Homicide, Revisited: Two Men Want Detectives Made Famous by David Simon to Pay After Flawed Murder Convictions Put Them in Prison for Decades

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

James Owens is angry.

“I get pissed off every time I think about this,” the 53-year-old from Southeast Baltimore declares, sitting at a conference table in his lawyer’s office. “I don’t trust the cops,” he says, his glasses only slightly shielding the fury in his eyes, a thin mustache punctuating his vehemence. “Never have, after this happened, and I never will. I hate them.”

Looking at Owens, hearing his Baltimore accent stridently utter those words, it’s clear he’s simply telling it like it is. Twenty years in prison before being cleared of a murder conviction will make a man mad.

But Wendell Griffin, a 62-year-old also at the lawyer’s office meeting, is not the least bit angry. His bald pate rests smoothly above his kind face and soft eyes, a wispy gray beard on his chin. Griffin appears to be a gentle soul, and it seems perfectly natural for him to wax calmly and philosophically about his experience: “If the good Lord does things in such a way that I don’t even understand it,” he says, “then I just keep my faith and I move forward.”

 

Clarification: Neither of the murders for which James Owens and Wendell Griffin were wrongfully convicted occurred in 1988, and thus neither were mentioned, much less covered, in Homicide.

Hysteria: In Maryland and Across the Country, the Federal Designer-Drug Crackdown Takes Prisoners, Cash, and a Legal Backlash

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 13, 2013

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Dev Bahadur Hamal worked behind the counter of the Tobacco Stop in Bel Air, one of those ubiquitous shops that sell legal smokables and accessories for illegal ones, like bongs, hookahs, rolling papers, pot grinders, and glass pipes.

On Sept. 22, 2011, a customer stepped up to the counter and asked whether the Tobacco Stop sold “Hysteria.” Hamal nodded and sold him a 1-gram packet of the stuff, labeled “potpourri” that is “not for human consumption,” for $21.20. The customer held his hand to his mouth while pinching together his thumb and index finger, and asked if “you smoke this stuff.” Hamal said, “Yes.” Pointing out that his pipe wasn’t working properly, the customer asked for rolling papers, and Hamal said the stuff was “very strong,” urging caution if smoking it that way.

Hamal’s helpfulness has been memorialized in numerous federal court documents in the years since, causing no end of trouble.

The customer, it turned out, was an undercover officer working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Hysteria, subsequent testing confirmed, was a kind of illegal designer drug popularly known as “K2” or “Spice,” said to mimic the effects of pot. Hamal had unwittingly spawned a cross-country probe into an alleged illegal Spice supply line to Maryland from California.

Now, though, after the headlines about the arrests, seizures, and successful prosecutions resulting from Operation Log Jam and Project Synergy, one thing should be abundantly clear: It’s a risky proposition to sell anything exotic that’s construed as a legal high.

 

Nine months after Hamal’s Hysteria sale to the undercover officer and nearly 2,700 miles away, on June 12, 2012, Ratchanee McAuley was at M&C Wholesale. The business occupied three suites in a one-story, block-long commercial building in Laguna Niguel, Calif., in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Around noon, the 40-year-old from Arizona and four others unloaded a Rapid Express truck delivering packages to M&C. Then McAuley took her small white dog for a walk.

As the day wore on, pallets of white canvas bags about the size of sandbags were moved around M&C’s suites, and more deliveries arrived, including boxes filled with black foil packaging. The business made and received lots of deliveries – its FedEx bill for a four-month period that year was over $100,000. Just after 6 p.m., McAuley put her dog in a silver Land Rover, drove to a house in nearby San Juan Capistrano, checked the mail, and walked toward the front door.

These glimpses of McAuley and M&C come courtesy of David Metzler, a Howard County cop assigned as a task-force officer to DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squad 59. He went to Laguna Niguel and observed them himself, then meticulously described what he saw in numerous sworn court documents. He also swore out the details of Hamal’s Hysteria sale-and much more, involving others at M&C and at another Baltimore smoke shop, the Dragon’s Den on Fleet Street in Fells Point.

At the Dragon’s Den in the fall and winter of 2011, Carlo D’Addario of Timonium had sold bath salts to people from Virginia, and federal authorities there indicted him for it in early 2012. D’Addario’s co-defendant, Holly Renae Sprouse of Craigsville, Va., near Shenandoah National Park, helped build evidence against him, and both would later plead guilty and receive relatively short sentences-a year in prison for D’Addario, and 20 months for Sprouse.

Shortly after D’Addario’s indictment, under the supervision of Metzler’s crew, orders for Spice were placed from the Dragon’s Den to M&C, where the Tobacco Stop had gotten its Hysteria.

By June 2012, after serving search warrants for email accounts and making the controlled buys orchestrated at the Dragon’s Den, Metzler’s team had good reason to suspect M&C supplied Spice products, branded with names such as “Hysteria,” “Brain Freeze,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and “Black Sabbath,” to the Tobacco Stop, the Dragon’s Den, and other such shops in Indiana, Kentucky, and New York.

On July 25, 2012, M&C Wholesale was raided and its bank accounts emptied. The next day, the DEA announced Operation Log Jam, explaining in its press release that the AEA “allows these drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance,” including anything from pot and heroin to prescription painkillers and methadone.

The raid on M&C turned up several thousand pounds of suspected Spice, several kilograms of suspected analogue chemicals used in making Spice, and several thousand packets of Hysteria, Brain Freeze, and other brands of Spice.

Metzler had good cause to suspect they’d find such a haul. On July 17, about a week before the raid, he’d spoken with a courier who’d made deliveries at M&C and described seeing “8-10 individuals seated around a table handling piles of a green herb-like substance”-“no other sort of activity seemed to be ongoing.”

These observations, Metzler wrote in court records, “are entirely consistent [with] M&C Wholesale being exclusively devoted to the manufacture and distribution of analogue substances.”

No federal criminal charges have yet been filed publicly against anyone involved with M&C’s operation. Nor have charges been filed against Hamal or the Tobacco Stop’s owner, Kyu Tae Yi.

Others have not been so fortunate.

 

In September, federal prosecutors in Maryland moved to keep $105,574 seized from Bruce Lloyd Bradburn and his business, the Dundalk smoke shop Up in Flamez, in part because “large quantities of synthetic marijuana” were found in the store and in Bradburn’s nearby home. As a result of the probe, Bradburn is currently scheduled for a December trial on narcotics and gun charges in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Earlier, in August, federal prosecutors filed suit to keep $259,988.61 seized in a synthetic-drug investigation of three Puff & Stuff smoke shops in the Cumberland area of Western Maryland. Puff & Stuff’s owners, Traci Lynn and Charles Casey, have filed claims in the matter, asserting “a legitimate and lawful interest” in the cash, which they say they “earned, saved, and acquired through lawful employment and enterprises.” But the probe prompted drug-conspiracy indictments against the Caseys in Allegany Circuit Court, and both are scheduled for separate trials later this year.

Also this year, three men – Nathaniel Petit, Andrew Burger, and Joshua Sylvia – were charged and pleaded guilty in a conspiracy to distribute methylone shipped here from China. Methylone is used to make bath salts, and though banned temporarily under the DEA in 2011, it was only in April of this year that methylone was listed as a drug banned by the CSA. Shortly thereafter, Petit, Burger, and Sylvia were charged in Maryland federal court, though they were caught in June 2012 and initially charged in state court. They are scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

These new Maryland cases show how effectively synthetic-drug laws can be enforced to punish accused Maryland criminals and to try to take their ill-gotten gains. Sprouse’s lawyer, Fred Heblich, a veteran federal public defender in Virginia and a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law, says criminal cases involving analogues are hard for defendants to beat.

“The way that the statute is written is very broad,” Heblich says, “so that the legal definition of an analogue is not specifically the same as the scientific definition.” This means cases are “easy to prosecute because the courts don’t require scientific accuracy.” So, in a typical case in which a prosecutor is trying to prove a chemical is an analogue of a banned substance, the prosecutor simply calls to the stand a “DEA chemist who testifies they’re similar,” Heblich explains, “and then brings in a user, who says it’s similar – ‘I’ve used that stuff and it’s a lot like meth.'”

Heblich says Spice cases are “a little different animal than the bath salts-like pot and meth are different.” Law enforcers might find “Spice is less worthwhile to pursue because it doesn’t have the cachet of bath salts – there are no stories of people eating people on Spice,” Heblich says, referring to a story last year in Miami that went viral with the false information that a man who attacked another man by chewing his face was on bath salts. And bath salts, more than Spice, pose a greater law-enforcement problem, he adds, because “there are hundreds of them, and you could create thousands of analogues of this stuff.”

