The Ghost Hand: Maryland Law Enforcers Aim to Take the Pot by Secretly Sitting at the Online Gambling Table

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By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 24, 2010

On Dec. 21, 2006, someone in Maryland opened an account with bodog.com, an online gaming site whose customers bet on sports and horse-racing and play poker and casino games on their computers. The same day, that same someone placed two online bets on football games with Bodog. Over the course of 2007, after more wagering, the online gambler requested and received two payout checks from Bodog: one for $1,500 and another for $700.

Mundane as they may seem, the Maryland gambler’s wagers and payouts have had major repercussions in the online-gambling world. That’s because, starting in 2008, the details of that person’s online betting activities were included in meticulous affidavits supporting warrants to seize the contents of bank accounts said to be tied to illegal gambling. The Maryland gambler was actually a special agent working undercover for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Division.

Under U.S. law, facilitating transactions tied to online gambling is illegal. Yet, due to the immense popularity among Americans of wagering over the internet, the overseas companies that provide this kind of entertainment continue to seek ways to do business with U.S. customers. In order to pay out winnings to gamblers in this country, they have to hire U.S. companies willing to operate as payment processors–middle-men who take foreign casino companies’ money and disburse it to players when they want to cash out their online gambling accounts. These payment processors are taking a risk that U.S. law enforcement will detect the transactions and seize the money while it’s sitting in the payment processors’ accounts–which is exactly what federal investigators in Maryland, and elsewhere, have been doing–but due to the lucrative nature of the business, both the payment processors and the online-casino companies have been willing to take that gamble.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, the U.S. government has developed a heightened interest in augmenting its ability to track the ways and means of global money-moving. Though the motivation is to protect the world from terrorists by interrupting their finances, this trend also means that financial crimes of all kinds–including the movement of online gambling money into the United States–face a greater risk of detection. In the world of internet wagering, whenever money is sitting in a U.S. bank account, it is exposed to possible seizure by the authorities. And, as investigators’ successes mount, it’s clear they are getting better at it.

IRS criminal investigators in Maryland “opened a formal investigation of Bodog in 2006,” court records state, after having “conducted interviews regarding Bodog.com, Calvin Ayre, and Bodog’s operations in approximately 2003.” Ayre, a Canadian who’s been living in exile for several years now, is the founder of Bodog, which is based in Antigua and has operations in Costa Rica.

Bodog, a 15-year-old company which claims to be the world’s pre-eminent online gambling site and whose operations span the globe, is not the first to be targeted by American law enforcement’s crackdown on internet gambling. That honor goes to Jay Cohen, who in 1998 was indicted in New York along with numerous other defendants for violating the federal Wire Wager Act in running the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange. Cohen fought the charges, saying federal laws prohibiting wire transfers of gambling proceeds do not apply to the internet. He lost and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Since then, the feds have continued to focus on an industry that, in effect, presents opportunities for people to gamble anywhere and anytime, despite the laws of any particular country or state.

“If you’re in Antigua running a casino, that’s fine,” says Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. “But if you’re actually operating a casino in someone’s bedroom in Montgomery County over the internet, that’s illegal.” Thus, any proceeds that can be traced to gambling activity that takes place in Maryland–whether it’s actual betting over the internet, or just the arrival of checks in the mailboxes of Maryland gamblers cashing out their online-gambling accounts–could end up seized by Maryland authorities.

Since early 2008, according to federal court records, the ongoing federal investigation of online gambling based in Maryland–which, in addition to the IRS, also involves members of a Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) task force–has brought at least $29,206,594.62 in alleged gambling proceeds into federal coffers. The latest warrant in the investigation was signed by U.S. magistrate judge Paul Grimm in early February, and it targeted the contents of a Mercantile Bank account in Tampa, Fla. The account, held in the name of a company called Direct Channel LLC, yielded $860,335.90 on March 5. Direct Channel, like the other companies included in the Maryland internet-gambling seizures, allegedly provided payment-processing services in the U.S. for gambling web sites based in other countries. Though the Maryland investigation initially appeared to focus on payment processors for Bodog, such as Direct Channel, it has since broadened to include funds held by companies serving another gambling site, goldencasino.com, which is also based in Antigua.

Any U.S. bank account used by a payment processor working with online casinos could be targeted by investigators, potentially wiping out millions of dollars when a seizure warrant arrives at the bank. But due to the magnitude of online gambling in the United States–half of the $16 billion per year that internet gambling is estimated to generate is believed to originate in the United States–the risk may be worth it. Though federal investigators in Maryland and elsewhere, including New York, Missouri, and Florida, go for the money, there’s so much in play at any given moment that what they seize is only a small portion of money flow.

So far, after several years of effort, Maryland law enforcers have seized nearly $30 million in suspected online-gambling proceeds. That’s equal to less than one half of one percent of the $8 billion that U.S. online gamblers are estimated to spend each year. But it’s a start. And as the effort builds and grows more sophisticated and nimble with experience, the potential is as vast as the American online-gambling economy itself.

“There are very big numbers in internet gambling,” say Rosenstein, acknowledging the sizeable cut the government could get through seizing and forfeiting assets, which are funneled into law-enforcement budgets to support the efforts of the agencies that seized them. Asked if seizures, in the long run, could undermine gambling web sites’ ability to pay out to U.S. customers, he says: “That’s a possibility, and it’s certainly a risk for customers. And it’s a pretty effective deterrent, since customers have no remedy if the gambling operator fails to pay. They won’t be able to go into court and enforce that. It’s an illegal contract.”

Seizing and forfeiting criminally derived assets, including those from online gambling, has been made a priority by Rosenstein’s office. Last year, he hired the nation’s top asset-forfeiture prosecutor–Stefan Cassella, who literally wrote the book on the subject, a 950-page tome entitled Asset Forfeiture Law in the United States–to lead the effort. Among Cassella’s achievements is the largest forfeiture in U.S. history: $1.2 billion from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1990s. Given the size of the online-gambling industry’s assets, Cassella may have an opportunity to break his own record while working in Maryland.

