Back of vacant house

The rear of a vacant house at 825 N. Caroline, marked with "X" on the left, where a 13-year-old was raped in October. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / December 2, 2011)

The vacant rowhouse at 825 N. Caroline St. has long been an open-and-shut case for the city. Opened up by somebody — vandals, junkies, homeless people, whoever — and then shut by public works crews. Then opened up again.

It was inside this home that police say a 13-year-old girl was raped Oct. 17, after being yanked into the unsecured building and thrown into the dusty basement. A 48-year-old man was charged last month in the attack.

The city has made several attempts over the years to keep people out of the East Baltimore property: A crew from the Department of Public Works boarded up the house in July 2008, when it was city-owned. Workers resealed it in January 2010, only to return later that year for an open window, days after a developer took title.

The most recent re-boarding occurred in October, right after the attack. By last Friday, the plywood on the front door was already loose. The owners have permits to rehab and say they're optimistic.

In a city with 16,000 abandoned buildings, securing vacants is a never-ending quest. So far this year, Public Works says it has boarded up 5,236 vacant houses in Baltimore, charging private owners for labor and materials. The city estimates the annual cost of boarding at $1.2 million.

Many houses are repeat customers.

"We've had properties that we boarded and literally the next day we'll get another service request," Public Works spokeswoman Celeste Amato said. "There are properties boarded repeatedly over time. That is not unusual."

Besides depressing values and leading to more blight, vacant houses are nuisance magnets, officials say. People break in for a range of reasons. Some want a place to sleep or use drugs. Some are looking to steal copper wire. Others, as the October attack showed, use vacants as cover for crime.

Last year Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched her Vacants to Value initiative, aimed at streamlining the sale of city-owned property and using stiff fines to pressure owners of vacant properties to sell or rehab buildings. But the huge number of abandoned homes means it will be difficult for the city to make a major dent anytime soon.

By Baltimore standards, the 800 block of North Caroline is far from the worst, even with eight of its 12 houses sitting empty. A housing tower for the elderly rises on a grassy parcel on the west side of the street. Rental townhomes unfold to both the north and south, and there's a Save-A-Lot supermarket in a nearby shopping plaza. The Johns Hopkins medical campus starts just two blocks to the east.

Shirley Medley, a retired custodian who worked at the National Aquarium, has rented on the block for about eight years. "You're not living what you would call peacefully," she said, sitting in her tidy living room as her 17-month-old great-grandson tottered about.

In one respect the vacants don't bother her, she said, because she's often inside. But she said they cause big problems: Rats are a nuisance out back, made worse by weeds and trash behind the vacants. Homeless people set up housekeeping for a time in one vacant. Someone lit a fire in another.

Nothing, though, has been anywhere near as terrible as the rape at 825 N. Caroline, she said.

According to police, the 13-year-old girl was walking home about 9 p.m. when she was shoved into the house. Because the building has no floors, she fell several feet to the cellar, losing her glasses. Her attacker jumped down and threatened to kill her if she kept screaming, court records show.

Alvin Ray Wright, who was charged with the crime after investigators made a DNA match, is accused of punching her in the face and ribs, according to court papers. Doctors who treated the girl noted a loose tooth and bruises on her legs and knees in addition to injuries related to the sexual assault.

After he raped her, the attacker climbed a wooden board to get out of the home and fled, charging documents state. The girl escaped by stacking items to reach the ground floor.

The girl ran up to Medley's 23-year-old granddaughter on the street and asked for help. "Her mouth was busted up, bleeding," Medley recalled. "Her hair was full of dirt and dust. She was a total wreck. She was just shaking and trembling all over."

According to Medley, before the rape happened the city had ignored calls to the 311 nonemergency line about the house being open. "It takes a tragedy to get something done," she said. "Several people have called; I was one of them."

Housing inspection records, though, show only one call to 311. "Responded to 311," a housing inspector recorded Oct. 19. "Property boarded while I was upon the premises."