Doris McGuigan: 1929-2002

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 2002

The Brooklyn-Curtis Bay community in South Baltimore lost an ardent environmental activist Nov. 10: Doris McGuigan, a gravel-voiced grandmother who ardently believed that chemical-laden air in South Baltimore was poisoning area residents. She died peacefully at home while taking a nap, the victim of an apparent heart attack.

“She was a real force to be reckoned with,” says Terry Harris, a local environmentalist and attorney who worked with McGuigan in many battles over the years. “She was absolutely convinced of environmental problems in her own part of the city, and wouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise–in some cases single-handedly keeping industry at bay down there.”

McGuigan, 72, first started fighting industrial pollution in the early 1970s, when her mother died after struggling with leukemia. Believing the sickness was due to chemical pollution in South Baltimore, she embarked on 30 years of activism that included battles against incinerators, for better emergency planning, and for relocating the residents of Wagner’s Point, a now abandoned and demolished neighborhood that sits amid industrial-tank farms on the Fairfield peninsula.

Even her adversaries held her in high regard. “You could not ignore Doris, and you could not ignore her point of view,” says Dave Mahler, environmental manager for Sasol North America (formerly Condea Vista Co.), which has a large facility in South Baltimore. “The chemical plants learned that you have to be pretty much open with Doris, and there was a fair level of trust between them and Doris that built up over the years as a result of being open and honest. If there was a problem, or an incident of some sort, it was always a good idea to discuss it with Doris.”

Mahler, who visited McGuigan at her Third Street home on several occasions, was sometimes on the receiving end of her gruffly stated worries about environmental impacts. “Her biggest issue was her concern about the mixtures of all these things in the air,” he says. “While we’ve all made significant emissions reductions over the years, she wanted to know how they reacted with one another once they were released. It’s a question that no one could really answer very well.” But, he continues, “I had a lot of fun with Doris over the years. I wouldn’t take any of it back.”

District Court Judge Timothy Murphy, who formerly represented South Baltimore on the City Council and in the state House of Delegates, respected McGuigan’s self-taught mastery of intricate environmental issues. “Actually, she was an educator,” Murphy says. “She taught herself so much about environmental problems and the impact of various chemicals, and, once she had mastered something, then she would bring it to us. And she had an interesting manner–competitive, without being confrontational–that left no negative impression, even on the industry folks. She wanted them to be good neighbors, and she was a good neighbor back.”

Joining McGuigan in fights over the years were four other Brooklyn-area women, known as “the Environmental Grandmas”: Delores Barnes, Mary Rosso, Jeannette Skrzecz, and Anna Bonenberger. Skrzecz and Bonenberger also have passed away over the last few years, and Barnes has relocated, so McGuigan’s death leaves only Rosso, who recently lost re-election to the state House. “Out of all of them,” Harris says, “Doris was the real leader.”

Prophet or Loss? Controversial developer pushes ambitious East Baltimore real estate proposal

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Sept. 25, 2002

Real-estate developer Charles Jeffries Jr.’s decade of working in Baltimore has been marred by turmoil. His million-dollar housing raffle was canceled amid a state probe in 1994, and he was pinned with a $350,000 court judgment in 1999 for bilking three low-income women who bought into Perlman Place, his stalled East Baltimore rowhouse renovation project, his only redevelopment venture to date (“The Shell Game,” City Paper, June 9, 1999). So far, his heavily hyped promises for rejuvenating old rowhouse properties have produced little more than high-profile missteps.

But Jeffries, a 36-year-old Chicagoan who came to Baltimore after getting his MBA from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, is up to his ears in ambitious new plans for aged East Baltimore real estate. It won’t be long, he predicts, before people finally come to see him not as a flimflam artist but as a visionary–someone who helps create success in long-abandoned tracts of nearly unsalvageable housing stock, where naysayers could foresee only continued failure. As his recent activities attest, Jeffries is a man on a mission.

Jeffries’ proposal to turn 110 city blocks into the Broadway East/South Clifton Park Historic District, thereby making the owners of 4,866 structures eligible for state and federal tax credits, will be reviewed at hearings of city and state officials (on Oct. 8 and Oct. 1, respectively). On Sept. 23, Perlman Place–a single block of East Baltimore rowhouses, just north of North Avenue between Patterson Park and Collington avenues–won designation as a city historic district, so local tax credits are now available for Jeffries’ slow-moving project there. In August, the city gave Jeffries a lease for Clifton Park’s 115-year-old Lake Clifton Gatehouse, where he plans to house his latest company, Center Development Corp. And in February, Jeffries emerged as the anonymous “donor’s representative” in a complicated and as-yet-incomplete transaction to put Mount Vernon’s historic Winans mansion, now owned by Agora Publishing, into the hands of the University of Baltimore.

Despite the court record, Jeffries denies any guilt whatsoever about the problems at Perlman Place and talks excitedly about his imminent success. While visiting the gatehouse recently, he seethed with indignation over the treatment he has received at the hands of lawyers and reporters. The lawsuit, he claimed, was “extortion” and the press coverage “the worst kind of muckraking.” In the next moment, he delivered one of his fervent, staccato speeches about the promise of “making neighborhoods come alive” and the “extraordinary opportunities” East Baltimore’s dejected neighborhoods will attract. “All the bad press that’s happened,” he mused before declining to allow a photographer to take a picture of him, “and I’m still here.”

If his vision is realized, Jeffries says, whole sections of East Baltimore, long abandoned except by escalating violence, will experience “snowballing” private investment totaling $450 million by allowing property owners to exploit tax credits available for historic properties. This push will feed off of the momentum created by the coming expansion of the Johns Hopkins medical complex–“only a mile away from Perlman Place,” he points out. The “full schematic design” of his plan will be the subject of an upcoming press release, which will unveil all the pertinent details. In the meantime, he looks forward to being a beneficiary of such a boon, along with many others who support his plan–not just himself and the seven unnamed partners he says are in on the effort, but everyone who is smart enough to recognize the investment potential of East Baltimore rowhouses.

“We’re very excited,” Jeffries enthuses on the phone two days later. “I’m happy to be in the company of these great and well-known parties,” who he says will be joining Center Development in the “extraordinary effort.” The company, which in August changed its bylaws to allow the sale of stock, now has “a lot of investors,” he says. “We’re a lot bigger than we were a few months ago.”

Meanwhile, the Jeffries company behind the housing raffle and Perlman Place, the Center for Affordable Housing, was declared forfeit by the state in 2000 for failure to file a property-tax return, and it still owes Walbrook Mill and Lumber a total of $8,091.67, according to district-court records. Jeffries dismisses such judgments as trivial, pointing out that legal baggage is common among reputable investors, “but Charles Jeffries is the Antichrist” even though he’s bringing hope to “vacant properties and burnt-out neighborhoods.”

Perlman Place has been host to little but violence over at least the last decade. Two murder suspects have been arrested there: nun-strangler Melvin Jones in 1993 and Cherry Hill’s Ulysses Shawn “Sleepy” Daniels in 1997. In 1998, Donte Antonio Kennedy of Perlman Place was wanted for attempted murder. And in 2001, resident Morris Graham was murdered on Greenmount Avenue.

These tragedies unfolded amid buildings that tell repeated stories of failure sold to investors as opportunity. Owners of Perlman Place properties have included:

· Amerifirst Mortgage Corp., a New York-based brokerage that lost its Federal Housing Authority lending privileges for three years beginning in late 2000, when the federal Mortgagee Review Board also fined it $100,000 for unscrupulous lending practices. This, after Amerifirst in the late 1990s teamed up with the Baltimore Urban League, the United Minority Contractors Association, and the Circle of Friends of American Veterans in schemes ostensibly designed to create low-income homeownership opportunities.