In bringing analogue cases to criminal court, though, the defendant is at a distinct disadvantage, Heblich says, because “the judges let the government put in whatever evidence they want, and the jury is going to convict.”

When asked about probes that have resulted not in criminal charges but in asset-forfeiture cases, Heblich says law enforcers “will go after you if you have money – that’s all they care about now.”

 

Analogue cases that go after alleged manufacturers’ assets have shown some potential to reveal the AEA’s frailties – such as the forfeiture case against M&C, filed in November 2012, which seeks to keep the $2.2 million seized from the company’s bank accounts, along with 34 money orders and 102 checks made out to the company. Like other Operation Log Jam forfeiture cases elsewhere, this one has not been easily concluded.

This summer, after Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Evan Shea filed an amended complaint in the case with U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, M&C’s attorneys, Randall Skeen and William Feldman, moved to dismiss it. They argued that the government failed to establish a fundamental common-law principle: mens rea, which is Latin for “guilty mind.” No evidence, they claimed, had been produced to show that M&C and its operators “actually knew that the substances at issue were unlawful.”

The reason the government hadn’t shown this, the lawyers continued, is that the AEA is so “unconstitutionally vague” that “a person of ordinary intelligence would have no way to reasonably learn that these substances are unlawful and thus have an opportunity to conform their conduct to the requirements of law.”

Shea swatted down these arguments in a brief filed in August, citing abundant precedent that the AEA-even when applied to recently banned substances and their analogues-consistently has been ruled not unconstitutionally vague.

Then M&C attorneys’ reply cut to the core of the matter: money. Any proceeds derived from M&C’s sale of Spice before March 1, 2011, the date the compounds involved were temporarily banned by the DEA, should not be forfeitable, they argued, nor should any proceeds that haven’t been shown to be connected to sales of banned substances. This, they claim, comes to $1,829,784.50 plus interest “based upon the government’s improper seizure.”

While M&C’s motion to dismiss the Maryland forfeiture is awaiting a ruling by Hollander – and while a related suit M&C filed in Utah, where some of its money was seized, has been put on hold pending Hollander’s decision – in Florida, a whale of an Operation Log Jam forfeiture fight is underway.

In Operation Log Jam’s Tampa-area takedown, over $18 million, a handful of homes, and a brand-new Infiniti belonging to Timothy Hummel and his family were seized. Hummel, his family, and his colleagues in an alleged Spice-manufacturing operation have not been charged criminally, and they want their property back – but the government has moved to keep it. In working to have the case thrown out of court, Hummel’s lawyers, James Felman and Katherine Yanes, have tossed around some weighty rhetoric and strong claims.

Calling the Hummel forfeiture and Operation Log Jam “the latest installment of the modern American assault on the bedrock principle of mens rea” and “the first instance in the history of the Republic in which the government has sought to seize assets – and potentially imprison its citizens – based on conduct that it literally would not have been possible for the citizenry to know was unlawful,” the lawyers argued that, in Hummel’s case, the government is doing this based on “a single man-a chemist employed by the DEA named Terrance Boos.”

Boos, according to court records, testified in February at another federal proceeding in Wisconsin, offering his scientific opinion that two compounds-XLR11 and UR-144-are banned analogues under the AEA’s standards, and that he was not aware of anyone at DEA who disagreed with that conclusion.

But Hummel later obtained government documents showing that wasn’t the case-that, in fact, as Hummel’s lawyers put it, “an entire Section of the DEA disagreed not only with Dr. Boos’ conclusion that UR-144 is an unlawful analogue, but also with his authority to reach such a conclusion on behalf of the agency.”

Thus, Hummel has unearthed dissent within DEA over whether certain substances do, in fact, meet the AEA’s “substantially similar” standard.

The Wisconsin case Boos testified in was heard by veteran U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa, a Vietnam War veteran who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and served until 2009 as the chief judge of the state’s eastern district. It involved $100,000 worth of “herbal incense” that was seized in September 2012 from The Smoke Shop in Delavan, Wis., by law enforcers who wanted to test it for illegal analogues. When they wouldn’t give it back, the owner sued for its return.

After late-winter hearings and briefings, Randa noted that “the overwhelming weight of opinion in the scientific community” is that the substances found in the incense, UR-144 and XLR-11, “are not substantially similar to the chemical structure” of an already-banned substance, JWH-018, and therefore could not be ruled analogues.

On May 16, though, in the midst of the litigation, DEA put UR-144 and XLR-11 on the list of temporarily banned analogues.

Less than a week later, on May 21, Randa concluded in an order that, given DEA’s new ban, he had no choice but to dismiss the Smoke Shop’s suit. In doing so, though, he leveled some blunt criticism of the way this complicated law is being enforced.

“Under this scenario,” Randa wrote, “it seems unfair for a federal agency to seize the property of a small business owner and then keep it until it is declared illegal.”

There you have it: a federal judge saying what defense attorneys have been arguing, so far without success – that law enforcers’ approach to leveraging the AEA’s significant powers in expanding the menu of banned analogues, in one instance at least, “seems unfair.”

MDPV

Attorneys attacking the AEA often turn to a memorable critique penned in 2008, well before the recent spate of analogue bans: the act’s definition of an analogue is an “unholy union of legalese and chemistry jargon [that] is probably enough to bewilder even the most studious individuals,” Gregory Kau concluded in “Flashback to the Federal Analog Act of 1986: Mixing Rules and Standards in the Cauldron,” an article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Still, arguing that the AEA is so vague that people can’t reasonably be expected to know whether or not they are breaking it has not been received well by courts. Over and over again, the argument has been rejected.

A high-profile Operation Log Jam defendant in Arizona, Michael “Rocky” Lane, for instance, got nowhere in pre-trial motions on this question and ended up convicted by a jury this summer. Afterwards, in September, his attorney asked for a new trial-again, in part, based on claims the AEA is unconstitutionally vague. As the prosecutor’s response makes clear, the argument is not likely to win-but the attorney, Bruce Feder, scored rhetorical points in trying.

In addition to quoting Kau’s “unholy union” commentary, Feder reached back in time to invoke the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in a 1931 opinion. “Although it is not likely that a criminal will carefully consider the text of the law before he murders or steals,” Holmes wrote, “it is reasonable that a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear.”

Sometimes, the line may not be sufficiently clear even to the law enforcers themselves. In one 2011 case in Maryland, for instance, a designer-drug prosecution was abandoned until a judge officially dismissed the charges – and the defendant proceeded to successfully sue for the return of property seized in the probe. This rare instance, perhaps, is more telling of the vagaries of the designer-drug crackdown than any protests of those targeted.

The man’s name is Mohd Abujamous, and his saga began on May 3, 2011, when a suspicious box containing five packages of an off-white powder arrived from China at a Howard County UPS store. Investigators, thanks to information from the people who arranged to have the package picked up, quickly got a search warrant to raid a warehouse in New Market, near Frederick. They found it operated “as a manufacturer, packager, and distributor of various designer drug products including bath salts and Spice,” according to court documents, and determined Abujamous ran it.

The warehouse was filled with incriminating evidence, including barrels and boxes of chemicals used in Spice and barrels of powder, an envelope in one of them labeled MDPV, which is used to make bath salts, along with lots of substance-filled packets labeled “not for human consumption.”

On May 27, 2011, Abujamous was charged with manufacturing and possessing with intent to distribute chemicals used in Spice, JWH-018, and JWH-073, which the DEA had temporarily banned under the AEA on March 1, 2011. The case languished for months, and Abujamous’ attorney, Richard Karceski, asked for it to be dismissed, pointing out that the “Government has done nothing, to include refusing to respond to defense counsel’s calls and e-mails.”

In November 2011, Abujamous instead was indicted for a different crime-introducing misbranded drugs into commerce-and shortly thereafter the Spice charges were dismissed by the prosecutor, Philip Jackson. The misbranding indictment was based on the “not for human consumption” Spice labeling and the fact that the bath salts packages did not say they contained MDPV.

Nearly a year passed after the indictment without any activity by the government. So in October 2012, Karceski moved to dismiss the indictment, pointing out that Abujamous’ right to a speedy trial was being violated. Jackson never responded, so, in late November, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ordered the indictment dismissed.

