,” he repeated, “everything’s big around here.”

“At that moment, it was all settled,” Vogel says. “There was an apostrophe on the marquee, and there would be a big screen. And that screen is one of the reasons I’m just hellbent the Bengies is going to stay here. No, the Bengies wasn’t the nicest theater the Vogels ever built, most certainly. But the screen is exactly right.” And today the marquee, which was replaced in 1973 without the apostrophe, is too.

Star Power: Frank M. Conaway Jr. Won an Election, Baggage and All

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 25, 2006

State delegate candidate Frank Melvin Conaway Jr., who with 5,889 votes was the top vote-getter in the 40th District Democratic primary in September, doesn’t want this story published. His father, Baltimore City Clerk of the Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., doesn’t either. In separate interviews, both used the same, emphatic words: “You don’t have to write the story.”

The story, though, may be of interest for 40th District voters, who on Nov. 7 will decide which three of the four candidates will go to Annapolis to represent approximately 110,000 city residents living from Pimlico and Rosemont to Woodberry and Mount Vernon. Simply put, Conaway Jr. isn’t a delegate yet, but he likely will be soon–despite having a decidedly thin résumé and embarrassing problems: a drug convict chairs his campaign committee, and his wife swore in 2003 that Conaway Jr. is mentally ill and abusive, prompting Baltimore County courts to step in for her protection.

Conaway Jr.’s campaign-finance committee is chaired by Adonis Sanchez Johnson, 26, who in 2003 was convicted for possessing six quarter-sized chunks of crack cocaine with a street value of several hundred dollars. He received an 18-month suspended sentence and 18 months of supervised probation. At his sentencing, court records show, Johnson was an unemployed community-college student who previously worked construction.

Conaway Jr.’s longtime wife, Latesa Elaine Thomas, 44, has had a Baltimore County domestic-violence protective order against her husband for more than three years. The order, dated Aug. 25, 2003, states that Conaway Jr. “threatened to kill” Thomas, placing her “in fear of imminent serious bodily harm,” and that “one year ago [he] pushed her face through back door window.” Thomas also convinced the court that Conaway Jr., 43, was a threat to himself and others as a diagnosed sufferer of bipolar disorder who had stopped taking his prescribed medications, so the court ordered police escorts to deliver Conaway Jr. to two emergency hospital evaluations in the summer of 2003. Thomas is in the process of divorcing Conaway Jr.

“We knew this day would come,” Conaway Jr. says. It’s an unseasonably warm early-October afternoon, and he’s standing at the foot of the Battle Monument, in the middle of Calvert Street between the two circuit courthouses. “Somebody’s going to ask that question,” he remarks, “and it’s none of your business.” At the time, City Paper did not know what had happened to prompt the protection order.

Conaway Jr. dismisses the drug conviction of his committee chairman by asking, “Can’t a guy get a second chance?” He remarks that “in order to be one of the people, you have to help the people. I gave a person a chance.”

Conaway Sr., when asked about Johnson’s criminal record and committee chairmanship, says simply that “it is what it is.” Attempts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.

Bringing up Conaway Jr.’s own court record prompts the candidate to assume a don’t-go-there attitude. “My children’s mother is a decent woman,” he says. “That’s all you need to know. People understand that things happen between man and woman and the rearing of children.”

Conaway Sr., interviewed later over the phone after his son’s domestic violence record had been examined, says, “I don’t know about [Conaway Jr.’s] diagnosed disorder.” He adds that he doesn’t “get into [his children’s] marital affairs” and therefore was unaware of the domestic-violence issues. He cautions that his son once took his wife to court, too, so “you should take what she says with a grain of salt.”

In addition to the injuries described in the protective order, Thomas, in her sworn statement in the case, mentioned a “tooth chip” and “bruises all over the body.” She wrote that Conaway Jr. was “having a bi-polar accident. He has not taken his medicine for several months.” She asked the court to help, writing that she and the three children she’s had with Conaway Jr. are “living in fear” because “he is bi-polar and I can’t deal or control his behavior,” which she described as “unstable,” “talking threats, keeping son in garage in fear. My entire family is afraid. He is in a manic state and is unreasonable.”

Bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic-depressive illness, is described by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function” that “can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.” It estimates that 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from the biochemical illness. In September, the Harvard Medical School published a NIMH-funded study that found that the economic impact of bipolar disorder is measurable: “each U.S. worker with bipolar disorder averaged 65.5 lost workdays in a year.” But it is treatable with medication–as long as sufferers stay on their medication.

