Good Times: Dion Fearon in Baltimore, asking all about Jean Brown

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 21, 2019

Yesterday at Studio 4 in downtown Baltimore, producer Dion Fearon asked me questions about lifer Jean Brown, the Baltimore-based Jamaican who in 2009 ordered and oversaw the tortuous murder and dismemberment of Michael Knight, Brown’s friend and co-conspirator in a $1M-a-month Mexican cannabis-trafficking operation. Knight’s body, which was sawed to pieces, packaged, and tossed into various dumpsters in the Baltimore area, was never recovered.

I’d first written about Brown in late 2010, when a search warrant in the case dropped at U.S. District Court in Maryland, and ended up writing about her two more times. Fearon is now putting together a documentary about Brown, and managed to track me down just in time for me to go back over my records and writings quickly in preparation for the shoot.

We covered a lot of ground involving Brown, but Fearon also asked me about how the Brown conspiracy compared to other major pot-trafficking cases I’d covered. That prompted me to recall that the very building we sat in was once part of the real-estate holdings of Jeremy Landsman, who played a role in the globe-trotting, jet-setting cannabis conspiracy headed by Matt Nicka, and that next door used to be the location of Sonar, Dan McIntosh‘s nightclub that prosecutors contended, unsuccessfully, was part of the scheme.

When I arrived at the studio just prior to the appointed time, former federal prosecutor Stefan Cassella, who led the prosecution of Brown, was seated in front the cameras. When we were introduced, he was incredibly pleasant – considering all the words I’ve written about his work in Maryland over the years, much of which was critical reporting. There were stories about seizing assets from South Mountain Creamery, prosecuting online gambling and synthetic drugs, a forfeiture case marred by agents’ creating a faked drug-dog certification in litigation, and an occasion when Cassella drew the ire of a veteran federal judge – and that’s just what I can readily recall.

That’s Cassella on the right. Photo: Dion Fearon

When my interview was over, Fearon and I spoke about other stories, including Querida Lewis – Fearon brought her up her name, asking if I had heard of her – and Sean Hinton, the Baltimore police trainee whose body was found floating off Manhattan in 1992, and whose son Ronald Hinton was later convicted, on shaky evidence and a controversial confession, of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl.

I had presumed Fearon was a Californian – which she is – but it turns out she grew up in Baltimore. I predict we’ll be crossing paths again, and look forward to seeing what comes of her Brown biopic.


Black-Booked: The Black Guerrilla Family prison gang sought legitimacy, but got indictments

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 5, 2009

“I’m a responsible adult,” 41-year-old Avon Freeman says to Baltimore U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar. The gold on his teeth glimmers as he speaks, his weak chin holding up a soul patch. He’s a two-time drug felon facing a new federal drug indictment, brought by a grand jury in April as part of the two conspiracy cases conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Maryland involving the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22). Now it’s July 27, and Freeman, standing tall in his maroon prison jumpsuit, believes himself to be a safe bet for release. He’s being detained, pending an as-yet unscheduled trial, at downtown Baltimore’s Supermax prison facility, where he says he fears for his safety.

The particulars of Freeman’s fears are not made public, though Bredar, defense attorney Joseph Gigliotti, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Clinton Fuchs have discussed them already during an off-the-record bench conference. Danger signs from prison first cropped up in the case immediately after it was filed, though, when Fuchs’ colleague on the case, James Wallner, told a judge on Apr. 21 that the BGF had allegedly offered $10,000 for a “hit placed out on several correctional officers” and “all others involved in this investigation, and that would include prosecutors” (“BGF Offers $10,000 for Hits, Prosecutor Says,” The News Hole, April 23).

In open court, though, Gigliotti has said only that Freeman feels “endangered” by “conditions” at the Supermax, that “several of his co-defendants” also are housed there, and that “at a minimum,” Bredar should “put him in a halfway house, or at home with his sister under electronic monitoring.” The judge disagrees, but Freeman–against Judge Bredar’s adamant warning that it’s a “bad idea” and that “any statement you make could be used against you”–still wants to speak.

“I did have a job–I was working,” Freeman says of his days before his BGF arrest, and says of his family and friends, about 20 of whom are watching from the benches of the courtroom gallery, “I got the kids here, responsible adults here.” He declares he’s “not a flight risk” and says he “always come[s] to court when I’m told.” He stresses, “I am a responsible adult.”

Freeman’s doing what many people in his shoes do. He may be accused of being caught on wiretaps arranging drug transactions and of being witnessed by investigators participating in one. The prosecutor may say a raid of Freeman’s home turned up scales and $2,000 in alleged drug cash. But Freeman is still claiming to be a hard-working family man, a legitimate citizen, as safe and reliable as the next guy.

The details of the more than two dozen defendants indicted in the BGF case, filed against a Maryland offshoot of BGF’s national organization, suggest Freeman is not the only one among them who craves legitimacy. Information from court records, public documents, and the defendants’ court appearances over the past three months make some appear as “responsible adults” leading productive lives–or at least, like Freeman, as wanting to be seen that way.

Bredar sides with the government on the question of letting Freeman out of the Supermax. “There’s a high probability of conviction” based on the evidence against Freeman, Bredar says, adding that, given Freeman’s well-established criminal past, he poses a danger to society. So back Freeman goes to face his BGF fears. “I love you all,” he calls out to his 20-or-so family members and friends in the gallery, as U.S. marshals escort him out of the courtroom. “Love you, too,” some call back.

Take, for instance, Deitra Davenport. For 20 years, until her April arrest, the 37-year-old single mom worked as an administrator for a downtown Baltimore association management firm. Or 42-year-old Tyrone Dow, who with his brother has been running a car detailing shop on Lovegrove Street, behind Mount Vernon’s Belvedere Hotel, ostensibly for nearly as long. Mortgage broker and reported law student Tomeka Harris, 33, boasts of having toy drives and safe-sex events at her Belair Road bar, Club 410. Baltimore City wastewater technician Calvin Renard Robinson, 53 years old and a long-ago ex-con, owns a clothing boutique next to Hollins Market. Even 30-year-old Rainbow Lee Williams, a recently released murderer, managed to get a job working as a mentor for at-risk public-school youngsters.

The trappings of legitimacy are most elaborate, though, with Eric Marcell Brown, the lead defendant in the BGF prison-gang indictment. By the time the DEA started tapping his illegal prison cell phones in February, the 40-year-old inmate and author, who was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for drug dealing, had teamed up with his wife, Davenport, to start a non-profit, Harambee Jamaa, which aims to promote peace and community betterment. His The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities came out last year and, until the BGF indictments shut down the publishing operation, it was distributed to inmates and available to the public online from Dee Dat Publishing, a company formed by Brown and Davenport. Court documents indicate that at least 700 to 900 copies sold, at $15 or $20 a pop. The book has numerous co-authors, including Rainbow Williams.

According to the BGF case record, though, they’re all shams. Davenport, for instance, helps smuggle contraband into prison, prosecutors say, and serves as a “conduit of information” to support Brown’s violent, drug-dealing, extortion, and smuggling racket. The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa, the government’s version continues, are fronts for Brown’s ill-gotten BGF gains, which, thanks to complicit correctional employees, are derived from operating both in prisons and on the outside. As a result, the government contends, Brown appears to have had access to cigars, good liquor and Champagne, and high-end meals in his prison cell.

The alleged scheme has Dow supplying drugs to 46-year-old Kevin Glasscho, the lead defendant in the BGF drug-dealing indictment and the only one of the co-defendants who is named in both indictments. Freeman and Robinson, meanwhile, are accused of selling Glasscho’s drugs. Williams, the school mentor, is said to oversee the BGF’s street-level dealings for Brown, including violence. Harris is described as Brown’s girlfriend (even while her murder-convict husband, inmate Vernon Harris, is said by investigators to be helping Brown, too); among other things, she helps with the BGF finances. Most of the rest were inmates already, or accused drug dealers, smugglers, and armed robbers, except for the three corrections employees and one former employee who are accused as corrupt enablers, betraying public trust to help out in Brown and Glasscho’s criminal world. Only one, 59-year-old Roosevelt Drummond, accused of robbery and drug-dealing, remains at large.

Looking legit allows underworld players to insinuate themselves into the shadow economy, where the black market, lawful enterprise, and politics come together. Sometimes, though, people look legit simply because they are legit, even though they’re criminally charged. If that’s the case with any of the BGF co-defendants, they’re going to have their chance to prove it, just as the prosecutors will have theirs to prove otherwise. An adjudicated version of what happened with the BGF–be it at trial or in guilty pleas–eventually will substantiate who among them, if any, are “responsible adult[s].”

Glimpses of Brown’sleadership style are documented in the criminal evidence against him, including a conference call last Nov. 18 between Brown and two other inmates, “Comrade Doc” and Thomas Bailey, each on the line from different prisons.

“Listen, man, we [are] on the verge of big things,” Brown said, and Bailey assured him that “whatever you need me to do, man, I’m there.” “This positive movement that we are embarking upon now . . . is moving at a rapid pace,” Brown continued, and is “happening on almost every location.” He exhorted Bailey with a slogan, “Revolution is the only solution, brother,” and promised to send copies of his book, explaining how to use it as a classroom study guide.

The Black Book is a self-described “changing life styles living policy book” intended to help inmates, ex-cons, and their families navigate life successfully (“The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27). Its ideological basis is rooted in the 1960s radical politics of BGF founder George Jackson, the inmate revolutionary in California who, until his death in 1971, pitched the same self-sufficient economic and social separatism that The Black Book preaches. Throughout, despite rhetorical calls for defiance against perceived oppression and injustice, it promotes what appears to be lawful behavior–with the notable exception of domestic abuse, given its instructions that the husband of a disobedient wife should “beat her lightly.”

The BGF is not mentioned by name in The Black Book, which instead refers to “The Family” (or “Jamaa,” the Swahili equivalent), explaining that it is not a “gang” but an “organization.” The back cover features printed kudos from local educators, including two-time Democratic candidate for Baltimore mayor Andrey Bundley, now a high-ranking Baltimore City public-schools official in charge of alternative-education programs. His blurb praises Brown for “not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs” and for trying “to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom, and equality.”

Tyrone Powers, director of the Anne Arundel Community College’s Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute, and a former FBI agent, offers back-cover praise for The Black Book, describing it as an “extraordinary volume” and calling Brown and his co-authors “extraordinary insightful men and leaders.”

Powers says in a phone interview that he knows Brown “by going into the prison system as part of an effort to deal with three or four different gangs.” Powers is “totally unapologetic” about endorsing The Black Book.

