By Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector
With Saturday's fatal stabbing of a 27-year-old man in West Baltimore and fatal shooting of a 22-year-old in Westport, the city's annual homicide count passed 300 for the first time since 1999, pushing the city across a deadly threshold once considered a relic of the past.
The latest killings continued a surge of violence -- more than a killing per day -- that began in late April after Freddie Gray's death and the accompanying unrest.
The spate of violence, along with the city's population decline over time, now has Baltimore poised to hit another sobering milestone: the deadliest year on a per-capita basis. That is an abrupt turnaround from 2011, when city leaders were encouraged by the first drop below 200 homicides since the 1970s.
"Unless we come together as an entire community we are just going to continue to watch this happen," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has found herself waking up in the middle of the night to check her phone for reports of another homicide. "It weighs on my mind every waking minute and it weighs on my mind when I'm asleep."
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was a teenager in Baltimore in the 1990s, said the pace of violence drove him into public service.
"I'm so sick of this," the 31-year-old Scott said at the scene of a recent killing in his Northeast Baltimore district as homicide detectives scoured the block.
"I'm disappointed in all of us in Baltimore ... from leadership on down, that we have allowed ourselves as a city to fall back to the reason why I got into this work -- to not allow these children to live through what I lived through as a child," he said.
Gov. Larry Hogan called the spike "atrocious" and a "horrible situation" that must be solved. "Baltimore City is just out of control with respect to the murder rate," Hogan said in a recent WBAL radio appearance.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, police were called to the 3200 block of W. Baltimore St., where they found the victim suffering from multiple stab wounds. He was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center but died, police said.
The man, who was not identified, had been stabbed around the corner in the first block of N. Abington Ave. before running or walking to Baltimore Street, where he collapsed, police said.
The scene was mostly deserted as dusk fell Saturday. Three children stood behind crime tape and bickered briefly before wandering off. An officer dropped evidence markers at the scene. One marked "H" stood by a pool of blood in the street while the officer took photographs.
The killing was the fifth this year within a block of the intersection of Baltimore and Hilton streets.
The city's 301st homicide of the year followed within a few hours. At about 9:15 p.m., officers went to the 2500 block of Annapolis Road in the Westport neighborhood where they found a 22-year-old man who had been shot in the chest, police said. He died shortly after.
Earlier Saturday, police announced the city's 298th and 299th homicides. Police said 32-year-old Tavon Allen of the 5300 block of Jamestown Court died Friday after being shot Nov. 4 in the first block of N. Bentalou St. in West Baltimore. And a 31-year-old man who was shot in the chest late Friday in the 1200 block of N. Caroline St. in the Oliver neighborhood died at Johns Hopkins Hospital, police said.
Baltimore's 2015 homicide rate currently sits at 47 per 100,000 people, second only to the rate in St. Louis, which has also seen a steep spike in gun violence this year. Total shootings in Baltimore are up nearly 80 percent over the comparable period last year, while other types of crime, including robbery and burglary, have also increased.
Efforts to combat the street crime come as the Department of Justice continues an investigation into allegations of brutality and other issues within the Baltimore Police Department. Meanwhile, the city is bracing for the first of six trials for the police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death; it is scheduled to begin Nov. 30.
Officials have struggled to identify the cause of the spike in homicides. Earlier in the year, police and federal law enforcement officials speculated that the looting of drugs from pharmacies during the April 27 rioting may have played a role by disrupting street markets. But with the violence continuing, police Commissioner Kevin Davis said it now appears there is a widespread perception by criminals that the time is ripe to settle scores.
Questions have also been raised about whether a slowdown by police contributed to the spike, because arrests plummeted in the weeks after the six officers were charged in the Gray case. But police are quick to note that gun seizures have increased.
Davis said that while the rate of killings has quickened, old patterns of violence remain to blame.
"There is no randomness associated with these murders," Davis said of the majority of this year's killings. "They're gang-related, they're retaliatory in nature, and they center around drug disputes. And unfortunately, where there are drugs, there's money; and where there is money, there are guns."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, through aides, has declined interview requests about the deadly year, citing a judge's gag order in the Gray case. In September, she discounted a connection between the unrest and the spike in gun violence, saying it was a cyclical uptick caused by years of "failed policies."
In a prepared statement last week, Mosby said she was taking a "holistic approach to address the systemic issues that present obstacles in the effective prosecution of crime," in hopes of encouraging more witnesses to come forward and "take a stand against violence."
Meanwhile, the Police Department's once-vaunted homicide unit has closed just 31 percent of this year's cases, which, if it continues, would be one of the lowest marks on record.
At the homicide unit's offices, there is a stark reminder of the problem. Victims' names are listed on a large white board, under the squad of detectives assigned to each killing. In late October, a second board was added to accommodate the swelling caseload.
John Skinner, a Towson University criminology professor who spent more than 20 years in the Baltimore Police Department -- including as a second-in-command under former commissioners Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Anthony W. Batts -- said the murder rate dropped in previous years as a result of good working relationships among law enforcement leaders and the community. Those bonds, which were already deteriorating, were dealt a major blow in the spring.