Keeping on the medication, Thomas swore to the court, was what Conaway Jr. failed to do. The result was abuse allegations severe enough for the court to order him to stay away from his wife, children, and in-laws, and their respective homes, schools, and workplaces, or be charged with a misdemeanor crime that could bring jail time.

In the ongoing divorce case, Thomas no longer alleges abuse by her husband, and asks for divorce on the grounds that they’ve been separated since July 2003. Conaway Jr., though, brought up the issue of violence himself, writing in his response to her divorce filing that Thomas “failed to list when she was charged with domestic violence.” That occurred in 1993, when Conaway Jr. swore out a complaint against her for assault, but prosecutors dropped the charge.

Conaway Sr., when informed of his daughter-in-law’s sworn statements, says quietly, “I don’t believe these things. I don’t think he would lay a hand on her. And I know him.”

Thomas initially said she would meet with a reporter for this article but then stopped returning phone calls. “I’m just an ordinary woman looking out for my children,” she said during a brief phone conversation.

Conaway Jr. is a mail clerk in the Baltimore City Municipal Post Office, a job he says he’s had for about three years. For about six or seven years before that, he says he worked for his father’s travel agency. Back in the 1980s for three or four years, he says he had an insurance broker’s license while working for Conaway Sr.’s now-defunct insurance business. In the meantime, Conaway Jr. says he received an education–three years at Howard University, one year at Morgan State University, then three years at Sojourner-Douglass College, graduating in 1999 with a degree in business administration. He also wrote books, and started a replica kit-car business called “F” Dreams Inc. The business fell victim, he says, to the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. His book Baptist Gnostic Christian Eubonic Kundalinion Spiritual Ki Do Hermeneutic Metaphysics, which combines biblical theology and martial arts, was published in 2001, and was followed by the ’04 release of his The 20 Pennies a Day Diet Plan. Both are available online.

Conaway Jr.’s political committee, which was formed in May, raised and spent exactly nothing to get him elected in the primary. Yet at the polls he bettered all others–one well-liked, well-funded incumbent (freshman legislator Marshall Goodwin) and a number of other challengers with serious jobs and respectable campaign kitties. How? Conaway Jr. explains it this way.

“I have been in this community all my life,” he asserts. “I was raised up to have respect for everyone, to greet people every day–police officers, teachers, businesspeople–so every day I say good morning to people. I speak to people in the supermarkets, gas stations, whatever. That’s how I know people. That’s how I pulled it off, because I’m one of the people.

“I covered the whole district,” he continues, defensive at the suggestion that he was a no-show candidate, often missing at primary-season events. “I went door to door, I gave out toys, I gave out whistles, I gave out brooms, I spoke at forums. I tried to tell the truth. I tried to give a different answer than just rhetoric. I separated myself from the pack, because most of the people I was running against, they sound the same. You know, they sound good, but there are no answers [when they speak]. I spoke my mind.”

Conaway Sr. fills in the rest. “Everybody that gets elected gets elected by name recognition–everybody,” he proclaims, explaining that voters tend not to vote for people whose names they don’t know. “If you don’t have it, you have to buy it, and it just so happened that [Conaway Jr.] didn’t have to buy name recognition because his name was well-known.”

The Conaway name has graced Baltimore ballots since the 1970s, when Conaway Sr. was himself elected a state delegate. He rose to chair the Legislative Black Caucus before his star arched into a scandalous investigation of his insurance business. By 1982, he’d vacated his seat in Annapolis and declared bankruptcy. The same year, his wife, Mary Conaway, was elected the city’s register of wills, a position she’s held ever since–though she’s made stabs for other offices, including for Congress and mayor. Since Conaway Sr. gained the clerkship of the city Circuit Court in 1998, he’s run for mayor, too. Conaway Jr.’s sister Belinda Conaway is the 7th District’s city councilwoman, and just ran and lost for state Senate in the 40th District. Conaway Jr. himself tried for a City Council seat in 1999. That’s a lot of Conaways on a lot of ballots over a long period of time.

In order to keep the family legacy going, Conaway Sr. started Three Bears Slate, the campaign committee that raises and spends money on any and all of the family’s races for public office–including Conaway Jr.’s primary victory. Formed in July 2005, it had raised nearly $60,000 and spent nearly $50,000 as of late August.

“All of those votes for four people with so little money,” Conaway Sr. says, admiring the electoral efficiency of the family machine. “It’s not for power,” he insists–though he allows that another organization he formed this year with a bevy of local political and business leaders, Metro Political Organization, is “about power–what else would it be?” But when it comes to the family slate and public service, “I’m in it to help people,” he says.