· Wayne Phillips, a jazz drummer who reportedly relocated to Arizona in the 1980s after his notorious inner-city investment practices caught up with him–but not before he became a nationally televised real-estate and government-giveaway promoter who drove around town in a Rolls Royce with the license plate “wealth.”

· Former Gov. Marvin Mandel crony Norris Ashe, who made a fortune in the 1980s teaching the throngs who attended his real-estate seminars how to make a killing off cheap urban housing.

· James “King” Corcoran, a former University of Maryland and NFL football player made famous in the 1960s when he quarterbacked a Maryland victory over the Naval Academy squad led by future NFL great Roger Staubach. In 1992, he faced charges in Montgomery County for taking investors’ deposits for sales of Baltimore rowhouses he didn’t own.

Corcoran did own 1903 Perlman Place, though, which he sold for a dollar in 1998 to Jeffries’ Center for Affordable Housing, which resold it the same day for $38,000 to the current resident, Robert Willie. Willie says he’s happy with his home–two rowhouses folded into one, with a small rooftop deck. He adds that he is even happier with it now that the City Council has given Perlman Place local historic-district status.

Perlman Place’s history begs the question: Is Jeffries’ engineering yet another public-incentive-driven housing scheme that, like the earlier ones, will produce little more than new puzzles for title searchers? Jeffries says no–the previous horror stories were investor-driven, he points out, but his ideas are based on creating homeownership rather than absentee landlords.

“His intent is good,” city Councilman Bernard “Jack” Young (D-2nd District) says of Jeffries, but adds that he is “slick” in selling ambitious ideas. Young supported the Perlman Place historic designation but is “concerned over how long it has stalled.” He is less comfortable with Jeffries’ larger plans–“he’s in over his head,” the councilman says–and says he won’t support any more projects until Perlman Place is completed “and he can prove that he can do this.”

The University of Baltimore’s vice president for university advancement, Bill Lynerd, who is familiar with Jeffries’ pending Winans mansion transaction, says he is aware of Jeffries’ troubled track record but finds him “very earnest and sincere. And so far, we have no reason to doubt the validity of the project or his sincerity.” Especially, adds Lynerd, because there are “a lot of parties involved in this, very reputable partners” whose names he is not free to disclose. The deal, he explains, “involves historic-tax credits through a donor-advised fund,” and if it passes “due diligence” and goes forward the donor will never be known.

When told of Jeffries’ involvement in the Winans mansion deal, Richard Gordon, attorney for the Perlman Place plaintiffs, made two quick points. First, he wondered how thorough UB’s due-diligence effort could be since “they haven’t contacted me” about the high-dollar judgment that arose from Jeffries’ only project. Then, suggesting a pattern, Gordon asserted that Jeffries “had an anonymous donor for Perlman Place properties that never materialized.”

Jeffries will say nothing more about his involvement in the Winans mansion negotiations, but he freely waxes poetic about the future of Baltimore. “This is new,” he says of the urban real-estate landscape. “Baltimore’s in a renaissance, and all the boundaries are breaking down, changing peoples’ perspectives on where to live and go.” Why his endless promotion of the investment value of derelict rowhouses? “To change the world,” Jeffries blurts through the phone with palpable zeal. Then, downshifting from the grandiose, he claims to be “just a small piece of the very big pie of what’s happening in East Baltimore. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Robed and Ready: Sitting judges get elected the easy way

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2002

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of job security in elected office, incumbent politicians spend much time and energy crafting strategies for winning elections. Here’s a nearly foolproof scenario: Run on a well-financed slate of incumbents filing in both parties’ primaries, all but guaranteeing slots on the general-election ballot should a challenger emerge. That’s what Baltimore’s sitting Circuit Court judges do, and it’s worked for a generation now. Voters haven’t sent a new judge to the bench since 1982, when they chose Kenneth Lavon Johnson, now retired.

This time, barring an unforeseen challenge mounted before the July 1 filing deadline, five of the court’s 30 judges are running together in an uncontested race. Four of the candidates–Shirley Watts, John Glynn, Lynn Stewart, and John Miller–were appointed to the Circuit Court by the Gov. Parris Glendening within the last 16 months. The fifth, Clifton Gordy, has held his seat since 1985. Judges serve 15-year terms after running in the first election after their initial appointments.

As of last November’s campaign-finance report (the latest available), the Baltimore City Sitting Judges Committee had spent about $60,000 of roughly $105,000 it has raised for this election. The judges themselves aren’t involved in the committee’s activities, says campaign chairperson H. Mark Stichel, a private attorney. But the committee engages in the standard electoral fare, with a couple of twists: Almost all of its money comes from lawyers who appear before the bench, and the judges themselves don’t usually hit the campaign trail.

It’s a “difficult issue,” Stichel acknowledges of the money ties between the bar and the bench, but he maintains that contributing to the committee rather than directly to a particular judge “creates a buffer” that lessens the obvious conflict. Better yet, says James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, would be some form of public financing for judicial elections.

The current system “impugns the independence of the court and gives the appearance that a verdict can be bought,” Browning says. Public financing would relieve the judges committee from having to raise funds from lawyers, he says, and “would go a long way toward shoring up public confidence” in the way money enters judges races. The change would have to be approved by the state legislature, and there are currently no such proposals pending, Browning says.

The judicial code of conduct limits what judges can say in public, so stumping for office is a dull affair. “It’s really hard to say anything that’s meaningful,” Stichel says. “There’s not much a judge can promise” to do if elected. The judges, he adds, “are not used to campaigning” and are “not comfortable doing it.”

Stichel–noting that he is speaking strictly for himself–says he believes judges shouldn’t be directly elected at all. For example, judges could be appointed to lifetime terms, subject to legislative approval; come up for gubernatorial reappointment at the end of set terms; or subjected to retention elections, in which voters would choose only whether a sitting judge should stay on the bench. But given the current system, the judges have to have someone–in this case, Stichel and committee treasurer Frederick Koontz–to “do the fund-raising and help the judges get over the process of having to run for election,” Stichel says.

Most lawyers and law firms listed in the committee’s campaign-finance report donated from $100 to $500, with a few giving $1,000. “It’s pretty much just lawyers giving,” Stichel says, with the rest coming from people with “pre-existing relationships” with a judge–“personal friends and relatives.” The two biggest contributors to this year’s campaign are Finn Casperson, a New Jersey corporate executive with strong ties to Johns Hopkins University, who gave $4,000, and La-Van Hawkins, a politically active fast-food magnate with significant interests in urban areas, including Baltimore ($3,000).

On the spending side, the committee holds fund-raisers, buys campaign advertising, and sprinkles a selection of politicians and pet causes with contributions. It’s your standard Baltimore campaign effort, right down to using the proper printer: Bromwell Press, a company owned by retiring Baltimore County state Sen. Thomas Bromwell’s cousin.

Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the judges’ approach to elections, though, is the practice of cross-filing–running in both parties’ primaries. “The theory is that the judges are not supposed to be partisan,” Stichel explains, so they participate in both elections rather than choose one party or the other. There also is a practical element to the strategy, he says: “It’s an insurance policy to get all of the sitting judges to the general election.” If they lose in one party’s primary, they can still win the other’s and make the November ballot.