Law-enforcement efforts to interrupt internet-gambling money flowing in and out of the United States were ramped up after the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was signed by President George W. Bush in October that year. Before that law was passed, the federal Wire Act, which dates back to 1961, already prohibited the transfer of gambling proceeds via wire communications. That law had been used to go after internet gambling prior to the UIGEA’s passage. But unlike the Wire Act, the UIGEA specifically outlaws internet-gambling transactions and requires financial operators, such as banks and payment processors, to determine which transactions are tied to online gambling and report them to regulators.

The banking industry, concerned that UIGEA requirements would be difficult to enforce and would force bankers to become anti-gambling police, persuaded the Obama administration to postpone the law, scheduled for implementation in December 2009, for six months. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), meanwhile, is currently trying to usher through legislation that would repeal the UIGEA and instead set up a regulate-and-tax scheme for the industry, arguing that online gambling is a liberty–and a potentially large source of public revenues–that the government should not prohibit.

But Rosenstein contends that going after the illegal profits gained from the U.S. market for internet gambling is a matter of fairness. “What Americans find particularly galling,” he says, “is when something is criminalized, honest people don’t engage in the activity, but criminals do, so they get excess profits because their only competition is from other criminals.”

Those seeking to legitimize aspects of online gambling, though, have other thoughts on the matter. Last year, in trying to persuade a federal judge to release funds seized from a payment processor allegedly tied to online gambling, lawyers for the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), a Washington, D.C.-based interest group, argued that online poker is a game of skill, not of chance, and thus is not illegal gambling. They also contended that the UIGEA establishes criminal culpability for “persons who operate illegal gambling sites, rather than those who process payment transactions,” and that restricted transactions under the UIGEA do not include funds going to a gambler because a gambler is “not engaged in the business of betting or wagering.”

The lawyers for the PPA (whose motto is “Poker is not a crime: Join the fight.”) did not prevail. But their efforts–and the well-heeled existence of the PPA, which has its own lobbying arm, PokerPAC, and whose board is chaired by former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York)–indicates that powerful forces in American society don’t like the online-gambling crackdown. Recent public-opinion polling, though, indicates the prohibition of online gambling is popular; two-thirds of those responding to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released on March 11 say they do not favor legalizing it.

Though online gambling is legal in many parts of the globe, enjoyed by many Americans, and accepted in many cultures–to the point that online-gambling companies’ stocks often are publicly traded in other nations–its continued prohibition in the United States may be explained by the longtime association of the gambling industry with unseemly characters making obscene profits.

Recent cases against internet gambling operations, for instance, give a sense of the profit potential the business presents and sometimes allege organized-crime ties. In New York in October 2009, the operators of Panama-based betonline.com were charged with illegal online gambling; authorities claimed the group made $587 million in 28 months and was linked to the Gambino and Genovese crime families. In a 2006 Missouri case against the longtime gambling figures who ran Costa Rica-based betonsports.com, the indictment states that the company’s promotional materials boasted “100,000 active players, who placed 33 million wagers, worth over $1.6 billion” in 2003, before the company went public on the London stock exchange. In February, Missouri authorities indicted the operators of Costa Rica-based Elite Sports, which ran the web sites best24b.com and best24b.net, and among the defendants were members of the Kansas City’s storied Cammisano crime family.

In addition, federal authorities in New York have charged two men–Anurag Dikshit in 2008 (Dikshit NY info) and Douglas Rennick in 2009 (Rennick indictment)–with illegally running online-gambling ventures. Dikshit, who was born in India and is one of the youngest billionaires in the world thanks to the success of his online-gambling business, is co-founder of the Gibraltar company that operated partypoker.com; charges against him include the forfeiture of $300 million in gambling revenues. Rennick, a Canadian, ran a series of payment-processing companies that allegedly served the internet-gambling industry, and the government is seeking to forfeit more than a half billion dollars of the proceeds from his financial dealings.

Another alleged payment processor was charged in Florida in February, when a bank alerted federal authorities that customers were trying to cash large checks they said were the payouts from online-gambling winnings. Michael Olaf Schuett, a German man living in Naples, Fla., had set up hundreds of companies and had dozens of bank accounts that were allegedly used to operate the scheme since 2007. The complaint against him (Schuett FL complaint) says that he transferred online-gambling payments to about 23,000 people, mostly in the United States, and that the total amount of money involved was $70 million.

In what may have been the first federal gambling case involving the internet in Maryland, IRS investigators and Montgomery County police teamed up to bust a ring that, in 2003 and 2004, handled action from Maryland customers on behalf of a Dominican company called World Wide Wagering, which runs the web site wager.dm. The conspiracy case, which ended with the convictions of seven men from Montgomery County, Baltimore, and Florida, followed the money flow to and from bettors and the defendants. The case included the cashing of more than $150,000 worth of checks at University Liquors in Hyattsville.

Just as IRS agents in Maryland were cracking the World Wide Wagering case, they started looking into Bodog. But it wasn’t until December 2006, shortly after the UIGEA was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, that the Bodog investigation got serious–it began with an investigator logging onto the web site, posing as a customer, and starting to gamble.

Once the investigator started receiving payout checks in 2007, the money trail could be tracked. In the meantime, the investigation gained a cooperating witness from inside the internet-gambling industry, who corroborated facts about Bodog’s operations, including the contention that “Bodog takes in from $250,000 to millions per day on sports bookmaking alone,” court records show. An informant also helped out by corroborating facts based on experience using Bodog’s site to gamble in Florida. The informant was able to explain the betting process to investigators; additional information was gleaned from investigators working online-gambling probes in other jurisdictions.

