February 27th was a sad anniversary in Baltimore — the night in 1981 when “the five-dollar doc” of Harford Road, Dr. Sebastian Russo, was shot to death in his office. I covered the story way back when, attended and wrote about Dr. Russo’s funeral at St. Dominic’s. The story gave me a real sense of the coming desperation — the hunger for drugs by the growing number of addicts around us, and what it drove people to do — and how it threatened Baltimore’s powerful sense of neighborhood and tradition.
Dr. Russo, an immigrant from Sicily, was a man beloved — a tireless, old-school physician who opened his rowhouse office at 7 a.m., saw dozens of patients a day and still made house calls. His death shocked and horrified his patients and neighbors.
Baltimore police believe it might have been a drug addict attempting a robbery, but the senseless crime — that maddening waste of a healer’s life — was never solved.
Dick Ellwood, a retired detective who worked the case and included it in one of six books he has written, wrote to me recently.
“I was the Sergeant in charge of the investigation of that murder when I was a member of the homicide unit,” he wrote. “Over the years since my retirement, I have made inquiries to the BCPD homicide unit asking if there has been any progress in the cold case follow-up of the murder. With so many years gone by, I have very little hope there will be any arrest in this case.
“When I was working the investigation, I had a personal interest in trying to solve the murder. At the time of the murder my family lived in the Hamilton area, and we were very familiar with Dr. Russo’s practice. My dad, who was also a Baltimore City police officer, was a patient with Dr. Russo and I took him there several times.
“I have never given up hope that someday the case would be solved.
“I’m attaching a photo that was in the paper of me, Detective Groncki and Captain Joe Cooke. I know it would be a longshot, but there have been murder cases that have been solved after someone comes forward with information they have held for years.”
It’s hard to imagine that the BPD has time to devote to such an old case, but I asked just the same. Lindsey Eldridge, director of public affairs and community outreach, got back to me: “There is no additional information at this time. The case remains open, but is not under active investigation. Officers believed there were two suspects, both were in a blue van. The description of the suspects: Black male between the ages of 25-30 years-old, slim build, approx. 6′ 0″, wearing a green jacket, and Black Female, short, heavy build, tan coat w/collar pulled up. … If new information or evidence is acquired, the case will become active.”
Persons unknown — assuming they are still alive — killed Dr. Russo and got away with murder. In all this time, you’d think someone would have come forward with information, considering how beloved Russo was. Baltimore once had a reputation for being a city that can’t keep secrets — it’s supposedly why the Mafia never devoted any time to this old port city — but, in the decades since heroin use and heroin dealing became so pervasive, the city became known for “stop snitching.” So there’s that.
Anyway, I put it out there. It troubles Dick Ellwood still. It troubles me to think about it, all these years later. Such a waste of a good man.
Here’s how to contact the Cold Case Unit: