by Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 23, 2014
Maryland criminal-defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell has been called the “MVP” of the Baltimore defense bar, a man whose arguments once convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a ruling that a murder defendant’s statements were inadmissible at trial. But a current federal case against one of his clients, accused drug-trafficker Richard Christopher Byrd, suggests Ravenell may have gone beyond helping Byrd fight the charges: He may have had some role in helping coordinate Byrd’s efforts to conduct counter-surveillance of law enforcers’ lengthy probe into his alleged nationwide drug-trafficking and money-laundering conspiracy.
The 16-page superseding indictment against Byrd and four others, filed in Maryland U.S. District Court in July, does not name Ravenell, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the indictment describes “a representative” paid by Byrd who “gathered information about law enforcement activities and inquiries” from co-conspirators, and then relayed the information to Byrd so “he could monitor” the investigation. It then states “the representative of Richard Byrd contacted law enforcement officials and sought details of the seizure of $85,000 in currency from the luggage of Najah Stewart” at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) on September 1, 2009, when Stewart checked luggage onto a flight to Ontario, California, but didn’t board the plane. In the separate resulting forfeiture case, in which the government sought to keep the cash, one of the court’s rulings recites that same set of events on September 1, 2009 involving the $85,000 seizure and names Ravenell as an attorney for Stewart who called DEA agents to discuss the seizure.
On Sept. 11, according to the docket in Byrd’s case, an attorney-inquiry hearing was scheduled to be held before U.S. District judge Richard Bennett, who is presiding over the case, regarding Ravenell’s representation of Byrd. Such hearings can be called for any number of reasons, such as addressing potential conflicts in an attorney’s representation of a defendant or resolving a defendant’s complaints about an attorney’s efforts on his or her behalf. The docket, though, does not indicate whether the scheduled hearing took place, nor does it convey what may have resulted, if anything.
City Paper sent a detailed email to Ravenell, and followed up with phone calls, asking if the indictment’s language suggests the government believes he is the representative paid by Byrd to gather intelligence about the investigation, but he did not respond by press time. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment about any aspect of the case or the investigation, which has already resulted in convictions of members of Byrd’s family and alleged organization.
In court filings, Ravenell has portrayed Byrd as a towering behind-the-scenes figure in entertainment circles, a successful impresario whose brand-awareness campaigns on behalf of major companies, such as the makers of Courvoisier and Hennessy cognacs, for the past 15 years have involved holding huge events in major U.S. cities with celebrities—from hip-hop superstars Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Jay Z to sports greats Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Vick, and LeBron James—hosting or making appearances. This has been “profitable for Mr. Byrd,” Ravenell wrote, making the 41-year-old Byrd rich enough to send his kids to Garrison Forest School in Baltimore County and Valley Forge Military Academy outside Philadelphia.
The U.S. government, though, describes Byrd as a major, nationwide narcotics trafficker. After Ravenell represented him in an early 1990s armed drug-dealing case in Baltimore that resulted in a five-year prison sentence, Byrd, the government contends, emerged as the leader of a sophisticated outfit that has distributed at least 200 kilograms of cocaine and up to 20 tons of marijuana—a sprawling drug enterprise that is the true source of Byrd’s wealth. The prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney James Warwick, has stated in court filings that Byrd “was born in Jamaica” and “entered the United States as a teenager,” adding that he “has substantial ties to Jamaica” and “is believed to have moved financial assets to that country through third parties.”
These competing versions of the truth about Byrd are vying to prevail in the case. Also indicted are Byrd’s brother, Rasan Byrd; attorney James S. Bowie II and Kimberly Reid of Houston, who are accused of helping launder money; and Richard Drummond of Maryland, who allegedly helped manage and transport large sums of cash. An earlier co-defendant, Maurice Jones, has pleaded guilty and on Sept. 16 Bennett sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Other than the defendants’ liberty, at stake are some high-profile assets, since the indictment claims the government, in its effort to collect $20 million in ill-gotten gains it ascribes to the conspiracy, is entitled to real estate in Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale, vehicles, seized cash, and two large celebrity-drawing nightclubs: The Griffin, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and the Gold Room, in Atlanta’s uptown Buckhead district.
Two other companies targeted for forfeiture also are a testament to Byrd’s entertainment ties: Fever Beverage, a Pennsylvania-based company that makes libido-enhancing drinks headed by Delmond Newton of the streaming-video subscription service UrbanClout and creator of the “Strip Club Queens” reality show; and D.C.-based LOC Marketing, which has worked with Byrd’s celebrity events and is headed by Lamont “Monte” Wanzer, rapper Biz Markie’s manager.
An attorney representing The Griffin, Joan Toro, had “no comment” in response to City Paper’s inquiries, and attempts to obtain comments from Newton and Wanzer were fruitless as of press time. Jonathan Clay, a former owner of the Gold Room who City Paper reached by phone, said, “that’s bizarre,” adding that Byrd’s name “doesn’t ring a bell.”
The probe began in 2009 under the auspices of Arizona law enforcers, about two months after the cash in Stewart’s luggage was seized at BWI, and in 2011 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Arizona Financial Crimes Taskforce, and Homeland Security Investigations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement joined the effort.
Since then, several members of Byrd’s family and alleged organization have already been convicted in Maryland federal court, including: his mother, Yvonne Castle Taylor, in connection with her attempt to surreptitiously carry more than $100,000 in cash onto a flight to Jamaica, a bulk-cash courier role she admitted to having played before; his half-brothers Harold Alexander Byrd and Josef Ibreham Byrd, for drug trafficking; his Jamaican lieutenant in charge of Baltimore operations, Jerome Adolfo Castle; and Thurston Lindsey, also for drug trafficking. Ravenell initially represented Castle, when he was indicted for illegal re-entry of a deported alien, but withdrew shortly before Castle’s indictment on drug-conspiracy charges.
In addition, the government successfully sued to keep $40,222.25 seized from the Owings Mills residence of Byrd’s sister, Andrea Shelly Ann King-Chang, who’s alleged to have had bank accounts used to funnel money to Byrd in Arizona. Byrd was present in King-Chang’s residence when the money was seized during a raid.
Other than the glitzy assets and large sums of cash targeted for forfeiture, the case is colored with intrigue, including the allegation that Byrd hired a private investigator who “conducted surveillance outside the residence” of an Arizona law enforcer who was working the case in 2012. During the course of the investigation, Rasan Byrd and Lindsey allegedly confronted law enforcers working the case.
Until Richard Byrd’s arrest earlier this year as a result of the Maryland indictment, he’d been on pre-trial release on Arizona charges since February 2011. Since then, and before, his brand-awareness campaigns have been prolific, according to Ravenell’s filings, which describe events where thousands of people pay to attend, generating tremendous cash flows. Two such events in 2012, for instance, generated $448,500 in currency that was securely carted away by Dunbar Armored. His business is conducted through two companies, Deandre Byrd Entertainment and LOC Marketing, Ravenell explained, though he also operates under the banners of 10 Fingers Entertainment and Von-a-Don, the name of a Baltimore clothing store where Byrd used to work before he “organized, coordinated, and promoted social events from 2003 to 2007 at Vision, the most popular nightclub in Houston.”