In this case, Conaway Sr.’s help came in the form of Conaway Jr. The son, since he hasn’t followed former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Doug Duncan’s recent example of withdrawing after confessing to a mental-health problem, is on the November ballot along with fellow Democrats Barbara Robinson and Shawn Tarrant. Green Party candidate Jan Danforth is on the list, too. While Danforth’s vote-drawing potential is as yet untested, she has made a name for herself by fighting vocally in recent years against Loyola College’s decision to develop forestland in Woodberry and serving on the boards of the Greater Homewood Community Development Corp. and Jones Falls Watershed Association. If Danforth, 56, comes in fourth, Conaway Jr. will be elected, making his father proud.

“He’s not going to do anything bad,” Conaway Sr. predicts of his son’s likely future in the state legislature. “He’s fine. He’s going to be a star.”

Moving on Down: One Month in the Lives of a Homeless Couple Just Trying To Get By

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 12, 2006

IMG_7322

“Hello! Anybody home!” A second passes. No answer, but a flutter or two of the hanging blankets. “It’s the newspaper,” in a loud clear voice. “Was hoping to talk to you, but don’t want to just barge in.” More fluttering, and a man’s voice goes, “Yeah.” A woman’s goes, “Just a minute.” The blankets are the type used by moving companies to protect valuables. Rocks secure the tops of the blankets to the large metal beams of the overpass. The fast-moving cars and trucks above can’t be seen, but they’re heard—a constant, arhythmic racket, echoing off the cold, hard surfaces below. Together, the blankets square off room enough for a bed and some crouch space.

The blankets part and a man and a woman walk out into the early March chill. The man is much older than the woman, who looks barely out of her teens. He has a blackened right eye and a scrape on his forehead above it, both resulting, he says, from the lack of lighting under the overpass. She gave him the black eye with her elbow, a middle-of-the-night mistake in bed, and the low-hanging beams got his forehead. His gray fleece hooded jacket, black nylon pants, and lightweight hiking boots give him the appearance of being ready for action. But his thinning, graying hair, his missing teeth, his careful gait, and his dark brown eyes give away the hard miles he’s traveled to middle age. His name is Leonard, and this is his second foray into Baltimore homelessness.

“Eleven years ago, being here, things were a lot more accessible as far as outreach goes,” he says. “People seemed to be a lot more friendlier. But now it’s like people look [at us] as if we are nothing.”

Leonard talks pretty much nonstop for about five or six minutes. He explains what’s wrong with the homeless scene in Baltimore, and how it’s gotten worse since he last was here from New Hampshire more than a decade ago. He says a lot of homeless people choose to stay that way, working the system for years, but not him and his young wife. They’re willing to work hard to better themselves. A lot of circumstances have conspired to keep him out of work, but something’s bound to come up. It has to, since his wife is pregnant. She’s not showing, but she’s about four months along. She finally speaks.

“Actually,” she says, “I want to become a massage therapist.” That’s her area of expertise, based on what she’s been told by people whose backs she’s rubbed. Leonard nods. “I’ve massaged his back a lot and I actually make him fall asleep,” she says. “I can actually make him feel better.” She has bright blue eyes and long brown hair that falls down around her wide face from under a black winter hat. She’s wearing a green-and-white fleece pullover with a Nordic pattern and blue jeans. Her boots match Leonard’s. She introduces herself as Donna.

Donna says she’s “not totally through a GED class,” with a meek hint of pride, but “it’s going to take a while” to be job-ready in the massage industry. “And I just don’t have all the ability right now to be able to get to something like that while being on the streets.” She’ll need a manicure before she does.

It’s hard to say at first whether Leonard and Donna stand out in the homeless population, which is estimated at anywhere between 3,000 and 30,000 in Baltimore, depending on which of the various loose estimates you choose to believe. Lack of income and affordable housing are the root causes of homelessness, and health problems—whether physical or mental—exacerbate it. Their stories fall right in with that sad model, though they’re married and pregnant, which puts them in a particular subset of the indigent; most are single adults. That, though, is not what makes them remarkable.

What sets Leonard and Donna apart is that they shared their stories in a series of conversations spread out over a month full of surprises in their lives—many of them bad, but one good. And along the way, they revealed the details and causes of their problems and how they deal with them, or don’t face them at all, and what that could mean for their future.

Leonard and Donna call their place under the overpass “the spot,” and when they’re not there they worry about it. Somebody might be messing with it or stealing their stuff. When they’re at the spot, sometimes they sleep, sometimes they just hang out, but even there they feel the anxiety that somebody will show up to mess with them. Leonard and Donna say they were attacked in the middle of the night in mid-March and that they’ve chased off threatening intruders at other times.

