Ridin’ Scared: Whistling Through America’s Most Murderous City Park
Tomorrow my daughter Rebecca will run the Baltimore Marathon for the second time, quite an accomplishment for a 19-year-old, a running career I documented here, along with a video of the most enthusiastic and devoted marathon fan.
But I didn’t tell the story of my offbeat and slightly harebrained adventure in 2014 to see Rebecca finish the race in the heart of Baltimore.
I didn’t want to jam into a light rail train car at 6 a.m. or get stuck trying to maneuver and park my own car among nearly 30,000 runners and their families, so I came up with the idea to ride my bike to the start/finish area at the Orioles and Ravens stadium complex. I studied the Baltimore City map and found what looked like the most scenic and direct route to enter the city from the west, where I live.
My wife Amy and Rebecca urged me not to ride my bike all the way through Baltimore to the city center, concerned about my safety. But as Amy knows all too well, the more she urges me not to do something, the more determined I become to do it (Disclaimer: This particular practice is not recommended for guys as a lesson for improving your marriage.)
I drove to a Park & Ride just outside the city, embarked on my bike, and soon reached the historic 17th century mill village of Dickeyville, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the adjoining historic mill town of Franklintown. After riding through these pastoral, historic areas with their old stone buildings and lush greenery, I entered Leakin Park. Leakin Park was serene and beautiful, an oasis of nature in the city with streams, trails and mature forest that stretched for miles. I thought I was in the countryside.
But as soon as I emerged from Leakin Park, I entered Baltimore’s West Side slums. I rode several miles through blighted streets dotted with boarded-up and vacant houses and dilapidated urban housing projects, which dominated the landscape until several blocks before the stadiums.
I had no idea about Leakin Park’s reputation until more than a month later when I told my story of urban cycling to my wife’s family at Thanksgiving dinner. “You rode through Leakin Park? What were you thinking!?” was their response.
It was then that I learned that Leakin Park is known as the Deadliest Park in America. It is the setting in the Serial true murder mystery podcast – a spinoff of This American Life radio show – and the site of a search for a dead body in HBO’s The Wire about the cat-and-mouse chase between Baltimore police and drug gangs. Serial features the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and is serving a life sentence for the crime.
Leakin Park’s reputation as a Dead Zone is well-deserved. It gained infamy in 1968, when four young boys were found dead in the park. Many believe that Leakin became a preferred dumping ground for bodies because of exactly what I experienced riding through it – it’s on the edge of West Baltimore’s crime-ridden neighborhoods, yet it feels a world away from urban blight.
Dead bodies discovered in Leakin Park have been documented as a research hobby of Ellen Worthing, who created the website Bodies of Leakin Park. Her research found that 67 bodies were discovered in Leakin Park since 1968 – a number that may actually be higher because of a six-year gap in Baltimore Sun library archives.
I was blissfully ignorant on my ride to the 2014 Baltimore Marathon. I was oblivious that Leakin Park was also leakin’ blood, leakin’ menace, leakin’ secrets and leakin’ revenge. I only saw one or two people during my ride through the park. Maybe I was lucky that it was 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Mayhem was sleeping in.
I enjoy telling the story now about my brush with death, my whistling journey through the graveyard, a 21st century Ichabod Crane on bike unwittingly fleeing the Headless Horseman. It’s a nice memory and a story that is ripe for great embellishments. But you won’t see me cycling through Leakin Park on Baltimore Marathon Day 2015. Body #68 will be somebody else.
DEAD BODIES IN LEAKIN PARK: