By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Mar. 24, 2015
It’s been nearly half a decade since Matt Nicka (pictured), allegedly the shadow owner of the now-defunct downtown Baltimore nightclub Sonar, was first charged for sitting atop an international, high-volume, decade-long, pot-and-money-laundering conspiracy based in Baltimore. And still the case goes on.
Nicka and his co-defendant wife Gretchen Peterson were brought to Maryland last fall to answer the charges after being picked up in Canada in 2013, a few months after another top co-defendant, David D’Amico, was extradited from Colombia. Now, with California attorney James Bustamante at Nicka’s side, he’s fighting for his freedom, in part by challenging the legality of a 2010 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raid of a house he used to own at 4210 Clarkdale Road, in the woods just northwest of Television Hill in Baltimore. By doing so, Nicka put in the court record evidence against him that had not previously been in the public sphere.
At issue, according to the Bustamante-penned motion to suppress evidence against Nicka that was collected at the Clarkdale Road home, filed in court on March 20, is the constitutionality of the raid. Bustamante asserts that “probable cause to support the search” was “based on insufficient and stale information.” Regardless of how fresh and pertinent the information was for probable-cause purposes, it still sheds new light on how the investigation was developed by case agent Cindy Buskey of the DEA, who testified at the lengthy 2012 trial in which a jury found two of the conspiracy’s 16 defendants—former Sonar co-owner Daniel McIntosh and pilot Keagan Leahy—guilty of some, but not all, of the charges against them.
Buskey wrote the affidavit supporting the raid on the then-vacant house, which turned up no dope or money, but did produce a money counter, a heat sealer, photographs, maps, and various other documents, among other seemingly innocuous items. Her sworn statement described how investigators unearthed connections between the players, prompting them to interview D’Amico’s ex-wife, Liliana D’Amico, and Peterson’s mother and sister, Mary and Jessica Peterson. The affidavit also gave details provided by co-conspirator Andrew Sharpeta, who cooperated with authorities, about the scope of the pot-dealing operation, with the Clarkdale Road house serving as its nerve center. The affidavit also relates conversations with an unnamed neighbor, with whom Nicka had entrusted a key to the house.
Sharpeta, who testified before the grand jury that indicted the case as well as before the jury that convicted McIntosh and Leahy, told invesigators that he lived at the Clarkdale Road house in 2008 and 2009, and that Nicka had moved there about a year earlier. While there, “he, Nicka, D’Amico, and others had counted large amounts of money” using money counters, the affidavit states, and bundled them in $50,000 increments made up of 10 bundles of $5,000. Six $50,000 increments were then put in envelopes that were then “loaded into a suitcase or duffle bags” in increments up to $1 million. The suitcases were “locked and super glued shut” and then “taken to California on D’Amico’s airplane and/or a tractor trailer.” Aside from detailing the cash-management tactics undertaken at the house, Sharpeta also “described the delivery and distribution of hundreds of pounds of marijuana from this residence.”
When Mary and Jessica Peterson were interviewed in Pennsylvania in late 2009, Jessica Peterson said “Gretchen had told her that she acted as a money courier” for Nicka, and that Gretchen Peterson “was living beyond her means,” based on “her clothing and her social lifestyle” even though she was “unemployed.” At the restaurant where Jessica Peterson worked, employees were “happy to see Gretchen because she would leave extremely large tips.” Mary Peterson, meanwhile, “stated that she suspected that her daughter was involved in drug trafficking” because she’d found a “duffle bag in 2005-2006” that “contained marijuana” and “observed a stack of money that she decribed as being one and a half feet by one and a half feet on Gretchen’s bed.” Both women “also stated that Gretchen informed them that she left” Pennsylvania “in October of 2009 to avoid speaking with law enforcement” after “investigators attempted to serve a grand jury subpoena” on her there.
Investigators caught up with Liliana D’Amico after a 2009 raid at a house in Hampden turned up evidence that the conspiracy made use of an aircraft co-owned by David D’Amico, and her name turned up on database searches as associated with him. They found that in 2004 in South Carolina, she had been stopped in a vehicle registered to Gretchen Peterson that had an empty, hidden compartment, and the car was seized by the DEA after drug-sniffing dogs gave a positive alert. Found in the car were photographs, including one of Leahy, the pilot who flew D’Amico’s plane and had been involved in its purchase. When she was interviewed in 2009, she told them she was no longer married to D’Amico, and she denied any knowledge of drug trafficking, but admitted she’d seen D’Amico with large amounts of cash.
When investigators interviewed the Clarkdale Road neighbor in February 2010, they learned he “had not seen Nicka or any other individual at the residence in approximately one year.” Previously, though, “Nicka would leave the residence for weeks at a time,” and “had given the neighbor the key to 4210 Clarkdale Road” and “asked the neighbor to look after the residence during his extended absences.” During “the latter part of 2009, the water pipes burst in the residence on two occasions” and the neighbor “had attempted to contact Nicka on his cellular phone,” but it “was disconnected.” The neighbor also had seen Gretchen Peterson, Sharpeta, and D’Amico at the house.
The jury trial of Nicka, Peterson, and D’Amico is scheduled to start next March, and run for five weeks. In the meantime, all three have consented to detention pending trial. Back when they were on the lam, all three, as well the only remaining fugitive in the case, Jeffery Putney, were the subject of “Most Wanted” media coverage. The jury that convicted McIntosh and Leahy, meanwhile, did not buy the government’s theory that Sonar was a money-laundering front, and arguments in the case alleged prosecutorial improprieties that were deemed inapposite by the judge. An interesting figure in the case was Baltimore developer Jeremiah Landsman, who received a relatively lenient sentence, though all the players bear some intrigue. When McIntosh was sentenced, he got the lowest penalty he could—10 years in prison—though some of the others received serious time too. In light of what happened to the others, it’ll be interesting to see how the case against Nicka, Peterson, and D’Amico—the top three defendants in the conspiracy—plays out.