At regular intervals, they make the rounds of the local homeless-service providers to get food, showers, mail, and changes of clothes. They go to the main public library on Cathedral Street to check their e-mail accounts. They scrounge up money wherever and however they can. Sometimes, they say, people just give it to them without being asked, and they really appreciate that. Sometimes people seem to get angry at them for no particular reason, just for being there, out on the streets. That, they don’t like at all.

They say they arrived in Baltimore from their native New Hampshire last Nov. 9 with several duffel bags packed with their belongings. Leonard, who turned 42 in March, says he’d toughed it out on the streets of Baltimore before, maybe 11, maybe 15 years ago—he’s not precise on the date. Donna will be 23 this August. She first laid eyes on Baltimore from the window of an arriving bus.

They left their part-time jobs working a daily newspaper delivery route on foot, abandoned the food stamps they’d been getting, and took the Greyhound south, away from a bad scene back home. They were homeless in New Hampshire. Winter was coming. Hard rains and record-setting floods struck the region. Now they’re living outdoors in Baltimore, one of the poorest, most violent cities in America.

They tied the knot last September in a discount ceremony in New Hampshire. (“You’re supposed to pay, like, $60 for the justice of the peace,” Leonard boasts. “We got it for, like, 30. It was pretty cool.”) They both have hepatitis, they say. They drink and smoke tobacco, but are adamant that they don’t do drugs. Leonard says he tried cocaine and pot each exactly once, long ago and at different times, and Donna proclaims proudly that she quit marijuana at his request after they met last August. They give polite cold shoulders to people who do drugs. They attend church at a local mission and profess a deep religious reverence. Once they get comfortable talking, they cuss like soldiers.

The first time Leonard used a profanity when talking to a reporter he was going through the story of getting attacked. A guy had shown up in the middle of the night March 12, saying that Leonard and Donna had taken his belongings from where he had them stored under the overpass.

“I said, ‘No, we didn’t take your eff-ing shit. OK?’” Leonard has had a chance to nurse his resentment, though his wounds—a bruised head, cheek, and throat, and cuts on his arms—have begun to heal, and he’s had a little bit of vodka to drink. “He turns around,” Leonard continues, “grabs [a] stick, and just—five times over my head.” Then, he says, he was punched in the face five times, choked almost unconscious, and cut in the arm by a vodka bottle that broke on a metal street-sign post Leonard was using to defend himself. He describes himself screaming in his underwear as he chased the attacker across a nearby street, cars filled with witnesses driving by, but no one stopped or called 911.

The stick was one of the many pieces of bamboo lying around the spot. They’d scavenged them out of an alley and brought them back, thinking they could find some use for them. But they hadn’t expected one of them to be cracked over Leonard’s head, or pushed into Donna’s pregnant stomach, which she says the attacker also punched. “He goes, ‘I don’t care if you’re pregnant, I’ll make you lose the kid,’” she says. “I’m still surprised he didn’t.”

Just over a week later, Leonard picks at his breakfast at a Charles Street eatery. (Over the course of a month, City Paper bought Leonard and Donna a few inexpensive meals, and gave them some small currency, a pair of two-for-one drugstore reading glasses, and an alarm clock.) Instead of eating, Leonard cracks open the nut of why they moved here. “I was living in an apartment up there,” he says of New Hampshire. “After we got married, she moved in with me, and then things went downhill. I lost my job at the restaurant. And then city welfare paid my rent for a little while. They stopped. So we had no choice [but eviction]. And she wanted to get away from all the turmoil.”

So it was back to Baltimore for Leonard, a place he thought he knew.

“Compared to up north, this here is big-time,” Leonard reflects. “Because up there it’s, like, laid back. Little bit of crime but nothing to speak of. Down here it’s a whole different situation.” The city is proving a change not only from bucolic New Hampshire but also from the way Leonard remembers it. The Greyhound station has moved since he was here, and their bus dropped them off in a part of town nowhere near the areas with which Leonard was familiar. Services for homeless people seemed more accessible then, he says, and people’s attitudes kinder.

“Maybe I didn’t plan as well as I thought,” he says. “But, you know, you make decisions every day and make the best of it.”

Making the best of Baltimore has been painful. In addition to the bamboo attack, Leonard says he was tossed, with bound wrists and ankles, into a paddy wagon and taking him to a local hospital, where he ended up in the psych ward with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15. He has no hospital paperwork on that, though; there were no charges, and with only a vague description of where and when, there’s no police report.