Abujamous was off the hook, after about 18 months of prosecutorial silence and inactivity. But his property taken during the raid-about $36,000 of industrial equipment, including a truck, cement mixers, and some packaging machines-was being kept by the government, and he wanted it back. Not getting any response to his requests, he ended up suing-and winning.

Judge Blake ordered the government to return Abujamous’ seized equipment in June. In doing so, she also denied attempts by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan Cassella, an expert on asset-forfeiture law, to have the case dismissed or put on hold – which, in the latter instance, was filed under seal, so Cassella’s arguments remained shrouded from public view.

Neither Karceski nor the U.S. Attorneys’ Office will provide insights as to what went on with this case. However, an August 2011 letter from Karceski to Jackson, included in case documents, sheds some light on the circumstances.

“My client has always said that he was never in violation of any federal law regarding the compounds with which he is charged,” Karceski wrote. “I request that you provide me with a detailed chemical analysis conducted by the forensic division of the DEA. A fair evaluation will show that the banned chemicals were not contained in the product seized, nor were they seized in bulk from my client.”

Apparently, there was some confusion over the law.

The Accidental Warrior

Baltimorean Matthew VanDyke Didn’t Plan to Be a Motorcycling, Freedom-Fighting, Filmmaking Activist (and Prisoner) in the Arab World, It Just Kinda Happened

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 10, 2013

All Matthew VanDyke set out to do, he says, was to be like Alby Mangels, the Australian famous in the 1970s and 1980s for making films of his own world-traveling adventures. But after what happened as VanDyke pursued this rather singular dream-including fighting against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in the 2011 Libyan civil war and spending nearly six months in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war there-he’s instead been compared to author Ernest Hemingway and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

This transformation from would-be entertainer to real-life freedom fighter has prompted VanDyke to think big: Asked about these comparisons to such cultural titans, he says, “Hopefully I can live up to those expectations.”

At 34, VanDyke likely has plenty of years left to try-assuming he continues to survive the risks he takes. Most recently, while in Syria last year filming his award-winning short documentary, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, meant to spur popular support for the revolution there, president Bashar al-Assad’s regime broadcast VanDyke’s image on television while labeling him a “terrorist.”

“It became quite dangerous for me after that,” says VanDyke. “The guys that caught me would probably torture me, because they’d be really angry-and understandably so. . . They’d make a fortune selling me to the regime.”

When Hemingway was VanDyke’s age, his books were being burned in Berlin as the Nazis were coming to power; Guevara had helped overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with socialism. VanDyke’s start – three years of filming his motorcycling adventures around the Arab world, his remarkable experiences during the eight-month Libyan war, and the production of Not Anymore – could lead him any number of ways. Whether he achieves the prominence of Hemingway, with fortunes made from reality-based literature, or of Guevara, with the blood-splattered creation of a political icon, or goes in some other direction, depends both on how VanDyke proceeds and how the world receives the roles he plays. In the meantime, he’s out to convince the world to liberate downtrodden people in conflict zones.

In explaining himself while on the lecture circuit, VanDyke often quotes a controversial figure in U.S. history: William Alexander Morgan, an American anti-communist who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship for fighting with Guevara and Fidel Castro, who had not yet revealed his socialist leanings, to overthrow Cuba’s Battista regime, and who was later executed when Castro’s government suspected him of plotting with counter-revolutionaries.

“I am here,” Morgan wrote from Cuba in a 1958 statement, “because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others. I am here because I believe that free men should take up arms and stand together and fight and destroy the groups and forces that want to take the rights of people away.”

VanDyke is determined to follow Morgan’s example, though Morgan’s fate is something he’d obviously like to avoid. Whether VanDyke uses guns or cameras, he says, depends on the circumstances. Right now, in helping the Syrian revolution, he says, “I believe that the camera is more powerful than the gun, because the camera is going to get them more guns. The role I would play as a fighter, it’s just not time right now.” VanDyke says he’s “not eager to run off to war,” especially since he grew more religious while imprisoned and now has “a bit of an issue with fighting in wars, as a Christian.” Nonetheless, he adds, “Ill do it in a second if that’s the best way to make a contribution.”

Tall and slender, VanDyke cuts a dashing figure. Photos of him with his motorcycle in the deserts of the Arab world or wielding an AK-47 and wearing military garb or an Afghan pakol cap make him look like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. It’s quite a transformation from his upbringing as an only child in Baltimore, where the Mensa member gained an education from Calvert School and Gilman School, which he dropped out of in 11th grade, opting for a GED and community college courses before entering University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

VanDyke says he loved Calvert, the expensive private lower- and middle school in North Baltimore’s Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. “I owe everything to Calvert,” he says. “That place taught me everything I know.”

Coming from Randall Street in South Baltimore, which was still a working-class neighborhood when he was growing up there, he had a decidedly different background than the upper-class kids for which Calvert is mostly known. He says his mother, Sharon VanDyke, an elementary school principal, and his father, Edgar VanDyke, a waterman and seafood broker, were divorced when he was 3, and he was the fifth generation of his family to live in their house, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents.

“I had bright people around me in my really formative years,” VanDyke says. “It makes all the difference in the world.”

Gilman was another matter, though. “I hated Gilman,” VanDyke says, explaining that as a skateboarder who listened to hip-hop, “I just didn’t fit in. I had a bit of a problem with authority-which now I’ve turned into a career. Like, that whole dress code thing, I used to mock it by basically wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie, just to be a smartass about it. I was getting in fights and arguments and things like that. And I didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut. I had ADD [attention deficit disorder], so I would say things without thinking and strategically planning.” He also says he’s been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety-producing condition that was aggravated by his imprisonment.

VanDyke excelled at UMBC, graduating in 2002 with a 4.0 grade-point average and winning the political science department’s “outstanding scholar/leader award,” he says. His interest in the Arab world blossomed at UMBC, where late Middle East expert Louis Cantori was on the political science faculty. “I started to take his courses,” VanDyke says, “and that’s how I got into the Middle East,” saying he “identified it as a likely area where there was going to be change and potential and action.”

After UMBC, VanDyke entered Georgetown University’s prestigous Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., where he says he was a bit of an oddity. “There were people who were in the military, in the CIA, working for the State Department,” he explains, “and there I was, riding my skateboard to class.” VanDyke, too, wanted to work for the CIA, explaining that he “was mesmerized by the Hollywood aspect of it, my fictitious image of what the CIA does. Now I know it’s more like a mixture of James Bond and the U.S. Post Office, as one of my friends who works in U.S. intelligence has told me.”

While in the process of applying for a summer internship at the CIA, VanDyke’s problems with authority came to the fore. “I went to my first CIA interview, and that day, after the interview, I went to my first Iraq War protest,” he recalls. “I didn’t really see a conflict at the time. I nailed the interview and I got pretty far through the process.” But his polygraph test kept getting delayed as his anti-war activism grew, and ultimately, he decided against reapplying. “With a concentration in Middle East security studies, they were going to put me on the Iraq War,” he explains, “and I didn’t want to work on a war I didn’t believe in.”

After graduating from Georgetown in 2004, “I felt like my life was really wrecked,” VanDyke recalls. “I had put so much time and effort and money into the education, and I had wanted to work for the CIA, to start out as an analyst and then transition into the operations side. But my worldview changed with the Iraq War.”

VanDyke says he thought the Iraq War “was a disaster for U.S. foreign policy”-and he “knew it would be, because I could put myself in the shoes of Iraqis, that when they see soldiers from another country walking around in their country and setting up checkpoints, they’re not going to be happy about it, no matter what we did in removing the regime. I wanted Saddam [Hussein] removed, but I wanted it to be actually just like what ended up being done in Libya-air power and support [of] the local population. I wanted people to do it themselves.”

At Georgetown, VanDyke says he’d been “advocating for the Libya model, it just wasn’t called the Libya model then. Let them overthrow their own government. In Iraq, we basically overthrew regime and then handed it to them. They didn’t spill the blood getting rid of it-so then they started spilling their blood trying to get rid of us. Anybody should’ve been able to understand that.”

After misgivings about the Iraq War essentially tanked his chosen career path, VanDyke cast about for something to do with his life. “I went and I tried to start a business with my cousin, totally unrelated, and that didn’t work,” he recalls. “And I went down to the beach and painted boats at a boatyard, doing roofing, trying to figure out what to do next.”

That’s when he remembered Alby Mangels.

