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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

Witnesses: Man with Gun Ran By

The murder scene drew him back again and again.

The murder scene drew him back again and again.

Homicide Detective Donald Ossmus Jr. found himself driving to the 1400 block of Bank Street and staring at the patch of sidewalk where Laurence Jones Jr. was gunned down.

It had been nearly six months since Larry Jones had been robbed and shot outside his apartment on a bone-chilling night in November 1993. The case stumped the veteran Baltimore detective.

Ossmus returned to the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood dozens of times, turning the case over and over in his mind.

He cruised the darkened streets at 3 a.m., the same hour Larry was shot. He looked for people who might make deliveries at that hour, who might be coming home from work or bars. He searched for anybody who might've seen something.

Sometimes Ossmus would park in his police-issue Chevy Cavalier and stare at the rowhouse where Jones had lived for a few months after moving to Baltimore from Maine. He thought of the young man's mother, Yong Jones. He knew she grieved not only over the death of her son but over his lost soul, which, according to her Korean beliefs, could not rest until justice was done.

For months the detective had struggled to give her some encouraging news.

As he prowled the neighborhood, Ossmus tried to think like the killer. What would I do if I had just pulled a stickup and shot the victim in the face? Where would I run? What would I do with the gun?

Ossmus wondered too about the Perkins Housing Projects. The three-story buildings stood across the street from the sidewalk where Yong's son was murdered. Was there a witness living there who was afraid to talk?

Like many low-income neighborhoods, the Perkins Projects were plagued by drugs, gunfire and robberies. Few who lived there wanted to talk to cops.

Ossmus had managed to get a few witnesses to give him information, but it had been a struggle. Following a tip, Ossmus had tracked down Rhonda Gilmore, a young woman who lived in the projects. The night of the shooting, Gilmore had been up late. She'd been talking to two friends who were working on a car in Spring Court, the blacktop courtyard below her second-story window.

About 2:30 a.m., she noticed two men standing on the corner of Bank and Eden streets by the phone booth. It was obvious the men had no interest in making a phone call; each of them had his back to the booth. One faced Eden Street, the other looked up Bank Street. She'd never seen the two men before.

Before she pulled away from her window, Gilmore saw the two men follow a young man up Bank Street. Minutes later, while she was in her bathroom, she heard a gunshot. Gilmore ran back to the window. The two men were gone.

Gilmore went back to bed. Fifteen minutes later, a siren wailed. Red lights flashed in the darkness. Two police cars and an ambulance had pulled up across the street.

Through Gilmore, Ossmus tracked down the two friends who had been working on a car that night. He pulled William Rice and James Player into the station to talk.

Both of them had heard the shot as they worked on Player's car. Instinctively, they had ducked. Minutes later, they saw two men run by them. One had a gun tucked in his waistband.

Curious about what had happened, Rice walked over to Bank Street and saw the body of a young man lying on the sidewalk.

Before the police and ambulance showed up, one of the men who had run by Rice after the shooting returned to Bank Street. The man had changed his clothes. He looked Rice in the eye and told him: ''I know you seen me running by, but you know I didn't do that.''

''Whatever,'' Rice replied.

After talking to Rice and Player, Ossmus pulled mug shots of criminals who had done time for armed robberies in the Bank Street area. He showed the photographs to Rice and Player. They didn't recognize any of the faces.

When the detective told Yong about the witnesses, she got excited, believing there would be an arrest soon.

Ossmus warned her the case was far from solved. He still didn't have the suspect's name. As far as the detective was concerned, he had nothing. He was still grasping for a solid lead.

Despite Ossmus' disappointment, Yong clutched at the sliver of hope.

''It's going to be OK, Junior,'' she told her son, staring at the white candle she burned for him in her Bangor home. She had lit the candle soon after her son's murder, vowing to keep the flame flickering until his killer was found. Her Korean culture taught that the light would draw his restless spirit home.

''Come home to Momma,'' she told his spirit. ''Stay with me until you get justice.''

While Yong tried to comfort her son's spirit, Ossmus solicited help from Baltimore's criminals. One of the felons he talked to was Alfred Brown. Brown was serving time at the Baltimore City Detention Center for a robbery in the Bank Street neighborhood.

Brown told the detective he didn't know anything about the slaying, but he said he'd ask around and learn what he could. He promised Ossmus he'd get back to him if he heard anything in jail or later on the streets.

Nearly three years would pass before Brown would make good on his promise.

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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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