A Stolen Soul

The killer left few clues.

There were no spent bullets. The only blood found at the scene belonged to the victim. None of the killer's hairs or clothing were found on the victim's body. Homicide Detective Donald Ossmus Jr. scanned the deserted sidewalk in the predawn darkness. He'd been dispatched to the 1400 block of Bank Street just after 3:30 a.m. An anonymous caller had told police there was an injured man lying on the sidewalk.

Officers had found a man in his 20s bleeding from a head wound. From the amount of blood on the pavement, Ossmus knew the young man didn't have much of a chance.

The detective stared at the chalk outline of the victim's body. He'd been found unconscious, on his back, within a few steps of Apartment 1405, one of the rowhouses that lined the street.

A purple and blue jacket and a set of keys were found next to him. A single nickel was the only thing left in his pockets. His wallet, if he had one, was gone. He had no ID on him.

Rescue workers had tagged the victim as a John Doe and rushed him to the nearest hospital, the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

As doctors tried to save the young man's life, Ossmus pulled his collar tighter against the biting November wind. The temperature had dipped into the 20s that night. The streets were deserted.

Ossmus searched for movement across the street at the Perkins Housing Projects, a bleak collection of brick buildings surrounded by chain-link fencing. He saw no one. No cars drove by.

He knew it would be a bad night for trying to track down witnesses. It seemed everyone had hunkered down in their homes.

The only movement came from a rusted metal glider seat that scraped against the wall of one of the rowhouses. It creaked back and forth in the wind, as if trying to tell the detective what it had seen.

While Ossmus went to the hospital to see if the victim was alive, uniformed officers started knocking on doors hoping to find a witness.

Few people got out of bed to answer the cops. The police weren't surprised. Shootings were common in Baltimore. Nearly four people were shot every day in the city. Most of the victims lived in neighborhoods like Bank Street, where crack and heroin were sold in courtyards and on street corners.

After rapping on a dozen doors, police found one woman who heard a gunshot between 2:30 and 3 a.m. She lived four doors from where the body was found. She heard and saw nothing else.

Police also rousted Tonia Hodge from her sleep. The young woman explained that she had gone to bed early and hadn't heard a thing. She lived at 1411 Bank, two doors away from the shooting.

Hodge didn't think much of the police and their questions until her neighbor asked if her roommate, Larry Jones, was home. Hodge said he'd been out for the night and hadn't returned. An officer asked her to get a photograph of Larry.

She found one in his bedroom. The officer looked at the picture and told her: ''You better go to the hospital. Your roommate isn't doing too good.''

While Hodge tried to help contact Larry's parents in Bangor, the police searched for more witnesses. They had little luck and gave up as the dark sky gave way to a soft gray light.

Ossmus didn't like the way the Larry Jones case was unfolding. He knew the first 24 hours were key to solving a murder case. If there were any witnesses out there, they were more apt to talk right after the shooting.

But give them a day, or two or three, and the murder slipped from their minds like a bad dream. Homicide had lost its shock value in a city that averaged 320 killings a year.

And 1993 would turn out to be the most murderous year in Baltimore's history. Three hundred and fifty-three people would be stabbed, shot, drowned or beaten to death. Laurence Jones Jr. would be marked as homicide victim 313.

With bodies piling up at the morgue daily, homicide detectives like Ossmus spent 1993 racing from one bloody scene to another.

Ossmus would investigate nearly 50 suspicious deaths that year. And the Laurence Jones homicide would prove to be one of the most frustrating. There were few leads and even fewer witnesses. Ossmus read the file over and over, asking himself: What am I missing? What have I overlooked?

Ossmus had worked 18 years with the Baltimore Police Department before he was assigned to the homicide squad. During the three years he investigated murders, he had cleared every case that came his way.

But time was working against Ossmus on this case.

He only had a few months to find a suspect. He was planning to change jobs, transferring to the Baltimore County Police Department in June 1994. It rankled him to think he might have to pass the case on to another detective.

But with few leads, Ossmus knew he was going to need a miracle to keep this from being the only murder he couldn't solve.