By 2008, sufficient cause had been established by Maryland IRS investigators to seize funds from the bank accounts of three payment-processing companies suspected of handling funds for Bodog: JBL Services and Transactions Solutions in Georgia (JBL forfeiture), and a California company called ZAFTIG Instantly Processed Payments Corp., operating as ZipPayments.com.

On Jan. 18, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner signed a search-and-seizure warrant application for bank accounts in the name of JBL Services and Transactions Solutions; $14,200,195.73 was seized. On June 28, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Susan Gauvey signed another warrant application for ZipPayments.com bank accounts, which yielded another $9,869,283.05. By July 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland had filed forfeiture actions against both pots of money. The legal actions were based on lengthy affidavits written by IRS criminal investigator Randall Carrow.

In September 2008, the case against ZipPayments.com’s money suddenly heated up. A claim for nearly $10 million was filed by ZipPayments.com and Edward Courdy, a California man who sought to have the money returned, saying it was lawfully his. Within days of filing his claim, Courdy was charged with money laundering, as was Michael Garone, a Georgia man connected to JBL Services and Transaction Solutions (“Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2008). In February 2009, as a result of a forfeiture settlement negotiated by Courdy’s attorney, Stanley Greenberg, and assistant U.S. attorney Richard Kay, the government returned $200,000 of the ZipPayments.com money to Courdy, and kept the rest.

Today, the status of the criminal cases against Courdy and Garone is unclear. Some time in the fall of 2009, a little over a year after they were filed, the online records of the cases against them disappeared from the federal court-records database system, known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Since Maryland’s federal courts handle only electronically filed documents, PACER is the only repository of its records. The disappearance from PACER of Maryland criminal case numbers 08-454 (against Courdy) and 08-455 (against Garone), creates the illusion that they were never filed at all–though City Paper still has copies of the documents charging them, which bear Rosenstein’s signature. Despite City Paper‘s requests for explanation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland has remained mum about what happened.

Courdy’s lawyer, Greenberg, has consistently declined City Paper‘s request for comment about his client’s troubles in Maryland. Efforts to contact Garone, and to identify his lawyer in the Maryland case, have been unsuccessful.

After the money seizures and criminal charges involving Courdy and Garone were filed, the online gambling investigation in Maryland appears to have shifted from the IRS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement–and the level of secrecy surrounding the investigation increased. Though numerous search-and-seizure warrants have been filed for the contents of bank accounts and an e-mail account associated with payment processors since last summer, nearly all of them were granted under seal, so probable cause for the seizures has not been revealed to the public.

Despite the secret nature of many of the seizure filings, certain information about them is available. Three ICE task force members in Maryland–Maryland State Police trooper Robert J. Mignona, ICE special agent M. Lisa Ward, and Anne Arundel County Police detective Richard S. Gunn–and one ICE special agent in Louisiana, Augusta B. Ferenec, filed the warrant applications. The companies whose bank accounts have been seized–HMD, Forshay Enterprises , and Electracash in California; Atrium Financial Group (AFG) in Delaware; and Direct Channel in Florida–are in the payment-processing business. The amounts seized so far from these companies’ bank accounts add up to $5,137,115.84. And, in the case of Electracash–a business that has past associations with Courdy–warrants have been issued not only to seize the contents of bank accounts, but of an e-mail account the company has with Intermedia, a New York City communications company. (The Electracash e-mail warrant, unlike the bank-account seizures, so far has yielded nothing, court records show.)

One of the unsealed search-warrant affidavits–the one filed early this year against Direct Channel’s bank account in Florida–was written by Ward, but draws directly from the IRS affidavit in the Courdy and Garone seizures, and thus sheds no new light on the investigation’s details. The other unsealed warrant, against Atrium Financial Group and written by Ferenec, shows that ICE’s financial-investigations group in New Orleans, La., along with the Louisiana State Police, are in on the Maryland probe (“GoldenCasino.com’s Payment Processor Targeted in Latest OnLine Gambling Seizures in Maryland,” The News Hole, Oct. 28, 2009).

The Louisiana end of the Maryland investigation began on July 14, 2008, when Louisiana State Police officers opened a gambling account with goldencasino.com. They did not immediately succeed, because the bank they were using to deposit $100 into the gambling account apparently blocked the transaction. On the second try, though, they succeeded. They then requested a payout.

The first payout check bounced, but the second one, from AFG, cleared, and the investigators, using information they gleaned from their transactions, used their investigative powers to start on up the money trail. They discovered funds moving between Canadian companies’ bank accounts in Canada and Cyprus and on to AFG bank accounts in the United States, which then issued checks to U.S. residents, including in Maryland. The transactions they tracked involved millions of dollars zipping across the globe.

“Because of enhanced monitoring of financial transactions since Sept. 11, we have a much better handle on the movement of funds,” Rosenstein says about the ability of investigators to dig into the online-gambling industry. In fact, the affidavits of investigators Carrow and Ferenec indicate that initiating a successful seizure of funds from payment processors doesn’t require particularly sophisticated investigative techniques. The trick, it seems, is trying to pinpoint where the money will be at any given moment, hoping to gain court orders to freeze it, and seize it before it shifts yet again.

Rosenstein points out another challenge investigators face in trying to seize online gambling funds: While it’s relatively easy to go after funds in U.S. accounts, going after offshore accounts–where the big money is, since that’s where the online gaming companies operate–is tricky.

“It’s similar to the challenges we face with child pornography, which is often stored overseas and transported to the United States over the internet,” Rosenstein says. “The degree of international cooperation with regard to child pornography is far greater than with offshore gambling, though. But we can readily intercept the money flowing through financial institutions that we have jurisdiction over.”

Rosenstein says online gambling can be prosecuted anywhere that customers are located, and that the public should expect to see more enforcement efforts taking place in more jurisdictions. He says that criminal activity is increasingly becoming more internet-based, and that investigative agencies are becoming more focused on financial crimes. They’re also becoming more sophisticated when it comes to following the money.