“The gang problem is increasing,” Powers explains, “and we need to have direct contact with the people involved, or who have been involved. We need to be bringing the gang members together and tell them there’s no win in that, except for prison or the cemetery. Gang members can be influential in anti-gang efforts, and we have got to utilize them. Are we calling them saints? No, we are not. My objective is to reduce the violence, and I don’t think sterile academic programs work as well as engaging some of our young people, like Eric, as part of a program.”

In early May, nearly a month after Brown was indicted, Bundley explained his ties to the inmate to The Baltimore Sun. “I’ve seen [rival gangs] come together in one room and work on the lessons in The Black Book to get themselves together,” he was quoted as saying. “I know Eric Brown was a major player inside the prison doing that work. The quote on the back of the book is only about the work that I witnessed: no more, no less.”

The DEA’s original basisfor tying Brown to BGF violence came from a confidential informant called “CS1” in court documents. A BGF member who’s seeking a reduced sentence, CS1 starting late last year gave a series of “debriefings” that lasted into early 2009. The investigators say in court records that CS1’s information has a track record of reliability, and the story checked out well enough to convince a grand jury to indict and a handful of judges to sign warrants as the case has progressed.

“BGF is extremely violent both inside and outside prison,” investigators recounted CS1 saying, “and is responsible for numerous crimes of violence and related crimes, including robbery, extortion, and murder for hire.” But “historically BGF has not been well-organized outside of prison,” CS1 asserted, and now the BGF “is attempting to change this within Baltimore, Maryland by becoming more organized and effective on the streets.” Brown “is coordinating and organizing BGF’s activities on the streets of Baltimore” and The Black Book “is a ploy by Brown to make BGF in Maryland appear to be a legitimate organization and not involved in criminal activity,” CS1 said, even though “Brown is a drug trafficker” and the BGF “funds its operations primarily by selling drugs.”

If CS1 is correct, then Brown is not as he was perceived by his supporters. Could it be that yet another purported peacemaker is actually prompting violence? It happened in Los Angeles last year, when a so-called “former” gangmember who headed a publicly funded non-profit called No Guns pleaded guilty to gun-running for the Mexican Mafia prison gang. It may have happened in Chicago last year, when two workers for the anti-violence group Ceasefire, which uses ex-gangmembers as street mediators, were charged in a 31-defendant gang prosecution.

Brown, with his book and his non-profit organization, wasn’t up and running at nearly the same scale as No Guns and Ceasefire, and there’s no evidence he was grant-funded. He was only just beginning to set up his self-financed positive vibe from inside his prison cell. But his is the same street-credibility pitch as in Los Angeles and Chicago: redeemed gangsters make effective gang-interventionists because the target audience will respect them more. Clearly, the approach has its risks, and Brown may end up being another example of that.

“It’s a dilemma,” Powers says of the question of how to prevent additional crimes from being committed by gang leaders who claim redemption and profess to work for reductions in gang-related violence and crime. “It has to be closely monitored.” As for Brown’s indictment, the lessons remain to be seen: “I don’t know if I can make it make sense,” Powers says.

For dramatic loss of legitimate appearances, Tomeka Harris may take the cake among the BGF co-defendants. She’s been on the ropes since late last year, when in December she caught federal bank-fraud and identity-theft charges in Maryland, in a case involving Green Dot prepaid debit cards that turned up later as the currency for the BGF’s prison-based economy. But from then until her April arrest in the BGF case, Harris had been out on conditional release–and making a good impression in public.

Media attention had been focused on Club 410, at 4509 Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore near Herring Run Park, because the police, having noted that violence was on the rise in its immediate vicinity, were trying to shut it down. At a March 26 hearing on the matter, Harris fought back, and The Sun‘s crime columnist, Peter Hermann, wrote that she “handled the case pretty well, calling into question some police accounts of the violence.” Herman described her as a “law student representing the owners,” and Sun reporter Justin Fenton, in his coverage, called her “the operator and manager” of the club. Not in the stories was the fact that she’s out on release, pending trial in a federal financial-fraud case in Baltimore.

Club 410’s liquor-board file lists as its licensees not Harris, but city employee Andrea Huff and public-schools employee Scott Brooks. Harris is referred to as its “owner” only in a March 3 police report, in which she “advised that she and her husband are the current owners of Club 410” and that “she has no dealings with the previous owners for several years.” Making matters murkier is the fact that “Andrea Huff,” whose name is on the liquor license is Harris’ alias in her BGF indictment. No wonder Sun writers were confused–Harris seems to have wanted it that way.

Harris made another public appearance before the BGF indictment came down in April. This time, it was in connection with John Zorzit, a local developer whose Nick’s Amusements, Inc., supplies “for amusement only” gaming devices to bars, taverns, restaurants, and other cash-oriented retail businesses around the region. The feds weren’t buying Zorzit’s non-gambling cover, though, and, based on a pattern of evidence that suggests he’s running a betting racket, in late January they filed a forfeiture suit and sought to seize as many of Zorzit’s assets as they could find. In the process, they raided his office on Harford Road, and there in the files were documents pertaining to Tomeka Harris and Club 410. Turns out, a Zorzit-controlled company owns Club 410, and ongoing lawsuits indicate Harris and Zorzit have had a falling out (“The 410 Factor,” Mobtown Beat, April 22).

Meanwhile, Harris still found the time to be Eric Brown’s girlfriend, according to the BGF court documents, in addition to helping the BGF smuggle, communicate, and arrange its finances. While her husband, alleged BGF member Vernon Harris (who has not been indicted in the BGF conspiracies), was in jail for murder, Tomeka Harris is said by investigators to have conducted “financial transactions involving ‘Green Dot’ cards on behalf of BGF members.” Court documents also say “one of her other business ventures was establishing bogus corporations for close associates so that they could obtain loans from banks in order to purchase high-priced items such as vehicles.”

Despite the vortex of drama that has been Harris’ life of late, she seems calm and collected at her first appearance in the BGF case on April 16. Her straight, highlighted hair hangs down the back of her black hoodie, heading south toward the tattoos peeking out from her low-hanging black hiphuggers; she’s wearing furry boots. She’s unflappable when a parole officer wonders about her claims of being a mortgage broker, when the conditions of her release in the fraud case don’t allow it.

But on June 4, a court hearing is called to try to untangle the various issues involved in Harris’ two federal indictments, and she comes undone. Her wig is gone, as are the boots and street clothes. She’s wringing her hands and holding her forehead as she talks with her lawyer, looking both exhausted and agitated. Finally, as the judge orders her detained pending trial, Harris starts crying.

The historic Belvedere Hotel has had its troubles over the years since is past glories, but it remains a highly visible symbol, like the Washington Monument, of the grandeur of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Its presence in the BGF picture is a statement as to how far a prison gang’s reach may extend.

Club 410’s liquor board file contains records of 2007 drug raids carried out at Club 410 and Room 1111 at the Belvedere Hotel in Mount Vernon. The records state that evidence taken from Club 410 (a scale, razor blades, and a strainer, all with residue of suspected heroin) match evidence taken from the secure, controlled-access Belvedere Hotel condominium (a handgun, heroin residue, face masks, a heat sealer). That evidence was traced to a suspect, Michael Holman, with ties to both the Belvedere Hotel room and Club 410. Though it is unclear what, if any, ties the raids have to BGF’s currently indicted dealings, they call to mind instances in the BGF case where the Belvedere Hotel appears.

BGF court documents say Tyrone Dow, drug supplier for Kevin Glasscho’s BGF drug dealing conspiracy, “is the owner of Belvedere Detailers,” which is “located at 1014 Lovegrove Street” in Baltimore. A late-July visit there reveals that it is still operating, and that the property is right next to the rear entrance of the Belvedere Hotel parking garage.

In June 2008, Dow and his brother were highlighted in a Baltimore Examiner business article about the fortunes of Baltimore-area “garage-based premium car-wash services” during an economic downturn. Credited for Belvedere Detailers’ ongoing success is “client loyalty for the business,” which the article says Dow and his brother have operated “out of the same brick garage for more than 15 years.”

Public records of car-detailing shops operating at the Lovegrove Street location, though, don’t list Belvedere Detailers, despite the Examiner article’s claim that it’s been there for so long. In fact, no company by that name exists in Maryland’s corporate records. Instead, Mount Vernon Auto Spa LLC, headed by Hadith Demetrius Smith, has been operating there. Smith, court records show, was found guilty in Baltimore County of drug dealing in 2007, a conviction that brought additional time on a federal-drug dealing conviction from 2000, which itself violated a 1993 federal drug-dealing conviction in Washington, D.C.

City Paper‘s attempts to establish clear ties, if any exist, between Belvedere Detailers and Mount Vernon Car Wash, were unsuccessful. But the BGF investigators maintain in court records that Dow’s detailing shop at that location is tied to the prison gang’s narcotics dealings.

The Belvedere Hotel also figured in BGF investigators’ wiretap of a conversation between two BGF co-defendants, Glasscho and Darien Scipio, about a drug deal they were arranging to hold there on March 24, according to court documents.

“Yeah you gotta come down to the Belvedere Hotel, homey,” Glasscho told Scipio, who said, “Alright, I’m gonna call you when I’m close.” Just before they met there, though, Scipio called back and told Glasscho to “get the fuck away from there” because “it’s on the [police] scanner” that “the peoples is on you,” referring to law enforcers. The alleged drug deal was quickly aborted.

Glasscho, who has a 1981 murder conviction and drug-dealing and firearms convictions from the early 1990s, is accused of being the leader of a drug-trafficking operation that smuggled drugs into prison for the BGF. As the only BGF co-defendant named in both indictments, he alone bridges both the drug-dealing and the prison-gang conspiracies that the government alleges. The contention that Glasscho was a Belvedere Hotel habitu while dealing drugs for the BGF suggests that, until the indictments came down, the prison gang was becoming quite comfortable in mainstream Baltimore life.

CS1, when laying out the BGF leadership structure for DEA investigators in late 2008 and early 2009, gave special treatment to Rainbow Williams and Gregory Fitzgerald. Williams is “an extremely violent BGF member” who has “committed multiple murders” and “numerous assaults/stabbings while in prison,” CS1 contended, while Fitzgerald “has killed people in the past” and carried out “multiple stabbings on behalf of BGF while in prison.” CS1 wouldn’t actually say they were “Death Angels,” the alleged name for BGF hitmen whose identities “only certain people know,” pointing out as well that the BGF sometimes “will employ others to act as hitmen who may or may not be ‘Death Angels.'” Nonetheless, CS1 said Williams and Fitzgerald “are loyal to and take orders from” Eric Brown.

Fitzgerald was not indicted in the BGF case, and though recently released from prison on prior charges, he has since been arrested in a separate federal drug-dealing case. Williams’ fortunes, though, had been rising since he was released from prison last fall after serving out time for a murder conviction.

