Way of the Gun

Once a homicide hotbed, Baltimore dramatically reduced its murder rate last year. Unfortunately for us, Philadelphia can't follow suit until the state changes its outmoded gun laws. (Don't hold your breath.)

By Brian Hickey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 31, 2001

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His name was Demitrius Smith, but history will record him as No. 4.

Some might say fate brought him to the Benedict Laundromat in East Baltimore--that city's answer to the Badlands--a few weeks back. Others might say drugs. Both could be right--assuming fate has the guts to visit these bloodstained streets.

Take a look at the police report that records the end of Demitrius Smith's life. The one that offers little detail about his 23 years and a scant bit more about his final day.

Involved in a verbal confrontation outside 2602 Monument St. Suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Declared dead at Johns Hopkins Hospital at 1:16 p.m., Jan. 9. Suspect unknown. Motive un-known. Investigation continuing.

Talk to the woman who witnessed the last seconds of Demitrius Smith's life. It will shed a little light.

There was some noise outside. Loud yelling and screaming. She didn't pay much attention. It was nothing new really, that sort of thing. But then came shots. Quickly, she ducked behind the counter and a thick window with a tiny scribbled sign that read "No! Selling Drug Keep Out." When the commotion died down, after several customers had scattered, she stood up and peeked through the glass that served as her last line of protection.

"That's where he was," the shopkeeper who gives her name as Bellen says, pointing to the floor just feet from the side entrance. "He was laid out on the floor bleeding. Blood all over the floor. These people are dangerous."

Bellen didn't know the man's name was Demitrius Smith when she frantically dialed 911. She knew him only as somebody who she thought sold and bought heroin and crack near the business she's owned for 15 years, one of the few left that's not a liquor store.

During the summer, she says, the dealers and users stay outside. But when the temperatures drop, their office moves into her building. Bellen tells them to get out. They don't listen. Instead, they "sit on the washers smoking their reefer."

What's most striking about this middle-aged woman is that the day's events don't seem to leave her all that shaken.

Six hours later, there is nothing left in the Benedict Laundromat that would indicate Demitrius Smith's life ended there. No crime scene tape, fingerprint dust or bullet holes. No grieving relatives, makeshift memorials or curious onlookers. Not a speck of blood on the dingy floor. Just a ghetto-hardened immigrant listening to a pair of police officers promise to keep a close watch on the store in the coming days.

The distant look in her eyes as she closes for the evening says she's heard it all before. Perhaps she's wondering if she'll witness another yet-to-be-scripted demise, or worse, if she'll become Baltimore's fifth homicide victim of the year.

"You worry that after the police are gone, they're going to get you," she says before locking the side door to her business and making the anxious 50-yard trip to her house. "I don't feel safe, but this is the only way we can make money."

The officers, who complain that they haven't had a chance to grab dinner yet, wait to make sure she makes it safely across the street.

When seven people are executed in a Philadelphia rowhouse, the story draws attention, if only for the number of deaths. When a small-time drug user like Demitrius Smith stops breathing, it may not even elicit a blurb in the newspaper. It's just a fact of urban life these days.

But when the numbers start adding up, the attention returns. It gives people a sense of just how safe they are walking their hometown streets.

About 90 miles south of Philadelphia, Baltimore's residents started feeling a little better about their streets on New Year's, when police announced that the number of people killed there had dropped to its lowest level in years.

While Baltimore made a dent in its homicide rate by targeting drug gangs, law enforcement officials in Philadelphia were forced to concede that it wouldn't be as easy to match that success here, for in the Keystone State, getting a gun is as easy as catching a bus.

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