By Van Smith
Published on March 23, 2011 in City Paper
On March 15, 44-year-old Christopher Neu, better known as “Chris X,” owner of Reptilian Records in Baltimore, started five years of probation during which he could face up to 60 years of incarceration if he is found to be in violation.
As Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill explained from the bench that day, after Neu pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, “I’m going to strike the convictions and enter probation before judgment” on all three counts, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
The outcome was hammered out during a bench conference between the judge, Neu’s attorney Andrew Cooper, and Baltimore City Assistant State’s Attorney Staci Pipkin. If Neu is convicted of new crimes or violates the terms of his probation during the next five years, Fletcher-Hill said he can “enter the convictions without any further proceedings” and Neu will face “the possibility of 60 years” in prison.
Neu, who was busted last summer as a result of a narcotics investigation, said in a post-hearing phone interview that “I feel damn good not to be in jail, and you can quote me on that.”
Cooper, also reached by phone after the hearing, explains that Pipkin’s plea-deal offers for Neu had come in a succession of proposals carrying ever-lighter sentences. At first, she offered 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended; then she dangled the prospect of suspending all but one year. In the end, Cooper says, probation before judgment “was a good result for everyone involved,” but was “a big benefit” for Neu.
Cooper predicts that Neu, who has no prior criminal record, is unlikely to violate the terms of his probation. He also points out that two other people charged in the investigation received probation before judgment despite the fact that one of them, whose past included prior run-ins with the law, had a gun seized when the police arrested him. Cooper also says he believes that the police conducted an illegal search when they came for Neu. Had the prosecutor continued to press the charges, Cooper contends, the case may have fallen apart before trial with a ruling that the seized drugs could not be used as evidence.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokesperson Mark Cheshire, in an e-mail, says that “the defense claim that this case involved an illegal search is baseless and played absolutely no role in the outcome.” Cheshire also took issue with Cooper’s assertion that Pipkin offered anything short of “prison time for the defendant. The presiding judge sentenced him to five years of probation, which is [the judge’s] prerogative and a decision we respect.”
Reptilian Records has long received coverage from City Paper, including awards in the annual Best of Baltimore issue in 1996 (“Best Open/Closed Store Sign”), 2001 (“Best Punk Rock Bastion”), 2004 (“Best Record Label”), and 2007 (“Best Relocation”). The store had operated on South Broadway in Fells Point for 17 years until 2007, when it relocated to North Howard Street, next to Ottobar, and then shuttered in 2009 (“Vinyl Destination,” Music, Jan. 14, 2009), opting for online-only sales. In addition to noting Chris X’s book-publishing foray (Q&A, June 22, 2005), CP marked two of Reptilian’s anniversaries with coverage: in 2003 (“Noise to the World,” No Cover, Nov. 26, 2003) and in 2010, when it was described as “Baltimore’s cornerstone underground heavy music outlet and record label” (“Chris X,” Music, Nov. 24, 2010). In the latter piece, Neu’s legal name was given incorrectly as Christopher Xavier Donovan; confusion over Neu’s identity delayed CP’s ability to obtain records of his legal troubles.
Neu was arrested on the night of July 30 last year, after Baltimore City police arrived at his closed record store at 2545 N. Howard St. They came there after having served a search-and-seizure warrant at 4903 Harford Road in Waltherson, where they arrested two men—38-year-old Michael Deming and 37-year-old Daniel Mersheck—and seized about 7 ounces of cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana, 27 oxycodone pills, a loaded 9mm handgun, and other contraband.
Deming, court records state, told the police “that he and his friend, later identified as Christopher Neu, ‘went halfs’ on a brick of cocaine” and “that a significant amount of cocaine was located” at Neu’s Howard Street business. As a result of this information, “two uniform officers were sent” there “to secure the location pending an investigation.”
After the uniformed officers arrived at Reptilian Records, court records state, a search turned up a pharmacopeia of mind-altering substances. In all, about 13 ounces of cocaine (street value: $16,740), more than 21 ounces of marijuana (street value: $3,635), 14 grams of psilocybin mushrooms, and hundreds of pills—mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone, but also Valium, Oxycontin, methadone, and muscle relaxers—were seized, along with other contraband.
“Neu advised he had borrowed more than $12,000 from a friend to purchase the amount of cocaine which he had possession of,” the court records state, noting that Neu “was cooperative throughout the entire investigation.”
Neu is also cooperative with CP, openly discussing his charges and the context in which he was caught. He is anxious to explain that he’d entered the coke-dealing arena only recently, in an attempt to dig himself out of debt, and that he had obtained the pills by purchasing monthly prescriptions from elderly public-housing residents who had come to rely on his cash payments to supplement their meager household incomes.
“I sold weed for years,” Neu says—something that this writer, as a patron of Reptilian Records and acquaintance of Chris X’s, had known, having purchased small quantities of marijuana at the store more than 10 years ago while working as a freelance journalist and bartender. “But I always said I’d never sell coke,” Neu explains, adding, “I broke my own rule and that’s basically why I fell. I never would have done that had I not been so desperate” financially, due to unpaid mortgage and property-tax payments. “Now I’m more in the hole than I was before,” he says, and “my first concern is paying [family and friends] all back for helping with my bail and my lawyer.”
Neu’s Howard Street property is currently listed for sale, he explains, which “is the only reason it hasn’t been foreclosed on.” He has been selling off belongings, and says he still has “plenty of stuff to sell,” including comics, posters, records, and other collectibles.
As for the pills, Neu says, “The truth is, I got them from older people who live in public housing, who got by by selling me their prescriptions. But I’m not running around selling this stuff—that’s why [the pills] were stockpiled. I was kind of loaded up on them, because I only sold them to a few people I trusted who had drug problems, so they wouldn’t run out and buy heroin off the streets. It was a way for them to stop putting needles in their arms.”
Regarding the police search, Neu says the officers “lied to get in the door. They said they had an anonymous tip of a woman screaming” inside his business. Cooper adds that, when the case was first brought in Baltimore City District Court last summer, “The officers admitted this in discussions outside the courtroom, that they made up the reason to go in to begin with. They needed a warrant, but instead they used a ruse to get into his place of business.”
Furthermore, Cooper says, having already found the drugs, the police secured Neu’s consent to a search. To be lawful, such consent must be given beforehand and voluntarily, but Cooper and Neu say it was tendered after-the-fact and under duress. “They told me,” Neu recalls, “that if I didn’t sign the consent, they’d get a warrant and tear the place apart.”
“It was a horrible search,” Cooper concludes. In the end, though, Cooper did not have to argue these legal points before a judge, since Neu agreed to probation in return for a guilty plea without a trial.
The experience prompts Neu to offer cautionary words for others who may be tempted to try to turn a quick buck in the drug game: “Hey kids,” he says, “don’t do what I did. Pay your taxes and keep your noses clean.”