“I had seen Alby Mangels’ shows on the Travel Channel [in 1996] and never forgot it,” VanDyke recalls, “and I realized that’s what I want to do. I always wanted to do documentary filmmaking, but I thought it would be, like, my retirement career after the CIA. But in 2004, 2005, I realized, ‘Why don’t I make adventure films?'”

VanDyke at that time had recently started driving a motorcycle, “so I thought, Well, why don’t I drive a motorcycle across the Arab world?It’s the region I studied, it’s where the action is. I’ll do an Alby Mangels film, but I’ll upgrade it for the 21st century, take it to a whole other level, learn about the region I’d been studying-because I’d never actually been to the Middle East, even though I was a Middle East expert.”

It was the revelation that would spark the chain of events that transformed VanDyke from a run-of-the-mill, over-educated beach bum to a remarkable and controversial freedom fighter.

The first stop on VanDyke’s three-year trek was Madrid, Spain, followed by Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, filming along the way. He sometimes worked as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan but says he produced very little published copy-an article for The Baltimore Examiner about Iraqi perceptions of the U.S., and pieces for a Kurdish paper in Iraq about an Islamic faith healer, Kurdish agriculture policy, and his motorcycling experiences in Kurdistan. He’d return periodically to the States, spending time in Baltimore, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania, but once he got to Iraq, his filmmaking vision started to come into focus.

“I never thought I could go to Iraq on a motorcycle,” VanDyke recalls. “When I found out I could, I did. Then, once I was there, I wanted more, wanted to push things higher and higher. That’s why I kept trying to drive to Baghdad and kept getting detained and arrested. I met this guy Dan Britt, a photographer, kind of a rebel, who’d been kicked out of the embed program, and I knew he was the only guy crazy enough to go with me Afghanistan. So I decided Dan and I would do a film called War Zone Bikers where we’d hit two war zones in one film.”

The film has never been made, and today, VanDyke says he’s not ready to do it any time soon, even though he says a producer and director would like to do the project as a reality-TV show. After having served in Libya and now supporting the Syrian revolution, he explains, “I didn’t want to do something that was the slightest bit jackass-y at a serious time, when I’m doing serious work.” Later, he says, he still might do War Zone Bikers “if the show could be done in a way that’s still respectful of my serious work.”

While still in Madrid, before spending three years collecting hundreds of hours of footage in nearly a dozen Middle Eastern countries, VanDyke met someone who’s been an important supporter of his life’s work since: Lauren Fischer. They met in early 2006, while VanDyke was waiting for his 1981 Yamaha XS650 motorcycle-a dud of a bike, which died without leaving Spain-to come through customs. He noticed Fischer, an American from the suburbs of Philadelphia, in the lounge of the hostel where he was staying because she was wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt. Turns out, even though they’d never before met, they’d been at the school at the same time, she as an undergraduate. Fischer was in Madrid teaching English while waiting to get into graduate school in the States.

“We started talking,” Fischer recalls, “and he hadn’t really seen much of Madrid, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll show you the city.’ We spent the next day together-and then spent most of the next six months together. He stayed with me, but it was only supposed to be a couple of weeks while he was waiting to get his motorcycle, but he didn’t leave.”

Today, more than six years later, they’re still together. While Fischer went on to get her master’s in teaching at Columbia University in New York (she now teaches second grade at a Baltimore City Public Schools elementary school), VanDyke bounced back to Baltimore, Pennsylvania, or the Delaware beaches in between his motorcycling forays across the Middle East.

“He would be gone for maybe three months, and then back here for a month,” Fischer recalls, “then gone for six months, back for three months. We did talk but not every day. It was hard, especially with the time difference. And then his equipment would go bad or something would break, and I had to get a replacement part and ship it to some strange location where he was.”

Over time, Fischer grew accustomed to expecting the unexpected when VanDyke touched base from the other side of the world. “I was going to a show on Broadway,” she recalls, for example, “and he called to ask if I could talk to my dad about his legal rights because he’d been detained or had his motorcycle taken away, leaving him stranded. There was definitely a lot of anxiety, but I eventually got used to it. I built up a tolerance, a level of comfort with the uncomfortable.”

VanDyke’s mother, Sharon, says “I thought it was great” when her son set off for his ambitious trek. “We are a motorcycle family, even though we don’t look like one-when I was in college I had a motorcycle, his dad had a motorcycle, my grandfather had a motorcycle. I supported him any way I could to prepare for that journey. I’d raised him to get out there and do something, and he had all this book knowledge about the Middle East but he wanted to go experience it.”

The big trip began inauspiciously, with the old Yamaha dying in Spain and being replaced with a brand-new Kawasaki KLR 650, and it only got worse in Morocco, where he had to fend off drug dealers who “asked me how many kilos I want of marijuana, and I didn’t even smoke marijuana.” After just a few days, he broke his collarbone in a motorcycle crash, prompting another return home to recuperate.

When he returned to Morocco, VanDyke says he was “terrified” and “afraid to leave my hotel room”-his state of mind was so bad that “my girlfriend said, ‘Why are you such a coward?’ At that point, I was looking for any reason to come home.”

Rather than bail, though, VanDyke “went down to Mauritania and did kind of a desert safari with two Spaniards, two Israelis, a Japanese guy, a rabbit, and a dog. My motorcycle broke down in the desert, and I had it brought out in a truck with a goat.” When he returned with his motorcycle repaired, he met Nouri Fonas, who VanDyke describes as a Libyan “hippy” who’d “been traveling all over the world for like 10 years with his cousin.”

Four years later, during the Libyan war, “Nouri was the driver of the Jeep, and I was the gunner,” VanDyke explains. VanDyke’s bonds and loyalty to Fonas and the other Libyans he met in Mauritania and, later, during his first visit to Libya in 2008, are the reasons he went there in 2011 to help defeat the regime of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

“It was personal,” VanDyke explains. “I ended up having to cancel conference calls I’d set up with an HBO producer and another Academy Award-winning producer about War Zone Bikers because my friends in Libya started telling me about what was happening there, and I bailed on everything. And I’d written a book that I’d had an agent for, about my travels, but they had been telling me for a few days what was happing on Gmail Chat and Facebook, and then I suddenly made the decision that I’m going. And I booked the flight.”

Late at night on March 6, 2011, about three weeks after Libyan unrest had started with protests in Benghazi, VanDyke arrived there from Cairo, Egypt. When he first saw Fonas, he recalls, “Nouri’s like in military clothes and totally serious. He had cut his hair down, you know, he used to have kind of a ‘fro, a little bit. And it was like a totally transformed Nouri, from Nouri the hippy to Nouri the warrior. That’s when I knew that I could serve in the revolution, for sure.”

VanDyke immediately joined them in preparations for fighting. “From that very first day,” he recalls, “we went and started fixing up [Fonas’] friend Ali’s truck that had been damaged in the Rajma weapons depot explosion. I have video of this too-this truck is so beat up. I took the camera with me because I had been filming my life for years in the region.” They got a DShK .50-caliber heavy machine gun, popularly called a “dushka,” to mount on the truck and some mortar tubes, for which VanDyke sought advice from a family friend on how to use.

Then, on March 13-a week after his arrival-VanDyke was captured. He was in Brega “to figure out where to set all this stuff up, familiarizing ourselves with the town, looking for good defensive positions,” and “some guy’s serving us coffee on the tray, and I took his picture, showed him the picture-and that’s the last thing I remember. They knocked me out with a severe strike, and I wake up in prison with the sound of a man being tortured.”

VanDyke says he was interrogated only once, shortly after he regained consciousness, and he doesn’t know where he was. “They played video off my camera,” he recalls, “of me saying to Nouri, ‘You remind me every day why we fight’ after we said something about Gaddafi. I was thinking, oh, shit,” because he was sure his friends would soon be arrested and imprisoned too.

The interrogators “accused me of being CIA or Mossad,” the Israeli spy agency, and “I said, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous.’ I told them I’d been in Libya before, and they said, ‘Oh, why were you in Libya?’ And I said, ‘I was driving a motorcycle from Mauritania to Afghanistan to make a movie, to film it.’ And they were like, ‘You are in the CIA.’ That fit their Hollywood image of what the CIA does.”

First, VanDyke was in Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli, “in a 7-by-4-foot cell for 80 days,” he recalls “and then I was moved to Abu Salim prison for the next 85 days. I heard men being tortured in the prison or violently interrogated.” Both prisons are notorious-especially Abu Salim, a reputation that would later serve him well, after his escape.

