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.

The Black Book: Feds say prison gang’s self-improvement guide is a money-laundering recruitment tool

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, May 27, 2009

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An overarching presence in the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison-gang conspiracies indicted in April by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland is not a person, but a book.

Entitled The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities, the 122-page softbound publication is a revolutionary call for economic and political liberation for blacks. Eric Marcell Brown, a 40-year-old inmate of the Maryland correctional system, is the author of much of its contents, and he, along with his wife, Deitra Davenport (see “Family Portraits,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), last year incorporated Dee Dat Publishing to get The Black Book printed and distributed for sale.

Brown, Davenport, and 23 other co-defendants named in the two BGF indictments are accused of drug dealing, prison smuggling, violence, and extortion. Prosecutors say The Black Book served as a propaganda tool for gang recruitment while its sales also helped finance the BGF’s criminal activities.

The feds’ assertions about the nefarious functions of The Black Book, though, are considered over-the-top by at least one educator: Tyrone Powers, the director of Anne Arundel County Community College’s Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute and an advisory board member of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services’ Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, a detention facility for young women. A former FBI agent and Maryland State Police trooper, Powers has a Ph.D. in sociology and justice from American University and hosts a radio show called “The Powers Report.”

The back cover of The Black Book has the following endorsement from Powers:

These are difficult days that require concrete, specific, effective solutions. This book provides that and more. If we want to win, to change our condition, our situation and the life chances of this generation, of our children and of our children’s children then we must read, analyze, think, learn and apply the lessons, concepts and practical solutions that are apart [sic] of this extraordinary volume written by four extraordinary insightful men and leaders.

Powers, in a mid-May phone interview, explains that “I met Eric [Brown] by going into the prison system as part of an effort to deal with three or four different gangs. Eric and others decided to put together this book, and it was all positive. I endorsed it because it could have some impact on the increasing gang problem, because people would read and understand this, as opposed to more academic writing that doesn’t connect with young people.

“I am totally unapologetic about endorsing this book and totally unapologetic about meeting Eric Brown,” Powers continues, “because it serves a positive purpose–to reduce the violence. This book is a means to that end. I don’t know anything about the financing end of it, and as for it being used for gang recruitment–I don’t know how it could be used for recruitment. It is all about building peace and tranquility.”

Also endorsing The Black Book on its back cover is former two-time Baltimore City mayoral candidate Andrey Bundley, a Baltimore City Public Schools administrator who oversees the city’s alternative education programs. “Kudos, to Eric Brown (E.B.) for not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs,” Bundley wrote. “He has availed his leadership capacity in Jamaa to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom and equality.”

Jamaa, according to The Black Book, is a Swahili word for “family” that is defined as “an organization geared towards revitalizing our people and our hoods.” Brown and Davenport last year formed a non-profit organization called Harambee Jamaa Inc., which, according to its incorporation papers, intends “to education, invigorate and liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison.”

“I’ve seen [rival gangs] come together in one room and work on the lessons in The Black Book to get themselves together,” Bundley told The Baltimore Sun in early May. “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 Black Book, according to its introduction, “is designed to make our people aware of the vision of Comrade George Jackson and the struggle that he lived and died for.” Jackson, a Black Panther Party member, founded the BGF as a Marxist prison gang in 1966, while serving time at San Quentin State Prison in California for an armed robbery conviction. Jackson was shot to death at San Quentin in 1971, in an incident that also left five others dead; Jackson was armed with a pistol when he was killed. At the time, he was awaiting trial on charges that he murdered a prison guard.

The four chapters of The Black Book include study guides and poems venerating a value system that seeks to uplift black communities, including incarcerated people. It invokes revolutionary ideals from the Black Power, Black Liberation, and Black Nationalism movements of the 1960s and melds them with instructions on how to live life. It calls itself a “living policy book,” and includes lessons on civics, economics, and gender roles. The book says, for instance, that a Jamaa woman is to be a “firearm expert,” who has “gun in hand, ready to take on all transgressors.” When a wife is disobedient, The Black Book says the husband first should “verbally reprimand her,” then “refuse to sleep with her,” “beat her lightly,” and “if these are not effective, the next step is divorce.”

During court proceedings in the BGF indictments, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner has claimed that The Black Book generates profits used to underwrite BGF crimes. But Davenport’s defense attorney, Thomas Saunders, has questioned that contention. “There is no profit, considering what printing costs are,” Saunders said, adding that Davenport “used her own money” to get the book published and was not using it as a “front to funnel money” to the BGF.