While the sitting judges usually ease quietly to re-election, an element of public critique occasionally creeps into the process. In 1998, city prosecutor Page Croyder entered the race at the last minute and lambasted the judges’ slate, saying not all of the nine jurists running together deserved another term on the bench. Croyder lost, extending a now-20-year drought for challengers seeking to oust Baltimore judges at the polls. But Stichel says that historically the periodic challenges have helped create a more racially diverse judiciary.

“There’s no question about it, judicial elections are good” for diversifying the bench, says Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and 1998 candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court and the son and brother of African-American attorneys who became judges by challenging the incumbents. (Murphy does note that minority appointments have been stepped up on recent years, adding, “Glendening has been busy.”) Hence the outcry that has kept judicial elections intact through periodic efforts to change the system, the most significant in recent years coming in 1996, when a legislative commission proposed abandoning them.

“If they talk about taking politics out of the judicial process,” Murphy says, “they can kiss my ass.”

Working Skiffs: Overlooked as a kayaking destination, Baltimore and the Bay make for excellent native paddling

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 22, 2002

When it comes to sea kayaking, Monterey has nothing on Baltimore. A tourism industry focused on the waterfront? Check. Tidal wetlands to explore? Hey, we live on the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, with thousands of miles of tidal shoreline. About the only sea-kayaking attraction we don’t have that the Northern California coast does is sea otters–and sea kayaks.

In Monterey, throngs lounging in the hotels, bars, and cafés stretched along the water’s edge survey the Pacific coast as flotillas of kayaks bob by in the swell, many of them en route to Elkhorn Slough, a small estuary whose tidal wetlands are the area’s paddling gem. In Baltimore, the Inner Harbor promenade attracts constant crowds to the waterfront, yet rarely do they see a kayak gunk-holing around the harbor basin. And except for a few select areas, sea kayaks–portable, sleek paddle craft with closed decks–remain maritime oddities along Chesapeake estuarine shores.

The sparse popularity of a sport to which this area is so perfectly suited is inexplicable to Joel Beckwith, manager of the sports-equipment company Springriver Corp.’s local store. Since 2000, Beckwith, at work on a paddling guide to the Chesapeake, has been making a sea-kayak study of the Delmarva Peninsula, starting in Havre de Grace and heading south to Cape Charles, Va., then north on the Atlantic Ocean side to Lewes, Del. Along the way, he’s seen “very, very, very few kayaks. A lot of places we didn’t see anybody other than work boats. It’s amazing.”

Maybe it’s the water. Around Baltimore, it’s downright nasty. Trash, runoff, and the city’s now-famous sewage-system problems (requiring $900 million in repairs over the next 14 years) taint much of the Patapsco, as does industrial pollution, much of it embedded in the river’s sediments. And the Chesapeake as a whole isn’t exactly pristine, what with Pfiesteria and mycobacteriosis eating away at the fish and the declining numbers of crabs and oysters. But that’s the nice thing about a sea kayak–you get in the water, but you don’t have to get wet (except maybe a few splashes here and there, or in the unlikely event of a capsize).

Or maybe it’s Baltimore’s tendency to resist new things. Although kayaks have been around for eons–ancient Eskimo vessels inspired today’s varied designs–the market for kayaks in the United States has been booming. Just as Baltimore never really caught on to the dot-com revolution before it ended, the kayak craze has been passing us by.

No big deal. For those who do kayak in Baltimore and the bay–including yours truly–the local lack of interest leaves more territory to explore without fellow paddlers intruding on our adventures. Whether it’s barhopping from Locust Point to Fells Point, nosing up dark tunnels under the city’s streets, surfing with the breeze off Fort McHenry, or poking around wetlands that used to be shipping terminals, Baltimore offers kayaking possibilities that are nothing if not varied. And if cityscapes don’t float your boat, a short drive takes you and your vessel to the natural environs off Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Cross the Bay Bridge and the paddling options are virtually limitless.

In the city proper, there are precious few decent put-in spots: the low dock next to the Korean War Memorial in Canton, Ferry Bar Park in Port Covington, and the boat ramp next to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. Further down the Patapsco, Fort Armistead and Fort Smallwood–both city-owned parks with boat ramps–provide additional water access. If you don’t own your own boat, city dwellers can join the Canton Kayak Club ( and use its kayaks and equipment, which are kept on docks at Tide Point in Locust Point and Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

For kayaking on somewhat cleaner waters, head out to one of three nearby state parks: Sandy Point (by the Bay Bridge near Annapolis), Rocky Point (where the Back River enters the bay near Essex), and Gunpowder Falls’ Hammerman Area. The latter, at the end of Eastern Avenue near Chase, is also home to Ultimate Watersports (, which rents boats and helps new paddlers learn the ropes. Regular paddlers who use these parks can save on entrance fees by purchasing a yearly pass, which costs $60 and provides access to all Maryland state parks.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Eastern Shore by kayak is to plan your own trip. DeLorme’s Maryland Delaware Atlas & Gazetteer (, which combines road-map information with topographic detail, can get you where you want to go. After locating your destination, pay a visit to the Maryland Geological Survey (either at 2300 St. Paul St. or at and procure more detailed maps. The quantity of Eastern Shore territory that is navigable by sea kayak is astounding, especially between St. Michaels and Crisfield, where much of the coastline is untouched by development.

Despite the smallness of Baltimore’s community of sea kayakers, there are plenty of ways to get involved and to keep abreast of activities. Springriver Corp. (6434 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, [410] 788-3377) and REI (63 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium, [410] 252-5920) both sell kayaks and boast knowledgeable staff who can help get you on the local waters. The Greater Baltimore Canoe Club ( serves as a gathering point for local paddlers and hosts outings. And the newly hatched SeaKayak Web site ( gives in-depth information about kayaking on bay waters. (One of SeaKayak’s hosts, Stephen Rohrs, taught me to roll in a sea kayak–after many unsuccessful attempts.)

Still, Baltimore is no Monterey, no sea-kayaking mecca. And it’s not likely to become one. As Springriver’s Beckwith says, “I’ve been promoting the sport in the Baltimore area for 20 years and I’ll be damned if it’s made a bit of difference.” Even in a place as eccentric as Baltimore, a kayak remains an enigma on the water. And that’s fine with me.

Party Out of Bounds: Even next to a Wal-Mart drainage pond, the Powwow must go on

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 8, 2002

It’s Sunday morning, April 28, and it’s raining hard. A brown Bronco sloshes through puddles as it rambles down Insulator Drive in Port Covington. After passing a newly opened Wal-Mart, the Bronco comes to rest at the end of the road, where tiny Ferry Bar Park juts out into the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch, providing those in the know with the only beach access in the city. It may be a beach covered with urban flotsam – countless plastic bottles and crack-vial caps, a few syringes and dead fish, the carcass of a redwing blackbird – but it’s a beach nonetheless: no bulkhead, no pier, just rocks and sand and shallow tidal water.

An old-timer in a baseball cap gets out of the vehicle and surveys the view: a fresh cement walkway leading past a small runoff retaining pond down to the trash-strewn beach. The Hanover Street Bridge and Harbor Hospital loom across the water.

“Been coming here all my life,” he remarks as he strolls down to the waterfront. “People always trashed it up. But this looks good,” he adds, taking note of the newly planted saplings and shrubs all around. “You know, there’s good fishin’ down here.” He’s caught a few casting off of Ferry Bar Park in his time, and he rattles off some quick tales.