When Williams was named in the BGF prison-gang conspiracy, he had a job. As his lawyer, Gerald Ruter, explained in court on April 21, Williams was working for the nonprofit Partners in Progress Resource Center, a four-day-a-week gig for $1,200 a month he’d had since he left prison. Partners in Progress works with the city’s public-schools system at the Achievement Academy at Harbor City, located on Harford Road. Ruter told the judge he’d learned from Partners in Progress’ executive director, Bridget Alston-Smith (a major financial backer of Bundley’s political campaigns), that Williams “works on the campus itself as a mentor to individuals who have behavioral difficulties and is hands-on with all of the students.”

The contrast between Williams’ post-prison job, working with at-risk kids, and his alleged dealings as a top BGF leader is striking. In early April, for instance, he’s caught on the wiretap talking with Lance Walker, an alleged BGF member whose recent 40-year sentence on federal drug-dealing charges was compounded in July by a life sentence on state murder charges. Williams confides in Walker, telling him that rumors that Williams ordered the Apr. 1 stabbing murder of an inmate are putting him in danger with higher-ups in the BGF. The next day, Williams is again on the phone with an inmate, discussing how Williams is suspected of passing along Eric Brown’s order to hurt another inmate named “Coco.” Court documents also have Williams aiding in BGF’s smuggling operation and mediating beefs among BGF rivals.

And yet, Williams, with his job, was starting to appear legitimate. When law enforcers searched his apartment in April, Williams’ dedication to Brown’s cause was in evidence. Gang literature, “a large amount of mail to and from inmates,” photos of inmates and associates, and a “handwritten copy of the BGF constitution” were found, according to court documents. But they also found 38 rounds of .357 ammo. Now, Williams is back in jail, awaiting trial.

If proven right, either at trial or by guilty pleas, the accusations against the BGF in Maryland would mean not only that Brown’s legitimate-looking “movement” is a criminal sham. It would mean that the prison gang, while insinuating itself so effectively within the sprawling correctional system as to make a mockery of prison walls, was also able to embed itself in ordinary Baltimore life. If not for the indictments, should they be proved true, one can only imagine how long it could have lasted.

Calvin Robinson might have gone undetected. But the city waste-water worker, who owns real estate next to the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District station house and next to the city’s historic Hollins Market, where his In and Out Boutique clothing store continues to operate, instead was heard on the BGF wiretap talking with Glasscho about suspected drug deals. And he was observed conducting them. And when his house was raided, two guns turned up.

Robinson at least made a good show at legitimacy during court appearances in the BGF case, unlike Freeman’s performance before Judge Bredar. His lawyer played up Robinson’s city job, and even had his supervisor, Dorothy Harris, on hand in the courtroom to attest to his reliability at work. He looked poised and professional, with his clean-shaven head, trimmed mustache, and designer glasses. But just like Freeman, Robinson, who has drug convictions from the early 1990s, lost his plea to be released and was detained pending trial.

Of the 25 BGF defendants, five were granted conditional release. All of them women, they include three former prison guards, Davenport, suspected drug dealer Lakia Hatchett, and Cassandra Adams, who is Glasscho’s girlfriend and alleged accomplice. All were deemed sufficiently “responsible adults” to avoid being jailed before trial, so long as they continue to meet strict conditions. They, unlike the rest of their co-defendants, were found neither to be a threat to public safety nor a risk of flight, should they await trial outside of prison walls. Given the sprawling conspiracies, one can imagine why Freeman’s in fear at the Supermax–and why the released women should be breathing a sigh of relief.

Tax Break: A yet-to-be-released study concludes that the City isn’t getting its full share from property taxes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 13, 2004

This spring—as happens almost every spring—Baltimore confronted a budget crisis. City Hall’s $2.1 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2005 entailed cutting 533 government jobs and curtailing city services to pay for it. On April 14, Mayor Martin O’Malley proposed an alternative: a suite of new taxes and fees that would preserve the jobs and services with $48 million in revenue.

Five weeks later, with the budget process complete, the City Council had trimmed O’Malley’s tax proposal down to three elements that would generate $30 million from taxpayers: doubling levies on real-estate sales and imposing new fees on phones and energy use.

“It happened so fast,” City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-4th) says in summing up this year’s open-and-shut budget battle in Baltimore, the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in Maryland. Mitchell chairs the council’s Taxation Committee and thus led the legislative body’s tax debate. In a recent interview, he remembered how he and his council colleagues felt as if “we had our backs against the wall” when confronted with the mayor’s proposals.

Since April, Mitchell has learned that there was an unexplored option—going after millions in untapped revenue potential from the city’s existing property-tax rolls by appealing low assessments. While O’Malley touched on this idea in passing in a Sun article in December 2003, saying that “generally the state underassesses city properties,” a strategy to get the state to do more accurate assessments never made it into his set of gap-closing proposals in April 2004—or into the City Council’s ensuing tax debate.

Property assessments are the basis for calculating how much property owners are taxed for their holdings, and are conducted by the state in three-year cycles—a third of the city is assessed each year. Baltimore City’s property tax rate, just shy of $2.33 per $100 of assessed value, is much higher than in any of the state’s 23 counties. Thus, underassessing property in Baltimore shortchanges city coffers—and, due to the high tax rate, those coffers are being shortchanged more dramatically than in other parts of the state. Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that appeals property assessments it believes are too low, but under state law any jurisdiction is free to do so.

Unbeknownst to Mitchell and the public during the five-week debate this past spring, a privately funded study about the revenue potential locked up in underassessed city commercial property had already been underway for more than two years. While the City Council was weighing its options, a draft report from this effort was in the hands of a select group of people for review and comment, including staff at the city’s Department of Finance. Its fundamental finding: The city should consider going after millions in unrealized revenues by appealing underassessments of commercial property within its borders. By the time Mitchell learned of the draft report, the new taxes had already become law.

“I guess it was July when I first heard about it,” Mitchell recalls, “and that was through some businesspeople. I’ve asked for a copy of it from the [city’s] finance department, but was told it was in draft form.”

The study, which has yet to be released, was overseen and underwritten by the Abell Foundation, the renowned research and grant-making outfit that works to improve quality of life in the city and state. In mid-September—five months after first hearing rumors about the study—City Paper obtained a draft copy of the report, titled “A Costly Problem: Commercial Property Assessments in Baltimore.” Its preliminary conclusions, based on comparing assessed values to the sales value of a sample of 121 commercial properties, show that nonresidential property in the city is significantly underassessed.

For example, one of the properties study author John Hentschel looked at as part of his research was the old United Iron and Metal site at Pulaski Highway and Haven Street in East Baltimore, a scrap-metal processing facility on one acre of land with a 4,400-square-foot building. The property sold for $220,000 in 2000, yet Hentschel discovered that it was assessed at $42,000—less than a fifth of the sales price. He also looked at the old Abbey Schaefer Hotel at 723 St. Paul St. in Mount Vernon, which sold for $650,000 in 2001; its assessed value was $315,020, less than half of the sales price.

The question of exactly how much city commercial properties are underassessed is still a matter for discussion as the study continues to wend its way through the review process, but it is enough to translate into millions in unrealized tax revenue—potential revenue that Mitchell believes should have been on the table when the council was weighing its budget options.

While the councilman still hasn’t seen the report, he says that what he’s heard “suggests to me that I didn’t have all the tax information that I would have liked to have had before we went raising taxes on everyone.”

Steve Kearney, O’Malley’s director of policy and communication, says that the mayor’s office wasn’t “aware of the report, because it was still a draft that was under review.” He adds that “the purpose of the report is to promote public discussion, but you don’t have the debate before you have the facts.”

“As soon as the report comes out,” Mitchell promises, “I’m going to have a hearing—one that we should have had before we started biting the hands that have invested in this city.”

The Abell Foundation was not pleased that a copy of its report-in-progress had gotten into the press’ hands.

“We’ve got a problem here,” said a stern-voiced Gilbert Sandler, Abell’s spokesman, in a late-September phone call to City Paper. “That report has not been vetted. We have no idea what’s true and what’s not true, so it is not ready, by any means—we are not ready to release any piece of it.”

Later, after talking it over with other staff at Abell, Sandler called back to say, “You do what you want to do, and we’ll do what we’re going to do.” Abell’s people would not be available for interviews or meetings to discuss the study, he explained, and he cautioned that “there are many points of view that need to be taken into account that aren’t in that draft. It’s a work in progress. You shouldn’t publish [its findings] until we release it.”

On Oct. 4, City Paper learned that Abell’s position had shifted—the study’s author would be allowed to discuss the study and address its shortcomings. John Hentschel, a real-estate appraiser who served as the city’s real-estate officer from 1982 to 1992, is founder and president of Hentschel Real Estate Services, an Abingdon-based consulting firm, and an internationally recognized expert in public-sector real-estate practices. An afternoon meeting with Hentschel at the White Marsh Mall food court presented a clearer picture of the study’s findings.

During the meeting, Hentschel—a friendly, forthcoming, well-dressed fellow who chooses words carefully as he wrangles complex real-estate concepts into clear language—readily concedes that his draft report contains some errors in analysis. But, he adds, his overall conclusions stand: The city is missing out on substantial revenues due to underassessed commercial properties, and there are steps—at both the local and state level—that can be taken to remedy the situation.

The road to the “A Costly Problem” report started, Hentschel recalls, late in 2000 or early in 2001, when “Abell called me and said, ‘We are thinking about doing a study about this, are you interested in doing it?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and I wrote a proposal.” He had noted, while perusing newspaper reports, that when major commercial properties sold the assessed values were well below the sales prices. “It would make you scratch your head,” he recalls.

And so, starting in late 2001 or early 2002, Hentschel embarked on a lengthy project that would ultimately lead to the draft report, “A Costly Problem,” which he submitted to Abell in late January or early February 2004. It was based foremost on looking at recently transacted commercial property sales and comparing the sales prices to the properties’ assessed values.

“The more you got into it, the more you would say, ‘Well, why is this, why is this, why is this?’” he says. “So you start asking more and more questions. And if you are not coming in with a pre-conceived conclusion, it takes you where it goes.” And where it went, Hentschel says, indicated that underassessments of commercial properties were a real problem that could be remedied if the city chose to appeal low assessments.

“Each year,” Hentschel wrote in his conclusion of the draft, “taxpayers diligently review their property tax assessments to ensure that they are being asked only to pay their appropriate share of property taxes, and no more. Isn’t it reasonable to expect local public officials to exert a similar degree of fiscal prudence on behalf of all City residents by diligently performing a similar annual review to ensure it is receiving its fair share of revenues from the assessable tax base, and no less?”

The main constructive criticisms of the “A Costly Problem” draft so far, Hentschel explains, have come from Doug Brown, supervisor for public-policy analysis in the city’s Department of Finance, who handed over his thoughts in writing to the Abell Foundation on Sept. 28.

First, Hentschel says, Brown identified a link between tax rates for real property (land and improvements, such as buildings and parking lots), which are levied against property owners, and personal property (equipment, machinery, furniture, fixtures, and the like), which are levied against business owners. The draft report, Brown pointed out, did not consider that link.

“The personal property tax rate is computed at two and a half times the real-property tax rate,” Hentschel says. Thus, he continues, if the city were to lower its real-property tax rate in response to more revenue from increased commercial-property assessments, it would have “a corresponding effect of reducing the personal property taxes” entering the community chest.

The draft report also failed to include the impact of increased property-tax assessments on the amount of state education aid to the city. If the city, on its own, successfully appealed assessments upward to the tune of millions of dollars, Hentschel says, then Brown’s “projections show there would be an adverse affect on state aid to education.” (In 2004, the state provided $533 million of the city school system’s $931 million operating budget.) Since the state divvies up education aid based on each jurisdiction’s wealth, as measured by the assessed value of its real estate, then a rise in Baltimore’s assessments—without a corresponding rise in the rest of the state’s assessments—would lead to a reduction in state aid to Baltimore’s cash-strapped education system.

Thirdly, Hentschel continues, if the city unilaterally appealed state assessments upward, “there may be an adverse reaction from an economic-development standpoint, in terms of perception” among businesses that feel they’re being picked on.

Donald Fry, president of local business group the Greater Baltimore Committee, says he knows that in the one Maryland jurisdiction where appeals of underassessments are routinely brought by local government—Montgomery County—“it has resulted in some consternation among some property owners.” Given the city’s “financial strains,” he adds, “City Hall is going to want to look at that very closely, as will we.”

However, Hentschel adds, “the report basically re-emphasizes and re-emphasizes again the matter of parity, equity—that it has to be done in an equitable and above-board fashion. There have to be safeguards put in it so there are no maneuvers to aggressively or capriciously go after certain taxpayers.”

In order to calm such concerns, Hentschel suggests a process by which the city could “look for anomalies that might give basis for appeals” of low assessments. “You need to be comparing apples to apples,” he explains, so the city should find an average assessment value for different types of properties, classified by use, age, size—whatever category works best.

“Once you have each group’s average assessment,” he continues, “you look for outliers—properties that appear to be underassessed because their values are so far below the average. And then you try to find out why. Maybe they are in an off location or they’re deteriorated with age. Then the low assessment is either explainable or not, and if not, you consider it for appeal.”

That’s a fair and equitable way, Hentschel says, to find assessments that don’t pass the smell test. The city could take up such cases with the state’s assessments office in Baltimore City for initial appeal, then, if necessary, to the Baltimore City Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, and finally—if a case goes this far—to the Maryland Tax Court for a final, binding decision.

But, Hentschel says, Brown makes a good point on behalf of the city: Appealing for assessment increases has to be done on a statewide basis. “Otherwise,” he says, “there would be certain unintentional and adverse effects on the city because of these various linkages in other things—personal property tax, and state aid to education, and adverse perception.”

Though Hentschel did not provide a copy of Brown’s comments to City Paper, Kearney did, faxing them to the paper on Oct. 6 and asking that the document not be quoted directly. (Brown was out of the country and unavailable for comment until after press time.) Computations and conclusions contained in Brown’s written comments reveal the city’s analysis of the revenue impact of seeking to raise underassessments.

According to Brown’s written comments, an 18 percent increase in nonresidential property assessments overall would yield $26.5 million annually in new revenues for the city; and that the same assessment boost on all city property—residential properties included—would add $76.8 million to the coffers. (Brown’s analysis, in the second instance, assumes the same kind of underassessment for residential properties as well.) If the city’s response to this was to try to give taxpayers a break and reduce the real-property tax rate by the same proportion as the boost in assessments—18 percent—there would be a corresponding 18 percent decrease in the personal-property tax rate, the document explains. In other words, any reduction in the real-property tax rate would lead to a reduction in the personal-property tax rate, as well, which would result in a greater over-all revenue reduction.

When Brown’s comments turn to the subject of the aid-to-education impact of increased assessments, he uses a slightly different example—a 15 percent increase in assessments. If the city increased assessments 15 percent without any increases in property assessments in the state’s 23 counties, the city would lose $21.5 million in state aid for education, much of which would shift to other counties. If, however, each county reassessed its properties to the tune of 15 percent, then the city’s share of state aid would increase by about $7 million.

Without delving further into the mathematical and statistical minutiae of Brown’s comments and Hentschel’s draft report, it is clear that addressing underassessed properties in Maryland would have a significant impact on local-government budgets—all the greater if the job was undertaken state-wide, as Brown recommends.

For now, the state agency in charge of property assessments is staying mute on the subject. “The Abell report hasn’t been officially released,” John Sullivan, head of the state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation, says in a phone conversation. “We received the draft in April, and we responded to everything in the report, and so far the Abell Foundation has not gone forward with it. Our response to their draft is in their hands, and I’m not obliged to give you my response to that draft until it is officially released.”

However, Sullivan says that he does not think there is an underassessment problem in Baltimore, much less Maryland. “We treat all property owners the same,” he says. “Each one is our customer, and we treat that customer as we would want to be treated. And all of our assessments—every one, and we have 2 million properties we’re responsible for assessing—are valued uniformly and equitably across the state.”

While Sullivan won’t share his written comments on Hentschel’s draft, he reveals that there was at least some administrative reaction to what it contained. “It did show many examples of inaccurate assessments that have since been corrected,” he says. “I think 90 percent of the properties he cited have been adjusted.”

When City Paper reviewed some of the properties Hentschel sampled as underassessments, state Department of Assessments records indicate that nearly all have been adjusted since the study was conducted (see “The Short Lists”). Some assessments were raised to almost equal the sales price—but several upward adjustments were minor, and a couple were adjusted downward, so that the gap between assessed value and the sales prices actually widened.

In addition, City Paper did an analysis on its own set of sample properties (see “The Short Lists”). Anyone with Internet access and a minimal amount of database searching skills can go to the Department of Assessments Web site and do his or her own analysis of assessment-to-sales-price comparisons.

Even before Hentschel’s “A Costly Problem” draft report was sent out for review and comment, rumbles of discontent over possible underassessments statewide were being heard last year in Annapolis. “Property under-assessments are a significant problem facing the State of Maryland,” wrote Ronald Bowers, administrator of the state’s Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, to state Del. Leroy Myers (R-Allegany and Washington counties) in a May 13, 2003, letter (emphasis in the original). “Many properties in the state are under-assessed at between 10 and 80 percent of the actual market value,” the letter continues. “This translates into inequitable taxes for similar properties and lost revenue for the State and local governments.”

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation “was cut back, budget-wise, and it was kind of hampering them from doing their job,” Bowers said recently when asked about the letter. “They need modern equipment other than clipboards to keep up with this ongoing problem, and they were losing people,” he says—touching on a possible reason why assessments appear to have gotten out of whack in the first place. “The proper equipment and the right amount of people is a good investment,” he continues, “because a little bit for them yields a lot for government—and a greater sense that the process is working fairly. If it isn’t fair, if it isn’t done properly, then the mainstream taxpayer is paying an extra burden.”

Councilman Mitchell echoes that sentiment: “I don’t think the city’s getting its fair share, so let’s recoup what we already have [from correcting underassessments] before we go taxing everybody. And these new taxes—especially the phone taxes—hit everybody at the same level, $3.50 per line per month. At least with property taxes, the amount you’re supposed to pay is intended to be in line with the amount of value you have.

“Right now, there is so much distrust in government that it’s not right,” he says. “We have to do what is right.”

Premature Death? Political club’s closing prompts last-ditch revival effort

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 9, 2009

After 55 years of political organizing in Baltimore, the Mount Royal Democratic Club is closing down. “I think we’re getting to the point where we’re tired” in the face of flagging interest, says its president, former state senator Julian Lapides.

But even as invitations went out announcing the club’s last holiday party, scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Maryland Institute College of Art–in the heart of the club’s geographical base in Bolton Hill–its youngest board member, 46-year-old Kim Forsyth, bucked the decision to close as undemocratic, and possibly premature.

“I am simply frustrated that this is a Democratic club and, ironically, it is being terminated by anything but a democratic methodology,” Forsyth writes in a Dec. 4 e-mail to City Paper. “There has been no consultation with members or vote of the membership, and I think the group should continue if there is adequate enthusiasm among its membership.”

She says the matter could be put up for debate and a vote among the members. Forsyth says that Lapides and Mount Royal Democratic Club leaders who are ready to fold the group should “retire, if they choose, gracefully” and allow the club to continue. “There is no reason for [it] to end,” she says.

The decision to close was made, she says, by a few members instead of “a democratic vote”–a process she’d like to see happen, after “providing a venue for the discussion of the club’s future.” She intends to provide that venue, at a meeting to be held on Jan. 31, 2010.

Lapides is encouraged by Forsyth’s enthusiasm. But in a Dec. 4 interview at his Cross Keys law office, he says, “there’s not a tremendous amount of interest in traditional Democratic clubs anymore–for traditional any kind of clubs anymore. I think people are so geared to sitting home on their butts watching TV or doing nothing that it’s hard to get people to meetings anymore.”

Lapides is vague about the current size of the Mount Royal club’s membership. Reached by phone, the club’s founder, retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Thomas Ward, says it stands at around 55 to 60 dues-paying members, down from a high of 850 in the late 1960s.

“After 9/11, we lost our regular meeting place,” Lapides says. “We’d been at the officer’s club of the Fifth Regiment Armory for years, when it became a restricted area. So we met at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, but there was choir practice [to schedule around], and we were getting very little turnout. Instead of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, it was sort of almost becoming the Mount Royal Social Club. But it was a club with a great tradition.”

Ward recalled that tradition in a recent press release to announce Lapides’ decision to close the club “with honor.” Its 1954 founding, Ward wrote, “challenge[d] an aging political structure married to old ways,” and the club’s members “quickly assembled increasing effectiveness by electing a new wave of elected officials”–including Lapides, who spent three decades in the Maryland General Assembly until 1994; Ward, who was in the Baltimore City Council prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1982; Walter Orlinsky, who rose up to become City Council president until his political career was destroyed by a 1982 extortion conviction; and several others.

On issues, according to Ward’s write-up, the club–which “was integrated from the beginning, the first to lead the way in a segregated city”–was a leader over the decades on important matters of the day, including promoting historic preservation and expanded options for public transportation, while opposing highways planned for development through historic Baltimore neighborhoods.

The watershed event in the club’s history happened in 1968, when a new organization–the New Democratic Club of the 2nd District, or NDC-2–split from Mount Royal over what Ward now calls “a hidden antagonism.” He says the problem erupted over Ward’s control of the club’s newsletter, but it was really centered on the issues of gun control and the Vietnam War. The new group, Lapides says, was “more liberal” than Mount Royal and more in keeping with Lapides’ own politics, though he stayed on with Ward, helping to guide the club for decades.