Calvin Renard Robinson: City Wastewater Worker Accused of Selling BGF Drugs

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 10, 2009

The phone rang at 6:59 a.m. on a Friday morning, just as 53-year-old Baltimore City wastewater plant technician Calvin Renard Robinson was heading for the shower, court records show. The March 20 call was from 46-year-old Kevin Glasscho, an ex-con now accused in Maryland as the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang’s heroin broker.

“You wanted a whole dollar or the half?” Glasscho asked. “Uh, it don’t matter,” Robinson answered, adding, “You can bring me the, um—bring it to me in two halves.” When Glasscho explained that it would be less work if he gave Robinson the “whole dollar.” Robinson agreed, and the two planned to meet after Robinson got out of the shower.

At the time, neither man knew that this exchange, and similarly cryptic phone calls this past spring between Robinson and Glasscho, was being recorded by law enforcers, who believed the men were using code to arrange drug deals. But in mid-April, the conversations wound up as part the evidence for two federal criminal conspiracy cases against 25 alleged members of the BGF. The gang is accused of a variety of crimes, including violence, drug-dealing, smuggling contraband, and extortion. Robinson, thanks to the intercepted phone conversations with Glasscho and the resulting surveillance, is charged with buying drugs wholesale from Glasscho.

At his first court appearances in April, Robinson had the unassuming look of the workaday bureaucrat he is, with his clean-shaven head, trimmed mustache, and glasses. Robinson’s defense attorney, Steven Wrobel, had on hand Robinson’s city Department of Public Works (DPW) supervisor, Dorothy Harris, ready to testify in support of letting Robinson go free pending trial. But the judge decided that Robinson, who has drug convictions dating from the early 1990s and was found with two handguns and ammunition when he was arrested April 15 in the BGF take-down (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22, 2009), poses too much of a risk to public safety should he leave jail.

In addition to the guns—a Smith & Wesson .357 with six cartridges and a North American Arms .22 with four cartridges—court records show agents took from Robinson’s home three cell phones, a Blackberry mobile device, three sets of keys, and numerous photographs.

Robinson has owned his North Mount Street home—1102, right across Riggs Avenue from the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District station house—since 2000. Land records show his principal residence is not there, but south by about a dozen or so blocks, at 1223 Hollins St., a half-block west of Hollins Market. Robinson purchased the Hollins Street property in 2008; open for business there is the In and Out Boutique, the trade name for a clothing shore owned by Robinson’s company, Jo-Cal LLC.

Robinson’s In and Out Boutique opened on a block of Hollins Street that has long been known for drug-dealing activity (“Best Open-Air Drug Market,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 16, 2003). In 2007 it was targeted in a major federal enforcement effort called Operation Smackdown, which closed down a $20,000 per day heroin operation there.

Deitra Davenport: Hardworking mom accused of being BGF “conduit”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 27, 2009

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Among the 25 inmates, ex-offenders, prison employees, and others indicted by a federal grand jury in Maryland in April as part of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison-gang conspiracies (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22, 2009), Deitra Davenport stands out.

She has no criminal history. She has worked at the same association-management firm for the past 20 years. She is a homeowner and the single mother of two children. The 37-year-old Davenport is the picture of an upstanding citizen. The accusations against the BGF of violence, drug-dealing, and prison smuggling clash with her squeaky-clean profile–a point that Davenport’s lawyer, Thomas Saunders, has emphasized in court repeatedly while seeking her conditional release pending trial.

Saunders says that Davenport is a “naïve, innocent party” in the BGF scheme. He says she was ensnared in a web of evidence devoid of signs that his client knew of illegal activities (except, perhaps, some smuggling of items, possibly tobacco, to BGF leader Eric Brown, though he’s quick to tell the judge during a hearing that “I’m not saying it’s true” that she even knew of this illicit activity). What began eight years ago as a pen-pal relationship between Davenport and Brown later blossomed into a Muslim form of marriage, Saunders says. He adds that Brown–if he is the criminal the government contends he is–duped Davenport, making her an unwitting player in the BGF’s allegedly criminal enterprise.

The government sees Davenport, whose nickname is “Sister D,” as a smuggler, the operator of a BGF front business that helped underwrite the gang’s operations, and an intermediary between Brown and other BGF members. Last year she and Brown published The Black Book, a handbook of BGF philosophy as part of a social movement called Jamaa (“jamaa” is a Swahili word for “family”). The book promotes economic and political self-empowerment for black communities and discusses how to confront the reality and legacy of widespread incarceration among black Americans. But law enforcers characterize it as a guidebook for gang behavior and say its sales–and therefore Davenport, as the book’s publisher–helped underwrite the violent, drug-dealing, prison-smuggling ways of the BGF in Maryland (see “The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009).

