A few days after Thanksgiving, Bedellia Burnham’s car went missing from the parking lot of a community center a quarter-mile away from her home in Manassas, Virginia.

She contacted different tow companies and the police but couldn’t find it. Then a stranger called from 70 miles away.

The person was walking in Northeast Baltimore’s lower Herring Run Park and found scattered documents, including a vehicle title and a death certificate of a relative, with Burnham’s name on it next to what was left of the car. The red Nissan’s hood was gone, along with the front bumper and the tires. The car was elevated on top of pieces of tree trunks as if at a makeshift body shop.

A woman in Virginia was told by a stranger that her car was nearly stripped in sitting in Northeast Baltimore's Herring Run Park.
A woman in Virginia was told by a stranger that her car was nearly stripped and sitting in Northeast Baltimore's Herring Run Park. (Jasmine Vaughn-Hall)

The car had been more than just a form of transportation to her. It belonged to Burnham’s brother, who died in 2021. Finding it solved the mystery, but she was still heartbroken.

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“It was the last little possession I had of him … like a little keepsake,” Burnham said.

For years, Herring Run Park south of Sinclair Lane has been a hotspot for abandoned and some times stolen cars like Burnham’s — as well as other illegal dumping. A Banner analysis of Baltimore 311 requested from the area revealed that city officials have received at least 109 requests related to abandoned vehicles or illegal dumping since 2010. In 2023, when a nationwide auto theft crisis hit Baltimore, officials received 24 such requests, the most in that time period.

Nearby residents and Friends of Herring Run Parks, a nonprofit focused on the conservation of the greenspace, have also complained about illegal hunting and riding of ATVs to the neighboring homes corporation and multiple city agencies.

The area where much of the dumping occurs is in a heavily wooded part of the park. Aside from where people have removed parts of guardrails or trees to make their own paths in, it can be difficult to see how cars even make their way down into the park.

“It’s a large green space that provides seclusion in a lot of spaces, and that in itself makes it kind of a hotbed for dumping,” said Ed Wheeling, a deputy director for parks and facility maintenance with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks.

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In December there were at least 10 cars in the park. Some cars were an orange color from rust or having been set on fire. Others lay on the edge of the stream or parked fully intact as if in a lot. Among the cars, on a nearby trail, lay old mattresses, cans of paint and dusty black bags of garbage with protruding pieces of drywall from the innards of a building.

From old mattresses to garbage bags of trash, lower Herring Run Park is a hotspot for illegal dumping.
From old mattresses to garbage bags of trash, lower Herring Run Park is a hotspot for illegal dumping. (Jasmine Vaughn-Hall)

Though people want this section of the park cleaned up, identifying and removing the cars is a complicated process that often involves coordination between several city agencies, including Baltimore City Recreation and Parks and the Department of Public Works for assistance with cleaning, and the Department of Transportation for towing. There are also environmental factors to consider when removing the cars, including overgrown greenery, the need for ideal weather and cars located in waterways, according the city’s transportation department.

The Baltimore Banner filed a public information request to review several years worth of emails exchanged between city agencies about the park and the issues with cars and overall dumping. Residents have been begging for cleanup and a more secure park for years.

One former coordinator of Friends of Herring Run Parks called the area “a post apocalyptic landscape” in an email to the mayor’s office, the city’s Department of Public Works, Recreation and Parks, and City Council, and urged them to come together and clean up the park in April 2021.

The nonprofit, at least two city agencies and dozens of volunteers had a “Big Time Cleanup” in 2019. The nonprofit also released a report in 2021, detailing all the issues with the park, along with pictures, key access points, coordinates circled in red and recommendations for improvement.

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Liz Johnson, a Belair-Edison resident who has frequented the park for over a decade, also reached out through email with concerns after seeing an unauthorized pickup truck turn down into the lower part of the park while on a walk with her boyfriend. She was “horrified” seeing the chopped down vegetation, parts of destroyed pavement and dumped mattresses and tires.