“To a lot of people, when you report things, you wonder whether it is true or not,” Leonard observes one morning at the spot, having given some thought about the fact that their experiences are going to be the subject of a lengthy article. “But when you come with the homeless, there’s sometimes a lot that you might not want to take for granted, because a lot of things are true. And this right here, what we’re going through, is very true.”

IMG_7323

When Donna gives birth, Leonard will become a father for the third time. He says his sons, aged 22 and 5, are back north with their respective mothers. The oldest is a part-time security guard, and Leonard wasn’t around as he grew up. He pines over the 5-year-old, but hasn’t been in touch with the child since leaving New Hampshire. Still, Leonard is rosy about his role in the boy’s future—especially if he wins the $10 million Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes he’s entered online.

“That’s a once in a lifetime dream right there,” Leonard enthuses. “That’d be cool. If I could put maybe $50,000, or even a million in there, you know, for his trust fund? The rest we could use to get a place, get our necessities.”

But Leonard isn’t sitting back waiting for pie in the sky. He’s willing to work hard for money, he says. When he talks about his work history, he describes prep-cooking and dishwashing at restaurants, working at pizza parlors, and a stint as a cab driver. He decries the difficulty of finding a job without a good education, which he lacks. He’s looked at the classifieds in Baltimore but acknowledges that he hasn’t really followed through on anything he thinks he could get.

Sitting in the small park just west of the Washington Monument, Leonard has a smoke and talks about his family. The stately mansions lining the park make for a picture about as pretty as his mood is dismal. He’s been morose all morning. On the walk from the restaurant, he complained of his various aches and pains, mentioned that maybe he should get his head examined, because he hasn’t felt the same since the attack. He muses about how he hasn’t treated his body well, how it is deteriorating, and how he’s paying the price for all his hard drinking. In the middle of this funk, he launches into his family history.

“I was the outcast of a small family,” he says quietly, intently. His mother died of bone cancer 15 years ago, and she was “a very pleasant woman, quiet, until you got her mad.” His father was a lout who beat them. He tells the story of the one time when his dad punched his mom and she actually fought back, bouncing a frying pan off his head. Leonard says he was next in line after his mom in the melee that followed. “I’m fucking small, I can’t do shit anyway,” he says. “I walk around the table, he starts chasing me with the goddamn knife. I’m like, whoa!

“Of course, being that age, how far can you run?” he laughs, with a shrug.

“He was a total abuser,” Leonard seethes, takes a drag, and coughs. “He’s the one that messed my life. He used to beat me up when I was 4, 5 years old. He’d be drunk off his ass, ram my head into the wall and shit. Oh, man, he tormented me hard. Looking at me, it’s like, why me? He never liked me, never liked me.

“My mom drank a lot, yeah, she did. And she used to get drunk, too, but she tried her best to put up with his shit. She used to have bruises all over her body. He used to cut her lip wide open, cut her head wide open and stuff. He was ruthless.”

Leonard sometimes refers to “stepbrothers,” who got some of the rough treatment he got, including being thrown down the stairs. But he stresses that they never got it as bad as he and his mom did.

Leonard brightens up when he speaks about his grandmother. “She was like a mom to me,” he remembers fondly. He recalls how she took custody of him when he was still a child, taking him out of his troubled home. She passed away late last August, of cancer and emphysema. She’d always been the only one to help him out in a jam. Not anymore.

IMG_7324

Over the weeks of conversations—many at the spot, others while walking somewhere or waiting in line for services—Donna has generally deferred to Leonard’s steady, staccato, sometimes slurred banter. She signals her agreement with the things he says by nodding, saying “yeah,” or telling a short, affirming anecdote that shores up whatever his point is at the time. Up until now, in the restaurant for breakfast, Leonard has been the chief press secretary for the couple. With a pair of haphazard new haircuts has come a new attitude. After she finishes eating, she refills her soda. Then Donna’s reticence suddenly falls away as she talks about her dad’s ex-girlfriend.

She says her father died in February 2005, leaving behind a 49-year-old girlfriend living on Social Security who smokes and has such serious emphysema that she’s tethered to an oxygen tank most of the time. “I hate to say it,” Donna declares with a resigned expression of resentment. “But now her and my brother are going out—living together. And, you know, her yelling, bitching, screaming, everything at me. Her even hitting me and stuff, pulling my hair, choking me. And she had the balls enough to be doing stuff with my brother while my dad was still alive!” Her brother, she adds, recently turned 21.