Fishing, swimming, rowing boats, cooking out, drinking beer, lounging by the water – regular fare at Ferry Bar Park for generations. Back at the turn of the 20th century it was the site of George Kahl’s Ferry Bar Resort, a destination for city dwellers who wanted to play on the water. And every year since 1988, on a Sunday in late April or early May, hundreds of people have gathered here for all of those things – plus live music – at the Intertribal Powwow, an outdoor festival inspired by the Kickapoo nation’s “all tribes welcome” powwows.

In a few short hours, the Powwow hordes are scheduled to arrive. “Well, I hope they have fun, and I hope they don’t mess the place up too much,” the old-timer says.

The forecast is calling for violent weather – a tornado watch has been announced – and even when the rain ceases and the sun comes out, high winds buffet the point as storm systems roll across the region. Around noontime, festival organizer Dan Van Allen postpones the Powwow until the following Sunday, May 5. But it’s too late. Enough devotees have arrived by early afternoon to make it a party.

“Powwow anyhow! Powwow anyhow!” some chant. Arabbers pull up at around 3:30, hawking paper cups of beer from a van (the event benefits the Arabber Preservation Society) instead of their traditional fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts. As the hours pass until darkness, more revelers – ultimately numbering around 300 – arrive and play in and around the water.

“It’s strange, strange, strange,” says one new arrival, “to come around that corner and see a Wal-Mart.” The store had its grand opening the weekend before and is part of a larger redevelopment project for Port Covington, formerly a long-abandoned railroad yard, by Starwood Ceruzzi, a Fairfield, Conn.-based real-estate development group. Veteran Powwowers are used to having the forsaken, vacant point all to themselves.

Adjusting to the sudden proximity of the megastore – seen by many as an icon of cultural homogenization and a killer of neighborhood and small-town economies – isn’t easy for some. The counterculturalists attracted to the Powwow don’t want the event to become just another thing that happens at a Wal-Mart parking lot, akin to the impromptu trailer parks that spring up outside the chain stores, or the “Rosser Rendezvous” of all-terrain vehicles held each year at a Wal-Mart in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anarchistic tendencies start to manifest among some of the partyers. “It’d be great to have a party on the ruins of a Wal-Mart,” remarks a shaggy-haired kid in baggy, tattered clothes who mockingly advocates “the destruction of civilization.” Others express resentment at what they view as private encroachment on public land. A woman named Josie is calling friends on her cell phone, urging them to come down to the ad hoc gathering. The party’s great, she says, but the park “sucks. There’s a Wal-Mart drainage ditch in the middle of it.”

That drainage ditch is the subject of mixed feelings among those with a stake in the future of Ferry Bar Park. The formerly federally owned spot was given to Baltimore in 1979, “with the requirement that we are going to keep it as a park forever and never sell it,” explains Mary Porter of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department’s Office of Capital Development. Many of the proto-Powwowers gathered there April 28 say they believe the runoff pond improperly lies on park property, and survey maps suggest they may be right. But several conclude nonetheless that the developer’s work improves the park overall.

“I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that the Wal-Mart is ruining the park,” says Van Allen, who also heads a recently formed group called Friends of Ferry Bar Park. “But I think they improved the park by expanding it and planting trees, even if they maybe did go a little overboard with that ‘sunken garden.'”

Van Allen’s “sunken garden” is actually called a “bio-retention area,” according to city planner Duncan Stuart, who says Starwood Ceruzzi’s efforts to control runoff from the site is “the best example I’ve seen of how to do it right.” The company’s development director for the project, Dan Waguespack, explains that the pond “catches water and allows it to infiltrate into the ground, cleansing it before it enters the bay, rather than letting it run straight down the storm drains.”

Thus, if the ditch encroaches into parkland, at least it’s for a good cause. No one at the festival had time to complain about it much anyhow. They were too busy having fun.

On May 5, the day of the rescheduled Powwow, hundreds gather again at Ferry Bar Park. High-school crew teams compete on Middle Branch early in the cloudless day, their races finishing right where the park meets the water. As the party gathers steam, children swim in the shallows of Middle Branch and kayaks and rowboats ply the nearby shoreline. A sailing yacht and a powerboat or two anchor off the point to enjoy the music in the waning sun.

Back when Ferry Bar was a resort, George Kahl billed it as “the coolest spot in Maryland.” Once a year, the Intertribal Powwow aims to keep it that way.

Hot Load: Baltimore tunnel fire, Aberdeen missile test targets in national nuke-transport debate

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2002

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain may be nearly a continent away, but the Baltimore area has become ground zero in the debate over plans to store the nation’s 70,000 tons of nuclear waste there, under a decades-in-the-making plan formally approved by President Bush on Feb. 15.

In the days leading up to and following Bush’s OK, which sends the issue to Congress for final approval, two close-to-home events–a 1998 missile-strike test on a nuclear-waste container at Aberdeen Proving Ground and last summer’s chemical fire in the Howard Street tunnel–have been cited by Nevada officials and other opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan. Critics maintain that both events offer cautionary evidence about what might happen to the casks used to transport radioactive waste in the event of a terrorist attack or severe accident.

After the July 2001 tunnel fire, the state of Nevada hired the consulting firm Radioactive Waste Management Associates (RWMA) to study the potential impact had the Baltimore blaze involved nuclear-waste containers. Some Yucca Mountain blueprints include transporting such cargo through the Howard Street tunnel from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear-power plant in Southern Maryland or other Southeastern nuclear facilities (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001).

The nuclear-power industry and supporters of the Yucca plan have maintained that a fire of the heat and duration necessary to rupture one of the casts was virtually impossible. But RWMA concluded that the Baltimore fire would have caused a cask to break, exposing tens of thousands of people to acute radiation and necessitating billions of dollars in cleanup costs. (The full report can be read at the State of Nevada’s Web site.)

The test at Aberdeen, meanwhile, points up dangers associated with potential terrorist attacks, another risk downplayed by the nuclear industry, despite the events of recent months. While acknowledging that some weapon systems can puncture the waste containers, the industry argues that any radioactive release would be small and easily contained. Not so, contend Yucca critics, who claim a newly released videotape of the 1998 test proves otherwise.

The tape suddenly became a hot property in the Yucca debate when word circulated among plan opponents early this month that U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) had a copy and was considering releasing it to the media. That hasn’t yet happened, but a copy of the video was obtained by City Paper from Thomas Kirch, president of International Fuel Containers Inc. (IFC), the New York-based marketing arm for a German firm that makes nuclear-waste containers.

IFC used Aberdeen Proving Ground’s facilities and personnel to test the strength of the German Castor cask, a container used around the world to store and ship spent nuclear fuel. The tape shows a TOW anti-tank missile blowing a hole through the cast-iron wall of a Castor cask. When a second round is fired into the cask–this time protected by IFC’s patented “flak jacket” material–the video shows little damage to the cask wall, though the protective material is pulverized.

“The most staggering implication of the IFC test is that, if [the missile] drilled that softball-sized hole through 15 inches of cast iron, it certainly wouldn’t have any trouble penetrating a truck cask,” the smaller, steel kind used to ship waste on highways, says Robert Halstead, transportation adviser to Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.

A self-proclaimed “green nuclear advocate” whose studies of nuclear-waste transportation issues have focused largely on the risks of terrorist attacks on casks, Halstead says he’s “dumbfounded” at the sudden emergence of the test video, which he contends is proof that widely available anti-tank weaponry can go through a cask wall and disperse its radioactive contents–a point that has been debated for years and has gained relevance since Sept. 11. The Castor has been considered “the premier storage and transport cask in the world since the 1980s,” Halstead says, meaning that other containers in use for nuclear transport could be even more vulnerable to missile attacks.