When Ward is asked what undermined Mount Royal Democratic Club’s viability, he echoes Lapides’ assessment by bluntly snapping: “Television is what killed the club, the same way television’s destroyed all organizations. I do not have and never have had a TV. People don’t go to meetings anymore, and don’t have clubs–they stay home and watch television.”

Forsyth, though, points out that the club “has not recruited new people for years.” The lack of new blood means that natural attrition will, over time, drain the club of vitality. A good measure of Mount Royal’s wane is the result of a Nexis news search of the club’s name, which yields many more mentions in obituaries than in political coverage.

“It is too important for Baltimore right now to have a political force in place to let this go,” Forsyth says of the decision to pull the plug on the club. “We need to see the kind of enthusiasm the club used to generate recreated.”

According to long-time club member Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College, the club’s vitality has been on the decline for some time.

“The long period of Mount Royal Democratic Club activism probably ended about a decade ago,” says Smith. “Urban political clubs have been on the long good-bye for quite awhile.” He says that Lapides “was the last man standing from its heyday in the 1950s to the 1970s. There didn’t seem to be a generational transfer to Gen X or Gen Y as the baby-boomers aged. And internet organizing has really replaced the clubhouse–instead of newsletters, there are blogs.”

Regardless, he says, the closure of the club will be a loss.

“Mount Royal, it was phenomenal in its day,” he says. “The Mount Royal holiday party–there’s the governor on one side, the mayor on the other, a U.S. senator over there. The networking possibilities were amazing. The city will be less for not having the Mount Royal holiday cocktail party anymore.”

Unless the party goes on, should Forsyth be successful in rallying the troops.

“I’m seen as a rebel,” she says, “because I don’t think we should fold the club just because the current leadership is aging and tired. I really do respect them, and I understand, you can’t make enthusiasm happen–it has to be there already.”

In the weeks and months to come, she plans to find out if it is.

Costly Charges: Drug prosecutions suffer after detective is accused of embezzlement

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 11, 2009

On Aug. 3, Ira Jimmy Martin was arrested for armed drug dealing in Baltimore City. “Lots of cash [was] recovered in this case,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns says. But on Sept. 24, court records show, prosecutors dropped all six charges against 33-year-old Martin. The reason, according to Burns: The case rested on the honesty of veteran Baltimore Police Det. Mark James Lunsford.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task-force officer, Lunsford was revealed in federal court as being accused by the FBI of embezzlement and lying (“Baltimore Cop Charged by Feds with Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept. 24 ) on the same day Martin was let off the hook.

Burns explains in an Oct. 7 e-mail that it “turns out that the drugs [in Martin’s case] were handled at all points by Lunsford only, and so we lost this one. There is no way we could get the drugs in [as evidence in court] due to the taint of the officer.”

Lunsford-related cases dropped by city prosecutors since the FBI’s accusations include drug charges against Ivan James, Teon White, and Demetrius Waters. Burns predicts the total tally is likely to be few in number, since much of Lunsford’s work was for federal investigations.

Federal prosecutions impacted by Lunsford’s charges include two cases previously covered by City Paper.

Querida Lewis and Inga Bacote (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14) have pleaded guilty to a cross-country marijuana-trafficking conspiracy, but have not yet been sentenced. Their attorneys won court approval to postpone sentencing so they can better determine Lunsford’s role, which ties in through Lunsford’s affidavits in another, related case against Gilbert Watkins. Watkins pleaded guilty early this year to a cocaine conspiracy and received a 135-month prison sentence. Lunsford was “clearly involved” in the Lewis-Bacote case, says Lewis’ lawyer, Catherine Flynn, who says she now will take the “opportunity to re-review the discovery in the case, now that the information about Mark Lunsford has been disclosed.”

Firearm-and-narcotics charges against Wade Coats and his co-conspirators (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17), whose alleged dealings occurred, in part, in a Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel room, were based upon a statement of charges sworn out by Lunsford.  In a motion for disclosure of exculpatory evidence filed in the case by attorney Marc Zayon, who represents co-defendant Jose Cavazos, Lunsford is said to have a stolen a watch from the hotel room. Court records show Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner’s response to the motion, due on Nov. 5, has not yet been filed as of press time.

[The Coats/Cavazos trial later became the subject of Corner Cartel, City Paper, Feb. 23, 2011.]

“We are reviewing all federal cases in which [Lunsford] had a role to determine if it impacts the evidence,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says. “Abuse of a position of public trust is one of our highest priorities, and this case is of significant concern because Det. Lunsford was working with a federal task force on important cases.”

The details of the charges against Lunsford are found in a 16-page affidavit by FBI Special Agent Brian Fitzell. The document lays out a time line, starting in June and ending with the filing of the sealed complaint on Sept. 22, during which Lunsford arranged to have an informant paid government funds in exchange for helping in investigations, and then allegedly split the proceeds with the informant, who reported the kickback scheme to the FBI. In fact, the FBI affidavit explains, the informant provided no help in the cases for which Lunsford arranged for funds to be paid.  In addition, the informant told the FBI of instances when Lunsford allegedly stole valuables from suspects, including watches, clothing, and video games.

Conversations between Lunsford and the informant–referred to in Fitzell’s affidavit as “CHS,” short for “confidential human source”–were recorded by the FBI, and some of the exchanges were included in the affidavit. Regarding $10,000 in funds that the two had split, the CHS asked, “Me and you are the only ones that know we split that 10 grand, right?” “Oh, yeah, nobody knows,” Lunsford replied according to the affidavit, “don’t nobody know nothin’ about that money . . . but me and you.” In another conversation, Lunsford told the CHS that he’d stolen video games from the house of someone interviewed recently by law enforcers.

“I ain’t goin’ into a [expletive] house,” Lunsford said, “if I ain’t gettin’ something out of that bitch.”

On Sept. 23, the day after the sealed complaint was filed against Lunsford, FBI agents conducted a morning raid on his home at 1246 Canterbury Drive in Sykesville (“Stash Found at Home of City Cop Charged With Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept 30). According to court documents, they seized a host of items, including a money-counting machine, $48,300 in cash, a digital scale, testosterone gel packets, 29 pieces of expensive jewelry and watches, $1,000 money wrappers, a “zipped plastic bag containing green leafy substance,” and a “box of property taken from Darrell Francis.” According to court records, Lunsford wrote the complaint against Francis that resulted in the defendant’s 2008 guilty plea and a resulting 19-month prison sentence, in a federal drug-conspiracy case that spanned from Baltimore to Atlanta and Texas.

Rosenstein would not comment specifically on the fruits of the raid on Lunsford’s home, but says, generally, that his office “often pursues additional leads that are generated when search-and-seizure warrants go with arrests.”

Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, asked to comment on Lunsford’s case, says that the department won’t put up with corrupt conduct on the part of its officers. “Commissioner [Frederick] Bealefeld has made it very clear that we hold people accountable,” Guglielmi says. “Any behavior which undermines the integrity of this agency and the hard work of our police officers simply will not be tolerated by this administration.”

Lunsford’s attorney, Paul Polansky, declined to comment. In early October, Lunsford was quoted by WJZ-TV saying that “there is a legitimate explanation” for his alleged conduct “that does not involve illegal activity, and hopefully the truth will come out in court.”

Court documents in the case against Lunsford suggest the charges against him are based, in large part, on Ira Jimmy Martin’s arrest. Fitzell’s FBI affidavit discusses an individual described as “Suspect-3,” who was arrested on Aug. 3–the same day Lunsford arrested Martin. During a recorded meeting between Lunsford and the CHS, the affidavit explains, Lunsford said he “hoped to seize all of Suspect-3’s assets when he arrested him” and credit the CHS with providing the information leading to Suspect-3’s arrest.

“If I get him when he comes back from New York, you know,” Lunsford’s was recorded as saying of Suspect-3, “it’s 30 grand or 40 grand to [expletive] buy the kilo, you know, or maybe a lot more than that but anything he’s got in that [expletive]. I’m jammin’ this [expletive] toad up, man. [Expletive] it. ‘Cause that counts as money. That counts as you [expletive] givin’ me [expletive] and they got these [expletive] assets; therefore, I can get money off of that.”

The day after Suspect-3’s arrest, another conversation between Lunsford and the CHS was recorded. “I did that house,” Lunsford allegedly said. “Didn’t come up with nothin’ too good, man. I got ah . . . maybe like 10 grand, 11 grand, so I’m gonna try to put you in for that.” The next day, Fitzell’s affidavit says, Lunsford told the CHS that he was putting in “for a 20 percent payment from the $17,490 cash seizure made on the Suspect-3 case,” so the CHS could get paid.

Later, when Lunsford put in paperwork for the payment, Fitzell’s affidavit says that Lunsford falsely stated on the form that, “‘without the valuable intelligence provided by the [CHS] . . . [Suspect-3] could not have been arrested.’ As Lunsford well knew at the time he submitted the claim for an award to the DEA, the CHS had provided no intelligence to him concerning Suspect-3.” The CHS later received a $3,498 check from the DEA “for his supposed assistance on the Suspect-3 case,” Fitzell’s affidavit says.

City Paper could not confirm that Suspect-3 was Ira Jimmy Martin because the court file of the case against Martin is “not subject to be inspected,” according to the Baltimore City Circuit Court clerk’s office. Though online information for the case had been available on Oct. 27, when City Paper printed it out, on Nov. 4–the day after a scheduled hearing on the matter–it no longer was.

Attempts to reach Martin through his father, also named Ira Martin, were unsuccessful as of press time. His attorney, Stanley Needleman, did not return calls asking for comment about the allegations against Lunsford and whether they relate to Martin.

Two Swift Kicks


By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 17, 2019

Sibling conflicts roiled our household yesterday. It was nothing off the curve of normalcy for a four-member family, but extreme enough that I decided to take one of the kids on an outing, leave the home storminess to calm behind us, and start fresh elsewhere for a few hours before the afternoon agenda.

I push the garage-door opener so we can walk into the alley, and the rickety, screeching piece of essential machinery opens.

I say the door is essential not only because we park a car in the garage, but we also keep there: four bikes, four push scooters, a Honda 50cc scooter, a pedal-assist electric cargo bike, and an assortment of kayaking, camping, sledding, and picnicking gear. Even when we aren’t using any of that, we walk through the garage on the regular. We need the door to be operational. The only other option is the front door, which opens to the sidewalk of a busy city street, and that’s simply not doable as the only point of egress for our active lifestyle.

