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In Baltimore, sadness over death of woman who helped panhandler, resolve to continue improvements

Jean Marbella, Colin Campbell and Catherine Rentz, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE -- Less than six months ago city officials joined residents in the Johnston Square neighborhood to celebrate the transformation of Ambrose Kennedy Park from a dreary cityscape of broken asphalt, patchy brown grass and neglected basketball courts into an inviting space for residents to walk on winding trails, cool off in the swimming pool or simply enjoy the new playing fields.

For one of Baltimore's most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods, the park symbolized just what was possible when determined residents got public and private investment in their efforts to revive their beloved if bedraggled community.

But early Saturday morning, at an intersection just northwest of Ambrose Kennedy Park, a woman rolled down her car window to give money to a panhandler begging in the rain for help feeding her baby, and was robbed and fatally stabbed by a man who approached under the guise of thanking her. Johnston Square residents, and community and development groups that have been working in the community, were among those horrified by the killing of Jacquelyn Smith, an electrical engineer from Harford County, and especially chagrined that it happened in their neighborhood.

"What happened is really sad," resident Sharita Thompson, 29, said Tuesday afternoon as she picked up her two children at Johnston Elementary School, just northeast of the intersection where Smith was stabbed.

"I feel bad for her family."

Thompson can understand how the killing might make people less likely to give money to panhandlers.

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"I'm one of the ones that will help someone in need," she said, adding, "I'm kind of scared about that now."

Several residents said they hadn't heard of panhandlers in the neighborhood turning violent.

But Loretta Mwangi, 55, said she refused a "skinny" guy's request for money on Greenmount Avenue last month and he ran behind her as if he was going to snatch it from her anyway. He seemed to be with a woman panhandling at a nearby bar. Mwangi said she was able to get back into a car without being robbed.

Of the duo involved in Smith's death, Mwangi said: "They need to be stopped. They are making it hard for the real panhandlers who need money."

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