Friday, August 29, 2003

Outside of the police, rescue workers and the military, few Americans will ever rise to the level of heroism and courage demonstrated by Angela and Carnell Dawson. The Dawsons, who lived with their five children, ranging in age from 9 to 14, in a modest rowhouse at 1401 E. Preston Street in Baltimore, put their lives on the line when they challenged the drug dealers who sold crack cocaine and heroin in their neighborhood. Between June 26 and October 16 last year, 35 calls were made to emergency dispatchers from the Dawsons’ home. Time and time again, Mr. Dawson chased drug dealers off his front stoop.

Not surprisingly, this behavior was met with strong disapproval from the drug traffickers and the rest of the criminal element who have turned Baltimore into one of the most violent, dangerous cities in the United States. Early on the morning of October 3, a small-time heroin and cocaine dealer named Darrell Brooks tried unsuccessfully to burn down the Dawsons’ home, but was foiled when Mr. Dawson raced downstairs and extinguished a Molotov cocktail that Brooks had thrown through the kitchen window.

Brooks subsequently told several of his criminal associates that, although the “first” attempt had failed, he would get Mrs. Dawson the second time. That would occur 13 days later: At 2:20 a.m. on Oct. 16, Brooks kicked open the door to the Dawson home, poured gasoline on the floor, and set the house ablaze. Angela Dawson, 36, and the five children sleeping there — Lawanda Oriz, 14: Juan Ortiz, 12; Carnell Dawson, Jr., 10: and Kevin and Keith Dawson, 9; all died in the fire. Carnell Dawson, Sr., with burns covering 80 percent of his body, managed to escape by jumping out of an upstairs window. But, Mr. Dawson died of his injuries a week later. He was only 43 years old.

On Wednesday, Brooks pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to the crime of arson resulting in the deaths of seven people. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. “He’s got another 50 or 60 years to think about he did every day while he sits in that cell,” U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio told reporters. “What a colossal waste. Seven people are murdered by this drug punk.”

The people of Baltimore are much safer because a monster like Brooks has been taken off the street. But, with a string of arrests for drug dealing (including several where he was caught with bags of heroin or vials of crack cocaine) and armed robbery, Brooks almost certainly should have been behind bars on the day that he murdered the seven members of the Dawson family. The fact that he wasn’t already locked up is a testament to the fact that cities like Baltimore have a long way to go before they reclaim their streets from the predators.

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