Another reason not to live in a big city

Burglar's victims fear, fret and flee - Spree: In a city beset by theft and violence, one man's crimes have changed how many people feel about their safety and life in Baltimore
By Del Quentin Wilber
Baltimore Sun Staff

Originally published December 21, 2003

Cornell Anderson Jr. shuffled down a dark, tree-lined alley on a warm spring night in North Baltimore when he spotted light seeping from a rowhouse's rear screen door.

No longer high, he felt groggy as he stared at his next target. Slipping a small knife from his pocket, Anderson slashed through the screen, popped the latch and stepped inside.

His eyes adjusted to the light as he grabbed a cellular phone and a black leather purse from a kitchen countertop. He hustled down a narrow hallway, swiping a leather bag dangling from the handle of the front door. Pivoting, he scurried back toward the alley.

A short time later, Kelly Williams, a 32-year-old mother of two young children, walked downstairs to clean up after an evening barbecue.

As she reached the kitchen, Williams sensed something out of place and noticed the sliced screen door swinging in a breeze. Her purse, wallet, credit cards and car keys. Her cellular phone. All gone.

Panicked, Williams flew up the stairs to find her son and daughter tucked into bed, asleep. At that moment - before calling police, before discovering that her minivan was also stolen, and before beginning hours on the phone with credit card companies - Williams felt that her family was no longer safe. The home was no longer theirs.

This summer, the family left Baltimore.

Anderson and Williams have never met, but they are linked in a struggle that plays out every day between criminals and their victims in Baltimore. Although the city's street violence and homicides attract the most attention, they tend to be concentrated in certain hard-hit areas. But burglaries and property offenses affect far more residents, in every neighborhood. And it is those crimes that determine, for many people, whether Baltimore is a vibrant city or a dangerous one.

By his own admission, Anderson is a 28-year-old career criminal, having committed hundreds of thefts and burglaries over the years. The North Baltimore neighborhoods of Guilford, Charles Village and Oakenshawe were his favored targets. Kelly Williams' rowhouse was just one of more than 40 homes Anderson hit during a four-month spree last year.

His break-ins were costly. Anderson's victims lost wallets, cellular phones, cameras and expensive bicycles, but also such irreplaceable belongings as a mother's engagement ring and a grandfather clock that had been passed down through three generations. His victims had to repair broken doors and shattered windows, and forfeit hours of their time to deal with police investigators, banks, and credit card and insurance companies.

Some installed bars on their windows and expensive alarm systems. One man nailed two-by-four boards to his back door. Another stopped walking in his neighborhood at night. A Charles Village woman peeked over her shoulder for nearly a year. Another woman who lived nearby moved to the eighth floor of a gated complex. Like the Williamses, another family gave up on city life and moved to the suburbs.

"Burglary is probably one of the most intrusive crimes that can happen to someone," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark. "Property crimes, ultimately, are going to deal with people's true thoughts about whether they feel safe in the city."

Baltimore endured high rates of property and violent crime in the 1990s, much of it attributed to the drug trade. In that same decade, the population declined 11.5 percent. Although crime was not the only factor - others included high taxes, proximity to jobs, and underperforming schools - many of those leaving the city spoke of concerns about safety.

To attract and retain residents, Mayor Martin O'Malley launched a new attack on crime three years ago. He beefed up the Police Department and insisted that officers, who once treated property offenses largely as an afterthought, be more accountable for solving crimes. He also increased the number of drug treatment slots, hoping to reduce the number of addicts, like Anderson, who prey on neighborhoods.

The tactics appear to be making a difference - the city recorded a 15 percent decrease in overall crime and an 18 percent decline in burglaries from 2000 to 2002. Still, nearly 9,000 break-ins were reported last year in Baltimore.

"One of the fundamentals of bringing our city back is restoring a sense of security to our neighborhoods," said O'Malley, who remembers feeling violated when his home was burglarized in the mid-1990s.

Community leaders agree with him, saying property crimes have driven out residents and torn the fabric of many neighborhoods.

"When someone comes in uninvited and ransacks your drawers looking for money or jewelry, you just feel violated," said Beth Bullamore, president of the Charles Village Civic Association. "And people say they've had enough, and they leave. They worry about their children. ... Why in the world should anybody be expected to put up with being victimized?"

The burglaries

Anderson's crimes depended almost entirely on drugs - when he craved them, when he was running low, when he needed to buy extra heroin or cocaine for friends.

