By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Apr. 1, 2009
His well-fitted gray suit and good-natured confidence lend 30-year-old Eric Clash the look of an earnest young professional as he stands behind the defense table on March 9 in U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles’ courtroom in Baltimore. With bright eyes shining under his clean-shaven dome and a light, trimmed beard on his chin, Clash doesn’t look like what he is: a second-generation drug dealer who, after agreeing to plead guilty to charges in a massive drug conspiracy, has spent the past three years helping the government make criminal cases. He appeared before Quarles on March 9 to ask for leniency, saying he left the thug life for good when he became a cooperator.
When Clash was first charged in 2005 as a member of the violent, politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which operated in Baltimore from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), prosecutors seized about $150,000 from his bank account and said he “occupied a high level” in the group’s hierarchy. Today, with Quarles set to sentence him, Clash is projecting the image of a changed man in grave danger, due to his cooperation with authorities.
Of the 13 Rice Organization co-defendants, Clash is one of three who remains to be sentenced. The other two are Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also have been revealed in open court to have cooperated with the government. The remaining 10 Rice Organization co-defendants–brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, Chet Pajardo, Eric Hall, Robert Lee Baker, Michael Felder, Keenan Dorsey, George Butler, Oreese Stevenson, and James Jones Jr.–are serving prison sentences, with release dates ranging from two or three years from now until 2030.
In addition to bringing a steady stream of cocaine to Baltimore, the Rice Organization was responsible for violence, including murder. Among the businesses associated with the crew was Downtown Southern Blues, a restaurant on Howard Street’s Antique Row whose landlord was Kenneth Antonio Jackson, an ex-con and strip-club owner with a long history in the drug game and local politics (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995). Several Rice Organization members gave campaign funds to local politicians, some of whom held fundraisers at Downtown Southern Blues.
One of the Rice Organization members, Pajardo, co-owned an East Baltimore corner-store property with Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith (“Star-Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 9, 2005). Another, Butler, was featured in 2005’s infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, produced in Baltimore to warn off potential cooperators. Clash, who bought and sold Baltimore real estate including a westside bar called the Red Door during his drug-dealing years, is the son of Edward Clash, who himself was convicted of drug dealing in 1994.
Four Rice Organization rivals–Willie Mitchell, Shelly Martin, Shelton Harris, and Shawn Gardner–were convicted of numerous federal organized-crime charges last fall. Among them were murder charges arising from the 2002 stabbing of three Rice Organization members, including Clash and Raeshio Rice, outside the now-defunct Hammerjack’s nightclub in downtown Baltimore, after a birthday party for Baltimore-born rap mogul Kevin Liles. In February and March, three rivals received life prison sentences while Martin received a 400-month sentence.
Both Clash’s lawyer, Robert Simels, and his prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Jason Weinstein, tell Quarles that Clash is over and done with his former life in the game, and that he holds promise in lawful pursuits in the future.
Weinstein says Clash is an “extremely bright man” with “impressive potential.” He says Clash’s sentence reduction will be “richly deserved,” since “‘exemplary’ is the word I’d use to describe Mr. Clash’s cooperation.” He reminds the judge that Clash had “less of a role in the conspiracy” than two other indicted Rice Organization members, Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also cooperated as part of their pending pleas.
Simels’ job is easy, given the prosecutor’s lavish praise for his client: “It is rare in my experience that I have heard an assistant [U.S. attorney] speak as glowingly as Mr. Weinstein has of Mr. Clash,” he says. And Simels, a New York attorney with a decades-long history of representing major drug figures in Maryland (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who himself is currently under indictment in New York for witness tampering in a Guyanese cocaine case (“Big Target,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 12), has plenty of experience.
Simels tells the court that Clash’s cooperation has been “remarkable in terms of his assistance to this community, and the United States as a whole,” as “set forth fully” in a sealed letter to the judge. He says Clash is married now, has professional expertise in real estate and construction, is taking classes, and has “adopted his faith as his guiding light.
“He’s not going to be in trouble again in the future,” Simels says. “At some point we have to demonstrate the sacrifice that he’s made” and “make sure the reward is an appropriate sentence.” The attorney recalls that at one point putting Clash in the witness-protection program was discussed. He says that Clash’s cooperation puts him in danger, and “to incarcerate him at this stage puts a burden not only on the [U.S.] Bureau of Prisons, but also on Mr. Clash, who will be looking behind his back at all times.”
Simels suggests that Quarles impose a “non-incarceration form of sentence.”
“I am pleading for leniency to save my life,” Clash tells Quarles on his own behalf. “I have put my family in jeopardy, myself in jeopardy. . . . I am here to better myself.” Clash says he now plans to help steer people away from crime. “When I was living that lifestyle, I knew it was wrong,” he says. “Nobody forced me into the decisions I made.” He says he wants to write a book to help others, especially children, get the direction he lacked when he was younger.
Clash tells the judge that while he was cooperating with the government, he spent three months working as a mortgage broker in New York, and that he went to Detroit, where he learned about educational broadcasting while working on a documentary for a major cable channel.
Quarles tells Clash that his cooperation “goes some distance to correcting some of the damage you and your cohorts inflicted on this community [by] bringing in more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine.” Instead of the 10-year sentence the federal guidelines call for, Quarles gives Clash 48 months, with credit for 16 months already served.
After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein explains that Clash received an extraordinary break. As a matter of policy, Rosenstein says, his office recommends a two-level departure for cooperators who help prosecutors in the case they are charged in, and two more levels if they help in other cases. In Clash’s case, he says, Weinstein recommended that Clash get the standard four-level departure for cooperators that helped in cases other than their own, but Quarles tacked on two more, for a total of six years shaved off the sentence.
“You really have to do a lot to get recommendations for departures of more than four levels,” Rosenstein says, but in cases of cooperators who go the extra mile, “we increasingly make exceptions to it. Ultimately, the judge decides.”
In this case, Quarles decided that Clash’s work helping prosecutors was valuable enough to schedule him for release from prison in late 2011, and, in order to enhance his safety, to have him assigned to prisons that maximize protection from the expected threats of other inmates.
It may not be all the leniency Clash was hoping for, but it’s a pretty good deal compared to the long, hard time his old Rice Organization running buddies are serving.