“Anything that illegally generates large amounts of money is a concern on many levels,” Rosenstein says. “People engaged in such conduct may be committing other crimes. They may not be paying taxes, and they may be investing in other illegal activities.”

Room Service: Morgan student charged after heroin “pellets” found in Marriott Waterfront Hotel

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 25, 2009

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To hear his attorney tell it, Edward Aboagye is an immigrant success story. The slight, bespectacled 27-year-old Morgan State University senior, majoring in finance and accounting, came to the United States from Ghana nine years ago, and married in 2005. The Laurel couple became the parents of twins in January. He’s a resident alien with a green card who owns a lawfully obtained handgun and a car-dealing business in Pigtown. He has no prior record of criminal behavior.

But according to U.S. Attorney Albert David Copperthite, Aboagye is believed to be part of a heroin-smuggling conspiracy that used a courier to swallow five “pellets” of the drug, which were delivered on March 14 “by natural processes” to co-conspirators at a Marriott Waterfront Hotel room (pictured) rented by Aboagye.

In all, the hotel housekeeping crew found a half-kilogram of heroin worth about $45,000 in Aboagye’s room safe and $6,200 in cash behind the counter in the bathroom. Another $4,900 was recovered from a jacket and a purse. A later search of Aboagye’s Pigtown business address turned up more heroin, some marijuana, a .40-caliber pistol registered to Aboagye, and 28 bullets in two magazines.

In open court on March 19, Aboagye’s attorney, Ivan Bates, tells U.S. District Court judge Paul Grimm that his client is not someone who should be locked up pending trial on federal drug-conspiracy charges.

“He’s a family man that is trying to be a student,” Bates says, adding that aspects of the government’s case require a “leap and a stretch” to be believable.

“He leads two lives,” the prosecutor contends. One “with his wife and children in Laurel–and they don’t know what he’s doing in Baltimore.”

Noting that the government’s contentions are as yet “untested,” and that the defense maintains that Aboagye was at the hotel “to sell a man a car”–not to engage in a drug transaction–Judge Grimm allows Aboagye to be on monitored home detention with $50,000 in unsecured bond put up by his wife.

“There are a number of factual matters that [Aboagye] intends to challenge at trial,” the judge notes.

Another Ghanian living in Elizabeth, N.J., Mohammed Marga, also was charged in the conspiracy with Aboagye. Both, according to the charging papers, were interviewed by law enforcers after their arrests, as was a woman–20-year-old Stanina Akonnor–who was initially detained with them, but later released without charges.

Whereas Aboagye denied knowledge of the recovered heroin and money, and claimed he was at the hotel to conduct a car sale, Marga told investigators that he met with Aboagye at the hotel room, where Aboagye told him to call a man named Malik to arrange a heroin sale. On March 13, Marga says, Aboagye drove him to meet and set up the transaction with Malik, who Marga described as a stocky, dreadlocked black male, about 5 feet 9 inches, driving a black Range Rover.

Once the two were arrested the next day, though, the alleged drug deal never went through. Malik was displeased, as was evident from a voicemail he left on Marga’s phone. The voicemail, the charging papers contend, “showed that Malik was upset that they did not show up to deliver the heroin and did not call him to let him know what was going on. Additionally, Malik said that he was not going to deal with them anymore.”

Aboagye’s Baltimore car business, Asco Global Company LLC, is based at 824 Washington Blvd. Its incorporation papers describe it as a “wholesale automobile/vehicle dealer” also engaged in the “import and export of general goods.” At 3:13 a.m. on Jan. 22, Aboagye was clocked by police in Howard County going 85 miles per hour in a 1991 Acura with Pennsylvania plates, heading south on I-95. He is scheduled for a March 25 trial on the resulting speeding ticket.

The Marriott Waterfront’s director of sales and marketing, Rob McCulloch, tells City Paper the hotel does “not have any official comment” on the incident. When asked if large amounts of heroin had been found at the hotel before, McCulloch says, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Sam Christian Holmes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 16, 2009

“We’re all screwed,” is artist Sam Christian Holmes personal motto. While that may be a safe bet for the future, it doesn’t stop Holmes’ artistry–sculpture, print-making, and multi-media works–from ennobling the stories of past and present. Drawing from both community and personal memory, Holmes tends to cast his subjects through a spiritualized prism, creating a sense of greatness out of what otherwise may too easily be seen as mundane or strictly utilitarian. When sculpting bus benches, for instance, he makes thrones, while his gates and fences seem to give a hero’s welcome. He’s got a sense of humor, too–always good for a noon-time lecture.

The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Sept. 10, 2009

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Fans of The Wire know Savino Bratton as the character played by Christopher Clanton, the Baltimore actor who was stabbed last year at an Overlea party. Clanton’s character in Season One was a dreadlocked soldier in the Barksdale organization who helped set up the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs and stripclub manager Orlando Blocker. In Season Five, after doing time in prison, Savino Bratton (pictured) returns as a soldier for the Stanfield organization.

But what fans of The Wire might not know is that Savino Braxton—whose name is one letter removed from that of The Wire character—is a real-life Baltimore heroin dealer. In 1990, Savino Braxton was convicted as part of a massive heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams, and earned his release in 2008. His freedom was recently cut short, though, when on Sept. 2 he was arrested again on new federal heroin charges.

The Wire producer David Simon, asked in an e-mail whether the fictional Savino Bratton’s name is based on the real-life Savino Braxton, says only this: “The Wire is a fictional story. I have no comment otherwise.”

So what was Braxton up to on Sept. 2 that landed him with new federal charges? According to the complaint [see below], agents got a search warrant for Braxton’s apartment at 5312 Goodnow Road in Frankford. While preparing for the raid, they watched Braxton leave his residence, get in a purple Honda Accord, and drive off. They arrested him a short time later and found 35 grams of heroin in the car’s center console. The agents then returned to Braxton’s apartment to find another kilogram of heroin, a variety of drug-dealing paraphernalia (cutting agents, gel caps, a scale, etc.), and lots of cash “bundled in thousand dollar stacks.”