Her father’s girlfriend, Donna goes on, forced her to leave high school in 10th grade to do factory work, and generally has been a roadblock to her progress most every step of the way. While Donna says it’s the girlfriend’s fault that her schooling was cut short, she admits her grades were falling off.

Later, while walking up Park Avenue on the first day of spring, Donna talks about how her mother left the nest when she and her brother were children and gave up custody to her father.

“My mother went to court and she goes, ‘You can have them, I don’t want them. They’re a burden on me,’” Donna recounts bitterly. She pauses to light one of the half-smoked cigarette butts they collect and store in a Ziploc bag, then resumes, spitting out the story a mile a minute: “Last I heard, she moved to Alabama somewhere, and she didn’t even tell us—her ex-boyfriend’s the one who told us. Yeah, she’s my mom because I was born, but beyond that, I ain’t got no love for her.”

Leonard and Donna are inseparable. They hold hands while walking. When they’re sitting, he wraps an arm around her shoulders. When standing, hers goes around his waist. By all appearances, they’re soul mates. Before him, though, Donna says her boyfriends had failed her miserably. “This one particular one was an asshole,” she declares, then changes her mind. “You know? Actually all of my exes were.”

While living on her own away from her family, Donna has generally stayed at New Hampshire shelters, doing community service to keep her space. But that didn’t always go well. At one, she was kicked out after being accused of stealing $10, she says. She contends that the evidence was flimsy—the culprit was known to have used the money to buy Mountain Dew, she says, and she’s strictly a Pepsi drinker. She crashed at a series of friends’ apartments, and at times went home to be with her sick father. Eventually, she phoned her accuser, who helped manage the shelter. She says he acknowledged her innocence, because the real thief was later caught. But he never apologized, and she sees that as a powerful lesson about the arbitrary and capricious ways of so-called justice.

IMG_7325

Attempts to locate and contact Leonard and Donna’s family members failed, but other bits and pieces of information proved more accessible. Trying to track down any traces of Leonard’s past sojourn in Maryland led to records indicating that he was arrested in Worcester County on the Eastern Shore on May 28, 1992, as a fugitive from New Hampshire justice. Court papers show he pled guilty the next day, waived extradition, and on June 4 of that year was handed over to New Hampshire authorities.

The press coverage in his hometown paper at the time reported that Leonard had been picked up at the Cruising Café, a restaurant in Ocean City, and that he’d been wanted since 1990, when he failed to show up for a court appearance to enter a possible 10-year plea deal on charges that, on four occasions in 1988, he’d raped a child under the age of 4.

In 1992, after Leonard was tracked down and returned to New Hampshire to face the charges, the prosecutor declined to bring them because the alleged victim and her family had stopped cooperating. Instead, Leonard served one year in prison, and two on parole, for jumping bail. The accusation that he was a sex offender went away. No one can say that Leonard is a convicted child rapist.

When asked about this ordeal, Leonard speaks calmly and matter of factly as he denies the charges at length. “That was all my ex-girlfriend’s doing,” he says, asserting that he’s made Donna aware of this chapter in his past, and how it ended. The bruises on the child, he says, were not from him.

The detective on the New Hampshire case, James McLaughlin, a man with vast experience and broad respect in his field of sex-offender investigations, returns a phone message and immediately asks how Leonard’s doing, healthwise, and whether he’s in any kind of trouble. There is genuine concern in his voice.

“I remember him as a guy who had a really horrendous childhood,” McLaughlin says. “He was a parents-had-tied-him-up-in-a-basement kind of kid.”

After being told that Leonard is homeless with some hard miles on him but is otherwise fine, the detective contends that Leonard made a memorable videotaped confession before the ill-fated plea deal on the rape case. A short but shocking segment of the tape, the detective says, is used to train investigators, showing them an example of “distorted thinking” they may encounter when interviewing suspects.

Any lack of justice arising from the failed prosecution of Leonard “was rectified with him going to jail on the bail-jumping,” McLaughlin says. And, just to make sure, he checks to make sure there are no open warrants out on Leonard. There aren’t.

Leonard denies he confessed, and says he went on the lam to Maryland back then because he was scared of going to jail for something he didn’t do.

A record of the confession McLaughlin alleges Leonard made could not be made available by press time. A New Hampshire woman who said she is the alleged victim’s mother declined during a brief telephone conversation April 9 to say whether her daughter knows Leonard. “If she does,” the woman said curtly, “she’s not going to want to talk to you about it.”

The bottom line on all this, Leonard stresses, is that he’s “always been good with kids”—adding that that’s an important quality, since “I got one coming now.”