After serving time for a string of about 40 break-ins in North Baltimore in 1999, Anderson was released from prison in late 2001 to get drug and mental health treatment. But he soon slipped back into addiction, resuming a $300-a-day heroin and cocaine habit. He also wanted about $700 more each day to supply drugs to new friends in East Baltimore and to buy clothes. He did not want to look like a junkie and appear out of place in the neighborhoods he was targeting.

He spent much of his time in the neighborhoods north of Charles Village - Guilford and Oakenshawe. He knew them well.

As a child, he had roamed their streets and played behind tall hedges. It was quiet there, an escape from the noisy streets of East Baltimore where he lived with his mother and brothers in a run-down rowhouse.

Recounting his break-ins during a series of prison interviews in recent months, Anderson said he would hit houses day or night. He would sometimes burglarize two a day, then wait several days before striking again.

He was no cat burglar. There was little art to his thefts. He targeted open windows and doors, or easy-to-smash glass. He would lob concrete planters or rocks through windows, triggering alarms. But he didn't care. He was speedy - in and out so fast that he figured he would never be caught.

His spree began with scattered break-ins early last year. By spring, it escalated as his drug cravings grew.

Anderson remembers being high on heroin and cocaine late April 21 as he walked three miles north on Charles Street into the Homeland neighborhood. He didn't realize how far he had gone until he turned right onto St. Dunstans Road and ventured down an alley. Hopping a fence, he saw light pouring from a living room and threw a rock through a glass door. In seconds, he dashed away - with a purse and some cash.

A week later, about 9:25 p.m. April 28, he sliced through the front screen door of a home in the 4200 block of Underwood Road in Guilford. He took a Kate Spade pocketbook, filled with diapers and baby wipes, that was hanging from the front staircase. In the kitchen, he stole another pocketbook that held a cellular phone.

About 2 a.m. the next day, Anderson was in Charles Village when he saw a half-open window at a Guilford Avenue rowhouse.

As he slipped over the porch and through the window, he whispered a prayer he repeated before every crime: "God, don't let me get hurt or killed. Don't let me get shot."

In the apartment, he saw colorful paintings on the walls and clothes scattered on a couch. A gray-and-white cat sat on the floor. He crept through the living room, past a pile of books and a half-empty bottle of champagne.

He walked by an open bedroom door and thought he saw a woman sleeping. Anderson looked toward the kitchen and noticed a pile of cash on a table. The money was divided into $10, $20 and $50 bills. He scooped it up and hustled out the door.

In the darkness of April 30, Anderson stepped through an unlocked door of a house in the 4200 block of Wickford Road in Roland Park. As he grabbed a pocketbook from a hallway table, he noticed a husband and wife sitting down to dinner. They screamed, and he fled.

On May 7, with more than 30 break-ins behind him, Anderson and a friend were in the 3900 block of Juniper Road in Guilford, walking up and down driveways, peering into windows, looking for another target. Anderson had hit a house in the neighborhood early that morning - smashing a window and running off with a briefcase, a fanny pack and a cellular phone.

Anderson noticed two men sitting in a Chevrolet Cavalier in the 3800 block of Juniper. They were watching him, and Anderson realized that they were plainclothes police detectives, probably looking for the burglar prowling the neighborhood. Deciding to teach the officers a lesson, he walked up to the driver's window and knocked on the glass.

"Can I get a light?" he asked, just as the two detectives leapt from the car and ordered him and his friend to sit on the ground.

The detectives questioned the two about what they were doing in the neighborhood and asked for identification. Anderson had no ID and gave them a fake name, as did his friend. After a few minutes, a tall detective took out an instant camera and photographed the men before letting them go.

As Anderson walked away, he stuck his right hand in his pocket. He felt three rocks of crack cocaine.

"Damn," he thought to himself. "I'm f-- lucky."

Making of a burglar

If Anderson had given the detective his real name, the officer would quickly have learned that he was dealing with a thief who had spent much of his adult life behind bars.

Anderson had been arrested for burglarizing dozens of homes in the same neighborhoods two years earlier and had been released early from prison for mental health and drug treatment.

On a recent Saturday this month, Anderson sat in a state prison visiting room, wearing a sweat shirt and jeans. He has a soft face and round cheeks and darting brown eyes. His story is a familiar one in a crime-ridden city - he is an addict who was abused as a youth, and he fumbled chances to set his life straight.

Born in 1975, he was the second of Desiree Williams' three sons. A nursing assistant, Williams raised her children in a rowhouse on Barclay Street. Though Anderson's father did not live with the family, he often stopped by.