“The test proved exactly what the state of Nevada had feared,” he says, “that these casks are highly vulnerable to state-of-the-art weapons.”

Kirch contends that the missile piercing the cask does not prove that the container is insecure. “[I]t can be easily repaired, right on the spot, in a very short period of time, using a lead plug,” he says. “And the amount of leakage or contamination would be very, very controlled and very limited.”

(“I’d like to meet one of these people who is going to volunteer to walk up to the hole in the cask like the Dutch boy walking up to plug up the hole in the dam,” Halstead counters. “Remember, they are going to be entering a radiation zone.”)

Kirch, a self-described proponent of nuclear nonproliferation, has a long history as a player in the atomic-power arena. Since the mid-1990s, he has been a principal in a firm called U.S. Fuel & Security Inc., along with U.S. Navy Adm. Daniel Murphy (retired) and Alex Copson, a former member of the rock group Iron Butterfly.

Kirch says the company aims to end reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear-power plants into weapons-grade plutonium by controlling the world’s supply of spent fuel and securing it at a centralized location, an idea with some support in the nation’s nuclear, defense, and intelligence communities. An initial proposal to store the fuel on an oceanic atoll was rejected; Kirch says U.S. Fuel & Security and allied groups–including the Nonproliferation Trust, a Washington based company whose leaders include Murphy and former FBI and CIA chief William Webster–have set their sights on a site in Russia.

As to IFC’s involvement in the Yucca Mountain controversy, Kirch asserts that his video is not relevant to the debate of nuclear transport and is being misrepresented for “political purposes” by Nevada officials seeking to derail the Yucca plan.

“The test was performed purely to demonstrate the safety of the metal cask and the increased security of using a ballistic protection system,” he says. The cask that was tested, he notes, is not licensed in the United States for transportation of nuclear waste, but only for storage. However, the 41/2-minute Aberdeen video, produced in infomercial style, proclaims that the test shows the Castor casks can safely “both store and transport spent nuclear fuel.”

Officials at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that has downplayed the risks of nuclear transport in trucks and trains and criticized the RWMA report, did not return phone calls seeking comment on that study or the Aberdeen video.

Halstead contends the nuclear industry is hurting itself by questioning such indications of risk: “They should be saying, ‘Yep, once in a great while there is an accident that is really so bad that it might threaten these casks,’ and then setting to work managing those risks.” He suggests rerouting shipments to avoid places where accidents are more frequent; running track-inspection cars ahead of trains to make sure there’s nothing to cause a derailment; and requiring that nuclear waste be shipped only on “dedicated” trains carrying no other cargo.

(The fire under Howard Street was prolonged by the presence of wood products among the train’s cargo. The industry maintains that it voluntarily uses only dedicated trains for nuclear shipments.)

“There are very straightforward ways to manage risk once you acknowledge that the risk exists,” Halstead says. “But if you are determined, as the nuclear industry is, to defy reality and say that there are no risks, you are asking for Exxon Valdez–and it will happen to them.”


The Heat’s Off: Trial in fatal blaze raises questions about city fire probes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 29, 2002

In the middle of a cold night in February 2001, a fire broke out in an apartment in Cylburn, a neighborhood near Pimlico. The dwelling was well known to Northern District police. It’s where Leonie Barnes lived and fought regularly with her longtime lover, Donald Morton, drawing officers time and again.

Arrests for assault – including a stabbing three years ago in which Barnes accidentally drove a butcher knife into Morton – had become a ritual at the apartment.

So when firefighters found Donald Morton engulfed in fatal flames on Barnes’ kitchen floor, another fire in the bedroom, and a half-empty bottle of nail-polish remover with matches nearby, it didn’t take them long to conclude that it was no accident. It looked like arson, it looked like murder, and they had their suspect at the scene – Leonie Barnes, unharmed except for minor smoke inhalation and a chill from leaving the apartment wearing only her underwear.

On May 13, after nearly 16 months in jail and a seven-day trial, Barnes was found not guilty on all counts.

The jury concluded that Barnes may not have purposefully doused Morton with nail-polish remover and set him aflame in a fit of rage, as the state asserted. Prosecutor Cheryl Jacobs, in an e-mailed response to written questions about the case, says she still believes Barnes “meant to set Don Morton on fire, not her apartment.”

“The jurors,” retorts public defender Jeff Gilleran, who represented Barnes, “were intelligent and hardworking, and they obviously believe justice was served. . . .

“It was a tragedy what happened to Donald Morton,” Gilleran continues. “But in my opinion, the fire and police investigators in this case assumed this was an arson before they even entered the building, and then proceeded to ignore overwhelming evidence that the fire was accidental and never should have been classified” as purposefully set.

Videotapes of the trial demonstrate how Gilleran undermined the state’s case: by faulting an investigator’s methods in deeming the fire an arson, by revealing the fire and police departments’ uncoordinated handling of the follow-up probe, and by establishing a plausible accident scenario to create reasonable doubts in jurors’ minds. In the process, the defense raised questions about the quality of fatal-fire investigations in the city – revisiting issues that have nettled the department before.

Though never mentioned at trial, the ghost of the 1995 Clipper Mill fire – a much larger blaze in which a firefighter died – haunted the Barnes case. Communication breakdowns between fire investigators and police – documented in the Oct. 2, 1996, City Paper cover story “Firestorm” – plagued the Clipper Mill probe, in which no one was charged despite apparently strong evidence of arson. In the Barnes case, the defense showed similar departmental dysfunction, and argued that it led to unfounded charges of arson and murder.

“I’m amazed this thing ever went to trial,” says Bernard Schwartz, a private fire investigator who served as the defense’s chief expert witness, in an interview a few days after Barnes’ acquittal. Schwartz, whom the state’s attorney’s office has used as an expert witness in the past, says the case indicates that attempts to improve Baltimore City fire investigations in the wake of Clipper Mill haven’t taken root.

The main culprit of the investigative bungling in the Barnes case, the defense team argued at trial, was Fire Investigation Bureau Capt. Donald Wilson.

The bureau’s investigators have the sole authority in Baltimore City to deem fires incendiary, and they do so by determining the origin and cause of the blaze. Testimony showed that Wilson made the arson call within 20 to 40 minutes after arriving at the scene. His one-page report of the fire showed how he ruled out nonhuman causes – no electrical outlets or appliances or heat-producing devices near the point of origin. Then, he writes, “it appears that an accelerant … was poured on the victim and the mattress and an open flame was used for the ignition source. After the victim was on fire, he ran into the kitchen, causing the fire to spread.”

Gilleran’s alternative explanation for the fire was simple and, to jurors, more convincing: Barnes and Morton are sitting at the foot of her bed, watching the television. “They were drinking,” the attorney told the jury. “They were smoking, she was doing her nails, the bottle spilled, he had a lit match or a cigarette, and he caught on fire.”

Wilson, who did not receive departmental clearance to be interviewed for this article, worked for about 35 years as a firefighter. At trial, he explained that he became a fire investigator a year before the fire at Barnes’ apartment because he had been injured on the job and took a reassignment to the Fire Investigation Bureau, where he spent the first six months in field training. The Barnes case was his first fatal-fire investigation.