IMG_7326

Regardless of Leonard’s guilt or innocence—a matter already settled as far as the courts are concerned—he says he needs treatment for his childhood trauma. “All the turmoil I went through when I was that age I’ve carried up with me all these years,” he says. “It’s been like a bad scar of the mind, because when my temper goes off, it’s not just the temper of normally being mad. It’s just . . . I have flashbacks. I relive everything all over again. That’s what makes me 10 times worse. It’s not my fault. It’s just something that . . . I’ve dealt with some of it, but there’s a lot more I have to deal with.”

To illustrate, he tells a story, something that happened at the spot one night: “There was somebody under there, and actually I chased them off. I ripped my shirt right off, took my fucking stick right out there, said, ‘I’ll take your fucking head right off.’ And his other buddy started coming in, and I was like, ‘You don’t want to be doing that.’ Why? I swear, I hit him right in the fucking head with it. Got him on the ground, I started pushing his fucking head right in the ground. [Donna] had to pull me off him, too, ’cause I would’ve killed him. I just went off. I was actually starting to see a sense of red in my eyes. I was like, oh, no, no, we’re not going there. No, we can’t go there. If I’d’ve gone there, man, that guy’d’ve been dead. I’d have killed him. That, and something else, too.

“I know that in time, here, I’m going to have to deal with this, ’cause I’m going to need to get that out of my mind,” Leonard continues. “I can’t get it out of my mind, no, but at least learn to deal with it better. Because I do have a very, very vicious temper. And this one here [Donna], that’s why she’s unique, because nobody else has been able to deal with my temper the way she has been able to deal with it.

“She’s helped me out a lot. But I’ve also had to bring myself up a lot. And it hasn’t been easy. Still bringing myself up.”

Donna silently listens and nods throughout the soliloquy, nursing her cigarette. Now she says calmly and quietly, “Yep. We help each other now.”

IMG_7327

Donna looks away, silent, when it is suggested that she needs to see a doctor about her pregnancy. Leonard says they have visited Health Care for the Homeless, which does what it’s name says it does at 111 Park Ave., but Leonard and Donna are both pessimistic about approaching Baltimore’s social-services network. They talk about how they can’t find the help they need regularly—for her pregnancy, their hepatitis, his back pain, food stamps. That is part of what makes Baltimore seem so much different, and more difficult, to Leonard than it was previously.

The first social-services stumbling block for Leonard and Donna is their lack of identification. They don’t have state-issued IDs from New Hampshire or Maryland, or copies of their birth certificates and marriage license, all of which are useful in accessing proper social services. Getting these papers costs money, which they don’t have, except for the few dollars they occasionally come by. The only identification they have are MTA passes, library cards, and mail. That’s not going to cut it at a bank, where they hope to open accounts and save money, or at a leasing office, where they might want to put down some of that money on an apartment deposit.

There are public beds for homeless people in Baltimore, and Leonard and Donna could probably sleep in them, depending on how full the shelters get at night. But only a few, hard-to-find shelters here accommodate married people, so they’d have to split up at night, and they just won’t have that.

“Separated is not exactly the answer,” Leonard explains, as the two of them sit on their mattress-and-box spring set, which is set up on pallets inside their blanketed cubicle. A small door set up on a rickety chair serves as a table; a scavenged smoker-grill provides heat, but it makes a lot of smoke and they don’t use it much. There’s a single candle for light, sprouting out of plastic water bottle set inside an old coffee can. Their food, they’ve learned, is best stored up on the ledges of the overpass beam, to make it harder for the rats to get to it. “We’re a common bond and we should stay that way,” he adds.

“Especially with me being pregnant,” Donna chimes in. “That ain’t going to fly.”

Again, Leonard returns to his belief that life on the street in Baltimore has gotten harder. “You can’t get the necessities of health assistance that you used to be able to get,” he says. “They do need a lot of improvements. They ought to have more places around here to go eat that’s accessible, more bus-line accessibility. Shelters are overfilling. [The city Department of Social Services] ought to have more fundamental access to programs that help people that are on the streets to get off easier.”

To some extent, Health Care for the Homeless CEO Jeff Singer agrees with Leonard. Singer’s worked for the nonprofit since 1985 and now leads the organization; he’s sat on or chaired committees, task forces, and advisory boards on the homeless in Baltimore and statewide for decades. And despite a lot of ongoing lip service and growing funds to treat the symptoms of homelessness—temporary quarters, emergency food, limited access to health care—Singer says he’s seen nothing but a steady progression of policies that exacerbate poverty and the lack of affordable housing. Those two factors are the root causes of homelessness, he says, and they’ve gotten nothing but worse since 1980.