In the meantime, though, VanDyke was missing. No one knew where he was, and efforts to locate him by Human Rights Watch were fruitless. “When he was captured,” his mother says, “I never once thought that he had been killed.” VanDyke, though, was sure he would be.

“I knew I was finished,” he recalls. “I was a terrorist by the definition of the regime, and guys caught doing exactly what I was doing, if they were caught in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’d be in Guantanamo. I felt like I had left my mother alone since my grandparents had died, and I knew she’d never stop fighting to get me released, but I don’t want to become, like, the cause of her life. I want her to enjoy her retirement. I thought I’d never see my girlfriend again, and I thought maybe someday I’d get out in like 20, 30 years and meet the children that should’ve been my children. It was quite a depressing time. I figured that the regime had sent assassins to Nouri’s house and killed him for this, for me, and for what’s on the video. It was my fault. I worried about the guys I was captured with, if they were being tortured, if they were imprisoned, if they would ever get out.”

The guilt and remorse ate at VanDyke as he had “nothing to do but stare at a wall for like six months. All this stuff with people thinking I was a journalist-the regime released journalists, they were given like a little trial, charged with not having a visa, and sent home. The regime made me disappear. They made me vanish. They put me in isolated parts of the prison. The guards didn’t even know I was an American. They didn’t know who I was. The world thought I was dead.”

And then, on Aug. 24, 2011, the Abu Salim guards abandoned the prison, and someone broke the lock on VanDyke’s cell. He walked out into Tripoli with other escaping prisoners, was given some money by the imam at a local mosque, and eventually, after a couple of days staying with well-wishers, ended up with a room at the five-star Corinthia Hotel Tripoli.

VanDyke, after reuniting with Fonas, promptly rejoined the war effort and fought for two months until Gaddafi was killed and the rebels’ victory was assured. During this time, he recalls, he made ample use of informal weapons training he’d received while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he seriously engaged in the front-line fighting.

Media interest simmered while VanDyke had been missing, then came to a boil after his escape and return to the front. Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, returned with VanDyke to Abu Silam and found the cell where he’d been kept in solitary confinement, and posed for photos reenacting his time there. There was also coverage from CNN, the Washington Post, and the Global Post, a Boston-based international news website.

“The press was good at covering this story when I was missing,” VanDyke recalls, “so I reluctantly did interviews.” He says he was “excited” about Engel’s interest, and their visit to the prison turned up “a piece of the lock of my cell,” which, after finding the other piece on another return visit, he now keeps as a souvenir.

VanDyke says he also became friends with the Global Post’s James Foley, who he escorted to the front lines, along with other journalists, so they could report on the war.

“It was really dangerous for journalists to jump into vehicles of rebels, because rebels don’t think generally two steps ahead,” VanDyke points out, “but Nouri and I were very careful, especially when we had people with us, to like ask what’s ahead, what’s around the next corner, always cautious and alert. So we were one of the more safe transportation for journalists in between the fighting to get them up there.”

But his decision to resume fighting disappointed Human Rights Watch, whose emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, was quoted in the press as saying: “We all worked hard to try and locate him and get him home safe for all those months, and it is a bit tragic to now see him try and join the fight as a rebel.”

Bouckaert “was very angry when I didn’t come home,” VanDyke recalls, and “he later wrote that it felt like I had spat at his face and the faces of the other people who had advocated for me while I was missing. But none of these guys got me out of prison. Rebels got me out of prison. I got myself out of prison. My mother raised me so that when you take on a commitment, you finish it, and it hadn’t been finished yet. There actually happens to be video of the time I told Nouri, ‘I’m not leaving until Libya is free, no matter how long it takes.’ And I wasn’t going to go back on that. So I stayed, and it ticked off some people whose business it really wasn’t.

“After prison,” VanDyke continues, “Nouri’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going back to the front line.’ His father’s like, ‘OK, good luck.’ It’s not weird to them that somebody would come and help their friend to overthrow the regime. To them, that’s not a strange thing. I don’t know why it’s so strange to Americans.”

When the Libyan war ended, VanDyke returned to Baltimore, and the controversy over his service continued. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which had worked on his case while he was missing, wrote that VanDyke misled people about his intentions in going to Libya and that “pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception,” but “a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict.”

The criticism became quite pitched in the case of conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel, who wrote a column shortly after VanDyke’s return from Libya entitled “Dumbass: 32-year-old ‘American’ Fights for Libyan Rebel Muslims,” calling him a “jerk” and a “loser.”

The source of the confusion is unclear, as VanDyke says that when he was missing, “journalists, they’re like, ‘What was he doing?’ Well, they hear that I was touring the Arab world, shooting video, working on this book about my travels, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s writing, he’s a journalist.’ And they started using the label. It’s not a label that my family uses, it’s a label that journalists used. Not like there’s anything wrong with being a journalist, but I don’t want people confusing what I do with journalism. And then I take heat for it even though I’m the one who’s most vocal about not being a journalist.”

So when VanDyke set out to do his Syria film, he made it very clear he was going as an activist filmmaker, not a journalist. And Not Anymore comes across as masterfully designed propaganda with compelling footage of the very dangerous conditions in war-torn Aleppo. VanDyke says the 15-minute documentary is “like a symphony of crescendos, diminuendos, peaks, and valleys” that both “entertain the viewers and then slap them in the face with emotion.” It’s gone over well on the film-festival circuit, winning the audience-favorite award for documentary shorts at the Palm Springs International Shortfest, the country’s largest short-film festival, and in January, CNN aired clips from Not Anymore during a five-minute interview of VanDyke by Victor Blackwell.

But Not Anymore was expensive to make-$15,000 of his own money to produce it, plus more money spent to get it shown at festivals and mail DVDs around to influential people-and so far VanDyke is at a loss over how it will produce any revenue. At times, he claims, he’s foregone revenue-generating opportunities in order to avoid conflicts that could prompt criticism.

For instance, VanDyke says, given that he “had really good access” with the revolutionary Free Syria Army while shooting Not Anymore, he could have made “thousands of dollars selling photos and video to the press.” He didn’t, though, because “the commitment I made publicly” at the outset was “to stick to [being an] activist filmmaker and not do anything else,” such as engage in journalism-a label that, despite his strenuous protests, has continued to stick to him. If his work in Syria had even a hint of journalism mixed in with it, he says he’d be constrained by the rules of the media game in conflict zones, which dictate he neither pick sides nor bear arms-both of which he felt compelled to do in Syria.

Though VanDyke’s website (matthewvandyke.com) describes him as working as a “journalist, war correspondent, political columnist, [and] talk radio show host” over the years, he emphasizes that “I’ve never been paid for one article or one photograph or one piece of video in my life.” He adds that “I accept the label of former journalist because people tell me I am, but it’s flimsy. It’s not like I ever made a living-I actually just spent money doing it.”

How he’ll dig himself out of his financial straits remains an elusive quest, though he’s working on getting grant funding for setting up a nonprofit women’s center in Syria.

“It will be a place to train women activists, train women journalists, and give them a safe place to stay and work,” VanDyke explains. “A lot of their families won’t let them work in the revolution because if they sleep in a building with men, they get a reputation. So some women who want to work in the revolution can’t. Women’s role in the revolution has been diminished because of these cultural things, so I want to give them a building that they can have, that they can work in. I can bring in people from the outside for workshops and they can work there without these reputation problems.”

Fischer is especially excited about VanDyke’s prospects with the Syrian women’s center. “It would really help the people of Syria,” she says. But Fischer is not so excited about what she calls VanDyke’s so-far unrealized “earning potential.” “Ideally,” she says, “he’ll bring some money back as soon as possible.” Perhaps VanDyke’s long-envisioned movie and book will start to bring in a return on his life’s investments. He predicts both will be out next year.

Sharon VanDyke, meanwhile, has room to be proud of her son without getting overly anxious about his money problems. His work now, she says, “is very different from when he was going to make motorcycle documentaries that he was going to sell for entertainment. Now it’s about the rights of people and the oppression of people and the murdering of thousands of people by these governments.” If he needs to get somewhere in a conflict zone to help out, she adds, “I’ll take him to the airport. I raised him to do what he has a passion for, and that’s what’s happened.”

Straight Outta Accra: West Africa looms large in Baltimore heroin-trafficking cases

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 23, 2012

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Last April, thousands of miles from Baltimore in the West African country of Ghana, a man known as “Wagba” got on the phone and mediated a Baltimore heroin-dealing dispute.