It’s not the door’s opening, but its closing, that’s occasionally problematic. This I’ve chalked up to what’s likely a decades-long accumulation of lightly damaging blows from vehicles trying to negotiate the tight confines of the narrow alley, and lately as well to the kids pretending to be superheroes by lifting it as it opens.

Now we’re in the alley, and I hit the hand-held clicker. This time, the door gets close to closing, and then, pop!, the bottom flap flies off track. It retracts and, once fully open, falls silent.

My plan for restoring familial peace is foiled.

I take off my jacket and start the door-fixing ritual. Basically, it requires hitting the hand-held opener and, having put on leather gloves, manipulating the door back on track as it comes down or retracts. Then you hit the opener again and again, opening and closing and making adjustments to the moving door’s position so as to, hopefully, eventually, after much trial and error, assure it stays on track throughout its to-and-fro journey.

Today, my best efforts aren’t working. After 10 or 15 minutes, with me getting increasingly agitated and shedding more layers of clothing as I huff and puff, I send the kid inside, rolling the dice on what might result of an unexpected sibling reunion mid-morning on this already exhausting day.

I empty the last of the little can of WD-40 onto all the door’s moving parts. Still, it goes off track. About two-thirds of the way down is the point where it pops every time, but I can’t puzzle out the exact point where the sound is coming from. I break out the tube of marine-grade lube, apply it to the wheels in the tracks, but it too is of no use.

I keep trying, pretending I don’t care, hoping for a magical fix. I can close it all the way by forcing it down with my hands while standing inside the garage, but that doesn’t help when you’re out in the alley, trying to get on with your day.

After an hour, I take a seat on the backyard furniture, frustrated and tired. No one has emerged yet from indoors to update me on the state of play, and I decide I’d rather not know at the moment.

The sun is shining, though it’s brisk out. I grab my jacket, put it on my lap, put my heavy boot-clad feet up on the table, and lean back into the thick, soft seat cushion, my face turned partly away from the sun. It feels wonderful. I pull up a sleeve to catch more of the rays on my skin. I fall asleep.

I am not a napper. A 10-minute siesta can ruin my day. I need two hours, minimum, or I’ll just be a groggy mess of sleep-addled grumpiness. So when I awake after some fraction of my minimum, I go inside and head straight to bed, mumbling something about my intentions as I pass the rest of the family.

Later, when I re-emerge, the house is empty. I make a cup of coffee. I head into the back yard to sit in the sun.

I look at the garage door. I hit the clicker. It retracts, as always. I hit it again. It starts to close, but, as expected, it pops somewhere about two-thirds down, and goes back up.

This time, though, from the acoustical perspective of my comfortable chair, I think I know where the “pop” is coming from. I get up and hit the clicker again. I walk up to the door and force it all the way closed.

The spot I’m thinking of is about a foot off the ground, just right of center. I haul back with my foot and let it swing, hard, right onto that spot. I kick it again, surprised at how loud the sound is.

I hit the clicker. The door opens. I hit it again. The door closes. Over and over again, it works. With two swift kicks aimed just right, it’s back to fulfilling its essential purpose so I can go back to mine: preparing a roasted vegetable tart for dinner before movie night.



Falling Waters: One longtime polluter is cleaning up, but the Jones Falls’ troubles are far from over

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 4, 2004

When City Paper literally stumbled upon Hollins Organic Products in December (“Untestable Waters,” Dec. 24, 2003), the three-acre mulch-making operation in Baltimore County’s Bare Hills section was polluting an adjacent stream with black, fusty runoff from its towering piles of compost. The unnamed stream, which runs through city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, was opaque and dark from the point where Hollins Organic discharge entered it, and its sediments were stained from the discoloration.

Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins told City Paper it was a new problem, brought on by 2003’s unusually wet weather, and that he was in the midst of designing a permanent fix to keep the compost-laden water from overflowing the site’s containment pond and spoiling the stream.

In a Jan. 29 interview, though, Hollins changed his tune after he was informed that the Baltimore County permit file for Hollins Organic shows a 10-year history of stream pollution, despite a permit requirement that the facility “shall not be operated in such a manner as to create water pollution.”

The overflows from the site, the file makes clear, are believed to be brought on by storm events, but the record rains of 2003 were by no means unique in the documented history of Hollins Organic’s sullying of the stream. Community complaints and inspection reports about problems at the site fill the file, with county visits dating back a decade. By that time, the business had already been operating there for 12 years.

“We probably should have done this years ago,” Hollins concedes, referring to the solution he hopes to have installed by early March: a large cement tank to hold site runoff, designed with a mechanism that automatically sprays its contents back onto the mulch piles when it fills to a certain level. “In the long term, it’s going to be a better process,” he predicts, adding, “I do take this stuff very seriously. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this issue is solved.”

In the big picture, Hollins Organic’s faulty runoff containment may seem insignificant. But the unnamed tributary it despoils tumbles downhill for about half a mile before emptying into the Jones Falls, the heir of more than 350 years of human-generated runoff, which rolls along in all of its nutrient-laden, sediment-bearing glory, bound for Lake Roland, then down through the city to the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The Hollins Organic problem is yet another thread in the much larger story of what water-quality experts call “loads to the system”: erosion, animal waste, leaky septic systems and sewers, the runoff from roads, buildings, farms, and parking lots–all of them bringing more water-borne baggage for the Jones Falls to handle.

The efforts of government and citizens to reduce this load have been underway since at least 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed, establishing rules intended to stem pollution. Slow, steady implementation of laws and better management choices have led to some improvements in some upstream parts of the Jones Falls, but, ironically, as the river approaches the relative idyll of Robert E. Lee Park, its water quickly degrades. That’s because the park’s main attraction, Lake Roland, is the common catch basin for every source of upstream water pollution, from Pikesville east to Towson.

Lake Roland, in essence, is like Hollins Organic’s sediment pond–instead of a small composting yard, though, Lake Roland handles the drainage for 33 square miles of suburban watershed. Like Hollins Organic’s pond, Lake Roland over the years has been much studied and lightly managed. Both hold back pollution from the Chesapeake Bay, and both do so less effectively when it rains.

But, whereas Hollins Organic is on track to stopper up its leaky catch-basin, there are no plans to keep Lake Roland from continuing to do what it’s done since it ceased being an active reservoir in 1915–filling in with whatever pollutants drop out of the Falls’ water as it settles behind the dam. The lake’s capacity to trap pollutants before the river crests over the dam, en route to the city, depends on plugging up upstream sources–like Hollins Organic. It’s a never-ending task that, despite years of talk, has only just begun.

The first visit to Hollins Organic Products by the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM), back in January 1993, found “an open dump consisting of old 55 gallon drums, 275 gallon oil tanks, pressure treated lumber, metal pipes, etc., . . . Mr. Hollins stated that his landlord . . . dumped the material.”

That was count number one, leveled against the landlord–who dragged his feet past the 30-day deadline for cleaning up the mess, but eventually complied. Count two was against Hollins Organic, whose owner was informed that the facility had 30 days to apply for a DEPRM solid-waste processing permit. The company finally submitted the paperwork after nearly a year, without penalty–though DEPRM did threaten legal action, which seemed to get the process in gear.

The permit file indicates that the delay was due to Hollins’ uncertainty about how to go about controlling sediment on the site. Ultimately, though, Hollins Organic installed a containment pond to trap runoff, a low basin on the site where the liquid dregs of the operation would drain and settle. The pond is separated from park property by an earthen berm, leading to a steep slope down to the unnamed stream, which starts beneath parking lots and businesses along Falls Road and meanders through the woods behind Hollins Organic on its way to the Jones Falls.

The stream courses through an area of uncommon history and ecology. In 1992, months prior to DEPRM’s first visit to Hollins Organic, the National Registry of Historic Places had made 450-acre Robert E. Lee Park the centerpiece of the then-newly designated Lake Roland Historic District, named after the erstwhile city reservoir a mile or so downstream from the composting facility. A stone’s throw away from the mulch piles is an abandoned quarry, a reminder that here is where chromite was first discovered, in 1808, heralding a half-century of Baltimore domination of global chromium production. The Virginia pines and briars that dominate Hollins Organic’s side of the park cover rocky terrain known as serpentine barren, an unusual geology attractive both for mineral extraction and, in small outcroppings of unforested space, a special array of grasses, flowers, and bugs that can tolerate its metallic soil.

Thus, it would seem, the case for stopping its degradation by Hollins Organic was that much more compelling.

In April 1994, a DEPRM inspector noted that Hollins Organic’s pond “did not appear to be designed properly. Runoff and leachate from the compost stockpiles overflows through rip-rap stone to a small feeder stream to the Jones Falls.” In February 1995, a DEPRM supervisor noted that the pond “was filling up with sediment and should be upgraded with the addition of stone”–a measure Hollins Organic took immediately.

It didn’t fix the leak, though, because a year later Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy President Robert Macht wrote a letter to DEPRM, pointing out that the stream’s “water quality is being adversely effected” by the Hollins Organic operation, that “sometimes the stream is bright green,” and that “an unpleasant odor is emanating” from the water. The county investigated the complaint, and in March 1996 issued a one-page report explaining that runoff “ponds behind blockage [on the site] and percolates into the ground and is seeping out from the side of the berm.” The one-page report’s solution: Remove the blockage, and if that didn’t work, install an impermeable liner to contain the runoff on-site.

Concerned citizens wanted more. “Water [in the stream] above this runoff is clear and largely odorless,” observed Laurie Long, then-executive director of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, in a March 1996 letter to DEPRM. “Water below the runoff is very dark and murky, somewhat frothy, and sometimes green,” adding that “we request that DEPRM . . . establish stream quality requirements as a condition” of Hollins Organic’s permit.

No liner was installed. No stream-quality requirements were established as a condition of the permit. Instead, the pollution continued–not continuously, perhaps, but whenever there was sufficient rainfall to overwhelm the pond’s ever-changing capacity. A Dec. 10, 1996, DEPRM memo about a phone call from the Valleys Planning Council’s then-executive director, John Bernstein, summed up the problem in shorthand: “Organic material washing into stream during storm events–improper containment. Mr. Bernstein said the stream smelled like Hollins Organic Product’s site.”

It’s not as if county officials were simply sitting on their hands. When complaints were lodged, they inspected the site. Within a week after Bernstein’s December 1996 call, for instance, an inspector again visited Hollins and found that the “pond has been washed out and filled in with mulch. The runoff was filtering through . . . [and] was murky in color and did have odor of [Hollins] products.” Doug Hollins told the inspector “he would correct the problem ASAP.” If Hollins did correct the problem, though, it was a short-lived solution because follow-up DEPRM visits, most responding to complaints in 1998 and 1999, showed the leaking continued–and was often “malodorous.”