Testimony showed Wilson failed to collect key information before making the arson call. He didn’t interview the two witnesses, Barnes and her 19-year-old son, Jermaine. He didn’t notice key elements of the fire scene, in particular the presence of cigarette butts. He didn’t find out that Morton was smoking when the fire started, and had been drinking. And he didn’t learn that Leonie Barnes is uncoordinated and accident-prone due to a stroke that has affected the left side of her body, permanently contracting the muscles in her left hand – a condition that, in conjunction with alcohol, may have contributed to an accidental spill of nail-polish remover.

“Captain Wilson didn’t do his job,” Gilleran told the jury.

Wilson did, however, make the following, vaguely attributed comment in his field notes of the fire: “The statement was made that the son had said that his mother, using fingernail polish remover, had lit the victim on fire.”

At trial, Gilleran would use this statement to suggest that Wilson relied on “roadside gossip” to reach his arson conclusion.

Ultimately, a year after the fire, prosecutor Jacobs disclosed to the defense that Wilson, in a meeting with the prosecution team, had “momentarily expressed concern that the setting of the fire could have been accidental,” according to court documents.

Wilson was not alone in allowing for the possibility of an accidental cause – five of the state’s expert witnesses, under cross-examination, expressed the same opinion. And there was testimony that no one involved in the probe – neither Wilson, nor police arson and homicide investigators – checked the results of tests for the presence of accelerants on materials gathered at the fire scene. They were negative.

“It seemed to me that half of the state’s witnesses were learning new information for the first time when they were on the stand,” Gilleran opined to the jury. “Nobody followed up. Nobody cared. [The Fire Investigation Bureau] handed it off to police arson, who handed it off to homicide. It was nobody’s job.”

Some Sewage Runs Through It: The Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated, but parts of the Gwynns Falls are just plain dead

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 5, 2002

“That’s raw sewage right there,” says Rob Johnson, a city sewer supervisor, as he points at the gray, turbid water running through a fetid Southwest Baltimore stream. It’s around 8 a.m. on May 29, and Johnson’s back at the same spot he’s been most every morning for well over a month – at a Yale Heights manhole next to an unnamed tributary of Maiden Choice Run, monitoring a periodic sewer leak until the city can diagnose and fix the problem.

The polluted stream winds through piles of trash and debris and mounds of slime-coated rocks and sediment, fouling the air around homes in Yale Heights and Irvington. Maiden Choice runs clear until it’s joined by this tributary. Downstream, as it tumbles across a historic stone dam in Loudon Park Cemetery – where neighbors say children swim and play in the water – Maiden Choice runs gray and smelly toward the Gwynns Falls and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

Later that day, the second of three segments of the Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated in a ceremony filled with optimistic speeches and calls for volunteerism. The bike trail, a decade in the making and four miles long so far, eventually will grow to 14 miles, linking Leakin Park with the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

“We’ve got the basis to make something really great here,” an earnest Mayor Martin O’Malley proclaims from the podium. “The health of our parks is a really good indicator of the health of the city.” He goes on to acknowledge that the Gwynns Falls still needs some help: “We need to fix it up, make it more accessible, make it cleaner.”

As the crowd of trail enthusiasts and environmentalists mills about, some talk about how the quality of the Gwynns Falls’ water is tied in with the success of the trail.

“Having a greenway and an ugly stream running through it is not a good idea,” says Ellen Smith, trail coordinator for the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. “Water quality and trail quality are intertwined.” Opening the trail gets people near the water, she says, creating a greater awareness of the Gwynns Falls’ problems and, hopefully, generating the political will to take measures to solve them.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also planning to help out. In March , the Corps announced a proposal to conduct numerous sewer-rehabilitation projects in the Maiden Choice Run and Dead Run areas of the Gwynns Falls. The idea has yet to get approval from Army Corps brass, much less any funding, says Chris Spaur, a Corps ecologist. But the plans are ambitious.

For now, the will to improve the Gwynns Falls’ water quality is coming from the federal and state government – in a big way. On April 26, the city, after years of noncompliance with the federal Clean Water Act, agreed to start a massive overhaul of its sewer system. Systemwide, the upgrade will cost about $940 million over 14 years. For the Gwynns Falls watershed this year, the city has allocated nearly $15 million for projects to improve stream quality, including sewer repairs, a debris collector, a storm-water containment pond, and a flood dike.

“The way it is now,” says Spaur of the sewers in the area, “there are little leaks all over the place. The pipes are made of vitrified clay with joints every several feet. Most of them were laid in the 1920s and 1930s, in and around streambeds. After all these years, the joints are leaky and there are lots of cracks.” If realized, the work as currently planned would involve fixing nine miles of sewer pipe and nearly 300 manholes, plus wetland restoration and streambed stabilization.

While these big public-works projects get underway, the Gwynns Falls is under a microscope – literally. Scientists from a variety of disciplines have been concentrating their research on the Gwynns Falls as part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a National Science Foundation investigation into how natural and human-made elements of the urban environment interact. As research continues, available information on the health – or ill health – of the Gwynns Falls will continue to grow.

Rob Johnson, the sewer supervisor, knows firsthand one of the Gwynns Falls’ major problems: chronically leaky sewers. This morning, standing near the Yale Heights manhole as he has for weeks, he can’t do anything but watch as raw sewage trickles into the stream. Someday soon, once he gets his electronic diagnostic device back from La Plata–where he says it’s on loan to help sort out sewer damage from the recent tornado–he’s going to locate this leak.

“And then,” he says confidently, “we’ll come in and fix the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, as work on Phase II of the Gwynns Falls Trail progresses, the city is returning to the already opened first portion of the trail – completed in 1999 – to conduct $150,000 in repairs.

“There’s been some erosion on the trail,” explains Gennady Schwartz, the city Department of Recreation and Parks’ capital-projects chief, “so we need to redo some of the work.”

Trail maintenance – like beach replenishment in Ocean City – is going to be an ongoing cost for the city. “That’s the price to pay, but I think we’re willing to do that,” Schwartz says. An attractive trail that is well-used, he says, “will bring people’s attention to the problems in the watershed.”

Hot Line: The Feds Are Considering Shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel Through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are They Playing With Fire?


By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

(Photo:, image of a test rail car carrying a spent nuclear fuel shipping cask.)

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Sun editorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site ( points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Mobtown Confidential: Thirty Years After His Mysterious Disappearance, Gentleman Racketeer and Block Kingpin Julius “The Lord” Salsbury Still Haunts Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore magazine, April 2000


“Little Melvin” Williams is shouting through a thick sheet of Plexiglas at the Prince George’s County Detention Center. The burly owner of the recently defunct Scrapp Bail Bonds is awaiting sentencing on a federal conviction for possessing a handgun while on parole for earlier federal crimes related to his career as a major heroin trafficker. Williams has spent 22 of his 58 years in jail; he claims, among other things, to be an accomplished chess player, a martial arts expert, and a speaker of five languages. What he isn’t, he says, is a snitch.

“Mr. Levinson has made a devastating mistake!” he exclaims. “I’m known as ‘Iron Jaws’!”

The source of Little Melvin’s indignation is Liberty Heights, filmmaker Barry Levinson’s latest nostalgic ode to Baltimore. In the film, released last fall, an amiable, soft-spoken racketeer named Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) juggles his family life, his illegal gambling operation, and his burlesque business on the Block in the 1950s. His downfall comes via a gambling payoff owed to a villainous dope peddler named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), who first kidnaps Kurtzman’s son and then rats on a bookie. Kurtzman is targeted for prosecution by the Feds and arrested on Rosh Hashanah at a Cadillac dealership. “You know,” Nate says to his lawyer, “over the years in my business, you watch enough shows, you learn. A good performer knows when to get off the stage.” Nate quits the game and gets eight-to-10 years in the Big House.