Though city agencies did respond to Johnson, she felt that her complaint was treated like it was the first time they heard about the issue and she knew that not to be true, Johnson said.

“Personally I don’t like even going down there anymore. I don’t even like driving past Sinclair because it breaks my heart,” Johnson said.

She added that the park is in “Brandon Scott’s backyard” and she wishes the park was more secure and patrolling was taken seriously.

Before Baltimore City Recreation and Parks hosts its quarterly cleanups of the park, a walk-through is done because sometimes things need to be removed before cars can be pulled out, Wheeling said. Friends of Herring Run Park also tries to organize cleanups.

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Residents and visitors of the park blame the many ways to get into it as an issue. There are at least 10 obvious and discreet entry points, according to Wheeling. Herring Run Park is over 370 acres, and the lower portion of the park borders Armistead Gardens, a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood that originally housed factory workers during World War II.

There are often multiple city agencies involved to remove cars from lower Herring Run Park and some are harder to get to.
Often multiple city agencies are involved to remove cars from lower Herring Run Park, and some vehicles are harder to get to. (Jasmine Vaughn-Hall)

Dumped cars in the park have been an issue for over 20 years, said Robert Sullivan, a consultant and former operations manager with Armistead Homes Corporation, which oversees the neighboring cooperative housing units.

Though the neighborhood has “always had a connection to the park,” the corporation has its own security to patrol its boundaries and recently put up signs in English and Spanish about no trespassing or dirt bikes or ATVs, Sullivan said. Riders even post videos on TikTok off-roading in Lower Herring Run Park.

Since August 2021, 22 cars have been removed from the park, according to the city’s transportation department. If the VIN numbers can be recovered, they are shared with the Baltimore Police Department to see if they’ve been reported stolen. Recovered cars where a VIN cannot be located are usually junked, according to a tow report from the city’s Department of Transportation. In 2023, at least five cars recovered in the park were stolen.

Michael “Redz” Zimmerman, a 20-year resident of Armistead Gardens, was always in the park as a kid, camping out with friends, and even once built an impressive fort for after-school hangouts. The trash has always been an issue, but the cars he sees down there are “insane,” he said. He’s also concerned about the dirt bikes and gunshots he sometimes hears in the park at night. Aside from calling the police and volunteering at cleanups, he doesn’t feel that there’s much else he can do.

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Baltimore City Recreation and Parks installed bollards, boulders and even guardrails in certain areas of the park, but people continue to get around or through them. The department recently reinstated its city-wide park rangers program, which currently has a team of four with 263 city-owned parks under patrol. Wheeling said there was discussion with the community about getting CitiWatch Cameras in 2022, but to his knowledge, none were installed.

Anita Bryant and Misty Fae with Friends of Herring Run Parks said the lower part of the park needs to be more inviting to attract more people and deter illegal activity.

“This location could be a positive destination for the city. Healthy communities could help with potential crime. It doesn’t take much investment,” Bryant said.

There are often multiple city agencies involved to remove cars from lower Herring Run Park and some are harder to get to.
Multiple city agencies are often involved to remove cars from lower Herring Run Park, and some vehicles are harder to get to. (Jasmine Vaughn-Hall)

Back in Virginia, Burnham is still stumped about the car theft, because it’s not something that’s common in her neighborhood.

She made the trek to Baltimore alone after the call from the stranger so she could get the rest of her documents and see the car for herself. The car was at a city tow yard off Pulaski Highway by the time she arrived. Burnham waited for over an hour to be driven to the car, when she was told she had 15 minutes to get what she needed. Jewelry left in the car, including her brother’s watch, and other items were gone. The car, which wasn’t paid off, was a total loss, and now she just wants to know if anything will be done to find out who stole her car.

“Nothing can bring it back, and the uneasy feeling I have now … it’s just disturbing,” Burnham said.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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