By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 27, 2009
Among the 25 inmates, ex-offenders, prison employees, and others indicted by a federal grand jury in Maryland in April as part of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison-gang conspiracies (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22, 2009), Deitra Davenport stands out.
She has no criminal history. She has worked at the same association-management firm for the past 20 years. She is a homeowner and the single mother of two children. The 37-year-old Davenport is the picture of an upstanding citizen. The accusations against the BGF of violence, drug-dealing, and prison smuggling clash with her squeaky-clean profile–a point that Davenport’s lawyer, Thomas Saunders, has emphasized in court repeatedly while seeking her conditional release pending trial.
Saunders says that Davenport is a “naïve, innocent party” in the BGF scheme. He says she was ensnared in a web of evidence devoid of signs that his client knew of illegal activities (except, perhaps, some smuggling of items, possibly tobacco, to BGF leader Eric Brown, though he’s quick to tell the judge during a hearing that “I’m not saying it’s true” that she even knew of this illicit activity). What began eight years ago as a pen-pal relationship between Davenport and Brown later blossomed into a Muslim form of marriage, Saunders says. He adds that Brown–if he is the criminal the government contends he is–duped Davenport, making her an unwitting player in the BGF’s allegedly criminal enterprise.
The government sees Davenport, whose nickname is “Sister D,” as a smuggler, the operator of a BGF front business that helped underwrite the gang’s operations, and an intermediary between Brown and other BGF members. Last year she and Brown published The Black Book, a handbook of BGF philosophy as part of a social movement called Jamaa (“jamaa” is a Swahili word for “family”). The book promotes economic and political self-empowerment for black communities and discusses how to confront the reality and legacy of widespread incarceration among black Americans. But law enforcers characterize it as a guidebook for gang behavior and say its sales–and therefore Davenport, as the book’s publisher–helped underwrite the violent, drug-dealing, prison-smuggling ways of the BGF in Maryland (see “The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009).
When Davenport first appeared in court on Apr. 16, she looked as out of her element as Saunders claims she is. Short and petite, with straight black hair and wearing a tidy black jacket, she did not fit in with the two other defendants next to her: 30-year-old convicted murderer Rainbow Lee Williams and 52-year-old Zachary Lee Norman, whose criminal record includes convictions for a murder conspiracy and armed robbery. But if court documents reflect the truth of the matter, Davenport knows Williams well enough to conspire with him to get contraband to Brown in prison.
At 6:15 in the morning on Apr. 16, as Davenport was being arrested, law enforcers who raided her Baltimore County home seized a .357 caliber handgun and a box of .38 caliber ammunition, according to court documents. Also seized were documents related to two companies started by Davenport and Brown: Dee Dat Publishing, which published The Black Book, and Harambee Jamaa Inc., a nonprofit that, according to its incorporation papers, was formed to “liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison.”
During an intercepted phone conversation between Brown and Davenport, which court records say took place late at night on Feb. 26, Brown urged Davenport to “go to the firing range.” When Davenport asked “Why?” Brown told her, “bust that gun for a minute. You ain’t been out there in a while.” During court hearings, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner brought this conversation up, while pointing out that The Black Book instructs women “to be proficient in the use of firearms.”
In other intercepted phone conversations, which took place in April, Brown and Davenport discussed smuggled champagne, vodka, and cigars. According to court documents, law enforcers also believe Davenport “is smuggling drugs” to Brown in prison.
After the indictments came down, Wallner announced in open court that the BGF had offered $10,000 for “hits” on correctional officers, investigators, and cooperators who helped make the case (“BGF Offers $10,000 for Hits, Prosecutor Says,” Mobtown Beat, April 23). In light of the offer, Wallner stressed Davenport’s role as a vector of BGF intelligence, suggesting that she may help get the word out that BGF money is on the table. “Davenport, because of her status as the conduit for all of the BGF,” Wallner said to the judge, “is the central location of communication among members and Eric Brown.”
The government’s take on Davenport came as a complete surprise to Davenport’s long-time employer, Thomas Shaner of the Baltimore-based association management firm, Joseph E. Shaner Company.
“To say that we are shocked, that’s just an understatement,” Shaner said in a May interview. “‘Sister D?’ Who the hell is this ‘Sister D?’
“She’s been a solid employee for 20 years,” Shaner said. “All I can guess is that she was naïve as hell and was manipulated by Eric [Brown]. I’ve never met Eric, and I was surprised to learn that Eric is in jail, and has always been in jail, even before she married him. Despite these charges, I still want to believe she’s the same person I’ve known for so long, who I considered a friend and sort of family. But people do crazy things for love.”
After debating for weeks in motions and hearings over Davenport’s detention, on May 12, Wallner and Saunders reached an agreement, and U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner accepted it. Davenport is released to her home, where she will remain locked down pending trial, on electronic monitoring and with strict controls over her communications and conduct. In addition, Davenport’s sales of The Black Book will end and she is to have “no contact whatsoever with any inmates or codefendants,” Gesner says. The trial, which has yet to be scheduled, is estimated to last a month.