Nana Boateng, who supplied Baltimore dealers with heroin shipped under Wagba’s direction by couriers traveling to the United States on commercial flights leaving West Africa, was in a heated argument with another Ghanaian, Krist Koranteng, who also supplied Baltimore heroin dealers with courier-carried heroin from West Africa.

The two were threatening one another, with Koranteng saying he’d arrange for men to come from Ghana to kill Boateng if he didn’t pay up for short-changing Koranteng’s friend, Moses Appram, on a 200-gram heroin deal. Boateng, in response, vowed to come to Ghana and kill Koranteng himself.

Since Boateng’s phones were wiretapped as part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation, his conversations with Wagba were recorded for posterity. As a result of the probe, Boateng, Koranteng, Appram, and three others were indicted last year in Maryland federal court for participating in a heroin conspiracy. All of them pleaded guilty except Appram, whose three-day trial in Baltimore’s federal courthouse ended on May 2 with a jury conviction. Koranteng testified as a government cooperator, and Wagba’s name, as well as the recorded, translated, and transcribed phone conversations he had with Boateng, came up often during the trial.

Ultimately, no one was killed or attacked as a result of the dispute, and Koranteng testified that he ended up taking the loss on Appram’s ill-fated deal with Boateng. But Wagba’s dealings with Boateng did not end there. In late May 2011, according to court documents, Wagba coordinated a courier shipment of heroin to Boateng, who waited for six hours at Washington Dulles International Airport as the courier, who was caught by law enforcers as she arrived with 3.3 kilograms of heroin in her luggage, was detained and questioned by authorities. At the agents’ direction, the courier called Wagba, who told her “someone would get back to her. Shortly thereafter, a call from Boateng was received” on the courier’s phone, the court documents state.

That a phantom, faraway figure like Wagba could play such an intimate role in Baltimore’s heroin trade, both by managing a street-level flap like Appram’s flimflamming at the hands of Boateng and by orchestrating a subsequent intercepted delivery, speaks volumes about how closely tied Baltimore’s heroin trade is to West Africa, even though the two are thousands of miles apart. And that Koranteng, who was in Ghana as he argued over the phone with Boateng, suggested he could send Ghanaian killers to do his dirty work in Baltimore further emphasizes how small a world the global heroin trade sometimes can be.

But when looked at from a broader perspective, the heroin trade involving West Africa can seem immense, complex, and highly geopolitical, since the region is considered by the United Nations, the United States and other countries, and an array of nongovernmental organizations to be currently one of the world’s foremost transshipment points for narcotics from Asia and Latin America.

The reason for this, DEA special agent Todd Edwards explained on the stand at Appram’s trial, is that it is “difficult” for producers to ship directly to the United States from the source countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia, Colombia, and Mexico—because “everyone knows” they are source countries, so law-enforcement scrutiny will be greater. Heroin producers, therefore, prefer to “go to other countries to have the heroin shipped to the U.S.,” Edwards continued, “and Africa is one of those places, and Ghana and Nigeria are two of the major ones.”

Thus, criminals in West Africa not only get lucrative narco-business serving the transportation needs of the world’s heroin producers; they may also become strategically important to the producer’s larger strategic agendas. And increasingly, the United States is presenting evidence that those agendas have turned West Africa into a key locale for terrorists’ drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities.

In 2009, the same year the DEA opened an office in Accra, Ghana, three al Qaeda-linked men from Mali were arrested in Ghana and charged by U.S. authorities with drug trafficking in aid of terrorism—the first use of a new federal law passed in 2006. West African drug trafficking is also implicated in two other terror-financing cases filed recently in New York, one involving the Taliban and the other Hezbollah, a militant Muslim group and political party based in Lebanon that the United States and a handful of other Western and Middle Eastern countries regard as a terrorist group.

The Taliban case, filed in February 2011, accuses seven men, two of them U.S. citizens, of conspiring to help the Afghan religious movement’s heroin- and cocaine-trafficking enterprises and to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that the Taliban would use to protect its heroin-processing facilities in Afghanistan from attacks by U.S. forces. The lead co-conspirator, Maroun Saade, is described in the indictment as a “narcotics trafficker operating in West Africa” who agreed to transport “multi-ton shipments of Taliban-owned heroin” to Ghana, where “portions of those shipments would be sent by commercial airplane to the United States to be sold for the financial benefit of the Taliban.” Saade and the others allegedly believed they were dealing with the Taliban, but in fact they were dealing with confidential sources working on behalf of the DEA.

The other case is a civil forfeiture suit in which the U.S. government seeks to take ownership of the assets of businesses and banks involved in an alleged half-billion-dollar drug-money-laundering scheme to aid Hezbollah.

The central drug-trafficking figure accused in the Hezbollah case is Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese man who is currently a fugitive from U.S. justice in a Virginia federal case charging him with bringing 85,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States and laundering more than $850 million in Mexican drug-cartel money. Saade, from the Taliban case, also figures in this case, allegedly helping to move laundered cash derived from used-car sales in West Africa to Lebanon.

Though no prosecution brought so far in Maryland has drawn connections between Baltimore heroin dealers and West Africans tied to terrorism, the Hezbollah forfeiture case in New York includes two Maryland car dealers—one in Columbia, the other in Burtonsville, a small Montgomery County town of about 10,000 people, near Laurel—whose assets are being targeted for forfeiture because of evidence they helped launder Hezbollah drug money by accepting millions of dollars in wire transfers to buy cars and ship them to West Africa, where they were sold for cash bound for Lebanon.

In essence, the 65-page Hezbollah complaint describes an alleged scheme in which drug-derived cash was temporarily converted into cars. This would eliminate the risks of detection and headaches of shipping bulk cash back across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. Once the cars arrive there, though, they can quickly be converted back to cash—with a profit margin, given the higher prices the cars fetch in West Africa.

Both Appram and Koranteng were in the cars-to-West-Africa business, according to evidence in Appram’s trial. So were other co-conspirators who testified at Appram’s trial, as well as defendants in several other Maryland cases involving heroin from West Africa. In each instance, there is nothing to suggest the car-shipping enterprises were anything but legitimate. The coincidence is striking, however—especially in light of the fact that Appram and Koranteng are both residents of Burtonsville, where one of the car dealers with alleged Hezbollah ties is located.

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Though heroin comes almost entirely from poppies grown in Asia and South America, as special agent Edwards explained during Appram’s trial, criminal trade routes of varying geography and sophistication convey it across the world. Judging by the Appram case, and numerous other recent cases in federal court here and in Virginia, law enforcers are mounting a sustained, multi-front assault on the West African route to Baltimore, especially through Ghana and Nigeria.

Commercial-air travelers entering the United States from West Africa as paid heroin couriers are a key element of the supply chain, court records show. With practice, so-called “internal smugglers” ingest “pellets”—finger-sized, egg-shaped packages of heroin—in seemingly impossible numbers. Adding to the flow are couriers who pack heroin not in their stomachs, but in their luggage, clothing, or wigs.

How much of this heroin smuggled from West Africa is bound for Baltimore’s streets is hard to say, but judging from the pace and scope of recent prosecutions, it’s significant. Here’s a chronological sampling:

Edward Aboagye, a Baltimore-based Ghanaian car dealer who exported vehicles to West Africa while enrolled as a student at Morgan State University, was charged in a heroin conspiracy, along with two others, after a half-kilogram of heroin in pellets was found in the safe of his hotel room at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in downtown Baltimore on March 14, 2009. He pleaded guilty and testified against one of his co-conspirators, who was found guilty by a jury.

Two weeks later, Frank Aidoo, a Ghana-born Dutch citizen, was caught at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) with 100 heroin pellets in his stomach; his business, according to court records, was buying clothing abroad to resell in Ghana. He pleaded guilty, but recently won an appeal of his sentence.

In January 2010, Suleiman Zakaria arrived at BWI on a flight that originated in Ghana, and three kilograms of heroin were found within the lining of his luggage. He was convicted at a jury trial after mounting a defense that included facts about his business: shipping used cars purchased in the United States to resell in Ghana.

In April 2011 in Virginia, eight people were indicted for a heroin-importation conspiracy that supplied Baltimore, along with other areas, with heroin that was brought by couriers from West Africa to the United States. Nearly all of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

In July 2011, Baltimore City Police officer Daniel Redd was among five indicted in a heroin conspiracy supplied from West Africa. One of the co-conspirators in the case, Abdul Zakaria, aka Tamim Mamah, is Suleiman Zakaria’s brother. He testified as a government cooperator at Appram’s trial, where, in explaining his work history, he said he “was buying cars and shipping them to Africa.” All five defendants in the Redd case have pleaded guilty.

Just after Christmas 2011, two men, Nana Bartels-Riverson and Awal Mohammad, were arrested on I-95 in Howard County after nearly a kilogram of heroin was found in the car they were driving. When interviewed by DEA agents, Mohammad explained that the heroin had come from Ghana via courier, and that they were taking it to Baltimore to sell to a dealer. Their case is still in court.

On Dec. 29, 2011, a wiretap investigation by DEA investigators targeting three alleged drug traffickers suspected of having couriers smuggle heroin into Maryland from Africa—Eddie Patrick, Kenneth Ukoh, and Chrisanti Ignass, who, court documents state, conducted heroin transactions at the InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore—culminated with an African courier in a Maryland hotel room, expelling what eventually turned out to be 80 heroin-filled condoms from his gastrointestinal tract. Their case is still in court.

In March, a Nigerian woman, Ngozi Helen Omokoh, and two Maryland men—David Shenard Merritte of Baltimore and Larry Deen Hutchinson of Prince George’s County—were charged after all three were found in a Maryland hotel room where Omokoh had delivered 725 grams of heroin pellets. Their case is still in court.

On May 3, after a 15-month wiretap investigation, the DEA arrested Joseph Osiomwan, a 51-year-old car dealer who lives in idyllic Monkton, near the posh Manor Tavern five-star restaurant, and owns Woodland Motors, a used-car dealership on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore City. He was arrested as he left an alleged stash house in Northeast Baltimore, and when the agents searched him, they found what they described in court documents as three “fingers” or “eggs” of heroin, commonly used for “heroin to be smuggled into the United States via an internal body carrier.”

One of the common themes running through the stories of the defendants in many of these West African-tied heroin cases in Maryland is that many of them are not solely drug dealers, but also pursue legitimate-looking enterprises—especially buying cars in the United States for resale in West Africa.

How illegitimate such enterprises allegedly can be is illustrated in the Taliban and Hezbollah cases filed in New York. In the absence of any such accusations involving West Africa’s heroin trade in Maryland, though, all the public can know is that people like Wagba in Ghana coordinate shipments of heroin to Baltimore and mediate street beefs—or perhaps settle them—from afar, and that the heroin couriers will continue to come, supplying Baltimore’s streets with heroin.

Holy War: Inside the Crusade to Kill Maryland’s New Marriage-Equality Law

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 3, 2012

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Maryland holds a special place in the legal history of same-sex marriage in America. In 1973, Maryland lawmakers reacted to marriage attempts by same-sex couples by enacting the nation’s first state law defining marriage as occurring between one man and one woman—what has since been dubbed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became federal law in 1996.

This year, nearly two generations later, Maryland reversed course and passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act (CMPA), legalizing same-sex marriages. While public polls show it is increasingly popular nationwide and in Maryland, same-sex marriage is anathema to many for whom the Bible, which frowns on homosexuality, is “The Word,” setting God’s laws for all people. And for them, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is the best hope for keeping the biblical basis for marriage on the law books in Maryland and wherever else it is threatened.

Since forming in 2007 to back California’s Proposition 8, the successful constitutional-amendment referendum to end same-sex marriages there, NOM has been the driving force to keep gays and lesbians from gaining or maintaining the legal right to marry in America. With the passage of the CMPA in Maryland, NOM’s well-honed organizational prowess has come to the state in the form of the Maryland Marriage Alliance (MMA), on whose three-member board sits NOM’s executive director, Brian S. Brown.

MMA and NOM donated more than four-fifths of the money raised to support the highly successful petition drive that landed the CMPA on the Nov. 6 ballot as Question 6, which will decide whether the law survives. And MMA is the main group—joined by one other, Jump the Broom for Marriages (JBM)—registered to raise and spend campaign funds to defeat Question 6. The first campaign-finance reports of the ballot battle are due in October, so who’s raising and spending how much, and where the money’s coming from, remains to be seen.

In each of the 32 times same-sex marriage questions were on state ballots around the country, they have failed, and those opposed are determined to make sure that happens again this year in Maryland, as well as in the other three states—Maine, Minnesota, and Washington—that have ballot questions on the issue on Nov. 6.

The question is: How far will NOM, MMA, and JBM go in their attempt to kill the new law, given that polling shows a majority of Marylanders support gay marriage and a dwindling number oppose it?

The answer may never be entirely clear, since NOM goes to great lengths in its attempts to protect how it raises and spends money from public scrutiny. But based on NOM’s past conduct, its time-tested partnerships with anti-gay-marriage leaders in Maryland, and JBM’s ties to a Maryland political mover-and-shaker with scandal in his past, expect anti-gay-marriage tactics to get ugly in Maryland.

The ugliness has already shown its face in the rhetoric of NOM-tied preachers in Maryland. Perhaps the boldest statements have come from Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, where MMA Executive Director Derek McCoy is associate pastor. Jackson has linked gay marriage with “a Satanic plot to destroy our seed.”

Among longtime opponents of gay marriage in Maryland, such as state Del. Donald Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel County)—who has introduced legislation each year for nearly a decade that would make DOMA an amendment to the Maryland Constitution—and Michael Peroutka of the Institute on the Constitution (IOTC), a longtime Dwyer supporter, the use of venom against gays and lesbians is particularly overt.

In a February column on the IOTC’s web site, the American View, Peroutka praises Dwyer “valiantly fighting the desperate efforts of the sodomite lobby in Annapolis to redefine the God-given and God-ordained institution of marriage.” He then goes on to thank Dwyer for the way he testified against the CMPA, since it helped Peroutka realize something “that had eluded me.” That something was this, as memorialized in Dwyer’s written testimony:

“The reason why it is so desperately important to homosexuals to redefine marriage has little to do with ‘fairness’ and much to do with gaining access to straight, normal, decent Maryland children. . . . You see, homosexuals can’t reproduce. So they must recruit. The best place to recruit is in schools where they can have unfettered access to children. . . . Stripped of all its phony ‘fairness’ language, what is being pushed is nothing short of government-authorized perversion of Maryland children. It’s a license for child abuse.”

In August, Bishop Jackson echoed this point at Glenn Beck’s “Under God: Indivisible” conference in Texas, saying, in connection with the gay marriage issue, that “folks who cannot reproduce want to recruit your kids.”

After the CMPA passed in Annapolis, Peroutka wrote a column entitled “Maryland Legislature Commits Suicide.” In it, he concluded that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that “no matter how much ink gets spilled on paper in Annapolis, no change has occurred in either the laws of gravity or the definition of marriage. . . . Until this Governor is impeached and until this legislature is recalled and replaced with citizens who know the law and the limits of civil jurisdiction, there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.”

In this environment among opponents of gay marriage, it was hardly surprising when Dennis Leatherman, pastor of the Mountain Lake Independent Baptist Church in Oakland, Md., said of gays during a May sermon: “Kill them all. Right? I will be very honest with you. My flesh kind of likes that idea.” Then he backed off, noting that such a notion “violates Scripture. It is wrong.”

On the other side of the marriage-equality question, potent backing for Question 6 has been found among prominent African-American pastors who agree with the Maryland NAACP, as well as its branches in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, that marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Many of them gathered to speak in support of Question 6 at a Sept. 21 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The roster of African-American luminaries from churches across the country who came to the event included well-known names among the faithful, such as Dr. Otis Moss III, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; Dr. Amos C. Brown of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco; Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III, of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas; and Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. Their arguments invoked the “equal protection under the law” clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the same clause that undergirded the legal arguments for civil rights causes that were so bitterly fought in U.S. history—and stressed the tradition of separation of church and state, pointing out that civil laws and religious tenets best not intermingle, including in questions of marriage.

All spoke passionately, with concise, tightly hewn moral and theological logic. The marquee name at the event was Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered a short homily, pointing out that he’s been for same-sex marriage since 2003. But perhaps the tightest, most moving statement came from someone who may not be a household name: Dr. Brad R. Braxton of the Open Church in Baltimore.

