Family that owns home where firefighters died speaks out for first time, illustrates city’s challenges with vacants

Published on: February 17, 2022 8:00 AM EST|Updated on: June 13, 2022 8:41 AM EDT

A gap between homes in the 200 block of S. Stricker St. marks the spot where a vacant home burned and collapsed, killing three Baltimore firefighters.

Robert Shore Jr.’s family no longer wanted their home on South Stricker Street in Southwest Baltimore. And as the taxes accrued and the city put it up for auction, neither did anybody else.

The family had long ago relocated to a sleepy town in the hills of central Pennsylvania, and shut off the utilities to the home. For a time, they leaned on a relative still in the area to make sure the property was boarded up.

“We did what we could to keep it secured, but when shit happens, shit happens,” Shore said in a phone interview from Huntingdon, Pa.

On Jan. 24, the home went up in flames, and three firefighters died battling the blaze: Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler, and firefighter Kenny Lacayo. A fourth, John McMaster, was hurt. It was at least the second fire at the property in seven years, the previous also injuring four firefighters. Sadler had been at the first fire, too.

“It’s a bad thing that happened, but the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t nobody in my family that started the fire,” Shore said, in the family’s first comments since the tragic fire.

The blaze, whose cause remains under investigation, has revived a decades-old debate about how the city should tackle its scourge of vacant homes. The city estimates that there are at least 15,032 vacant homes, though the number could be much higher. The majority of the verified number - about 13,560 - are privately owned.

Each has its own journey of ending up boarded up, crumbling, unwanted. This is the story of 205 S. Stricker Street - one window into the challenges the city faces in dealing with them.

The small row home is listed as being built in 1900, and encompassed three stories and 966 square feet in the Mount Clare neighborhood, a historically working-class immigrant neighborhood just west of the Inner Harbor and which rose in the mid-19th century to accommodate the labor force for the railroad industry. Locals refer to the area as “the Lumberyard.”

The site of a vacant home that burned and collapsed in the 200 block of S. Stricker St., killing three Baltimore firefighters.

According to a classified ad in The Baltimore Sun from 1900 and the Polk’s city directory, the home appears to have initially operated as a barbershop.

Over the past 90 years, it was in the hands of only two families, records show.

It was owned by a former Baltimore sandlot star who had seven at-bats with the Boston Braves in 1928 before going on to work for Bethlehem Steel. He sold it in 1933 to carpenter Walter J. Stansbury. Stansbury owned it until his death in 1979; his siblings sold the home in 1988.

That’s when the Shore family acquired it. The first generation of Shores moved to Baltimore from the Pennsylvania hills a few decades earlier. “We’re country hicks who came here and took jobs,” one relative told The Sun in 2000.

That article described a couple hundred Shores living in Baltimore, “self-employed welders, house rehabilitators or produce sellers,” with “few holding steady jobs” and “many on disability.” A 1999 police blotter item described two Shores beating a man with a shovel for trying to steal their pigeons.

“You say the name Shore and people think, ‘They’re rough characters,’” Wendell Shore said at the time. “A lot of us are like that because then people don’t mess with us.”

Members of the Shore family owned several homes in the 200 block of South Stricker Street alone: across from 205, Shores owned three adjoining rowhomes, and a property down the block is still listed as owned by a Shore.

The home where the firefighters died was put up for sale in early 1997 at a price of $22,500, with a real estate listing falsely claiming it was once “home of H.L. Meinken,” an apparent reference to the famed journalist H.L. Mencken, who lived from 1883 until his death in 1956 in a home two blocks north that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Later that year, the home two doors down from 205 S. Stricker St., at the end of the block, collapsed.

Robert Shore recalls that their home and the house in between were shifted “right off the foundation,” and the city wanted them to leave.

“They tried to put us out on the streets,” he said. “They offered $1,000 cash and to put us in a hotel for three nights. They didn’t want to take it off our hands, they just wanted to kick us out.”

His family fought back, but in 2008, they decided to relocate to Huntingdon, a small town on the Juniata River about three hours northwest of Baltimore.

A relative who remained in the city tried to look after the Stricker Street home, including changing the locks. But people kept breaking in, and vandalizing the home, Shore said.

It was declared vacant by the city in 2010. That same year, the Shores moved one step closer to having the property taken off their hands when it was sold at public auction to First National Assets, a company that buys tax liens. FNA foreclosed on the property in August 2013.

But the city moved to overturn the foreclosure one year later, saying that FNA had failed to pay the back taxes, interest and penalties, according to court records. FNA didn’t respond, and the judgment was overturned.

It would be listed on 2013, 2016 and 2019 tax sales, and has accrued $50,000 in liens. No one has wanted to take that on.

Mayor Brandon Scott has ordered a review of all procedures related to how city government deals with vacant homes, calling it “one of the most consequential undertakings of my administration.”

Samuel B. Little, a University of Maryland School of Social Work professor and former city Housing Authority associate deputy director, said the city needs to focus on creating a pathway for owners out of such entanglements, before properties begin to decay.

“We have to recalibrate how we think about it, instead of just punitive actions,” Little said. “Sixteen-thousand vacant homes is unheard of. That’s a crisis.”

A fire at the home in 2015 injured four firefighters. According to an incident report obtained by The Baltimore Banner, the rear of the home was not secured, and the fire was the result of “homeless activity.”

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Robert Shore Sr. died in 2016 at age 54, according to an online obituary. He left behind his wife and nine children, and the property went to his wife.

Investigators, led by the ATF, have said little about the fatal January fire. They released a picture of a “person of interest,” and a $100,000 reward is being offered.

In the meantime, 205 S. Stricker has been demolished. As a result of the fire damage, so too were 203 and 207.

At the southern end of the block, the corner home is listed as owned by Wendell Shore. For years, he maintained a garden on an adjacent lot where two homes had been torn down, and it overflowed with flowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, old tires and pink plastic flamingos.

Shore died in 2019; there are no flowers or vegetables, just trash and debris. A neighbor who moved in not too long ago said he hasn’t seen anyone coming or going.

It is scheduled to be offered at an upcoming tax sale.