By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Feb. 2, 2011
Everyone knows Baltimore has a drug problem, with a high demand for narcotics fueling an active and violent drug trade. But how the drugs get here often goes unnoticed, since local drug cases overwhelmingly focus on corner boys serving street-level customers. Instead, the details of Baltimore’s supply chain tend to come out in major federal cases—including those brought by law enforcers elsewhere.
A recent California drug-trafficking and money-laundering case accomplished just that, showing how hundreds of pounds of cocaine allegedly reached Baltimore’s streets last year thanks to Hollywood-based traffickers, and how millions in drug proceeds left town: by private jet, shuttling between California and Martin State Airport in Essex.
As first reported in The Washington Times last year, the case, which stemmed from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation dubbed operation “Snow Bird,” alleges that glitzy Hollywood types may fuel Baltimore’s drug game along with more low-key traffickers. It also is emblematic of how “hometown boy does good” stories may not always hold water, since the case features three defendants with strong Baltimore ties who appear to have gotten some legitimate traction in the Hollywood entertainment industry.
The amounts of drugs and cash involved in the case are staggering by Baltimore standards, where a 40-kilogram bust is considered historic. Investigators produced evidence that the scheme transported nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine and more than $4 million in cash during a six-week period last fall. Of that, law enforcers were able to seize nearly 300 kilograms and $1.1 million in cash. Whether from their success in entertainment or drugs, the defendants became wealthy enough to own expensive vehicles, including two 2010 Aston Martin Rapides, a 2008 Mercedes CL63 AMG, and a 2009 BMW 750Li, all of which were seized in the investigation, along with a trove of weapons.
Three of the 14 defendants in the case—Ricky James Brascom, Charles Dwight Ransom Jr., and Darrin Ebron—have roots in Baltimore. Court records show that one of the main phones tapped in the case, used by Brascom, was subscribed to by a man named Thomas Jackson at an address at Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore, and that Brascom had an Owings Mills address when he received a Baltimore County traffic violation in 2009. Ransom and Ebron both have Maryland arrest records dating from the 1990s, and Ransom owns real estate in Baltimore City. Ransom was released from federal prison in 2008, after a 2003 conviction for shipping cocaine to Baltimore and money back to Los Angeles in Federal Express packages.
All three went to California and entered the entertainment industry. But, if law enforcers are correct, they also exploited Baltimore’s appetite for drugs to enrich themselves, using five other Baltimore-based co-defendants—the indictment identifies them only by their nicknames, “Cuzzo,” “O.G.,” “S.O.,” “M,” and “SM”—as local distributors.
Brascom, Ransom, and Ebron “have ties to what appears to be legitimate music-industry business,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Villeza, the California prosecutor who’s handling the case. “But it is not uncommon for criminals to have legitimate businesses. They may profit from the business, but they can make substantial profits on the criminal side and it gets infused into the legitimate business.”
As for the alleged Baltimore distributors, indicted under their nicknames, Villeza says, “It’s an ongoing investigation.”
For Brascom and Ransom, the main vehicle for their entertainment careers appears to be a company called Behind Da Scenes Entertainment. Villeza calls them the “CEOs” of Behind Da Scenes, which promotes Paypa, a Chicago rapper who was signed last fall by SRC/Universal.
But Behind Da Scenes, which was formed last year in Maryland and lists its principal office on Church Lane in Pikesville, does not list Ransom or Brascom on its incorporation papers. Instead, it has one director: a real estate investor and construction company owner named Gerald Lamont Jones. Real estate records show that Jones’ construction company, JBL Construction, gave two Baltimore City properties—2705 Ashland Ave. and 815 N. Kenwood Ave., both in the Madison-Eastend neighborhood—to Ransom in 2007.