One day when he was 4 or 5, Anderson remembered, he was racing Popsicle sticks in a water-filled gutter when his father approached.

"I'm going to come back with $100 for you," his father, Cornell Anderson Sr., said before walking away.

That afternoon, Anderson's father was arrested. He would spend the next several years behind bars for a rape conviction.

At home, Anderson's life grew more difficult when his mother started to abuse heroin and cocaine. She lost her job and stopped being a parent, even beating Anderson with a Plexiglas stick. Shortly after turning 11, Anderson began using marijuana. A year later, a buddy's brother offered him and some friends a pile of cocaine to snort. A few months later, he was offered heroin. He did them all.

For two years, he bounced between relatives. An aunt, Josephine Page, took Anderson in to her Northwest Baltimore apartment and enrolled him in school. But Page soon began having trouble controlling her nephew. He was skipping school and stealing her cash and jewelry to finance his drug habit. He would vanish for days, often escaping to his mother's house in East Baltimore.

"He talked so sadly about his mother," Page said. "He didn't have to steal. We tried to give him anything he wanted. He could get anything. After a while the hurt left, and I just felt sorry for him."

At 14, Anderson was living with his mother in a dilapidated rowhouse when the pair ventured into a soup kitchen for lunch - and had a chance encounter that held the promise of turning the teen-ager's life around.

Staring at them from across the room was Violet Lindsey, who was engaged to Anderson's father, recently released from prison. She was also running the soup kitchen. Saddened to see the teen-ager eating a charity meal, she offered to raise Anderson in her home. With Lindsey's help, he enrolled in Calverton Middle School and quickly jumped from the sixth to eighth grade. He was doing well in class, singing in the church choir and attending Bible study, Lindsey said.

But after a few months, Lindsey realized that something wasn't right with her stepson.

Anderson seemed chatty and hyper at times, as if he were drinking cup after cup of strong coffee. He would then suddenly nod off and fall asleep. Anderson was clearly abusing drugs, so Lindsey shipped him to an inpatient treatment center in Ellicott City for a month.

For a while, everybody thought the treatment was working. But it didn't last, and the teen-ager began stealing Lindsey's jewelry and cash, even a camcorder, to finance his next drug fix.

By the time he was 18, Anderson was dealing cocaine, heroin and marijuana. He stole from cars and houses, and even held up a few drug dealers. Five months after his 18th birthday, he was arrested for the first time.

Anderson would be arrested over and over again for crimes from malicious destruction of property to drug dealing. He spent nearly nine of the next 10 years behind bars.

In 1999, after being released from prison, he returned to the neighborhoods he admired so much as a child - Charles Village, Guilford and Oakenshawe.

He broke into home after home, stealing bicycles, laptop computers, cash and jewelry. Police say Anderson committed just over 40 burglaries before being caught. By his own count, he broke into more than 50 residences and swiped change and compact discs from a dozen cars. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In late 2001, his public defenders successfully lobbied a judge to release Anderson early on probation so he could attend an inpatient mental health and drug treatment center in East Baltimore. Yet after a few months, he returned to his old habits, using drugs and stealing, just one of thousands of addicts who fuel the city's high crime rates.

The arrest

On May 7 last year - that afternoon on Juniper Road when police confronted Anderson - Detective Todd Eibner could not believe his luck. A lanky 17-year veteran officer who speaks in a loud monotone, Eibner and a partner had watched the two men casing houses at the epicenter of a burglary spree.

This was Eibner's first major burglary investigation, and he had been doing extra work to solve the crimes, roaming through neighborhoods looking for clues and hitting up old informants for shreds of information. He plotted the burglaries on maps - a lesson he picked up from ComStat, the department's rigorous analysis initiative that relied heavily on computers to track crimes and trends.

For the past several years, commanders had been holding investigators more accountable for solving burglaries. Officials also sent most of the agency's detectives to work in the city's nine police districts - to help them become more familiar with neighborhoods, crimes and repeat offenders. Before the move, detectives were often scrambling from district to district, trying to divine trends in a city that was racking up more than 12,000 burglaries a year.

Since then, break-ins have dropped substantially, to 8,759 last year. Detectives are solving more than 18 percent of city burglaries, nearly double the rate from the late 1990s, according to police statistics.

After questioning the two men on Juniper Road, Eibner did not believe he had probable cause to arrest them. But after heading back to the station house, he began running the suspects' names through computer databases. Nothing turned up.