The movie is fiction, of course, but the real-life Little Melvin knows that the shuckin’, jivin’, bug-eyed bungler in the movie is supposed to be him. And anyone who remembers the Baltimore of a few generations ago can tell that the doomed gentleman racketeer is drawn from the man Williams says once “called me his godson” – Julius “The Lord” Salsbury.

Salsbury, like Levinson’s Kurtzman, was a Block kingpin who was hunted down by the Feds. Unlike his fictional alter ego, though, Salsbury was never caught. After appealing a gambling conviction, he jumped bail and fled the country in 1970, eluding capture ever since. Legend has it that he went to Israel to enjoy the protections afforded Jewish-American criminals under the 1965 U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty. The grapevine says Salsbury died a few years ago, probably in 1995; if he were still alive, he would be 84 years old.

But the Lord never really left town; in his long absence, Salsbury’s legend took on a life of its own. Novelists and filmmakers have mined his tale for material; journalists have told and retold what is known of his tenure as Lord of the Block and entertained speculative reports of Salsbury sightings. In the process, Julius Salsbury became Mobtown’s outlaw hero.

The Salsbury myth holds the Lord up as the benevolent peacekeeping patriarch of the Block-based numbers rackets, an honorable man in a rogue industry that – like the East Baltimore Street nightclub district itself during its fondly remembered heyday – was tinged with menace but basically harmless. The nostalgia-driven take on Salsbury  and the Block during its salad days remains common among Baltimoreans. History – at least the popular version of it – has been good to the Lord.

Little Melvin Williams knows all about that, because right now it is being less kind to him: When he’s sentenced in March, Williams will get almost 22 years without parole. He’s locked up, probably for the rest of his life, and cast as the villain in the latest retelling of his fugitive godfather’s story. And the Lord, as always, has escaped without a scratch.


Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915, Julius Salsbury was 12 years old when his parents, Isadore and Sarah, moved the family up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and opened a lunch counter on Pratt Street downtown. At 16, Julius dropped out of Edgar Allan Poe school on West Fayette to start earning a living full-time. His first vocation – cab driver – began by the time he was 18. By 21, he already lived on the Block and was getting initiated in the rackets.

Salsbury’s education as a gambler was interrupted by World War II. His draft number was picked soon after Pearl Harbor, and he served as a military policeman in Europe. But before the war ended, he accompanied a prisoner back stateside and went AWOL. Salsbury was caught and did six months of hard labor. When he returned to Baltimore in 1945, he was a 29-year-old veteran with a dishonorable discharge and nothing much to do.

In short order, Salsbury was back in the bookmaking business. In between day jobs lending his father a hand re-treading tires, bottling soda, and running a bar, he began to build up a gambling network. He eloped to Miami with Susan Clara Wellman, a young waitress who had moved to Baltimore from Pennsylvania, because his parents didn’t approve of him marrying a gentile. And he took his lumps in the profession – a bookmaking conviction in 1948 was followed by another in 1950. But the battle scars from his run-ins with the law readied him for bigger and better things.

By the early 1950s, the lowdown on the Block was attracting out-of-town press. In Washington Confidential, the bestselling pulp expose from 1951, Baltimore’s red-light strip was described as “one of the most vicious and lawless areas in the world” by muckraking authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. “At this writing,” they concluded, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything and it’s not much.”

That same year, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime sent its investigators to root out the Baltimore underworld. Long-established racketeers cooled their heels to avoid trouble from the out-of-town heat. And into the vacuum rose the Lord.

The nickname came serendipitously. At a wrestling match at Carlin Park one night, a grappler called “Lord Salsbury” entered the ring; Julius Salsbury and his cohort, who were there to watch the fights, adopted the moniker on the spot.

It fit like a glove. Salsbury’s demeanor was soft-spoken, aristocratic, and confident – a good match with his distinctive, sharp-featured countenance.

His gambling organization, however, suffered its early setbacks. In 1952, Anne Arundel County police raided his Glen Burnie bunker in a case that Salsbury took to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost; he got six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In 1954, he was nabbed for keeping a disorderly house and putting on an indecent show at Kay’s Cabaret, the Block bar he managed at the time. And in 1955, the Feds fined him $2,000 for failing to buy a required $50 gambling stamp.

But once Salsbury gained title to the Oasis Nite Club in 1956, he troubles with the law eased. Located at East Baltimore and Frederick streets, the club provided Salsbury with a way to wash his gambling proceeds. It also served as a home base from which to run a burgeoning empire. He bought a nice house in Cheswolde in Northwest Baltimore for his wife and three daughters. A fancy car and yacht rounded out the life of the late-1950s racketeer.

As a gambling kingpin and a Block bigwig, Salsbury was well-connected not only in the criminal world, but also with politicians and lawmen. The Lord operated in a carefully guarded region of society where criminal, political, and law-enforcement interests interweave – an area where corruption and cover-up put down deep and hidden roots.

People who worked for Salsbury remember politicians partying with Oasis girls on Salsbury’s boat. He was close friends with Baltimore political boss Jack Pollack. Pollack’s son, Morton, a lawyer and erstwhile Block habitué, says that “a lot of politicians, judges, and commissioners would go down to the Oasis at night.”

Retired Baltimore police lieutenant George Andrew, who headed the vice squad on the Block during the 1960s, suspected that Salsbury had high-up friends in the police department. “He really had somebody tied up,” Andrew recalls. “He knew somebody, but I don’t know who. But if I went on the Block, nobody would be there when I hit it. I wish I’d known – I’d have sent somebody to jail.”

Even Salsbury’s staunchest detractors admit that the man was a civilized racketeer. He shunned violence as an inducement for debt repayment; rather, he punished debtors by not allowing them to bet again until the account was settled. He was known as a generous philanthropist. And he didn’t hold grudges. When a drugstore owner on the Block was compelled to testify against Salsbury, the Lord stayed friendly with him and continued to eat at his lunch counter throughout the trial, just as he had done regularly for years.

But the image of the Lord as charitable rogue was marred by the reality of life on the Block during his ostensibly nonviolent rule: Murder, strong-arming, kidnapping, and intimidation were regular tactics of the Baltimore underworld in that era. In 1961, a troubling crime spree spurred a grand-jury probe of Block rackets, and the probe in turn set in motion the forces that would eventually bring down the Lord.

The trouble started in October of 1960, when Block restaurant manager Frank Corbi was shot at outside his house. The following May, his nephew Ed was ambushed by three masked gunmen; his bodyguard, Earl Fifer, was abducted and held for six days. In June, a Miami Club waitress was found murdered in a stream near Bowley’s Lane after being questioned by police investigating rackets on the Block; a car salesman named Edward Castranda was shot dead as he sat in his car outside the Dixie Diner in July. The three men arrested – brothers Orlando and Angelo Perrera and Benjamin “Hittie” Wildstein – were all major players on the Block and, as Morton Pollack recalls today, friends of Salsbury.

By September, eight Block club owners – including Salsbury – were indicted for various offenses involving the operation of their establishments. A fearful suspect in a numbers-writing case told the judge, “I can’t help you catch the big wheels. These syndicate people would do away with you.” Maryland’s U.S. Attorney, Joseph Tydings, announced that gambling profits were so great that racketeers nationwide spent an estimated $4 billion annually to bribe law-enforcement officers and sports figures. “Organized rackets are disciplined and able to rid themselves of people they no longer want in very efficient ways,” Tydings said.