Then, in April 2000, a DEPRM inspector visited Hollins Organic, prompted by an anonymous phone call, and discovered that “a pump was being used to empty a sediment control pond and water was being discharged” over the berm into the stream. “Mr. Hollins stated that that was the usual practice during a significant rain event.” After that, DEPRM in May 2000 secured assurances from Hollins that he would stop the illegal pumping and come up with a permanent solution to the pond problem. Nearly four years later, the county still awaits one.

In an effort to determine Hollins Organic’s impact on the stream, DEPRM sampled its water at various times starting in 1996–including once at the suggestion of Mr. Hollins himself–but the permit file is only clear about the results from 2002. The data shows that, after a rainstorm, the leaky pond dramatically elevated the stream’s concentrations of common minerals such as iron, sodium, calcium, and potassium, and discharged so much organic content that the stream water exceeded by up to 10 times the recommended standards for water released from the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

DEPRM ordered more samples, but by the end of 2002 the data-gathering was called off. “Plans have been submitted to relocate HO facility to site off of Beaver Dam Rd., in Cockeysville,” a memo in the DEPRM file reads. “As a result, no additional sampling of stream behind Falls Rd. facility is warranted.”

So far, Hollins’ plans to move to the 4.5 acres he purchased in Cockeysville haven’t borne out. (Today he says he still hopes to at least use that property as “a satellite site to relieve the pressure off of” his Bare Hills base.) But, as noted, 2003 turned out to be a record year for rainfall, and history had already shown what happens at Hollins Organic when it rains. When DEPRM returned for a routine inspection in December, it found yet again that Hollins Organic’s pond was polluting the stream.

The county agency declined, for now, to share with City Paper the documents pertaining to the latest discoveries at Hollins, but its director, David Carroll, was willing to talk about DEPRM’s position during an interview in his Towson office. “We’ve said to [Hollins Organic], you’ve got to control this permanently,” Carroll explains, his water-quality staff at hand, ready to answer further questions. “We’ll have to see what he designs, and then decide whether or not to renew his license.”

One thing is clear, though: “The law says he can’t discharge any water” from the site, says DEPRM’s waste-management chief, William Clarke, who adds that Hollins “understands now that there is no scenario under which he is permitted to discharge. Those fixes he tried over the years proved to be inadequate, and now a lot more attention has to be paid to how [the pond] is constructed.”

Clarke bristles at the conclusion that DEPRM’s efforts on behalf of the stream constitute bureaucratic foot-dragging, but, when reminded of the permit file that shows the same problem cropping up over and over again for a decade, he sums up the obvious: “Sometimes it’s a long process.”

David Carroll is head of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management now, but he’s had similar leadership roles in Baltimore City, state, and federal government over the decades–experience that brings a hardened sense of reality about managing the environment in and around a major urban area.

“People have this romantic notion that eventually we’ll get it cleaned up, and that’ll be it,” he says of efforts to improve water quality, in the Jones Falls or any other watershed. “No, it is forever,” he announces solemnly, his slacks and sweater complementing his well-worn bearing of a wizened administrator, comfortable with the big picture and the nitpicking details alike.

“You have to manage for invasive species and deer so that birds will come back, do expensive stream restorations, fix sewer leaks–there’s always something happening there–and make new development create options to improve streams and forest cover with plantings, and install the best technology to control runoff,” Carroll says rapidly. “It’s a long-term commitment and a very complicated project. We spend quite a bit of money every year to go back and find and fix problems. Everybody has their role in it–and we welcome efforts to keep the heat up, because that’s the media’s role.”

Carroll’s posture is understandably defensive, considering the longstanding water-quality problems such as those at Hollins Organic, despite decades of lip service about cleaning them up. In his view, though, certain portions of the upper Jones Falls watershed are recuperating after decades of abuse or neglect. “A large portion of this stream is actually in pretty good status,” he points out. “We do see improvement, and it’s not finished–we have more work to do and we wish we could do even more.”

The good news is that long-term indicators of ecological health confirm that upstream sections of the watershed in the Greenspring Valley area support enough bugs and fish to qualify for removal this year from the state’s annual list of biologically impaired waters. Last year, the entire Jones Falls was taken off a similar list of waters impaired by zinc. Baltimore County officials, meanwhile, report that the Jones Falls trout population has been found as far downstream as Sorrento Run, inside the Beltway where the Jones Falls nears Lake Roland, and is so robust that it is used to stock streams in other county watersheds.

But the Jones Falls continues to bear heavy burdens from bacteria, copper, lead, nutrients, sediments, and PCBs (only in Lake Roland), according to Richard Eskin, head of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Technical and Regulatory Services Administration. The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, deems the Jones Falls a “Priority Category 1” watershed, meaning the watershed fails to meet the agency’s clean water and natural resources goals. Volunteer stream-water monitors with Maryland Save Our Streams, a now-defunct environmental group, assessed water quality just below the Lake Roland Dam 17 times between 1990 and 1999, finding it “poor” on 13 of those visits. Clearly, something’s rapidly fouling the Jones Falls water as it travels from Interstate 83 to the Lake Roland Dam.

County officials finger three urban subtributaries–Moore’s Branch, Roland Run, and Towson Run–as the most troublesome contributors to these problems. “All three have poor ratings on nine years of biological monitoring,” says DEPRM’s water-quality chief Steve Stewart, adding that costly stream restorations are planned. All three of them dump their loads on the threshold of Lake Roland, which continues to be what researchers dubbed it in a 20-year-old report about the lake: a “microbial sink,” where bacteria, sediment, and other pollutants settle out of the water. As a result, its value for water-based recreation is all but gone–swimming is a high-risk endeavor, and don’t eat the fish–but its value as a giant ecological filter is beyond question.

“Lake Roland’s been doing quite a clean-up job in itself,” observes Eldon Gemmill, another DEPRM water-quality expert. “It’s shallow, it has a lot of aquatic life and wetlands to help treat the runoff. I would dare say the Chesapeake Bay would be a lot worse off without Lake Roland.”

After all, as Carroll points out, “for 140 years, it’s been capturing everything that has come off that watershed. And all that sewerage and storm-water infrastructure from all the highways, and runoff from unregulated pre-1990s development, all of it coming through there–if I wasn’t from around here, and I was seeing the maps for the first time, I’d expect that’s where all the problems would be–right around Lake Roland.”

Field trips to hard-to-reach stretches of the Jones Falls watershed near Lake Roland leave the same unavoidable impression that Carroll describes–these are the areas where it all comes together, so to speak, and dumps a heavy load of contaminants into the falls as it rushes toward the lake. The effects of past abuses–chlordane from termite-control treatments at Greenspring Valley homes, effluent from the textile mill that operated for 150 years until 1979 on the Jones Falls banks just east of I-83–are no longer apparent, but it’s clear the water is still actively polluted.

Each little downstream tributary between Moore’s Branch and Robert E. Lee Park–about a mile-long stretch where the river’s main stem runs just east of Falls Road–makes it own little offering. One, emerging from a secluded, wooded dell right next I-83, trickles with a low but constant flow of foul-smelling water, which wells up from the ground beneath a jumbled wreck of old moss-covered pipes. Another rushes out of the Sorrento Run housing development, staining the creek-bed orange with iron oxide–a sign, county officials explain, of nutrient-rich, oxygen-depleted water upstream, possibly due to sewage. The same phenomenon can be seen where the next two downstream creeks come out of culverts carrying them from neighborhoods west of I-83. Next is the tributary that drains down from Hollins Organic, its banks periodically stained black from the murky discharges upstream.

The combined loads from these active sources are already in the Jones Falls when Roland Run and Towson Run join it at the head of the lake. Roland Run drains Riderwood’s middle-class tracts of detached single-family homes, as well as the posh yards of Ruxton, where leak-prone septic systems are the prevailing sewerage. Towson Run handles the runoff of the Shepherd Pratt/Towson University area, and by the time it approaches Lake Roland, just east of Bellona Avenue, it’s already assumed what DEPRM’s Stewart calls “an urban character” from pollution.

Pollution, of course, has been entering Lake Roland for a long time. It wasn’t until a 1972 study by Goucher College, though, that anyone had a well-informed understanding of its modern problems: rapid in-fill from sediments, high levels of nutrients robbing the water of oxygen, and bacterial contamination. The Goucher study also documented the lake’s ability to cleanse the water. Far fewer microbes were in the water as it left the lake than when it entered, the report showed, so Lake Roland was not only holding back sediments, it was also eliminating microbes.

A Baltimore City report from 1984 confirmed the Goucher group’s finding that Lake Roland was “an efficient microbial trap,” and added that nutrient concentrations in the lake had decreased since 1972. Yet it uncovered a new mystery: “in-lake bacterial contamination was observed which could not be accounted for by tributary inputs.” In other words, something in or immediately around the lake itself, as opposed to its feeder streams, was adding bacteria to the water. The report speculated that the giant sewer main that runs under the lake, or failing septic tanks nearby, might be to blame.

Given the sediment loads entering the lake, meanwhile, the city researchers working on the 1984 report estimated the lake would fill in completely sometime between 2004 and 2048. Without dredging, the report predicted, a filled-in Lake Roland would lose effectiveness as a trap and “sediment and pollutants now trapped in the lake will be transported” downstream to the harbor, where they would have to be dredged later as part of shipping-channel maintenance.

The lake was not dredged, though a stronger replacement dam–the first since the original was put in service in 1861–was constructed in the early 1990s. Carroll knows of no dredging plans–“It would cost a great deal,” he points out. Much better, he says, to let Lake Roland continue to fill in, its open water replaced with emerging acres of stream-traversed wetlands soaking up and settling out the pollutants–cleansing the Jones Falls, at least partially, before it heads across the dam. “We’d almost have to reproduce it by design,” Carroll says of the wetlands’ aid to Jones Falls water quality.

Still, the 1984 report raises the undeniable prospect that the lake will continue to lose more of its valuable capacity to trap so much of the pollutant load the Jones Falls brings it. Since dredging is not in the cards, the obvious solution is more of the same–working to plug leaks, slow erosion, and generally lighten the load the lake and the Jones Falls have to handle.

When it comes to improving the health of the upstream portions of the watershed, “that’s the only way we’ve been able to turn the corner” Carroll contends. “And that’s how we’ll work our way out of the rest of these years of abuses.

“We still have a long, long way to go, certainly in the lower watershed,” he continues. “And the city has a doubly or trebly tough situation.”

The city’s contribution to the Jones Falls’ pollutant load is substantial, and measured in great detail by the city Department of Public Works in an annual report. The latest one, issued last June, shows that Western Run (which enters the Jones Falls at Mount Washington after coursing along Cross Country Boulevard) and Stony Run (which drains Roland Park and Hampden) both suffer from chronic sewage contamination and are virtually devoid of fish. Channel improvements for Stony Run, costing $6.65 million, have been put in the city’s capital budget to help improve matters.

