Baltimore Sun police reporter Justin Fenton tried but failed to gather more information on a city killing. Here's why as part of a guest blog, in his own words:
Crime reporters are often asked why every death in the city isn't probed and explored in greater detail than the few lines most receive in the paper. There are a variety of reasons, from unreliable information to a newspaper's resources on any given day, and my experience today is one example.
Martie Williams, 20, was shot Saturday night while waiting to play video games at a "hangout house" in Westport. He fits the basic description of the majority of the city's homicide victims: a male, between ages 18 and 25, African-American, with pending drug charges and prior armed robbery charges that were dropped. He was awaiting a May trial on seven counts of drug dealing. He was the 47th victim of a homicide this year, and No. 48 would be found two miles away just a few hours later on Sunday morning.
But the circumstances of Williams' death - playing video games - intrigued me, and someone's death is not always the result of their criminal history or activity. So I decided to hit the street to find out more.
Active court records list Williams' address in the 2400 block of Dumfries Court, in a public housing complex and just a block away from where the fatal shooting took place. That was my first stop. After knocking on the door, a woman stuck her head out of a second floor window and said I had the wrong address. She didn't know anyone by that name and said her family had moved in within the past few months.
Strike one. But there was still the crime scene to visit, in the 2600 block of Maisel St. Two police officers were already there, going door to door to hand out fliers about "Operation Crime Watch." (The outdated fliers, by the way, note "Mayor Martin O'Malley's determination to ... allow citizens to take action and provide the highest level of personal protection"). I wasn't sure which house exactly was the crime scene, so I stopped to make a few calls. By the time I determined the house number, the officers were gone.
The house is down the street from a youth center and across the street from Westport Elementary School. Compared to some of the other houses on the street, it looked welcoming, with children's toys stacked in the front yard. There was also a front door lying in the grass, and a new front door had been attached.
It was wide open.
"Hello?" I said after stepping just inside the metal gate that enclosed the front yard. No response. I stepped up to the porch and called again, then knocked on the door. That's when I saw the blood spatter against the wall in front of me. The front room, decorated with numerous framed photos, had a TV propped up on a tray, and to the right on the wall was apparent blood spatter. Police said Williams had been shot as he waited to play video games, so the blood made sense.
I called again, knocking and knocking. As I turned to leave, an older man down the street wearing a tool belt noticed me and became enraged.
"Hey!" he boomed. "What the [expletive] are you doing inside my house!"
This was a simple misunderstanding, I thought. I've covered a couple hundred murders and sometimes these things didn't always start off well.
"I wasn't inside the house, sir," I offered. "I'm with the Baltimore Sun, and I'm here to do a story on the young man who was killed." The man was incredulous. He refused to believe that I had not been inside his house. He screamed repeatedly, threatening me and reaching several times for a hammer in his tool belt. A few times he also seemed to be reaching into his waistband. I don't know whether he had a gun, but that's certainly where many who carry weapons will store them. I've covered enough homicides to know that a bullet to the head can result from much less than what I was going through with him at the moment. Just last week, a woman was arrested in connection with shooting and killing another woman, and injuring two others, who accidentally bumped into her on a dance floor. Maybe Williams' death, too, was related to something seemingly trivial, like butting in line to play the video game.
"You have no idea the pain I have," the man said.
"That's why I'm here, sir."
"Gimme two dollars," he said, lightening up for a moment. "Gimme whatever you got." But I wasn't going to give him any money. I pull out my wallet, and the wallet might be gone, I figured.
He came toward me, and people on the street started to take notice. A window at the elementary school opened up, and children chanted. As I walked away, my hands outstretched in a "surrender" pose, he followed, still hollering threats and saying he should hurt me. No degree of explanation that I didn't go into his house changed his mind.
And then I realized I've walked past my car. Oops.
I made a step towards it, offering that I need to get back that way in order to comply with his demands and leave. No, that's not happening, he said. Don't let me see you around here again. Perhaps that was for the best, as I'm pretty sure pointing out my car was a good way to either get my window smashed or get full-out carjacked. Maybe he was all talk, but I wasn't going to take the risk.
So I did something I haven't done yet in my experience as a police reporter: I called the police for help. I dialed 911. I needed someone to just come to the area and help me get back to my car, I said. I don't want any trouble, but I needed to get the heck out of there. Down the street I could see the man, still angry, and now standing with some associates.
It took about 10 minutes for a patrol car to respond, and of course it felt a lot longer. The two-man car pulled up, and they let me hop into the backseat and drove me the 200 yards to my car.
"You're a reporter for the Sun?" said the officer behind the wheel, a huge grin on his face. He was highly entertained by this. I don't blame him - most police think the media are out to get them and second-guessing everything they do, and here I was, begging for help. Not so easy, huh? Of course, I don't carry a gun or wear a vest, either, but that's neither here nor there. I climbed into my car and drove away, passing the man with the hammer as school let out at Westport Elementary.
Obviously, I was a tad shaken by this series of events. But I think more importantly, as my job as a crime reporter goes, perhaps this offers a bit more insight into why not every victim gets a full writeup. For every family that wants to share their pain or see the victim given a spotlight in the newspaper, there's the family that begs us not to write anything out of fear for its safety, or those so overcome by emotions that the mere presence of a reporter is enough to send them over the edge.