When Davenport first appeared in court on Apr. 16, she looked as out of her element as Saunders claims she is. Short and petite, with straight black hair and wearing a tidy black jacket, she did not fit in with the two other defendants next to her: 30-year-old convicted murderer Rainbow Lee Williams and 52-year-old Zachary Lee Norman, whose criminal record includes convictions for a murder conspiracy and armed robbery. But if court documents reflect the truth of the matter, Davenport knows Williams well enough to conspire with him to get contraband to Brown in prison.

At 6:15 in the morning on Apr. 16, as Davenport was being arrested, law enforcers who raided her Baltimore County home seized a .357 caliber handgun and a box of .38 caliber ammunition, according to court documents. Also seized were documents related to two companies started by Davenport and Brown: Dee Dat Publishing, which published The Black Book, and Harambee Jamaa Inc., a nonprofit that, according to its incorporation papers, was formed to “liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison.”

During an intercepted phone conversation between Brown and Davenport, which court records say took place late at night on Feb. 26, Brown urged Davenport to “go to the firing range.” When Davenport asked “Why?” Brown told her, “bust that gun for a minute. You ain’t been out there in a while.” During court hearings, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner brought this conversation up, while pointing out that The Black Book instructs women “to be proficient in the use of firearms.”

In other intercepted phone conversations, which took place in April, Brown and Davenport discussed smuggled champagne, vodka, and cigars. According to court documents, law enforcers also believe Davenport “is smuggling drugs” to Brown in prison.

After the indictments came down, Wallner announced in open court that the BGF had offered $10,000 for “hits” on correctional officers, investigators, and cooperators who helped make the case (“BGF Offers $10,000 for Hits, Prosecutor Says,” Mobtown Beat, April 23). In light of the offer, Wallner stressed Davenport’s role as a vector of BGF intelligence, suggesting that she may help get the word out that BGF money is on the table. “Davenport, because of her status as the conduit for all of the BGF,” Wallner said to the judge, “is the central location of communication among members and Eric Brown.”

The government’s take on Davenport came as a complete surprise to Davenport’s long-time employer, Thomas Shaner of the Baltimore-based association management firm, Joseph E. Shaner Company.

“To say that we are shocked, that’s just an understatement,” Shaner said in a May interview. “‘Sister D?’ Who the hell is this ‘Sister D?’

“She’s been a solid employee for 20 years,” Shaner said. “All I can guess is that she was naïve as hell and was manipulated by Eric [Brown]. I’ve never met Eric, and I was surprised to learn that Eric is in jail, and has always been in jail, even before she married him. Despite these charges, I still want to believe she’s the same person I’ve known for so long, who I considered a friend and sort of family. But people do crazy things for love.”

After debating for weeks in motions and hearings over Davenport’s detention, on May 12, Wallner and Saunders reached an agreement, and U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner accepted it. Davenport is released to her home, where she will remain locked down pending trial, on electronic monitoring and with strict controls over her communications and conduct. In addition, Davenport’s sales of The Black Book will end and she is to have “no contact whatsoever with any inmates or codefendants,” Gesner says. The trial, which has yet to be scheduled, is estimated to last a month.

Eric Marcell Brown: Veteran Inmate Dubbed Drug-Dealing, Shot-Calling BGF Propagandist

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 7, 2009

Like other Maryland prison inmates indicted in the Black Guerilla Family prison-gang conspiracy, Eric Marcell Brown hasn’t yet had his first court appearance on the charges, so he remains an unseen player in the case. But the wire-tap investigation of his activities from prison, which resulted in the Apr. 8 grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, shows how the government views Brown: as the BGF’s top leader in Maryland, orchestrating its violent, corrupting operations with funds from selling drugs and The Black Book, his instructional tome about the BGF movement.

Brown doesn’t consider the BGF a “gang” at all, but an “organization”–a distinction to which The Black Book devotes a full chapter. The book’s 2008 publication put Brown’s abilities on display, revealing a knack for marketing and leadership. The law enforcers who came after Brown say his publishing venture has been successful, noting in court documents that upwards of 900 copies were sold, with proceeds going back to the organization. If so, The Black Book, which prescribes self-generated economic empowerment for blacks, especially ex-offenders, is a good example of what the book seeks to advance.