But above the dam, the city also has key responsibilities. After all, city-owned Lake Roland and Robert E. Lee Park fall under the bailiwick of the city Department of Recreation and Parks. Efforts to improve the department’s attention to the park have proven exasperating for critics, such as Robert Macht of the Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy, who says he’s “really frustrated by the lack of care that I perceive the city has taken–little if any management, maintenance, enforcement of rules, or concern for environmental problems. They’ve just failed to show concern on so many counts.”

“There is a lot of controversy around the use of the park,” concedes city Recreation and Parks spokesman Robert Green, “about upkeep and maintenance and future safety, particularly in regards to the 30 acres that are to be closed–the peninsula area–for a soil remediation and erosion control project.” This effort, which is scheduled to begin soon, intends to rectify suspected contamination from dog waste in an area of the park that has long been used almost exclusively by dog owners.

The move was sparked by an October soil analysis on the peninsula that found bacteria and acid levels up to 17,000 times what’s acceptable for human contact, Green explains, though he’s hesitant to speculate that these over-the-top bacteria readings may help explain the 1984 study’s mystery of in-lake bacterial sources: “It’s hard to say for sure, but clearly the soil is very contaminated” and is actively eroding into the lake. Many dog owners have vocally voiced doubt about the contamination, and heated public meetings this winter have left an acrimonious air around the controversy.

In addition, Green adds, the long-planned replacement of the old footbridge across the Jones Falls just below the dam with a bridge capable of handling heavy equipment “is in the final planning stages, and will enable us to do the [soil-remediation] project, and provide better maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Jeff Budnitz, a board member of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, lives next to Robert E. Lee Park and is optimistic that the city is beginning to take an active interest in improving the park. He points to the city’s 13-point “concept plan” for improving the park, a one-page planning document distributed last September, that he says marks the beginning of a coordinated city-county effort to “make the community feel like the pump is being primed” for more action. Some issues set to be addressed, such as shoreline stabilization, erosion protection, and trails maintenance, are much-needed elements of any strategy to help the park reduce its impact on Jones Falls water quality.

Of course, humans and human use are the biggest contributors to the decline in the ecology of the park area. As Christel Cothran, program director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, notes, “There is so much foot traffic, you have to ask, as with so many such parks, are we loving them to death with high use?” The city’s strategy of closing off the peninsula seems wise, she says, adding that it should extend the practice to other areas of the 450-acre park–“close off sections at a time, give them a rest,” she says. Either way, she adds, now that the city’s doing something, “I think maybe we should give them a little bit of credit for that.”

The same, Cothran continues, holds true for the county. While its handling of the Hollins Organic permit appears to have been a case of ineffectual regulation, Baltimore County’s government “is more attuned to protecting the environment than most any other place in the country,” she contends, rattling off various ways that agencies there have been recognized nationally for their zealous pursuit of good environmental management. “They’re way advanced,” in her estimation, which is why she’s tickled that her organization is partnered with DEPRM to help improve conditions for the Jones Falls by monitoring for pollution problems.

“This is a great opportunity to promote stream-watch programs,” Cothran says of the current attention focused on Lake Roland and the Jones Falls, including the snafu at Hollins Organic, which garnered lots of attention over the years from complaining citizens, yet continued to pollute the stream. “We try to catch these things,” she says. “But the effort’s still not good enough, in many cases. Years go by before people walk back in some of those stream-valley areas, much less report what they might come across. The more people doing that, the better we’re going to be at catching and stopping sources.”

Echoing Carroll’s response when confronted with suggestions that maybe not enough was being done to lessen the Jones Falls’ load, Cothran says bring on the spotlights. “All of the attention we can get for these problems is welcome and needed,” she says. “That’s the only way to fix them, is to have more people involved in the solutions.”

Untestable Waters: A Jones Falls tributary in Robert E. Lee Park spoiled by composting operation

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 24, 2003

Walking in city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, along the east side of Bare Hills in Baltimore County, you’re bound to turn up some deer or maybe scare up a grouse or two. Virginia pines and thick mats of briars and vines dominate the rocky, thin-soiled landscape, which is crisscrossed with streams and trails, some of them used occasionally by humans, most of them blazed faintly by deer that leave scat and hoof-prints on the ground and rub marks from their antlers on tree-trunks.

This pocket of the park, while idyllic, is situated up against the backs of several businesses lining Falls Road, including Hollins Organic Products, a two-acre composting and mulching operation. The company has been located at this Falls Road site for 22 years and, of late, City Paper has discovered, it has been giving Robert E. Lee Park and the Jones Falls, which runs through the park, a nasty dose of pollution.

“This is almost making me puke,” exclaims Darin Crew, a stream monitor for the Herring Run Watershed Association, as he steps carefully around a tree-strewn, briar-choked stream-bed in this rarely traveled area of the park. This particular stream runs alongside Hollins Organic Products, and its water is a murky blackish-brown; it eventually empties into the Jones Falls, less than a mile downstream.

“It smells like a combination of manure and old tobacco chew,” Crew notes. “And the water’s black as English breakfast tea. It’s so full of suspended matter that you can’t see through it at all.”

Robert E. Lee Park’s more high-profile pollution problem, as reported recently in the news, has not been dirty, smelly run-off from Hollins Organic, but rather the tremendous concentration of dog waste that’s accumulated in another, more populated section of the park. City officials are mulling the wholesale replacement of contaminated topsoil near the Jones Falls Dam, which is a hugely popular dog-walking spot.

The pollution from Hollins, discovered by Baltimore County officials on Dec. 12 and stumbled upon by a City Paper reporter walking in the park two days later, has been mostly off the radar. Runoff from Hollins may have been polluting the stream at varying intensities for years, however, though no one has previously noted or reported it.

At City Paper‘s request, Crew agreed to test the water to find out what, if anything, could be polluting the small, unnamed tributary. The test, conducted on Dec. 16, involves adding chemical tablets to vials of samples, causing reactions that change the water’s color to indicate levels of acidity, nitrogen, and phosphates. But because the water was, in Crew’s words, “too dark and turbid to show any color,” it was untestable.

“So at this point I don’t know what’s in it,” Crews says. “But it’s definitely a problem.”

Among other lines of business, Hollins Organic accepts natural wood waste–mostly tree stumps, trunks, branches–and turns it into marketable mulch sold for landscaping and gardening. During the processing, excess water that isn’t soaked up in the compost piles drains to the lowest point of the company’s yard, where it collects in a pool next to a berm separating it from park property. The park side of the berm is a steep slope, and water from the pool is seeping through rapidly, cascading down in black, bubbling rivulets until it collects in a small marsh that drains steadily into the stream, which runs dark from that point on. The side of the berm and the marshy soils are stained black from the effluent.

The day after the test, Crews speculated about what could be in the “black seep overflow” that is making its way to the stream and what impact it could be having on living things in the water.

“We definitely know that there are nutrients, coloring, and fine sediments leaving Hollins,” he says. “The sedimentation within the stream, combined with the coloring, has to be disrupting the aquatic life, suffocating and smothering bugs and fish. I would guess, based on my professional experience, that sediments and color are impairing the stream, if this is occurring year-round.”

Based on anecdotal evidence from dog walkers who frequent these woods, it has been occurring year-round, and for a while.

“It’s been running murky for a couple of years now,” says Chris Toland, who visits the parks regularly on his dog walks–and this time was trying to keep nine dogs from drinking the sullied stream water. “But it appears to have gotten worse fairly recently.”

Following the stream to its mouth at the Jones Falls, one crosses two smaller tributaries, which run clean and clear from the uphill woods until they join the despoiled stream. The stream-side sediments are stained black, and the stream’s banks are lined with downed, dead, and dying trees. In the long-abandoned railroad bed that runs through the park, the stream forms still, black pools. At its entry to the Jones Falls, it spills out in a distinct black ribbon that runs with the current for 20 or so yards before mixing into the much larger river.

Toland (a personal friend of this writer) and his companion, Mary Byrne, always figured authorities knew about the problem, they say, since the stream has been obviously polluted for so long. But then again, they note, this area of the park is so remote that such problems could be missed, or not recognized as problems.

“We never see anybody out here,” Byrne says.

When contacted about the runoff into the stream from his business, Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins invited City Paper to visit the company’s Falls Road site, with his engineer, Rick Richardson, in tow. The Hollins officials say they are aware of the pollution problem the company is creating, and they are trying to come up with a solution.

The company has tried to contain excess runoff from its mulching operations with a makeshift stone dam built into a low part of the berm that separates the yard from the park. This runoff management system, Hollins says, is designed according to standards required under state and county permits. But this year’s extraordinary amount of rainfall–2003 is heading toward being Baltimore’s wettest year on record–has overwhelmed it, causing runoff to breach the berm and flow into the stream.

“I want to fix this right away,” Hollins says, as a pump-out truck pulls up and prepares to drain the pond. Behind him, a giant grinder is spitting shredded wood, hot and steamy from decomposition, into piles that are being pushed around by bulldozers. “Then I want to engineer something so this won’t happen again. I’ve been here 22 years and I take this seriously.”

Hollins says inspectors from the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management visited the site on Dec. 12, which is when the pollution problem was discovered.

“We went out on a routine inspection,” says Baltimore County spokesman Bill Clark, “and noted that there was a problem with the pond, and they were advised at that time that they were in violation.”

“I don’t think it had been going on very long,” Hollins contends, adding that on Nov. 5 the Maryland Department of the Environment performed a routine inspection and found nothing wrong “that I know of.”

As for the stench of the water, and its dark, turbid quality, Hollins explains that “it’s murky because, in an effort to maintain [run-off] water on the property, we’ve created a stagnant pond. The organic matter [from the composting and mulching operation] gets trapped in the pond and is basically fermented, which is why we have this odor.”

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Richard McIntire says he has no record of a department inspection at the company on Nov. 5, the date Hollins cites. “We have not been there recently,” he says, noting that the case “has been assigned to an area inspector . . . but we don’t know when we’ll get there” to analyze the seepage and determine the level of pollution it is likely causing.

“We should have heard about this long ago from somewhere,” McIntire says. “We can’t be everywhere all the time, but taking care of the environment is everyone’s responsibility.”

Christel Cothran, who runs the nonprofit Jones Falls Watershed Association, was notified by City Paper about the Hollins Organic situation. She notes that the Jones Falls is already suffering from fecal-coliform contamination, which was revealed most recently in a midsummer sampling her organization did at 26 locations throughout the Jones Falls watershed–23 of them were found to exceed limits for contamination.

Cothran says she is hopeful that a combination of regulatory pressure and Hollins’ ingenuity will fix the leak and allow the stream to take on a semblance of healthfulness. But her hope is tinged with a level of frustration borne of experience: “It’s just amazing, once something like this is spotted, how long it takes to fix.”