Indeed, Singer says he traces the tipping point back to President Jimmy Carter’s third budget in 1979, which put more money into foreign policy than domestic matters for the first time since World War II. Under subsequent presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, the federal government has made U.S. poverty less of a priority. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor in the United States has widened inexorably, median incomes have declined steadily, and there has been less and less investment in affordable housing. For example, Singer says, the tearing down of Baltimore’s high-rise projects in the 1990s resulted in 3,000 fewer units of affordable public housing in the city.

Federal policy-makers set the agenda on the homeless front, Singer explains, because nearly all the money for local homeless-services programs—as well as much of the money to fight poverty and provide affordable housing opportunities—comes from federal coffers. The city’s homeless budget has grown expansively over the last 20 years, from less than $500,000 in 1986 to an expected $27 million this year, but nearly all of that money is federal, with a small chunk coming from the state. But the funds go to stopgap measures, last-ditch efforts to help people already mired in trouble. The key, Singer says, is to set policy that will prevent people from landing on the streets, and that’s simply not happening.

Part of Leonard and Donna’s troubles accessing care, they believe, is how the system categorizes them when they approach it—married, with no documented disabilities, no drug addiction, no HIV. The system, it seems, is largely geared to help single disabled adults suffering from addictions and HIV/AIDS. But there’s a lot they don’t know about available services. By the end of March, while walking to the library and talking about the safety net again, Leonard is even willing to acknowledge, “There’s still a lot out there that we aren’t aware of.”

Singer is confident that Health Care for the Homeless can do something for Leonard and Donna. Speaking in his office on March 31, Singer acknowledges that married couples like Leonard and Donna have a harder time getting services. The system has shifted over the past two decades, he explains, from focusing on families to focusing primarily on the most populous segment of the homeless community—single adults. Nonetheless, Singer says, “we will get her pre-natal care, and we will assign a case manager to her who will help her find a place to live.” Donna’s marital status is a complication—most public-housing opportunities for indigents are for singles—but, Singer notes, “we work with couples all the time.”

“Homelessness is worse today than it has ever been,” Singer says. “The funding, if you factor in inflation, it’s a little bit more. But the context in which that funding is delivered has gotten worse and worse and worse, in terms of what they call the social safety net, or the support for public housing.” There are ever more people becoming homeless, he explains, as poverty grows and the number of cheap housing units, both public and private, declines. “But for any individual that we can get our hooks on, we’re here to help them. So if [they’re] willing, there’s a lot we could do.”

As for helping Leonard come to grips with the deep-seated legacy of childhood trauma, Singer says, “we have a whole mental health team that would be willing to work with him.”

IMG_7328

Leonard and Donna may be down on their luck, but they’re newlyweds in love, and fundamentally optimistic about their situation. And they recently found solid reason to be so: jobs, working together downtown, handing out free copies of the new daily newspaper in town, the Baltimore Examiner. It first hit the streets April 5, and Leonard and Donna were there, she in a company-issued cap and he in a company-issued vest, polite and beaming with confidence as papers flew out of their hands into the hands of rush-hour pedestrians. They’re looking at $1,600 per month between the two of them, before taxes: $10 an hour, four hours a day, five days a week. The fact that they have jobs might actually make it even harder to access some homeless services, but with money coming in that seems like less of a worry.

“Now we’re in business!” Donna exclaims. By banking half their paychecks, they figure they’ll be out from under the overpass and into their own apartment in two months. “That’d be nice,” remarks Leonard, back at the spot. “We’d be back on our feet, get a TV, get all of our necessities for the apartment, be able to escape here and be able to have our own privacy, and lock our door.”

If they can just keep it together until then, there’s a chance they’ll be housed when the baby comes. They haven’t spelled out plans for what happens if they can’t keep it together until then, other than that they’ll survive, as they have before. Their feeling is that it will all work out once they get some money and into housing, that their troubles are temporary. But their stories, both separately in the past, and together since they fell in love late last summer, are filled with unexpected twists and turns and complicating factors. Stability and predictability have been scarce for them.

Before dawn on April 10, Leonard and Donna are starting their fourth day of handing out Examiners. They’ll get their first paycheck later in the week, they say, and they look forward to being in a newspaper themselves. Their story, Leonard believes, is compelling enough for a whole book. “Maybe something like, Living Life as It Is,” he suggests as a title. “Yeah, that would be kinda cool.”

IMG_7329