In November 1961, Salsbury’s case came up for trial: He was charged in city court for pandering and maintaining a disorderly house. The judge and a state witness both reported receiving threats and received police protection. The witness, an Oasis dancer, testified that Salsbury once beat her up when she asked for a loan and that she and her children were told their lives wouldn’t be worth a “plugged nickel” if she took the stand. Still other witnesses were roughed up, left town, or changed their testimony. During a trial recess, a state’s witness in the custody of police was taken out drinking at the Oasis. Three police officers who patrolled the Block testified at trial that they’d never seen any problems at Salsbury’s club. Ultimately, after a retrial, Salsbury won acquittal. The Lord had slipped off the hook again.

In June 1962, the U.S. Senate had taken testimony about organized crime based on the Block as part of its investigation into corruption in the showgirls’ union. Salsbury – already fingered by the U.S. Attorney General as one of the nation’s top racketeers – was called to testify before the Senate committee, but under questioning asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Based on the information about the Block gathered during the hearings, Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota dubbed Baltimore one of the nation’s “great metropolitan fleshpots” and said its citizens have “the kind of city they want … the kind of city they deserve.”


After Salsbury’s photo was on the front page of the newspapers during the 1962 Senate hearings, he was fixed in the public imagination – and in the sights of federal law-enforcement – as an organized criminal of national proportions. From that point on, his fortunes started to change. The year 1963 brought Salsbury a federal conviction for tax evasion, for which he served eight months in federal prison. In 1965, $745,000 in tax liens were filed against him by the IRS. And from 1963 to 1965, the FBI bugged the Oasis (illegally, it was later revealed) and picked up all sorts of nefarious activities: graft among city police and vice detectives and bribes to IRS agents, according to Paul Kramer, who as an assistant U.S. attorney later prosecuted Salsbury.

“There were people coming in and out of his office and getting picked up on the wiretap – payoffs taking place in his office, exchanges of information, and the women back there with them,” Kramer recalls today as he sits in his memento-crammed office. He now runs a criminal-defense practice. “It did show the corruption that was associated with this kind of behavior. I assume it’s probably worse today, with all the narcotics money involved, than we had with gambling.”

Kramer was in zealous pursuit of Salsbury for much of the 1960s. As one of Salsbury’s defense attorneys, Arnold Weiner – himself a former federal prosecutor – recalls, Kramer “was Captain Ahab and Julius was his white whale.”

Success didn’t come easily. After a 1968 raid on the Oasis, Kramer charged Salsbury with failing to purchase a required $50 wagering-tax stamp; hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law on which the case was based. Kramer came back at him in 1969 with a new harpoon – the Travel Act, which prohibits interstate transport of ill-gotten gains. That one connected: Salsbury was convicted and slapped with a 15-year sentence.

“For a guy who got convicted as a nonviolent gambler,” Kramer asserts, “the judge really threw the book at him.” The main rationale for the severity of the sentence Salsbury received, Kramer explains, was the public corruption bred by the Lord’s activities. “What made it was the amount of corruption that was associated with him: law-enforcement corruption, whether it’s the liquor board or federal agents or police officers. He even asked me if I could be corrupted, which I took as flattery.”

Salsbury appealed the conviction and – despite strident warnings by Kramer that the Lord would slip away – was allowed to remain free on bail pending the outcome. Days before the appellate court upheld the conviction, Salsbury fled. Given the high level of corruption surrounding the Lord, suspicions abounded that he had some high-powered help in making his escape.

“Where was the leak in the U.S. Court of Appeals when the decision came down?” asks E. Thomas Maxwell, a former assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore who prosecuted Salsbury in 1961. His raised eyebrows concerning the circumstances of Salsbury’s disappearance are common among afficionados of the Lord. Maxwell speculates that, if Salsbury had not fled and instead been imprisoned, information the racketeer had about public corruption could have erupted in scandal.

Kramer, however, says the question of whether someone leaked word of the appellate court’s decision in order to give Salsbury the opportunity to run is settled. “A lot of people thought that,” Kramer recalls. “There was an investigation and we determined that we do not believe that there is any evidence showing that there was any kind of leak out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Instead, Kramer believes Salsbury “was just playing the odds” on when and how the appeal would come down and fled town just in time.

The Lord took with him everything he knew about criminally culpable public officials, and in his wake he left a red-faced federal law-enforcement community. “The government was just embarrassed for many, many years” after the escape, says Maxwell. George Beall, who was U.S. Attorney for Maryland when Salsbury escaped, agrees. “It was an embarrassment to the FBI, to the government, that he was gone,” he explains. “They turned themselves inside out to try to solve the mystery.”

According to Kramer, Salsbury left his Horizon House apartment on Calvert Street and “went directly to Canada. We later determined that there was a safe deposit box in Canada. We finally got the search warrant for it and found it empty. The best we could determine was that he took a gambling junket to England, probably under an assumed name, and later we could prove he was in South Africa. Money was being funneled [to Salsbury] through Germany, we believe, from businesses being sold in Maryland.”

Besides the government, the other big loser when Salsbury fled was his friend and gambling colleague, the bail bondsman Robert “Fifi” London, who had posted a total of $80,000 bail that had to be forfeited, according to Morton Pollack. “I know for a fact that he was paid back” on Salsbury’s behalf by a third party, Pollack says. Fifi London died in the 1970s after a lengthy prison term for tax evasion, but his bailbonds firm lives on. In fact, Melvin Williams’ Scrapp Bail Bonds was (until it tanked due to Williams’ recent legal troubles) a subagency of London Bonding Agency.

Homicide author David Simon investigated the Salsbury case as a Sun reporter in the 1980s and early 1990s and concluded that the Lord ended up in Israel, living in a townhouse in Tel Aviv. Melvin Williams is full of insinuations that he had been in communication with Salsbury since his flight, has information about the Lord’s whereabouts over the years, and knows the truth about the man’s mysterious fugitive years. But, like any good gambler, Little Melvin plays that card close to his vest.


Back in 1969, as the net closed in around Salsbury, Fred Motz served as co-counsel to lead prosecutor Kramer. Now the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Maryland, Motz was one of the men who helped hunt Salsbury down, and he understands well why the Lord still haunts the Block. “As you get older, you can romanticize,” he says. “It is an overstatement to say that the Salsbury people were sort of like Damon Runyon characters. [But] there’s a certain poignancy to the fact that that is now gone.”

Never mind that the real-life Salsbury helped cement Mobtown’s still-thriving reputation as a hopelessly corrupt and dangerous town. Forget that, during his reign, the Block was wracked with shocking violence, and the widespread public corruption Salsbury instigated to protect his rackets undermined the public trust in honest government. From the perspective of modern Baltimore, the Salsbury era still inspires a certain nostalgia for the days of honorable outlaws and crime that seemed at least to be organized. Maybe, Motz guesses, it’s only because corruption and violence grew so much worse after he left.

“[Salsbury] was really in quite strong control of the Block, and … after he was taken out, rough people came in and there were a lot more murders,” Motz says. “Nobody’s saying that crime is appropriate, but you are going to have crime. There’s almost a sense of longing for [Salsbury’s brand of crime], as opposed to what you see out on the streets today. I think that’s one of the appeals of the Salsbury story. It is something from a different era. And one senses that things are different now than they were then.”