By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Oct. 6, 2004
Mobtown is not, by reputation, a mob town. Baltimore’s nickname derives from its citizens’ proclivity to riot, not from its role as a home to organized crime—a role that until very recently has been little recognized, much less resisted. Sure, there was Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, who hobnobbed with city pols and lawmen as he ruled Baltimore’s rackets in the 1950s and ’60s, until he skipped bail and fled the country in 1970, never to be heard from again. (Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights in 1999 retold the Salsbury story). And sure, there’s a 16-month-old outfit in the Baltimore City Police Department called the Organized Crime Division, but it claims to target low-level drug dealers, not racketeers involved in loansharking, narcotics-running, gambling, arson, and murder. Poker-machine guys and titty-bar owners with ties to police and politicians, rogues who maybe bring some coke in from Ocean City or Miami or New York every now and then—they’re not The Sopranos. They’re more like Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
But with the release this week of Wised Up (Pinnacle Press), by gangster-turned-informant Charlie Wilhelm and ex-Sun reporter Joan Jacobson, Mobtown’s long-held denial of its own entrenched organized-crime problem may start to dissolve. Recognition and frank discussion of a problem, as everyone knows, are the first steps on the road to recovery. And Wised Up—Wilhelm’s story, fully corroborated and retold by Jacobson, almost entirely in Wilhelm’s voice, as if he were regaling the reader over rounds of beer at Showalter’s Saloon in Hampden—promises to let that process begin.
The recovery process for Wilhelm—a longtime loan shark, bookmaker, arsonist, drug dealer, and extortionist—started when he hit bottom in the summer of 1995. The police staged an early-morning raid on his house on Keswick Road in Hampden, and Wilhelm’s gut wrenched as he saw his youngest son, a 7-year-old, scared and crying while the house was searched. Wilhelm wasn’t arrested, though, and a few days later his partner in crime, Billy Isaacs, with whom Wilhelm had run for nearly 20 years, appeared at his front door, fresh out of prison after a federal stint for witness tampering. Wilhelm knew Isaacs had gotten away with a murder in 1978. He also knew Isaacs wanted him to kill two men who Isaacs believed were stealing from their operation. Wilhelm, who had never killed, didn’t want to do the job, and was quickly getting sick of the gangster life. Within a week, Wilhelm went to Washington to tell an FBI agent—a childhood acquaintance of his, Wilhelm’s brother’s best friend—that he wanted to turn informant. He brought no lawyer, sought no deal for the crimes he’d committed, and had no pending charges hanging over him. It was the only way Wilhelm saw to get out.
And it worked. Ultimately, Wilhelm’s dicey errands as an undercover informant led to the arrest of 23 people, including Isaacs, who went to prison for the 1978 murder. Wilhelm supported his family on government funds—$2,500 per month, for a total of $140,000—until he could land a legitimate job as a Baltimore-area carpenter, a career he still has. He never entered the federal witness-protection program, instead leaving town in 1996 to live quietly in Alabama, until homesickness drew him and his family back in 1998. Meanwhile, Wilhelm kept a journal to help beat back chronic anxiety, and eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, from which he still suffers. But the journal became the basis for a four-part series by Jacobson in The Sun, published in November 2001, as well as for Wised Up.
“It’s the only thing I ever did right in my life,” Wilhelm said recently during a sit-down at City Paper’s offices, with Jacobson in tow. “Why should I be the one persecuted for doing something right? Even though all that stuff I did before was wrong—if they told me I had to do 30 years, I’m perfectly happy with that. But why should I have to run? You know what I mean? Why can’t the guys that I dealt with be on the run? Why can’t regular people, hard-working people say, ‘Hey, those guys don’t run. He’s right, he did the right thing, let them run off,’ and get them to run away?”
That, in a nutshell, is the central message from Wised Up: Baltimore has to recognize that organized-crime henchmen live and do their dirty work in its neighborhoods, and it needs to reject them, just like Wilhelm rejected his earlier life. “The general public has to make these guys the criminals—the bad cops, the bad politicians, the wise guys,” Wilhelm says excitedly. “Make them be the wrong guys. The public has to say, ‘That’s not right, what you’re doing.’ Like Billy [Isaacs]. Billy goes into Hampden, everybody looks up to him. He’s a murderer! Why don’t you have a problem with that? Why can’t people’s opinions change? That’s the problem. Billy will come out of jail, and everybody will think he’s a hero. That has to change.”
A crucial turning point in Wised Up comes in that pivotal 1995 encounter, when Isaacs ordered Wilhelm to murder the two men, and he balked. Wilhelm figured it would only be a matter of time before a contract would be out on him, too. But what’s most interesting, in terms of the larger lesson of Wised Up about the presence of organized-crime figures in city life, is the identity of one of the men Isaacs wanted killed: a fellow named in the book as Ronnie Jones, whom Wilhelm and Jacobson do not describe further.
City Paper, during the mid- to late 1990s, published numerous stories involving Ronald David Jones, an ex-city cop with a history of involvement in vending machines, bars, real estate, and strip clubs. The paper’s interest in Jones was due to his political ties to then-City Councilman, now Mayor Martin O’Malley. Those ties apparently ended not long after O’Malley was elected mayor in the fall of 1999, according to Jones and others interviewed during the intervening years. But during O’Malley’s formative years as a Baltimore politician, Jones was one of his earliest and most generous financial backers. Jones made donations through his wife, ex-wife, and businesses to O’Malley’s campaigns, and the sum reported in campaign-finance records approaches $10,000. (O’Malley isn’t the only political pony Jones has backed. State Sen. George Della, outgoing City Councilwoman Lois Garey, former City Council President Lawrence Bell, and former state Senators Tommy Bromwell and Vernon Boozer all have campaign ties to Jones, and the full list is likely longer.)
During the decade that Jones was betting on O’Malley and others, he was also involved with Joe’s Tavern, an infamous Dundalk Avenue bar that looms large in Wised Up as Wilhelm and Isaacs’ base of operations. Joe’s took its name from its earlier owner, the late state senator, Joseph Staszak, who died in a mysterious boating accident in 1979 on Old Road Bay near Sparrows Point, three months after pleading guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and filing false tax returns. In 1990, Isaacs and Wilhelm were taking over Joe’s, and Jones was at the table with them from the start—though, in a series of Oct. 1 telephone conversations with City Paper, Jones discounted his involvement with the bar, and the Isaacs-Wilhelm crew, and questioned the truth of the claims Wilhelm makes in Wised Up.
Jones says that “because I lent [Isaacs] money at one point, [Wilhelm] said I had something to do with [Joe’s], but I was never a partner, nothing like that. I lent him 7 or 8 thousand dollars for setting up Joe’s, and that was it.” As for whether there was a contract that Isaacs put on his life, Jones says, “It was bullshit. If Billy had killed all the people he said he wanted killed, you’d have to put [all the names] in a phone book.”
Also, he says, Wilhelm wanted out of the gangster life not because of his unwillingness to do the killings Isaacs ordered but because he had “no money. [Wilhelm and another Isaacs associate] put their own hits in—they were robbing the book and blowing [the money] all over town.” In other words, Jones contends that Wilhelm was stealing from his and Isaacs’ own bookmaking operation, and spending so much money that he was running out of juice, so he ran to the feds in order to make government cash as an informant. “The guy wrote a book,” Jones concludes. “To me, it’s fiction.”
“I robbed all the bookmakers—that’s the way it was,” Wilhelm explains in a follow-up interview, while at his carpentry job. “In July of 1995 [when Wilhelm offered himself as a federal informant], I still had $60,000. I did it for money? Who would put their whole family what I had to put them through for $2,500 a month? That little piece of shit.”
When told of Jones’ contention that Jones had virtually nothing to do with Joe’s Tavern, Wilhelm went ballistic: “He’s an absolute liar—I’ve got the paper on that!” And then he left his job site to retrieve a document, which he shortly delivered to City Paper. It was a handwritten promissory note (apparently in Jones’ hand) for $71,000, with a promise to spend $15,000 more on equipment, lent to Joe’s Tavern by Jones, who signed the document along with Isaacs associate Richard A. Payne (the other man Isaacs later ordered Wilhelm to murder) on behalf of Joe’s. Wilhelm signed the note as witness to the December 1990 transaction, which also secured a 50-50 split between Joe’s Tavern and Ron Jones for all the tavern’s vending-machine business for 10 years. Wilhelm says the document was drawn up and signed at the offices of Baltimore criminal-defense attorney Michael Marr.
“I don’t recall anything like that,” Jones responds, adding, “I never got a dime out of” Joe’s vending-machine revenues. Then he remarked about the promissory note, “Goddamn, I gotta get a hold of that—I could collect on it. If you find anybody else who owes me money, call me.” In a phone message left at City Paper later the same day, he said that his wife at the time, Lois Arreguin, was on the Maryland State Lottery license for Joe’s Tavern for one year in 1990.
The absolute truth of the matter is hard to ascertain, despite the documentation. It’s still possible that the money was never loaned, and that Jones never shared the vending-machine take at Joe’s. But Jones freely admits to a long-term relationship with O’Malley. “I’ve known Martin for 14 years, going back to when he ran against [former state Sen. John] Pica” in 1990. Jones recalls being introduced to O’Malley through John Hubble, a real-estate investor who later, in 2001, served for three months as real-estate officer for Baltimore City government. “Once [O’Malley] became mayor, he got a different life,” Jones says. “I don’t want to be in that circle. If you need the mayor, you’re in trouble.”
In response to questions about the mayor’s relationship with Jones, O’Malley spokesman Steve Kearney would only say that “the mayor’s office has nothing to say other than there have been over 10,000 donors to the mayor’s campaigns over the years.” With Wised Up hitting bookstores on Oct. 9 and also available online (www. wisedupthebook.com), though, one of the mayor’s longtime—though erstwhile—political benefactors is now fingered in print as having been in business with organized-crime figures. Journalists, voters, and other political observers are sure to notice, and it’s safe to predict that a discussion about organized-crime ties to Baltimore politics will enter the civic debate.
Despite Wised Up’s remarkable disclosures and descriptions of mob life in Baltimore, it remains at its core a story about a man who made a change. “I really wrote the book because I thought it was a great story about how [Wilhelm] changed his life,” Jacobson says. “And I understood that there needed to be chapters about loansharking and bookmaking, and it was fascinating, but I really see this as a book about a guy who really turned his life around. And that’s what I think is the most interesting part about this book. That’s what really kept moving me along. I’d never written a book before, and it’s a big, long process. And that’s what kept me going—it’s a great story. It’s a story of hope.”