Yet the book also condemns drug dealing as a form of “genocide” and “chemical warfare,” so if the government is right about Brown, then he’s in direct conflict with his own tenets. The Black Book asserts that Brown, who at 40 years old is 15 years into a 25-year sentence on drug-dealing charges, has undergone a “transition” from his old ways, and encourages others to follow. Court documents filed in the BGF case make a farce of this assertion, but, as the government’s case against Brown is tested in court, a clearer picture may emerge of how he measures up to The Black Book‘s ideals.

According to court documents, one of the government’s informants in the BGF investigation said “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.” In fact, the informant explained, “Brown is a drug trafficker” and “BGF funds its operations primarily by selling drugs”-though The Black Book, too, is “making money.”

Brown’s cell-phone conversations were intercepted by investigators for months, and in the process, chatter was picked up that seemed to confirm that Brown was involved in drug dealing, along with violence, armed robbery, smuggling, and extortion. Some of the intercepted discussions, as recounted in the court records, were clear and easily interpreted. Others were vague, relying on investigators’ training and experience to conclude that nefarious doings were afoot.

One of the recorded conversations showcases Brown’s grasp of the rhetoric of radical change. “Listen, man, we are on the verge of very big things, man,” Brown said during a three-way call last November with two other BGF members, who were inmates in different Maryland prisons. “This positive movement that we are embarking upon now, right, is moving at a rapid pace, right. It’s happening on almost every location” in the prison system. “Revolution is the only solution, brother,” he exhorted.

Investigators contend that Brown’s hold on the reins of the BGF took it further, so that it now stands accused of “operating in every, single prison facility in the entire state,” as assistant U.S. attorney James Wallner put it in court in April. What’s more, the movement Brown leads has populist appeal outside of prisons, as suggested by an Apr. 13 meeting in Druid Hill Park, where, according to court documents, about 100 BGF members and supporters gathered as The Black Book and BGF t-shirts were distributed.

Randolph Edison: With hard time already under his belt, “Uncle Rudy” accused as violent BGF leader

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 5, 2009

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With the slow gait of the aged, 51-year-old Randolph “Uncle Rudy” Edison shuffles into a federal courtroom in Baltimore on April 22 to face charges that he helped commit violent crimes for the Black Guerilla Family prison gang in Maryland. The wear and tear of a lengthy prison stint he served in the 1990s and early 2000s (with an extra year tacked on in 2000 for assaulting a Department of Corrections employee), appears to have taken its toll on him.

In 2007, Edison was out of jail and back on the streets, and he racked up new charges–loitering, drug possession (including a state case brought in January)–that show him residing in Dundalk, where he’d been living before his 1993 murder sentence was imposed. Edison’s world-weary air in the courtroom reveals little, if any, worry about the future – except, perhaps, when it comes to getting his twice-a-day insulin shots for diabetes, something for his high blood pressure, and a doctor to take a look at the abscess on his hand.

Nonetheless, the feds have evidence portraying Edison as a plugged-in leader of the BGF, working energetically on the outside for imprisoned BGF ringleader Eric Brown.

On March 13, BGF court documents show, Edison and two other BGF co-defendants-52-year-old Zachary Norman and 59-year-old Roosevelt Drummond-were in a car that was pulled over by police in Baltimore City. Drummond had a gun and was arrested; also taken from the car were handcuffs, rubber gloves, and a mask.

Hours later, Brown used a cell phone to call Edison, initiating a conversation that was intercepted by investigators. “We just had some bad luck man,” Edison told Brown, according to court documents. “We was in the car, yeah and they pulled us over, right. You know we gonna do something, but the coon that was setting the whole degree up, he’s the rat. He set all us up.” Edison explained that Drummond had a gun, adding, “Just lucky I ain’t carry that thing,” to which Brown responded, “that’s the last thing you need boy.”

Investigators concluded from this conversation that Edison was reporting to Brown what happened with the police while he and his co-defendants were “en route to commit a drug-related armed robbery,” according to court documents.

Edison had no lawyer for his first appearance in court, but two days later, on April 24, Richard Bittner is appointed to him. After asking around the courtroom for Edison’s sister, who’s not there, and meeting briefly with an older gentleman who says he’s Edison’s friend, Bittner decides not to fight the prosecutor’s request that Edison remain in jail until after the trial. U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner orders Edison detained, reminding him that if he chooses, he can later request a hearing over whether or not he can be conditionally released.