The men must have given him fake names, Eibner realized, pounding his desk in frustration.

A few minutes later, veteran investigator Tom Wolf walked into the detective's squad room in the Northern District. He was heading toward his cubicle when the photographs spread across Eibner's desk caught his eye.

"I know that guy," Wolf said, pointing to the picture of the man in the tan sweat suit. "That's Cornell Anderson. I locked him up for 40 burglaries in '99."

Eibner spent the rest of the afternoon pulling up computer records and Anderson's mug shots, delving into the thief's background. He soon learned that the 1999 burglaries mirrored the recent ones.

"The mystery was suddenly solved," Eibner recalled. "Now it was time to build a case and find this guy again."

Eibner already had one potential piece of evidence.

Just a day earlier, he and his supervisor, Sgt. Dennis Smith, had visited a Home Depot store and watched surveillance videos of two men buying items on a credit card stolen from Kelly Williams, whose rowhouse on Homewood Terrace was burglarized May 5. They couldn't make out the people on the tape - it was shot from a distance, and the quality was poor - but they hoped they might be able to use the evidence later.

Eibner also told another detective, Scott Suriano, about his new burglary suspect. He asked his colleague to show a photo lineup including Anderson to a woman who had been eating dinner when she saw a burglar in her house in the 4200 block of Wickford Road on April 30.

She picked out the photograph of Anderson, but she was not 100 percent sure. "I think this is the man who came into my house on Tuesday evening," she wrote in a statement.

It was a decent identification, but not enough, the detectives felt, to get a warrant.

Two days later, on May 9, a burglar threw a softball-sized rock through the front window of a rowhouse in the 3000 block of Barclay St. in the city's Abell neighborhood. He grabbed a purse containing cash, credit cards and a checkbook and dived out the broken window. A neighbor heard the noise and spotted the thief sprinting away.

A few minutes later, police caught Anderson with the victim's purse in his pocket.

Eibner was ecstatic. Now he had to get a confession to the dozens of break-ins. With a solid investigation, a detailed confession and Anderson's previous record, Eibner knew that no judge would let him off with a short prison term.

Sitting in an interrogation room with Anderson, Eibner and another detective threw the woman's photo identification on the table and told the suspect he was doomed. They stretched the truth and told him they had seen surveillance footage from the Home Depot store showing him and another man loading the stolen minivan with goods.

Knowing he was caught, Anderson slumped in his seat. He confessed. Although he was charged with only four break-ins, Anderson admitted to police that he committed 35 burglaries and attempted burglaries beginning in January and ending that May morning. In later interviews with The Sun, Anderson said he committed more than 40 break-ins.

After pleading guilty, Anderson was sentenced in October last year to 18 years in prison.

"It was everything that helped us do this," Eibner said. "It was ComStat and mapping it and piecing it together and working with the other detectives in this office. We stopped him cold."

The victims

Leslie and Kelly Williams loved living in their home in the 200 block of Homewood Terrace, which they bought in 1997 for $139,000. Affordable and convenient, it was near their jobs - Leslie was a lawyer who worked downtown, and Kelly was an admissions director at the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies - and near Charles Village's shops and restaurants. The home also had plenty of room for a growing family. Just a few months earlier, they had their second child, a son, Jack.

Until the burglary, they had never really considered moving and had applauded the efforts of O'Malley and police to lower crime rates. But the break-in changed everything.

They began to hustle their children up the steps into the house, afraid something might happen in the short walk from their car to the front door. Each would watch out the window as the other approached the house after a long day at work.

When they were getting ready for bed, they made sure every door and window was secured and latched. They felt like prisoners in their house, and began using a jailhouse term to describe their lives.

"We were in lockdown," Leslie Williams said.

By August, 15 months after the burglary, they had bought a new home, tucked behind rows of trees on West Joppa Road in Towson. They chose the house because there was no foot traffic or back alleys, and it was isolated from the street.

Anderson's crimes drove another family from Baltimore. Kelly Crosby, 28, her young son and her newborn daughter were living in her grandmother's house in the 700 block of E. Cold Spring Lane last year. Crosby was working at Verizon as a maintenance administrator when a neighbor called May 6 to say that her back door was open.

Crosby raced home and found that a bag of compact discs and a videocassette recorder had been stolen.

"Coming home late at 7 or 8 at night, I was nervous," she said. "I couldn't afford to get an alarm system. I was constantly worried that someone would break in."