Big Target: Feds in New York Dub Indicted Defense Attorney Simels a “Danger,” Aim to See His Fees in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 12, 2009

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On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Justice Department took two shots at Robert M. Simels (pictured, from http://www.simelslaw.com), the self-described “Rolls Royce” of criminal-defense attorneys.

In New York, where Simels is charged with witness intimidation in connection with his defense of former Marylander Shaheed “Roger” Khan (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who is accused of running a violent Guyanese cocaine conspiracy, prosecutors called Simels a “palpable danger” to public safety and convinced a judge to keep Simels’ bond, which is secured with his $2.5 million Westchester, N.Y., home, at $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, in a Baltimore case that appears unrelated to Khan, another Justice Department attorney asked a judge to order Simels to cough up detailed information to a grand jury about how he’s getting paid to represent accused drug trafficker and money launderer Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008).

Just another day in the decades-long war between Justice and Simels.

In the mid-1980s, shortly after Simels had entered private practice on the heels of a career as a young federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s U.S. attorney, tried and failed to get information about Simels’ fee arrangements with clients. But today in Maryland, according to local attorneys, the law is clear that grand juries are entitled to look at attorneys’ fee arrangements, though they rarely do so.

“It’s rare but not unheard of,” says former federal prosecutor and longtime defense attorney David Irwin, when asked about how frequently the grand jury goes after attorneys’ fees. He predicts that “the government is going to win the motion and Simels is at best filing a delaying action.”

Simels is famous in New York for representing high-profile clients such as Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (“New York Boys,” Mobtown Beat, June 4, 2003) and Henry Hill, whose gangster stories have entered popular culture. But Simels’ Baltimore clientele over the years, such as Green, tend not to be household names–though they are accused of being high up in the game and are often well-connected. Two of them–Eric Clash of the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 2, 2005) and Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995), who owns the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club–have known ties to Baltimore politics.

The motion filed against Simels in the Shawn Green case, by assistant U.S. attorney Kwame Manley, is stunning for its disclosures about a secret grand-jury investigation. Green was captured after nearly two years on the run, and at his first court appearance in December 2008, Simels was at his side. In light of what the Justice Department reveals in Manley’s motion, the grand jury is interested in whether or not Simels was getting paid to represent Green during his lengthy stretch on the lam.

What’s known about Green so far is based largely on court records in Baltimore and in connection with a sprawling federal prosecution in Philadelphia against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO), in which Green is not a defendant. Real-estate lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother, Yolanda Crawley, pleaded guilty last year to their parts in Green’s allegedly illicit assets and activities, with interests spanning the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey.

Yet the Justice Department, according to the motion to compel Simels to open up his books, thinks Green kept up the conspiracy while on the run, after his co-conspirators were arrested. It expects to file more charges. The grand jury, the motion continues, “is continuing its investigation of Green and other individuals,” and “the Government believes that during Green’s nearly two-year period as a fugitive, he continued to launder proceeds of illegal activity through known co-conspirators in this case.”

The specific information sought by the grand jury from Simels concerns “attorney fees and retainers received for the representation of Green, the amount of funds received, the identity of the individuals who provided such funds, and the dates and manner in which such funds were provided (i.e., cash, check, wire, etc.).”

Last March, with Green still a fugitive, Simels told City Paper in a telephone interview that he was not Green’s attorney. The question was raised because court records show that Simels had been sent mail from U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in connection with the federal forfeiture of Green’s Reservoir Hill apartment building and recording studio.

Simels did not respond to messages left at his office for this article. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The government’s strong language came in reaction to a Feb. 2 bond-modification request by Simels’ attorney, Gerard Shargel, who sought to remove the secured money bond as a condition of Simels’ release pending trial. In it, Shargel points out that the bond set on Sept. 10 “was not based on any judicial finding that Mr. Simels poses a risk of flight or a danger to the community,” and thus asserts that the prosecutors cannot show that Simels poses such risks.

The prosecutors, Steven D’Alessandro and Morris Fodeman, went ahead and called Simels dangerous anyhow, while arguing that they are not required to prove that he is. In doing so, they restated the allegations–that Simels sought to bribe and threaten witnesses, including with violence–and note that Simels is wealthy, that the evidence against him is strong, and that his behavior was conducted in his role as an attorney.

“The Court can have little confidence,” the prosecutors continued, that Simels will not further obstruct justice “now that Simels, as opposed simply to a client, would benefit” from such crimes. Thus, they concluded, “there exists a palpable danger were the defendant released without significant pre-trial conditions,” such as the high bail set when he was first arrested.

The New York round went to the government when the judge agreed last Friday to keep Simels’ bond set high. Green’s judge in Baltimore, J. Frederick Motz, set a Feb. 23 deadline for Simels to submit his opposition to Manley’s attempt to open up his books on the Shawn Green account.

No Way, Lynae: Prison Guard’s Attempt to Plead Guilty in Cell-Phone Case Denied

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 10, 2009

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Warren Brown is highly exercised on Dec. 9, as he returns to the defense table from Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge David Young’s bench. “I’ll say for the record, your honor,” the criminal-defense attorney declares, “that the state can forget about any help from this young lady.”

Brown is referring to his client, 21-year-old former prison guard Lynae Chapman (pictured), who’s in court for her arraignment on misdemeanor charges that she helped procure a cell phone for an inmate—22-year-old murder suspect Ray Donald Lee, an alleged Black Guerrilla Family gangmember who is Chapman’s boyfriend and the father of her unborn child—at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where she worked until her Oct. 23 indictment (“A Big No-No,” Nov. 4). Chapman, as Brown makes clear, wants to plead guilty, but, due to whatever just transpired at a 10-minute bench conference, the judge won’t accept the plea, so Chapman’s case is going forward to a trial scheduled for Feb. 12.

“We’re prepared to plead guilty today,” Brown continues, “but she’s gonna be continually held [in detention] until the next trial date, and the state’ll come up with some reason to postpone. They’re coming up with a reason to postpone a guilty plea! Which, I mean, when have we not allowed individuals to plead guilty unless we have some issue with regard to their competency? The state acts as if they have a right to prohibit a person from pleading guilty! They have a factual basis for the court accepting the plea.

“Quite frankly, as the state knows,” Brown says, “it’s not a question of guilt or innocence. They’ve got a very, very, very, very good case against her. Absolutely. And so we don’t intend to go to trial. We want only to resolve this as soon as possible and take our lumps.” He adds that his client is not interested in pursuing a deal in exchange for pleading guilty: “I mean, no deals, all bets are off.”

The rationale behind the judge’s refusal to allow Chapman’s attempt to plead guilty presumably was discussed during the bench conference that immediately preceded Brown’s open-court diatribe. City Paper on Dec. 10 attempted to learn what was discussed by viewing the videotape of the proceeding at the court reporter’s office, as has often been done in the past. But under new rules instituted two months ago, the staff there explained, bench conferences are deleted from recordings of court proceedings prior to public viewing, so the discussion about Chapman’s case remains a secret between the state, the defense, and the judge.

The unusual twist is not the first odd turn in Chapman’s case. A strong indication that there’s more going on than meets the eye came from the spokesman for Chapman’s former employer, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Mark Vernarelli declined to comment on the case after her indictment, saying that to do so “would jeopardize other law-enforcement agencies’ investigations.” In addition, the court file of Chapman’s case is not available for public review at the clerk’s office—indeed, the case is not even listed on the on-line Maryland Judiciary Case Search, the main source of information about court cases. City Paper‘s reporting has been possible only via open-court proceedings for Chapman’s bail review and arraignment.

Also strange was the prosecutor’s behavior after Chapman’s arraignment hearing, during which Brown did virtually all of the on-the-record speaking. City Paper had been unable to hear her name when she stood to call the case, and, after the hearing was over, asked her to provide it. She repeatedly refused, suggesting that City Paper go look it up in the court file. When City Paper explained that the file in Chapman’s case is not publicly available, she again refused to identify herself. In a Dec. 10 e-mail, Baltimore City State’s Attorney spokesman Joseph Sviatko disclosed the prosecutor’s name: Nancy Olin.

At the end of the arraignment hearing, Brown does the only thing he can do: He pleads not guilty on behalf of his client and requests a jury trial. Chapman, with her hair pulled back tight in a bun, sits beside him and signs the necessary paperwork, struggling with her handcuffs to do so. She’s in full restraints—her ankles, wrists, and mid-section are chained—and her pregnant belly shows prominently through her gray Department of Corrections sweatsuit. “You gotta hold on, baby-doll,” Brown tells her, before she is escorted out of the courtroom.

“A Big No-No”: Judge sets $1 million bail for prison guard indicted for misconduct

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 4, 2009

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Lynae Chapman, a 21-year-old correctional officer for the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), is obviously pregnant as she stands before Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Prevas on Oct. 27. The father of her unborn child, concedes Chapman’s defense attorney Lawrence Rosenberg, is 22-year-old murder suspect Ray Donald Lee, a Black Guerilla Family (BGF) gang member for whom Chapman (pictured) is accused of procuring a cell phone while he remains jailed pending trial. According to a court reporter’s video of the hearing, prosecutor Tonya LaPolla says that Chapman was indicted on Oct. 23, after a search of Lee’s cell turned up the cell phone and “numerous letters from” Chapman.

Though Chapman is charged with misdemeanors–obstruction of justice, two counts of misconduct in office, and delivering contraband–LaPolla points out that the misconduct charges are common-law crimes for which there is no maximum penalty, and asks for “at least $500,000 bail.” Prevas–saying “cell phones in a correctional setting are a big no-no”–sets it at $1 million, “secured by real-estate only, no corporate surety.”

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli’s statement about the case suggests that the charges against Chapman are part of larger, multi-agency probe. “At this point,” Vernarelli writes in an Oct. 26 e-mail sent in response to City Paper‘s questions, “the case is at a critical juncture, and to comment further would jeopardize other law-enforcement agencies investigations.” Though LaPolla told Judge Prevas that Chapman was fired the day she was indicted, Vernarelli says she’s been placed on administrative leave.

The issue of prison guards suspected of aiding inmates’ criminal conduct has attracted public attention this year. In April, federal indictments against two dozen alleged members of the BGF (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5) named three correctional officers, who have since pleaded guilty to assisting BGF inmates with their alleged drug-dealing and extortion conspiracy. In early October, a federal judge ruled that inmate Tashma McFadden’s lawsuit, which alleges that prison guard Antonia Allison set him up for a beating and stabbing by inmate gang members, should go to a jury. Evidence in the case shows that, nearly three years ago, after Lt. Santiago Morales wrote confidential reports naming 16 guards suspected of gang ties, BCDC warden William Filbert ordered that such reports cease (“Ganging Up,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 21).

During Chapman’s bail-review hearing, LaPolla lays out the state’s facts about Chapman’s conduct. The investigation “began with a homicide,” LaPolla explains, that occurred on Monday, June 29–the alleged murder-for-hire of 28-year-old Tavon Walker, who was shot just before 10 a.m. on the 2100 block of Brighton Street, near Carver Vocational-Technical High School. Ray Lee and his 26-year-old co-defendant, Quinard Henson, were indicted for killing Walker in early August.

“Ray Lee drove the shooter to the location, waited, and then drove the shooter away,” LaPolla says, recounting how Walker’s killing is alleged to have occurred. Chapman, she says, was the registered owner of the vehicle.

When Lee and Henson were brought in on the charges, LaPolla recounts, Lee “began yelling obscenities and threats” at Henson, “regarding whether or not [Henson] had given a statement to police, and he did this in the presence of detectives.”