Rainbow Lee Williams: Murder Convict Who Mentors Schoolchildren Called a BGF Shot-Caller

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 1, 2009

When defense attorney Gerald Ruter was first appointed on Apr. 16 to represent Rainbow Lee Williams, a 30-year-old co-defendant in the Black Guerilla Family prison-gang federal-conspiracy case, Ruter sounded like he thought there was more to Williams than met the government’s eye.

“I have him working for a nonprofit, helping kids,” Ruter told assistant U.S. attorney James Wallner, just before Williams’ first court appearance began.

“That may be,” Wallner responds, “but he’s still indicted as a leader of the BGF.”

Five days later, Ruter said he had the verified facts about Williams’ employment, and presented them to U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner while arguing for Williams’ conditional release pending trial. Williams, he explained, works for the nonprofit Partners in Progress Resource Center. Since shortly after his release from prison last September, when his murder sentence ended, Ruter said, Williams had been working for Partners in Progress four days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., for $1,200 per month. Partners in Progress, he explained, serves a high school called the Achievement Academy at Harbor City High School, located on Harford Road.

Ruter said he got all of these facts confirmed by Partners in Progress’ director, Bridget Alston-Smith, who, he said, is “aware of Williams’ criminal history, and she says he works on the campus itself as a mentor to individuals who have behavioral difficulties and is hands-on with all of the students.”

City Paper‘s attempts to reach Alston-Smith at the phone number Ruter gave in open court were unsuccessful. According to Baltimore City Public Schools’ guide to high schools, the Achievement Academy at Harbor City is “an alternative school designed to provide under-credited students with an accelerated program of study,” has an enrollment of 383 students in 9th through 12th grade, and Partners in Progress is listed among the schools partnerships.

The Black Book, a locally published self-improvement guide for those involved in the BGF movement, features a back-cover blurb written by Alston-Smith, in which she states that men in the movement “lead well because they listen well. As they continue on the path of self-improvement they will help improve the conditions of our families and communities.”

“I find it ironic that Mr. Williams is a mentor for disaffected youth,” Wallner told judge Gesner. Wallner’s prosecutorial assessment is based on what federal investigators found out about Williams in the course of their wire-tap probe into the BGF, which provided enough evidence to support a raid of Williams residence, as well as the grand jury’s charges against him. Wallner also told the judge that Williams was in possession of ammunition for a .357 caliber firearm when he was arrested.

Williams is “one of the leaders of BGF,” court documents state, and “is a lieutenant who handles the day-to-day drug distribution network and is also involved in the smuggling of contraband into correctional facilities.” A confidential source described Williams as “an extremely violent BGF member” who “has committed multiple murders, including numerous assaults/stabbings while in prison,” and he’s “loyal to, and takes orders from, [imprisoned BGF leader Eric] Brown.”

The court documents also recount intercepted phone conversations with other alleged BGF members, in which crimes-from hits to smuggling to drug-dealing-are discussed. In one, co-defendant Marlow Bates calls Brown in March, and the two discuss how Williams failed in his attempt to transfer tennis shoes, which allegedly contained contraband, to Brown while visiting him in prison. Williams kept the shoelaces untied, to facilitate the transfer, but they were so lose that “you could see that shoe lace, like hanging. That just look like a dead give-away,” Brown explained, and as a result a guard “knocked off” the shoe transfer. “Rainbow fucked that up,” he says.

In early April, phone calls between Williams and prison inmates were intercepted, in which prison violence and the rules of BGF conduct were discussed. In one, Williams calls inmate Lance Walker to talk about the Apr. 1 stabbing murder of inmate Nathaniel King, for which inmate Kelly Toomer is the suspect, according to court documents. But Williams tells Walker that Toomer is saying he did it under orders from Williams. Williams denies this, and says the rumor puts him in danger with BGF higher-ups.

The next day, Apr. 5, Williams is called by an unidentified prison inmate, who tells him that Willliams is believed to have passed on Eric Brown’s order to hurt another inmate named “Coco.” A conference call with other BGF members ensued, to go over the rules of the BGF, and the penalties for breaking them. In other calls, Williams acts as a mediator, trying to settle beefs between rivals in the BGF drug game.

Wallner also fingers Williams as “one of the leaders” of the BGF meeting in Druid Hill Park, held on Apr. 13 and attended, according to court documents, by about 100 people described as BGF members. “Following this incident,” court documents state, “calls were intercepted over the wiretaps in which Eric Brown chastised Rainbow Williams for holding the meeting in such a manner as to draw the attention of law enforcement. Brown stated in a scolding manner, `I been tellin’ you and tellin’ you, and you ain’t listenin.’ In reference to being stopped by the police, Brown added, `Ain’t nothin’ good about that, yo.'”

All of these activities ascribed by investigators to Williams occurred while, according to Ruter, Williams was employed by Partners in Progress as a youth mentor. Despite Ruter’s best efforts–and despite Williams’ boyish, fresh-faced looks, which he indignantly flashed in response to Wallner’s allegations–judge Gesner ordered Williams detained pending trial.

Nelson Arthur Robinson: Unemployed Truck Driver Said to be Caught Holding Bag of BGF Drugs

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 30, 2009

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It’s not clear whether 45-year-old Nelson Arthur Robinson recognizes his prosecutor, but he should. As Robinson is ushered into a federal courtroom in Baltimore on Apr. 15 by U.S. marshals, set to be arraigned on accusations that he’s part of the sprawling Black Guerilla Family prison-gang conspiracy, assistant U.S. attorney James Wallner is there at the prosecution table. A decade ago, in 1999, Wallner was the assistant Baltimore City state’s attorney who secured Robinson’s guilty plea on a pot-possession charge, for which Robinson got a one-year sentence, all but a day suspended. This time, Wallner’s stone-faced demeanor belies a grim determination to get a bigger piece of Robinson.

When asked by the court clerk to raise his right hand to take an oath, Robinson instead raises his left and has to be corrected. His obliviousness doesn’t fit the profile of a stone-cold gangster, and, in fact, Robinson didn’t even rate enough to make it into the BGF indictments. Instead, he’s a collateral catch.

Robinson was arrested Apr. 15 while agents were busy raiding 12 BGF-linked locations. He was seen leaving an apartment at 1617 Bluffdale Road in Woodlawn, according to the government’s case. The location was under surveillance as part of the BGF take-down because it was associated with Tyrone Dow, a BGF co-defendant believed to be a supplier of drugs for another co-defendant, Kevin Glasscho. Robinson started to get into a truck parked nearby when, as agents approached him, he tossed aside a bag that was found to contain 175 grams of heroin. Robinson had left his keys in the door of the apartment, which was searched and found to contain another 225 grams of heroin, along with pressers and grinders used to process and package the drug.

The charges “smack of a lack of probable cause,” protested Robinson’s lawyer, David Solomon, during Robinson’s Apr. 20 detention hearing before U.S. District Court magistrate judge James Bredar. Solomon added that, though an “indictment may be imminent” against his client, as it stands a grand jury has yet to accuse him, and there “may be problems” with the case. Solomon urged the judge to take into account Robinson’s “relative good standing within the justice system,” given his recently ended “11-year hiatus” from criminal charges, and allow him to be released to the custody of his wife, Florence Robinson, until after the trial.

Instead, Bredar ordered Robinson on 24/7 lock-down at a half-way house, once a bed becomes available. “He gets in line” for half-way house placement, Bredar said. “Until then, he stays locked up.”

One week later, on April 22, the grand jury indicted Robinson.

“Rare Internal Smuggler” Caught with Heroin Pellets at BWI

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 1, 2009

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Frank Aidoo must have an accommodating stomach. When he arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last Friday evening, March 27, from London, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) already had information that he was suspected of being part of a Nigerian heroin-smuggling outfit, and he didn’t hold up well under questioning by agents. As soon as his initial story didn’t check out, Aidoo, a 55-year-old Ghana-born Dutch citizen, admitted to having ingested pellets of heroin-and later he passed 100 of them, containing a total of 1.2 kilograms of heroin, according to federal charging papers.

“Internal smugglers are relatively rare, especially here at BWI, so these CBP officers should be applauded for detecting this seriously dangerous concealment method and keeping heroin off our nation’s streets,” said James Swanson, CBP Port Director for the Port of Baltimore, in a press release sent out today. “Carriers run an enormous risk of a pellet breaching. It could mean almost certain death if only one pellet breached inside a carrier’s body.” Aidoo is “lucky to be alive,” Swanson concluded. The press release included a photo of the pellets that had traveled inside Aidoo’s intestinal tract.

Two weeks earlier, hotel security at Baltimore’s Marriott Waterfront Hotel alerted law enforcement to a half-kilo of heroin in a room rented by Edward Aboagye, a 27-year-old Ghanian who prosecutors accuse of being part of a conspiracy that was smuggling heroin pellets (“Room Service,” Mobtown Beat, March 25). Aboagye, a Morgan State University senior and car salesman, maintained his innocence, insisting that he rented the hotel room in order to meet a man about a car transaction.

Other than the alleged use of pellets and the fact that both defendants are of Ghanian descent, there appears to be no connection between the two arrests-though Aidoo’s case, coming so quickly on the heels of Aboagye’s, suggests that Ghana-tied “internal smuggling” may not be so rare, after all. Turns out, there’s a track record of busting similar operations in Maryland.

In 2006, a couple from Bowie, Godfrey Bonsu and Victoria Boateng, were convicted of heroin smuggling by a federal jury. They had been bringing heroin into the U.S. from Ghana, Germany, and the United Kingdom, using Ghanian couriers who swallowed pellets, arrived at BWI, and delivered them at hotel rooms, where Boateng and Bonsu retrieved the drugs.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), “West African criminal groups, primarily Nigerian, employ couriers to transport heroin” to BWI on “twice-weekly commercial flights from Ghana.” In August 2000, the NDIC report continues, two such couriers were arrested within a week of one another at the airport, bringing in a combined total of nearly two kilograms of heroin.

Since Ghana is known as a country from which travelers to BWI smuggle heroin pellets, another recent federal case involving a Ghanian arriving at BWI is worthy of mention.

On March 23-between the arrests of Aboagye and Aidoo-a woman arriving from Ghana on British Airways flight 229 (the same that Aidoo took, days later) presented herself as a U.S citizen, returning from a three-month visit with friends and family in Ghana. She had a passport in the name of Melinda Rochelle Chapman, but in her baggage were photo IDs bearing the name Mabel Penelope Aryee. Under questioning, according to the charging papers, the woman admitted that she is actually Aryee, is from Ghana, and is not a U.S. citizen.

Given the sudden prevalence of Ghanian heroin pellets arriving at BWI, it’s a pretty good guess that the questions law enforcers have for Aryee are only just beginning.

Ganging Up: Inmate’s lawsuit shows prison officials knew for years of guards’ suspected gang ties

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 21, 2009

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In 2008, 31-year-old prison inmate Tashma McFadden filed suit against 23-year-old correctional officer Antonia Allison. On Oct. 9, that suit survived Allison’s attempt to have it dismissed. McFadden, who is seeking $800,000 in damages, claims Allison is a member of the Bloods gang and arranged for his stabbing and beating while in pre-trial detention in 2006 at the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC).

Court documents in the case reveal that since at least 2006, prison authorities have been aware that correctional officers in Baltimore’s prison facilities were suspected of being gang members or having gang ties. The issue first emerged publicly in April, when 24 alleged members of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang, including three correctional officers, were indicted in federal court (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5 ). U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles is presiding over both the BGF criminal case and McFadden’s civil case.

In his lawsuit, McFadden, who was convicted of drug-dealing after the attack and is serving a seven-year sentence, contends that after he had an argument with Allison, she unlocked his cell door to allow inmates who were Bloods members into his cell, resulting in an attack that inflicted 32 stab wounds on his upper body. He also claims that Allison withheld medical attention from him after the attack and that prison officials failed to investigate the incident properly. McFadden, who is represented by pro bono attorney Aaron Casagrande, said in a deposition that since the attack, he has become a Bloods member in an effort to enhance his safety as an inmate.

Allison, who is represented by Assistant Attorney General Beverly Hughes, denies McFadden’s claims, including the contention that she’s a Bloods member. She acknowledges, though, that if an inmate’s cell door was unlocked at the time of the attack, either she or a trainee who was with her, Tynisha Crew, must have unlocked it. Hughes declined to comment on the case.

Quarles’ ruling says that McFadden’s claims merit a jury trial. But what happened to McFadden is just the tip of the iceberg. Though this year’s BGF indictments drew public attention to the issue of prison guards suspected of aiding gangs, McFadden’s case reveals that the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) has been aware of it for years–and that in 2007, the warden at BCDC, William Filbert, ordered that investigative reports of the problem cease. Evidence in the case–in particular, motions filed over the summer by both McFadden and Allison–also shows that the problem is believed to involve many more correctional officers than the three accused of working with the BGF, none of whose names appear in the McFadden case documents.

McFadden’s lawsuit has revealed that in late 2006 and early 2007, 16 correctional officers, including Allison, were identified as being gang members or having gang ties in two confidential DPSCS investigative reports. According to DPSCS spokesman Rick Binetti, six of the 16 COs named in the two reports no longer work for the department, though he adds that state personnel policy dictates that he can’t say why they left their jobs. The remaining 10, including Allison, still work for the department, he says.

“The brutal attack suffered by my client, while abhorrent in its own right,” Casagrande says in an e-mail, “is only a symptom of a much larger problem at the Baltimore City Detention Center–that gangs have been able to infiltrate the ranks of BCDC correctional officers. I would hope that the case leads to more stringent screening of correctional officers and a more thorough review of policies and procedures so that a similar attack does not occur again in the future, and if one does occur, that it is properly and timely investigated.”

While Binetti could not comment specifically about McFadden’s case, he says that generally the department’s “efforts to root out and stem corrupt behavior among staff actually begins before they are hired. We are committed to investigating and hiring the best, most qualified candidates. Over the last three years, 68 percent of correctional officer applicants were rejected because they didn’t pass through the DPSCS background checks and investigation process.” He adds that, in April of this year, “the Correctional Training Division voted to adopt new, more stringent regulations requiring agencies to include verifying gang membership into the applicant background check.”

As for the department’s record of firing bad actors, Binetti says that from 2007 through March 2009, 71 members of correctional staff “have been terminated because of criminal arrests, contraband, or fraternization with inmates.” Unless corrections employees break the law or are found to have violated the department’s code of conduct, however, he says, they “like normal U.S. citizens are free to associate with whomever they choose,” including gang members.

The department’s code of conduct does not specifically mention gang members, but it does include stringent requirements prohibiting correctional officers from all but officially sanctioned interaction with inmates or their family and friends, whether on or off duty.

The confidential investigative reports naming suspect correctional officers that came to light in McFadden’s lawsuit were written by Lt. Santiago Morales, who at the time they were written worked in the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the state Department of Pretrial and Detention Services. The reports do not specify evidence implicating the officers, but state that the “information was provided by several confidential informants whose information proved to be reliable in the past.” In some cases, Morales misspelled the correctional officers names, but City Paper confirmed their identities with Binetti and through court records.

Morales’ Nov. 22, 2006, report was addressed to Filbert, BCDC’s warden. It named 12 COs as “alleged to be gang members or affiliated with” either the Bloods or the BGF. Those suspected of Bloods ties were: Allison, Duwuane Crew (husband of Tynisha Crew, Allison’s trainee), April Rheubottom, Jamal Hinton, Dareus Burrell, Angie Bouyer, and Tracy Wallace. The remaining five–Laporcha Ezekiel, Tiara Adams, Tamela Barnes, Cheryl White, and Tiffani Curbeam–were suspected of BGF ties. Morales’ Jan. 26, 2007, report, also addressed to Filbert, named three officers as being allegedly involved with the Bloods: Tia Giles, Denise Williams, and Semelda Haynes.

Binetti says that of these 16 COs, six–Crew, Rheubottom, Barnes, Haynes, Burrell, and Hinton–are no longer employed by the department. He assured City Paper that he would contact the supervisors of those still employed to let them know that City Paperwould be reporting their names, based on the investigative documents that emerged in McFadden’s case. Binetti declined City Paper‘s request to interview Filbert and Morales.

In his Feb. 2009 deposition in McFadden’s case, Morales stated that Duwuane Crew was “terminated” because “he passed handcuff keys on to inmates to assist them stab BGF gang members.” He also stated that Jamal Hinton was “terminated for his activity in gangs” after law enforcement “found gang paraphernalia, gang garb, and pictures of him holding weapons, making gang signs in his home during a raid.” Tiffani Curbeam, Morales said, “is currently still under investigation, but there was numerous statements of her bringing contraband in the institution for the BGF.” He added that “the other members, from what I understand, because I’m not in the intelligence unit anymore, might still be under investigation.”

Court documents in the McFadden case state that the practice of making reports such as those prepared by Morales ceased in early 2007, “pursuant to Warden Filbert’s instructions.” In an attempt to contact Morales for this article, City Paper called the intelligence unit where Morales used to work, and confirmed that he no longer works there. The woman who answered the phone said, “He’s actually on the BCDC night shift now,” though Binetti could confirm only that Morales still works for the Department of Pretrial and Detention Services.

The three prison guards indicted in the BGF conspiracy case–Asia Burrus, Musheerah Habeebullah, and Takevia Smith–have entered guilty pleas before Quarles, and are due to be sentenced in the coming weeks and months. All three have admitted to contraband smuggling, which helped the BGF’s alleged narcotics-distribution conspiracy in the Maryland prison system.