During the next few weeks, she began looking for a new house. Within two months, she had moved to Dundalk, in Southeast Baltimore County.

"What was I supposed to do?" she said. "Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. Nobody saw anything or did anything. I didn't like the city anymore."

Most of Anderson's victims did not leave Baltimore, but the burglaries still changed their lives.

Jessica Cunningham entered her house in the 2600 block of St. Paul St. about 4:20 p.m. March 26 and saw a strange man standing at the top of the stairs. Her dog, a large Dalmatian, was growling at him.

The man seemed jittery and nervous. Cunningham stepped back from the front door and screamed until the man left. A few hours later, Cunningham realized that the burglar had stolen her mother's engagement ring, a platinum diamond bracelet and another gold ring, together worth about $2,000.

For months, Cunningham had difficulty putting the crime behind her.

"I would drive down the street and look to see if that was the guy," she said. "I knew he was wandering down the street. It made me question everybody I came in contact with."

Others had long grown accustomed to petty crime and refused to let Anderson drive them away. But constant thefts have altered their lives in subtle ways.

Emily Frank and her husband, Edward Berkowitz, moved into their peach Mediterranean-style home on Juniper Road in 1983.

They were burglarized twice in the late 1980s, and bought an alarm system and installed shatter-resistant glass in the front door.

Over the years, the family experienced a rash of other thefts from their garage and yard. So many of their lawnmowers were stolen that they gave up mowing the grass themselves and simply hired someone to do it for them.

Bicycle after bicycle was also stolen, and the family's eldest daughter, Sarah, 18, never learned to ride one.

One evening in 1999, as Frank took her dog, Archie, for a walk, a burglar pried open the kitchen door, got into the house and rummaged through her bedroom. Her two daughters were sleeping unaware down the hall.

The burglar had vanished by the time Frank returned, taking with him two $100 bills and a dragonfly necklace given to Frank by her mother.

"It was unnerving to think that someone was so close to my daughters, that someone ransacked my room while my kids were sleeping," said Frank, 50.

Frank and Berkowitz took more precautions after the burglary. They set their alarm system more regularly, even when venturing outside for only a few moments. Their daughters were required to have adults walk them home after baby-sitting.

A month after the break-in, a thief threw a heavy stone pedestal through the living room window as their 12-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was watching television. The girl screamed as the burglar stuck his head inside for a split second and darted away.

Three years later - about 1 a.m. May 7 - Berkowitz and Frank were sleeping when they heard the alarm blaring. Thinking it was a false alarm, Frank walked downstairs to reset the device and noticed that a back window had been smashed open. Her purse, her daughter's purse, a cellular phone and a briefcase were gone.

Only this fall did Berkowitz and Frank learn that police had caught that burglar, Anderson. They also found out that Anderson was the intruder who broke into their house and threw the pedestal through their window in 1999.

"It's frustrating for it to happen again and again, no matter who does it," Frank said. "The whole situation was unsettling, whether it was the same guy or a different guy."

Another chance?

Anderson doesn't clearly remember burglarizing Frank's home or some of the others. To him, they are a string of broken windows and doors on his path to get high.

Anderson said he feels bad for what he did. He wants to write letters to his victims expressing his regret and wants to pay off his debts. He claims to have never harmed a victim, even when desperate to escape. He doesn't need to rot in a small jail cell, he said. He just needs treatment and a steady job.

"For me, it was all about the drugs," Anderson said. "I would have dealed [drugs], but the dealers didn't trust me because I would take their stuff and use it. I knew what I was doing was wrong, against the law. I never felt like I had a right to do it, but I didn't care either because I was under the influence and needed to stay that way. I couldn't help myself."

To police and city officials, Anderson has been given enough chances.

"Treatment is a two-way street," said Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, who has overseen an increase in drug treatment slots from 11,000 in 1999 to 26,000 today. "This is a world of choices, and individuals have to be willing to participate and be responsible for participating in treatment. If they fail and continue to commit crimes, the best place for them is prison, where they can't hurt society."

Behind bars, it's hard for Anderson to appreciate and see the damage he inflicted on homes and people.

But the victims say the consequences of his crimes were very real, to them and to Baltimore.

"We loved the city," said Kelly Williams, the victim who moved to Towson with her family. "We would have stayed if this hadn't happened. We were paying taxes and contributing to the community. People need to know there are other types of crimes than homicide and violent crimes that affect people. But when I was afraid to walk from my car to my house with my kids, that is simply not a risk I'm willing to take."


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