After Lee’s cell at the detention center was searched on Sept. 29, turning up the cell phone, LaPolla continues, the phone’s log showed calls had been made between Chapman and Lee. A search warrant executed at Chapman’s home, in the Wakefield neighborhood near Leakin Park in West Baltimore, turned up a receipt for the Sept. 24 purchase of the phone found in Lee’s jail cell. Chapman, LaPolla says, then gave a taped statement to police in which “she admitted she had almost daily contact with Ray Lee while he was incarcerated” and that Lee’s “brother purchased the cell phone and gave it to her, and she then took it to another party and paid them to deliver it to Ray Lee, the homicide suspect.”

Lee has been charged for possessing the phone, as well as other contraband, as a result of the Sept. 29 search of his cell. Court records in that case say that Christopher Nickel, a detective sergeant with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Internal Investigative Unit found “a cellular phone with charger that was secreted beneath a mattress” in Lee’s cell. The records indicate that he also found “hand fashioned ‘baggies,'” seven containing “loose tobacco” and 16 containing “a green/brown leafy matter” that Nickel recognized to be marijuana. The packaging, the case record continues, is “indicative of an intent to distribute” the tobacco and the marijuana, both of which are deemed contraband in the prison system.

At Chapman’s hearing, LaPolla tells Judge Prevas that “this is a very serious case,” arguing that the facts “weigh in favor of no bail or a very substantial bail.” Chapman, she continues, admitted to arranging the cell phone’s delivery to Lee, who is “a known BGF member,” just as discovery in the murder case against him was about to divulge whether or not his co-defendant made statements to police.

Chapman’s freedom, LaPolla argues, presents a risk “to the safety of any potential witnesses in the homicide case” against Lee.

“[Chapman] has chosen to affiliate herself with a known gangmember, a murder suspect who is an inmate at the detention center where she, until recently, worked–even at the risk of her job and her own freedom,” LaPolla concludes. “She will do absolutely anything to assist him.”

Rosenberg argues for a “reasonable bail” for Chapman, who he says “is surely not a flight risk,” and “I assume not a danger to anyone.” Pointing out that she has no prior criminal history, a high-school education, and a 2-year-old child, Rosenberg attempts to paint a picture of Chapman as a naïve young mother who was dating Lee–and pregnant by him–before he was arrested for the murder of Walker. She “cooperated with police” investigating her ties to Lee, Rosenberg says, adding that “her life is potentially ruined. She’s shamed herself, shamed everyone in her family.”

Prevas, in preparing to rule on the matter, calls Chapman’s charges “extremely serious.”

“If anything the state said is true, it appears that she would be enabling a dangerous [alleged] killer not only to try to avoid the consequences of the killing for which he’s been indicted, but also to attempt to subvert the trial,” he says, adding that if Chapman provided Lee with a cell phone or helped him get one, “that is a threat to society’s ability to be able to protect itself.”

In announcing Chapman’s $1 million bail, he says, “If she can’t even respect the rules of her job, she’s not going to stick around in Baltimore” to answer the charges.

Chapman’s arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 20.

Down for the Count: Defendants sentenced in Black Guerrilla Family case

By Van Smith

Nov. 25, 2009

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“What’s up, ma!” Marlow Bates (pictured) calls out to his mother seated in a courtroom gallery.

“Love you, too, Marlow,” she calls back, as Bates is led off by federal marshals to begin a 46-month sentence for his role in an alleged drug-dealing conspiracy led by the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang (“Black-Booked,” Feature, 8/5/2009).

The mother-and-son exchange occurred on Nov. 17, after the 23-year-old Bates appeared before U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles to hear his sentence for his involvement in the conspiracy.

On Aug. 28, Bates pled guilty to being part of the conspiracy, and as part of his plea agreement, he admitted to being “determined to be engaged in the distribution of narcotics” on behalf of the BGF and its Maryland leader, veteran inmate Eric Brown, “inside the Maryland Correctional System and in Baltimore City.” He also admitted to conspiring to distribute “more than 40 grams, but less than 60 grams of heroin.”

Bates has been detained since April, and his stint in prison appears to have improved both his health and his outlook on life: In court, he is alert and smiling, and his hair is neatly cropped. This is in stark contrast to his booking photo, taken when he was arrested, in which he looks worn and haggard–a comparison Bates’ attorney, Christopher Davis, points out to the judge during the hearing.

“I’m astounded at how different he is than how he looks in the photo that appeared in the City Paper,” Davis says, eager to convince the judge that Bates “sees something very, very wrong with how his life has been going.”

Davis tells Quarles that Bates’ “chaotic upbringing” and “rocky road” as a youngster contributed to the circumstances that led to his arrest. The attorney contends that his client’s incarceration served as “a wake-up call” for the young man, who “entered a very early plea in this case, and has readily accepted responsibility.”

Bates was the second of seven BGF defendants to plead guilty, and the second to appear for sentencing. The first was Lakia Hatchett, who entered her guilty plea on Aug. 27 and received her sentence–18 months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release–on Nov. 13. Court records show that agents seized 10 grams of heroin and two scales when they searched Hatchett’s Charles Village apartment in April.

According to her plea agreement, the 29-year-old Hatchett was “a wholesale customer of heroin from Kevin Glasscho,” the accused leader of the BGF’s drug-dealing activities on the streets, and “conspired to distribute more than 20 grams” of the drug. A pre-sentence memorandum to Quarles emphasized Hatchett’s acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and cooperation with authorities, while making note of her 4.0 grade-point average in high school, her college coursework, and her employment history aiding the developmentally disabled.

When it comes time for Bates to speak for himself, he tells Quarles, “I just want to apologize.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clinton Fuchs recommends a prison sentence of 46-57 months for Bates–the amount suggested by the federal sentencing guidelines. Quarles rules that “the low of end of the guideline is appropriate” and orders Bates to prison for 46 months, followed by three years of supervised release, with conditions that he participate in drug-and-alcohol treatment and screening, along with training to receive his GED.

