By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 9, 2014
David D’Amico turned 50 a week before his Aug. 28 appearance in Maryland U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, where he consented to pre-trial detention in a massive 2010 pot-trafficking and money-laundering case in which most of his 15 co-defendants—including Daniel McIntosh, co-owner of defunct Baltimore nightclub Sonar—are serving prison sentences. He looked a shadow of his formerly beefy, smiling self, as seen in the “Most Wanted” photo of him distributed by the U.S. Marshals Service in early 2013 (pictured), when he was a fugitive. Now, having been extradited from Colombia, D’Amico looks gaunt and tired—every day of his age, and then some. Five years on the run seems to have depleted him.
D’Amico’s name is peppered throughout the voluminous transcripts of the seven-week trial in the case, which ended on Nov. 1, 2012, when McIntosh and Canadian pilot Keegan Leahy were convicted of several charges—though acquitted of the most serious ones—that they have since appealed. D’Amico was described as a top player in the decade-long, cross-country, $30-million scheme, the man who oversaw its day-to-day operations in three arenas—transportation, wholesale distribution, and finance and real estate—and harbored ambitions of taking the reins from the conspiracy’s overall leader, Matt Nicka, who now, along with his wife, Gretchen Peterson, is in the hands of Canadian authorities as the U.S. seeks their return to face the charges.
With D’Amico’s extradition from Colombia and appearance in Maryland federal court, a jury may yet get to weigh the evidence against him. Neither D’Amico’s court-appointed attorneys—Richard Finci and Jennifer Mayer—nor assistant U.S. attorney Deborah Johnston would comment on the case, but existing court records bring the story of D’Amico’s alleged dealings into tight focus.
The D’Amico narrative that played out before the McIntosh/Leahy jury started in early 2000s, when co-defendant Sean Costello—an energy consultant from Hawaii at the time of his 2012 guilty plea in the case—was D’Amico’s roommate from 2003 to 2005. Costello recalled for the jury that D’Amico was a concert promoter and day-trader in stocks who sold concessions at large events like the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. In 2003, after “a Phish concert in Miami” where “we did our normal orange juice plus alcohol sales,” Costello said, he, D’Amico, and Nicka “started distributing weed” at a rate of “50 to 100 pounds per month,” with Costello helping move it from Baltimore to Atlanta and Miami, and “money back the other direction.”
At this stage, Costello continued, Nicka would call “breakfast” meetings in “downtown Baltimore” between “most of the people in the conspiracy”—anywhere from six to 10 people, including D’Amico—where they “just caught up with each other personally.” While they ate and socialized, Nicka would “talk with people individually and pull them outside” to discuss “how many pounds of weed they needed or wanted” and “how much money they owed Matt for said weed.”
The last such meeting Costello attended was in June 2005, he testified, because “I was arrested either that day or the day after” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration while “on a train from Baltimore to Miami” with “24 pounds of marijuana” that belonged to D’Amico and Nicka. D’Amico paid for Costello’s attorney and offered him “50 grand” if “I kept my mouth shut,” Costello recalled. He did, in a sense—Costello admitted he actually told agents a mixture of truth and lies about the pot’s provenance, saying he’d gotten it from a “an over-weight white male of Russian decent” at the train station, and that he was being paid $2,000 by a someone he only knew as “Man”—and served six months’ incarceration in Florida for the crime.
In early 2007, after Costello’s release, D’Amico dropped in on him in Orlando, Florida, and “was trying to convince me to get back into selling and distributing weed,” Costello testified. D’Amico drove him to meet with Nicka in Jensen Beach, Florida, and “I think Matt assumed that I was going to get back into helping them sell and distribute weed, which I didn’t want to do at the time,” Costello continued.
A little over a year later, in May 2008, though, Costello helped the conspiracy by introducing D’Amico to a pilot—Leahy—to fly pot and money back and forth across the country. “Back in 2004, 2005,” he explained, “we had always been looking for a pilot so that we could fly instead of drive, because there’s quite a bit of money that was seized by the government during that time for traffic stops” and “you can’t get pulled over by the cops in the air.”
Costello had gotten to know Leahy after they’d first met in 2006, when they explored developing a solar energy plant in south Florida. Leahy “fit the personality type of the people that we work with,” Costello explained, adding that he “seemed cool” and that he “was the only pilot I knew.” So “I asked him if he wanted to fly for a friend of mine,” Costello continued, but “I wasn’t going to tell him that it was distributing thousands of pounds of weed.”
Shortly after Costello introduced D’Amico to Leahy, the three set out to buy an airplane, a Lancair IV-P, and title it in the name of a company they formed, Air Sky Holdings. Before it ever made a trip for the conspiracy, though, Leahy damaged it so badly in a crash that it was never used. So Leahy instead piloted a leased Cessna 400, the fastest single-engine production aircraft on the market, and by all appearances he was simply D’Amico’s personal pilot—though Costello pointed out that, given the strong and distinctive odor that loads of pot give off, it would be hard not to suspect what was inside of the bags with which D’Amico travelled. When the bags were filled with cash, Costello testified that they held up to “$500,000 at a time.”
Costello eventually wanted out of the arrangement, he testified, and in February 2009 met D’Amico in Boston “to get rid of my responsibility with Air Sky Holdings” and “dump everything on to Dave hopefully.” It didn’t work, though, and in early March, 2009, Costello met D’Amico in Baltimore at D’Amico’s rented house on Hickory Avenue in Hampden—a house owned by a company controlled by co-defendant Jeremiah “Jeremy” Landsman, a Baltimore real-estate developer who is currently in prison after pleading guilty in the case—and watched as a load of pot was shipped into and out of the house. Then, Costello continued, he, D’Amico, Leahy, and another person went to “some state airport . . . near Baltimore” and tried, unsuccessfully due to the snowy weather, to fly out with a duffel bag full of money. The inside of the plane, Costello said, “smelled like weed.”