"As we emerge from that, we're already in this vicious cycle of retaliatory violence that creates a pattern that is really hard to break," he said. "I don't think the unrest happened arbitrarily. I think it's these breakdowns that were forming for quite some time and there was tremendous pressure."
This year's victims include James Gaylord, a 71-year-old retiree who was one of five people shot in a spray of bullets outside a busy Motor Vehicle Administration office in Northwest Baltimore; Arnesha Bowers, a 16-year-old who was raped by alleged gang members and set on fire in her home in Northeast Baltimore; and Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her 7-year-old son, Kester Browne, who were killed in Southwest Baltimore.
This month, the killing of 24-year-old Kendal Fenwick, a father of three who police believe may have been killed by neighborhood drug dealers after he tried to build a fence to keep them away from his property, made national headlines.
"I just wish it would stop, all the senseless killing. It's too much," said Vonda Best, 58, who watched from the window of her home in late October as her son, Damien, was shot multiple times on a Northeast Baltimore street by a hooded figure standing above him. Days later at his candlelight vigil, someone opened fire and wounded an attendee.
Best, who has lived in Baltimore all her life, said the violence this year has been unbearable. "Even before it happened to my son, I was thinking about it and praying on it," she said.
"They're robbing people of their loved ones, just killing each other," Best said of the young men she believes are responsible for much of the violence. "How can their hearts be so cold? So young, with such cold hearts."
No victim got more attention than No. 88 -- Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal injury suffered in the back of a police transport van. His death on April 19 led to weeks of protests, with looting and rioting breaking out the day of his funeral. Mosby stunned many in Baltimore and around the nation when, on May 1, she announced charges ranging from misconduct to second degree murder against the six officers.
Baltimore had seen more than 300 homicides just twice in its history prior to 1990, when it had hundreds of thousands more residents. With crack cocaine fueling violence around the country, the city tallied that many victims every year of the 1990s, peaking at 353 in 1993.
The city's population loss, in large part driven by a sharp decline in blue-collar jobs, deepened. Reducing the number of killings to fewer than 300 homicides became a symbolic goal for a city eager for a turnaround.
Martin O'Malley rode an anti-crime platform to the position of mayor in 1999, and vowed to cut the number of victims to 175. In his first year, the homicide rate fell below 300, to 261. O'Malley and his hand-picked police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, who had helped drive down crime in New York City, celebrated the milestone by sharing a shot of Irish moonshine whiskey.
Arrests soared during that period, and by 2007 city leaders were again fretting about the symbolic milestone of 300, as the homicide count rose. Bealefeld, a veteran police officer, was installed as commissioner by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon in July of that year, and worked to reduce the number of arrests by focusing on guns and targeting violent repeat offenders.
In 2011, the city had 197 homicides, the first time in 40 years that it recorded fewer than 200.
"Everybody was equally focused on the extraction of these very, very violent offenders during that time period," said Skinner, the retired police commander. "You extract enough of those individuals, and it begins to prevent this cycle of retaliation that I think is occurring right now."
Bealefeld stepped down the next year, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed Batts, a reform-minded commissioner from the West Coast. Batts sought to address complaints that police were still too aggressive, while overhauling the agency's structure and approach to fighting crime.
Shootings rose for the first time in six years in 2013, but last year killings were cut in half in West Baltimore, driving a decline an overall.
Through the first four months of 2015, the number of homicides was on par with recent years. Then came the unrest. While international attention was focused on protests and a looted CVS store in West Baltimore, shootings across the city were erupting.
Forty-two people were killed in May, the most in a month since 1990. In July, 45 people were slain.
Rawlings-Blake dismissed Batts in July, citing his leadership as a distraction amid the mounting homicides. Rawlings-Blake later bowed out of the mayoral race.
Last year, the city spent $200,000 to roll out the heralded Ceasefire program in West Baltimore, after Rawlings-Blake personally wooed nationally known criminologist David Kennedy, who had tried to implement the program in the late 1990s but failed. But this year, the Police Department's Western District leads the city in killings and shootings.
As of Nov. 7, homicides there were up 189 percent compared to last year, and nonfatal shootings were up 107 percent.
In late July, police announced they were partnering with federal authorities on an initiative called "B-FED" to collaborate and investigate those behind the violence. In the city's "War Room," where the partners work cases, officials said they had identified 238 "top trigger pullers" in the city, and were aiming to take them off the streets.
Rawlings-Blake said she wants Baltimore residents to know that "we are not giving in to the violence." But she also acknowledged that the city faces an "uphill battle," as criminals enjoy "unfettered access" to guns on city streets and the Police Department faces challenges to closing cases.
"I feel that when we have this list of high-value targets, that we would be able to make more progress," she said.
Scott, who works with the 300 Men March movement to mentor young men and reduce killings, said the focus on the unrest may have created a perception that police were backing off, emboldening criminals to act out.
"We have a perfect storm of bad that is creating a perfect environment for these unfortunate cowardly acts of homicide," he said. "People are losing their lives and we have to figure out how that should be the No. 1 thing we are talking about."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.
(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun