By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, March 4, 2009
On Feb. 25, a Baltimore drug conspiracy was in the limelight as part of the public unveiling of an ongoing federal effort to destroy the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico. At a press conference in Washington D.C., officials said that Operation Xcellerator, an anti-narcotic initiative targeting the powerful cartel’s operations in the United States, had in the past 21 months arrested more than 750 people and seized more than $59 million in drug proceeds, 12,000 kilos of cocaine, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.3 million Ecstasy pills, and more than 160 weapons.
Eight of those arrested and charged for their dealings with the Sinaloa Cartel are part of a Baltimore-based drug conspiracy that is tied, through one of its members–Lawrence Schaffner “Lorenzo” Reeves–to an educational seminar program for children seeking to enter the entertainment business. Reeves is co-founder of the seminar business, called Hollywood in a Bottle, and a seminar it held last summer at a Baltimore City public school received support from Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt.
“Just 40 miles from here,” said acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Michele Leonhart, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by her side, “we took down violent drug traffickers which were supplied with hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Mexico.”
Later that day, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein told City Paper that the case Leonhart was referring to was against Reeves and his seven accused co-conspirators. Rosenstein added that the Reeves conspiracy is the only Baltimore case that falls under Operation Xcellerator. It was indicted late last August, and has since received extensive coverage in City Paper (“The Hollywood Connection,” Aug. 29, 2008).
Reeves, who has prior drug convictions in Maryland and Arizona, pleaded guilty in January to his part in the conspiracy to import more than 330 pounds of cocaine from Mexico. His criminal-defense attorney, Gary Proctor, had no comment for this story.
In July 2008, a City Paper reporter dropped by the National Academy Foundation School, a Baltimore city public school in Federal Hill, where the well-attended Hollywood in a Bottle program was being held. It featured experienced Hollywood professionals sharing career advice with youngsters.
“Joan Pratt was our biggest sponsor,” the event’s publicist, Sharon Page of Synergy Communications, proclaimed at the time. A month later, after Reeves’ indictment, Page backed off on that claim, saying that Pratt only “paid for our T-shirts.”
When asked in a Feb. 26 e-mail about the heightened profile of the Reeves case, Pratt gave the following prepared statement: “I’m always concerned about crime and it is troubling to hear about this investigation. I have no knowledge of this conspiracy or facts surrounding this investigation.”
Last August, Pratt explained to City Paper that, while she does not know Reeves personally, she does know Reeves’ Hollywood in a Bottle co-founder, LaVern Whitt, a native Baltimorean and former Hollywood stuntwoman. Pratt, who runs an accounting business aside from her public duties, filed incorporation papers on behalf of Page’s Synergy Communications.
Pratt and her private attorney, Sharon King Dudley, who was hired last year by Baltimore City to investigate employee-discipline matters, were two of Hollywood in a Bottle’s four listed sponsors on the company’s web site.
Nothing has come to light suggesting that Pratt had any direct interactions with Reeves, or that Pratt had any knowledge of Reeves’ criminal activities.
Whitt has said she didn’t know about Reeves’ involvement in drug activities either. “I needed help, so he came on board,” she told City Paper after Reeves’ indictment. “I just met him five months ago. This is my hard-earned idea. I need sponsors to help me. I have no idea about that other world. I don’t know him like that.”
Whitt had Baltimore criminal defense attorney Warren Brown handle any further inquiries on the matter. On Feb. 26, after being told that Operation Xcellerator tied Reeves to Sinaloa, Brown said that Whitt, “is just like probably tons of other people who may have received funds from this guy. She would not know about his involvement in any criminal activities.” Lending credence to this claim, he said, is “the fact that she was never contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office” in connection with the case.
Nonetheless, Whitt’s partnership with Reeves has tainted some of her other endeavors, including a documentary-in-progress she’s co-producing with entertainment titan Kevin Liles, the executive vice president of Warner Music Group and also a Baltimore native. Called Women in Power, a seven-minute promo of which was screened at the historic Senator Theater early last year, the film’s subjects are Baltimore’s four top elected officials: Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and Pratt. In late 2007, Whitt did on-camera interviews with each of them. All four have since sought to distance themselves from the project.
After the Reeves indictment came down last year, City Paper contacted the subjects of Women in Power to ask them what they knew about Whitt and her involvement in Hollywood in a Bottle and her relationship with Reeves. Dixon’s then-spokesman Sterling Clifford said he’d vetted Whitt before she interviewed the mayor and turned up no red flags, but Dixon’s office had no comment for this story.
Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty asserted on Feb. 26 that the council president regarded Whitt as simply another member of the media seeking access. “Ms. Whitt came to this office to do filming for a documentary,” O’Doherty said, “and we granted it, just as we do others, and the relationship ends there.”
Jessamy’s office, which last year confirmed that Whitt had interviewed the state’s attorney, did not return calls for comment on the matter.
Other than Reeves, two other members of the eight-man conspiracy–Devon Marshall and Otis Rich–have also pleaded guilty. Both have violent criminal histories. Marshall was described by prosecutors as Reeves’ enforcer, someone who could be counted on to inflict violence to settle disputes. When his Harford County home was searched last year, among the guns that turned up was an assault rifle with 20 armor-piercing bullets. His familiarity with street-level violence landed him on the potential witness list of a death-penalty trial that ended abruptly last spring when two of the three defendants, Harry Burton and Allen Gill, pleaded guilty to charges of running a murderous, decade-long drug conspiracy based at the Latrobe Homes housing project in East Baltimore. Court records indicate that the third man in the Latrobe Homes case, Stanford Stansbury, who has family ties to notorious Baltimore bailbondsman and ex-con Milton Tillman Jr. (“Grave Accusations,” April 23, 2008), negotiated a pending plea deal in the case.
Rich’s criminal career includes two convictions for drugs and firearms, amid three other dropped murder and attempted-murder charges. On Feb. 20, Rich’s name came up in a court hearing in the federal drugs-and-guns case against Andre Kirby. Prosecutors explained that Kirby, on the day that he was arrested last May, had given Rich a ride to the hospital after Rich had been shot amid a surge in gang-related violence.
The five remaining members of the alleged conspiracy have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are awaiting trial, scheduled to begin Aug. 17.
Two of them–Juan Nunez and Marcos Galindo–have transportation-related businesses. Nunez’ trucking company, J&R Transport, was run out of an East Baltimore building that also houses his former bar, El Rancho Blanco on Fagley Street, and Nunez’ loan for purchasing the building was co-signed by Gilbert Sapperstein, a well-known politically connected figure who was convicted in 2005 of bilking millions of dollars through city government contracts. During hearings in the case, Nunez was described as using drug cash to buy luxury cars from a Los Angeles-based car dealer, selling vehicles with hidden drug-stash compartments, and, despite having no reported income, depositing large amounts of money into bank accounts. Galindo, who has prior guns-and-drugs charges in Arizona, is director of a Mesa, Ariz.-based company called Precision Installation, which designs office space and delivers furniture.
Two other co-conspirators–William Leonardo Graham of Baltimore and Nathaniel Lee Jones of Calvert County–have prior drug-related convictions, and Graham has a prior gun conviction. Also charged in the case is Justin Santiago Gallardo of Annapolis, whose prior criminal history appears to consist of driving-related offenses in Maryland and Arizona.
The prosecution of the Reeves case, says Rosenstein, “makes the obvious connection that drugs are coming to Baltimore from outside of Maryland. We will continue to trace the drugs back to the source, work our way up to the top, and ultimately indict the major players.”