A few weeks later, D’Amico summoned Costello and Leahy to San Francisco. “He seemed very agitated,” Costello recalled. It turned out that the Hickory Avenue house had been raided by police, who had found nearly 100 pounds of pot, about 30 cell phones, money counters, scales, $20,000 in cash, and documentation of more than $1.5 million in drug transactions, including the names of customers and suppliers. Also in the house were documents about the Lancair, connecting it to D’Amico, Costello, and Leahy. Just prior to the raid, another co-conspirator—Jeffrey Putney, who is now the sole remaining fugitive in the case—had been arrested immediately after coming out of the house, because the cops who had been tailing him saw him drop off boxes of suspected pot there.
The three met in a hotel lobby in San Francisco, where D’Amico said “that somebody had gotten arrested that knew a lot of information” and “it would be smart to leave” the country and get rid of their cellphones. Leahy “got upset and walked away,” Costello continued, and D’Amico explained “how he was going to get me a quarter million dollars” to “finance leaving the country.”
The next day, on the recommendation of a weed supplier for D’Amico and Nicka—a person Costello only knew as “Bear”—D’Amico and Costello sought advice from a legal titan: J. Tony Serra, a legendary civil-rights and criminal-defense attorney who was portrayed by James Woods in the 1989 movie “True Believer.”
“We talked at length” with Serra “about how or if we should sell the aircraft,” Costello recalled, and “about minimum maximum penalties and what we could be charged with.” They were also “asked the scope and depth of the case, how many people, how much money, how much weed,” Costello continued. Serra’s fee would be $100,000 and, Costello continued, “Dave voluntarily . . . put money on Tony’s safe on the way out the door,” about $10,000 or $20,000. While Costello said Serra “looked like he smoked weed,” he did not think he was part of the D’Amico/Nicka conspiracy.
Also that March, D’Amico first gave Costello a sense of the breadth and depth of the conspiracy: that it involved sending “150 to 250 pounds east . . . every two to three weeks,” Costello recalled, and that it involved “40 to 50” people.
At some point after the Hickory raid, Costello recalled waiting at a mall in Berkeley for D’Amico and Bear to “come back from somewhere further north,” where they had gone so that D’Amico could “pick up his balance of all the money that was owed to him.” After they returned, they transferred the money to Costello’s rented car and, after Costello dropped D’Amico at a hotel, “I drove away” with the money, Costello recalled, since “I assumed that it was the money that Dave had promised me the day before” and “I wanted to be done with the relationships with Dave.”
In the ensuing months, after the government seized the Lancair and started court proceedings to keep it as a criminally derived asset, Costello filed a claim for it, saying it was obtained lawfully. D’Amico—who had fled the U.S. for Caracas, Venezuela in early April—put the kibosh on that move, Costello recalled, by telling him “in no uncertain terms that he would come and kill me if I did not give up the aircraft, verbatim.” D’Amico “just seemed very, very upset,” Costello explained, “because I took off with money that he was supposed to give me of his own accord and I just took it.” So, he continued, “I released all interest in the Lancair aircraft on behalf of Air Sky Holdings.”
Costello also told the jury that he still feared D’Amico: “He could come to my house and hurt me and come to my house and shoot me,” Costello said. “I’ve always been concerned about that. And I’m still concerned about that to this day, in fact.”
But D’Amico may have been too busy enjoying life in Colombia to bother trying to harm Costello. An expatriate American who co-owns a hotel in Colombia where D’Amico stayed in 2010 and 2011 provides a glimpse of D’Amico’s life on the lam. City Paper confirmed the identity of the hotelier, who provided evidence to back up stories of D’Amico’s time there, but the hotelier asked not to be named in this article “because of the cloud that Dave brought” to the hotel.
D’Amico “looked like the typical gringo businessman who comes to Colombia looking for business opportunities along with some fun and excitement,” the hotelier recalls in a series of emails, but “the reality soon became evident—Dave had come to party.”
He was “certainly a very colorful character, and sometimes wild,” the hotelier observes, adding that “I learned this within a few days of his arrival, when a worker at the property led me to Dave’s suite one morning to show me that he was passed out on the floor of his room, surrounded by garbage. Once awakened, Dave told me that he occasionally enjoyed sleeping on the floor—and he said it with a serious face.” On another occasion, the hotelier recalls, “while trying to leave the hotel very late at night when the outer gate was locked,” D’Amico “tried to destroy the lock and the gate’s hinges so he could get out of the building, instead of waiting for the night clerk to return and open the door for him to leave the building.”
D’Amico “spent nearly a year here,” the hotelier continued. “I tried to get rid of him, but couldn’t. The property damage and neighborhood shame were costly,” since D’Amico was “doing whatever he wanted.” D’Amico disappeared from the hotel after a fire “started in the (locked) apartment where Dave had been living.”
The hotelier first learned about D’Amico’s indictment in Maryland after he’d disappeared. “Frankly, if I had known he was on the run at the time he was destroying my property,” the hotelier explains, “I would have turned him in to the authorities to stop the losses.”
After years as a fugitive, D’Amico now will see if he’s able to stop the loss of liberty the government wants him to suffer. He’s the most high-ranking member of the conspiracy to be brought to court so far, and those convicted for playing lower-level roles—including McIntosh, who is serving a mandatory-minimum 10-year sentence, meted out earlier this year—are currently paying the price. Despite his good times at the hotel in Colombia, D’Amico, too, based on his physical appearance recently in court, has already started to pay the price.