“I know that Mr. Jones would not want to speak to you,” says Behind Da Scenes’ Pikesville-based attorney Diane Leigh Davison. “He has no involvement in or awareness of” the drug-trafficking accusations against Ransom and Brascom. The “unfortunate” indictment, Davison adds, has “dragged in and affected an emerging artist”—Paypa—and “also affected other people in the business who have nothing to do with the two individuals under indictment.” Furthermore, she adds, “the real estate transactions have no relation to the recent allegations or to Behind Da Scenes Entertainment, Inc. Mr. Jones . . . has always tried to assist and mentor family and friends in business, and tried to do the same for his former college fraternity brother, Charles Ransom.”
In sum, Davison says, Behind Da Scenes “has nothing to do with any of these allegations.” Villeza echoes that conclusion, saying the company “has nothing to do with the evidence against” the defendants.
Ebron (“DJ Darrin Ebron Takes a Fall,” The News Hole, citypaper.com, Nov. 10, 2010), however, has brought Behind Da Scenes into the drug-trafficking case in his efforts to be released on bond pending trial. He is arguing, in ongoing hearings on the matter, that the wiretapped conversations the government is using to accuse him of drug trafficking were actually about his music-industry work on behalf of Behind Da Scenes Entertainment.
To support this contention, a declaration was entered into the court record from Virgil Roberts, a Harvard-educated entertainment lawyer and former president of SOLAR Records, who reviewed the wiretap transcripts. Roberts concluded that “all of the conversations . . . clearly pertain only to the work” Ebron was doing on behalf of Behind Da Scenes and its artist, Paypa, and “has no relationship to any other activity.” Roberts wrote that Ebron “was retained” by Behind Da Scenes “to produce music” and “was paid in cash for all of his work.” The disputes over money captured on the wiretap were over payments for this work, not drugs. To support this argument, Roberts attached as an exhibit “a copy of the budget and handwritten notes prepared by Mr. Ebron as he worked on the PayPa project.” (Davison says that Behind Da Scenes Entertainment “has no knowledge of these purported expenses.”)
The charging documents also include celebrity references, caught on wiretaps recording the defendants’ conversations. The alleged traffickers used jets owned by a Las Vegas company called Marquez Brothers Aviation; one of the pilots, Leonardo Concepcion, is named in the indictment. Concepcion spoke of a scheduling conflict in his alleged work for the traffickers because he needed to fly Janet Jackson somewhere. And Drew Sidora Jordan, an actress and singer who is Brascom’s girlfriend, allegedly tells him that she’s worried he’ll get arrested, after he told her law enforcers seized some of the group’s cocaine.
When the charges were first filed on Nov. 2, 2010, Ebron remained a fugitive until he voluntarily surrendered in New Jersey, where he had his first court appearance on Nov. 19. The judge at that hearing released him on $500,000 bail, secured by two pieces of real estate, including one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (That property, in Grasonville in Queen Anne’s County, is owned by a Baltimore funeral director, John L. Williams IV, who could not be reached for comment.) When Ebron appeared in California on Dec. 6 to face the indictment, though, the judge ordered him temporarily detained as arguments over the issue are debated. The next hearing on whether Ebron remains in custody or goes free on bond is scheduled for Feb. 7.
Ebron’s criminal-defense attorney, Winston McKesson, says “we do not think the underlying charges [against Ebron] have any basis in fact,” and states that “Mr. Ebron has no experience with drugs.” (The charging documents say Ebron was caught sending five kilograms of cocaine to New York in 2008, yet was not charged to avoid undermining an ongoing investigation, but McKesson says those facts are “not accurate.”) McKesson says Roberts’ interpretation of the wiretap evidence—that “the conversations are consistent with music-industry talk, not slang for drug sales”—carries the weight of Roberts’ reputation as “one of the best known, if not the best known, entertainment lawyers in the world.” Whether that will convince the judge to let Ebron go free pending trial remains to be seen.
Attorneys for Brascom did not return e-mails seeking comment, and the case docket does not list an attorney representing Ransom.
“Mr. Ebron can certainly claim these [wire-tapped conversations] were music-related,” Villeza says, “but we have strong evidence that they were about drugs and that he was involved in the cocaine conspiracy.”