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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

Solid Lead Breaks Case

Homicide Detective John ''J.T.'' Brown knew the killer had to live near the murder scene.

Homicide Detective John ''J.T.'' Brown knew the killer had to live near the murder scene.

On the night Laurence Jones Jr. was robbed and shot on Bank Street, a witness had seen two men run by seconds after he heard the gunfire.

Fifteen minutes later, one of the men returned, wearing different clothes. He told the witness: ''I know you seen me running by, but you know I didn't do that.''

The witness, William Rice, lived in the Perkins Housing Projects, apartments that faced the 1400 Block of Bank Street. Rice told the homicide cops that it wasn't the first time he'd seen the suspect. He knew that this young man sometimes hung out in the project courtyards selling and buying drugs.

Rice said he'd also seen the suspect in the area in the months after the shooting. While Rice was familiar with the suspect's face, he told police he didn't know his name or where he lived.

Detective Brown was sure Rice knew more than he was telling, but he also knew the witness was scared about getting shot himself for saying too much.

Brown had no choice but to be patient with Rice. He'd have to gain the man's trust before he could expect any more information. Still, the detective was frustrated. He knew the killer was out there and was probably thinking he got away with murder.

''We've got to identify this guy,'' Brown told himself.

Brown needed more. He reviewed the case file again. He read memos written by the detectives who had worked the case before him. During the three years the case had been open, the detectives had run down plenty of dead-end leads. They'd checked dozens of pawnshops looking for Laurence Jones' stolen gold ring. They had searched for a murder weapon and interviewed several suspects who earned their living robbing people in southeast Baltimore neighborhoods like Bank Street.

The detectives had also tracked down a man with the street name of Skip, who was thought to know the killer. He, too, led nowhere.

''Who's still out there we haven't talked to?'' Brown wondered.

In October 1996, four months after the unsolved murder got assigned to the Cold Case Squad, Brown got the break he needed.

It came from another man named Brown: Alfred Brown, a felon with a fondness for robberies, had some information he wanted to share with the homicide cops. Three years earlier, Detective Donald Ossmus had interviewed Brown, asking him if he knew anything about a robbery gone bad on Bank Street.

At the time, Brown had nothing to offer. He said he'd get back to the detective if he picked up anything on the street.

Now Brown was making good on his promise.

Facing an escape charge for walking away from a halfway house, Brown figured it was a good time to help the cops. He agreed to talk with J.T. Brown about what he knew.

He explained that he had met up with an old buddy, James Langhorne, while the two of them were doing time in March 1996.

Alfred Brown was serving a sentence for a stickup. Langhorne had been locked up for breaking his probation on drug and handgun charges. The two men knew each other from an earlier time, when both had been free, hustling the streets of southeast Baltimore, selling drugs and doing robberies.

More experienced than Langhorne, Brown had taught his friend some tricks of the stickup trade. Now, a few years later, when Langhorne ran into Brown in prison, the two reminisced about old times. Langhorne bragged to his mentor. He talked about a late-night robbery he and a buddy had pulled three years ago on Bank Street.

Langhorne told him that he pulled a gun on a man ''and the guy put up a fight so I shot him.''

''What'd you get?'' Brown asked.

''I got his ring and wallet.''

J.T. Brown studied the informant's face as he told his story in the homicide office. Brown had been a cop for 23 years, and reading witnesses and suspects had become second nature to him.

The detective listened carefully to Alfred Brown, waiting for a word, a gesture, something to tell him that the story didn't hold up. His gut told him Brown was telling the truth.

After talking to Brown, the detective went looking for William Rice. He convinced Rice to come to the homicide office to take a look at some mug shots. Rice had little trouble picking Langhorne's mug out of a half-dozen photographs.

''That's him,'' Rice told Brown.

The detective also learned after talking with Alfred Brown that his hunch had been right. At the time of the murder, Langhorne had been living with his girlfriend in a housing project on Ballou Court. Their apartment was just a few blocks away from the murder scene.

Sure that Langhorne was the suspect they had been hunting for nearly three years, Brown got a warrant for his arrest. On Nov. 15, a half-dozen officers drove to the home of Langhorne's parents in Woodlawn, a working-class Baltimore suburb.

Paroled from prison two weeks earlier, Langhorne was surprised to see the police at his mother's door. Joyce Langhorne was even more surprised.

''What's going on, James?'' she asked.

''I'm being charged with murder.''

''Murder? Who?''

''Some 1993 murder.''

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Barbara A. Walsh

  • Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter working on special projects for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Walsh was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who worked on a yearlong series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

David A. Rodgers

  • Rodgers has been a photographer at The Portland Newspapers since 1988. He previously worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Globe. Rodgers won third place in the National Press Photographers' Association's international pictures of the year contest this year for his work on the newspapers' Island Odyssey series, which ran in the summer of 1996. Rodgers also has won numerous regional and state photography awards.

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