Afterward, outside the courtroom, Bates’ friends and family listen as Davis explains that the sentence is much better than the 30 to 40 years that others in the case are likely to face, should they be convicted by a jury.

Davis confirms, when asked by a reporter, that his client is the son of Marlow Bates, a famous drug-dealer in Baltimore’s crime annals, who is still serving a sentence that began in the 1980s.

“That did not help when he was arrested,” Davis says.

The elder Bates’ fame was elevated by the HBO series The Wire, which portrays a drug-dealing character named Marlo Stanfield. According to a 2006 City Paper interview with The Wire‘s David Simon, the character’s name is a composite of the elder Bates and Timirror Stanfield. Both were targets of Wire co-creator Ed Burns when he was a Baltimore Police detective.

In addition to Bates and Hatchett, five other BGF co-defendants have pleaded guilty, leaving 17 who remain headed for trial. A 22-year-old former prison guard, Asia Burrus, entered her guilty plea in September, admitting to helping the BGF’s prison-based drug conspiracy. Also in September, 41-year-old Darryl Dawayne Taylor (the son of BGF co-defendant Joe Taylor-Bey) admitted to helping move BGF drugs. In October, former prison guard Musheerah Habeebullah, 27, and former correctional employee Takevia Smith, 24, entered their pleas. And on Nov. 12, 26-year-old Terry Robe–another former prison guard who, according to a plea agreement, was caught trying to smuggle to cell phones into prison for Eric Brown–admitted her guilt.

Family Matters: Black Guerrilla Family prison-gang case nets four guilty pleas

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Sept. 30, 2009

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Four of the two-dozen alleged Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison-gang members indicted in Maryland federal court in April pleaded guilty recently before U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles. Lakia Hatchett was the first to do so, pleading on Aug. 27, followed by Marlow Bates (pictured on left) on Aug. 28, Darryl Dawayne Taylor on Sept. 9, and, most recently, former prison guard Asia Burrus, who pled on Sept. 16.

One of the BGF co-defendants remains a federal fugitive: 60-year-old Roosevelt Drummond (pictured on right), charged with robbery and drug-dealing.

The BGF indictments–one for a drug-dealing conspiracy headed by Kevin Glasscho, who is charged as the BGF drug distributor, and the other, led by imprisoned Maryland BGF leader Eric Brown, for drug dealing, robbery, and firearms–have heightened awareness of the extent to which an alleged prison gang can insinuate itself in civic life (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5). The government’s case, as revealed thus far, paints a picture of Brown as a drug-dealing extortionist who doubles as a budding gang-interventionist with a book, a nonprofit, and the endorsements of local educators. Co-conspirators include a recently released murderer who worked as a public-school mentor for troubled students, a city wastewater technician who owns a clothing boutique, and an erstwhile bar owner and mortgage broker with separate federal bank-fraud and identity-theft charges against her. Mount Vernon, the midtown Baltimore neighborhood known for its cultural institutions and historic buildings, is the setting for some of Glasscho’s drug-dealing, according to court documents, and it’s where accused BGF heroin supplier Tyrone Dow operates a luxury-car detailing business.

The first to plead guilty in the Glasscho indictment was 29-year-old Lakia Hatchett, who Judge Quarles is set to sentence on Nov. 13. When Hatchett was arrested in April, agents searched her Charles Village apartment at 2735 St. Paul St. and seized a “bag containing brown powder” and two scales, court records show. Hatchett’s plea agreement, which reveals that the seized bag contained 10 grams of heroin, describes her as “a wholesale customer of heroin from Kevin Glasscho” and states that she “conspired to distribute more than 20 grams” of the drug.

Marlow Bates’ agreement states that he conspired with Brown and others to distribute heroin, and that Bates “was determined to be engaged in the distribution of narcotics,” both in the prison system and on Baltimore’s streets. The agreement puts the specific amount of heroin involved at 40 to 60 grams, much less than the multiple kilograms that often show up in federal cases. At his April 24 court hearing, Bates fist-bumped his attorney, Christie Needleman, when she arrived at the defense table, but when he pleaded guilty in late August, he had a different lawyer, Christopher Michael Davis. Bates’ state criminal record includes convictions in gun-and-drug cases. Bates, 23, is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 17.

Shortly after Bates, 41-year-old Darryl Dawayne Taylor, who is scheduled to receive his sentence on Dec. 19, pleaded as well. In court in April, assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Wallner explained that Taylor is the son of co-defendant Joe Taylor-Bey, who has spent more than 30 years in prison on a murder conviction. Taylor is accused of smuggling heroin into prison by putting it in balloons and “hiding it in his rear end, or in his cheeks,” Wallner said. According to Taylor’s guilty plea, he “was intercepted discussing and arranging transactions involving the wholesale distribution of heroin, and the smuggling of heroin into various prisons” on behalf of Glasscho. As in Hatchett’s case, Taylor admits to dealing in at least 20 grams of heroin.

Asia Burrus, a 22-year-old whose sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7, admits to helping smuggle contraband into prison that “facilitated the distribution of narcotics inside the Maryland Correctional System” by Brown and others. She also admits she “was aware that Eric Brown was the leader” of the BGF in Maryland and “that the BGF is a violent, nationwide gang that has established a powerful presence within the Maryland Correctional System and on the streets of Baltimore City.” She was arrested in April at downtown Baltimore’s Maryland Transition Center, where she worked as a guard.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 3, a federal forfeiture case was filed against $4,659 in cash taken from Dow, and state prosecutors have already forfeited a 2005 Acura belonging to Glasscho. On Sept. 24, Glasscho’s girlfriend, BGF co-defendant Cassandra Adams, filed a motion to be severed from the case, claiming the evidence produced so far fails to put her in the conspiracy.

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’s leadership 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. 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 basis for 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.