“My support of marriage equality is an endorsement of justice and love,” Braxton began. “Marriage can be a moral good,” he continued, and “denying access to the fullness of that moral good on the basis of sexual orientation is politically unjust and morally inappropriate.” After acknowledging the diversity of views on the issue and emphasizing that they “need to be discussed and debated in a respectful manner,” Braxton said, “my enthusiastic support of this legislation is rooted in a sense of political justice.” He invoked the past, saying that “as an African-American Christian pastor and theologian, I feel a moral obligation to advocate for marriage equality” because “in this country’s history, African-Americans were once denied the right to marry and form families. As a descendent of people who were denied these rights, why would I want to deny gay and lesbian people these rights?”

Finally, Braxton spoke of the power and goodness of love. “Marriage equality is a celebration of love,” he said, and “in light of the hatred and hostility in our world, we should celebrate and protect the political right of two consenting adults to unite in love to form a family. Surely, relationships rooted in love, irrespective of one’s sexual orientation, strengthen the body politic and enhance the common good. If we genuinely want liberty and justice for all, then it is crucial for voters in Maryland to vote ‘Yes’ on Question 6 on this year’s ballot. A ‘Yes’ vote affirms that the small word—‘all’—is really big enough to include everyone.”

Other than engaging in the battle of words that marks any policy debate, opponents of same-sex marriage also employ litigation, which NOM has undertaken readily in other states—and which MMA has already put to use in Maryland.

Though only five years old, NOM has sued five times in federal court: in California, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida. Each time, it sought to overturn aspects of the states’ election laws in order to avoid campaign-finance reporting requirements, and each time, it failed. On its legal team for each case was James Bopp, the attorney who started the successful Citizens United lawsuit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to super PACs, which are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money in politics.

So far, NOM and MMA have not attempted to undermine Maryland’s campaign-finance laws in the courts. But in August, MMA filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, seeking to replace the ballot language of Question 6 and replace it with its own proposed language. In addition to MMA, the plaintiffs were its executive director and board member, Derek McCoy, and state Del. Emmett C. Burns (D-10th District), a Baltimore pastor. They withdrew their complaint in September, but what it says reveals much about how anti-Question 6 forces feel about the law they want overturned.

The approved ballot language for Question 6 reads:

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

Here is the language MMA proposed in its lawsuit:

Redefines marriage as between one man and one woman to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry; exposes clergy and certain non-profit charitable organizations which are not operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious organization to liability for refusing to perform same-sex marriage against their religious convictions; only provides limited exceptions to clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; provides no protection for religious or other non-profit organizations that receive State and/or Federal funding for its programs from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; provides for a criminal charge of misdemeanor and on conviction is subject to a fine of up to $500.00.

The differences between the two are stark. The approved language emphasizes that clergy and religious organizations are explicitly protected from liability should they choose not to marry gay and lesbian couples. But the proposed MMA language says that’s not so, claiming that the law “exposes” clergy and others who perform marriage ceremony to liability, including criminal prosecution.

The only provisions for criminal penalties in the CMPA, though, pertain to individuals who marry their relatives. There is nothing in the law suggesting clergy or others who conduct marriage ceremonies are liable for anything, criminally or otherwise. That hasn’t stopped MMA from suggesting otherwise by using rhetorical devices designed to shed doubt on anything Question 6 supporters say.

On Sept. 23, after MMA dropped its lawsuit over the Question 6 language, McCoy took the stage at Manna Bible Baptist Church in Baltimore to speak about the law and MMA’s drive to defeat it. In the speech, which was posted on YouTube, McCoy admitted that the new law won’t penalize pastors and churches that don’t perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

“What you’re going to hear is, ‘Well, that bill does not force pastors to marry anybody in their pulpits. It gives churches the free rein to do whatever they want to do. You don’t have to worry, this is only a civil marriage license.’ Most of the stuff you are going to hear on the other side, saying, ‘It’s not going to do this, and it’s not going to do this, this is civil marriage, and da-da-da,’” McCoy said, “I just want you to know, it’s just not true.”

Thus, when McCoy declared, “That is true, they will not come tomorrow and handcuff Pastor Gaines,” Manna’s leader, he had already gone to such great lengths to sow doubt about the other side’s veracity that his listeners may well believe that, in fact, something like that could happen if Question 6 passes. It’s a time-tested trick—when faced with opposing facts that are unassailable, undermine them with blanket assaults on the opponent’s honesty. When it works, believers take it as a matter of faith that the other side is simply wrong on every score.

City Paper attempted to reach McCoy for comment, but did not hear back from him by press time.

The anti-Question 6 forces in Maryland face formidable, well-heeled opponents. Four pro-Question 6 groups have formed: Freedom to Marry Maryland PAC, Human Rights Campaign National Marriage Fund, Marylanders for Marriage Equality, and Human Rights Campaign Maryland Families PAC. Their efforts are supported by Maryland’s NAACP, many prominent religious leaders of a variety of faiths, unions, and a healthy cross-section of the state’s political establishment, led by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. They also, in spirit at least, have the backing of President Barack Obama, who in May cited his Christian faith in announcing his support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

Even before Obama’s announcement, national public-opinion polling had been trending in favor of same-sex marriage, with majorities first appearing in 2010. Analysis of the results indicates that older, more religious, less educated residents of the South and Midwest are more likely to be opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, while younger, less religious, more educated residents of the Northeast and West are more likely to be supportive. Also, support is more prevalent among women than men.

Obama’s opinion on the matter had dramatic consequences among Marylanders. In January, Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found that 49 percent of Marylanders supported legalizing same-sex marriages, while 47 percent opposed it, with a much larger margin among African-Americans, with 33 percent in favor and 60 percent opposed. In September, Gonzales found 51 percent would vote in favor of Question 6 and 43 percent would vote against, with 44 percent of African-Americans in favor and 52 percent opposed.

“Although a majority of black voters say they’ll vote against Question 6,” Gonzales’ poll summary states, “support is up from our January survey when only 33% favored same-sex marriage, suggesting public pronouncements in the interim from the President and others have had an ameliorative impact for proponents.”

In May, two weeks after Obama’s announcement, Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm, found even greater support. Fifty-seven percent said they would vote for Question 6, including 55 percent of African-Americans. As for intensity, 46 percent said they would vote yes on the ballot question and feel strongly about it, compared to 36 percent who said they would vote no and feel strongly about it.

“Maryland voters were already prepared to support marriage equality at the polls this fall even before President Obama’s announcement,” the firm’s summary states. “But now it appears the passage will come by a much stronger margin.”

McCoy, though, dismisses the polling. “Every poll is nothing but propaganda,” he said in May while announcing MMA’s successful petition drive. More dispassionate observers also doubt how well the results gauge how people will actually vote on Election Day. Richard Vatz, a Towson University communications professor, wrote in a letter to The Baltimore Sun in August that “five of the eight public polls conducted in the two months before California voters decided on Proposition 8” in 2008 “suggested that the measure would be defeated, perhaps by a wide margin. Instead, voters outlawed gay marriage, 53-47.” And in Maine in 2009, he continues, “most polls showed that voters favored same-sex marriage, in one case by double digits. But it was defeated, also 53-47.”

Vatz ventured to pose a reason why polling on same-sex marriage has so widely diverged from the results on Election Day: “Gay marriage is an issue in which polls don’t necessarily reflect what voters will actually do at the ballot because it is increasingly politically incorrect to oppose such nuptials.”

The national zeitgeist on same-sex marriage has indeed seemed to be shifting in its favor, which may make those who harbor doubts about opening up marriage to gays and lesbians keep their true feelings to themselves, so as not to seem politically incorrect, as Vatz suggests. Celebrity support has been growing, most recently evidenced by a New York fundraiser to help pass Maryland’s Question 6, hosted by O’Malley and attended by Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon and John Waters, and political leaders across the partisan divide.

The cost of political incorrectness on marriage equality was made abundantly clear in the case of Emmett Burns, the Maryland state delegate who joined MMA’s lawsuit over the Question 6 ballot language. Shortly after Burns sent a letter in late August to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, writing, “I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically, as a Raven [sic] football player,” he quickly backed off amid overwhelming negative public reaction—and may have unwittingly helped the supporters’ cause.

The star-studded appeal of the same-sex marriage cause doesn’t stymie the zealous drive of its opponents in Maryland, though. Other than NOM, the MMA is supported by the Maryland Family Alliance, a nonprofit chaired by McCoy, and the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), which does public-policy advocacy on behalf of the Catholic Church. MCC spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey told The Sun recently that “our campaign is not about raising millions and millions from Hollywood and Madison Avenue,” an apparent dig at the fundraising strategy of Question 6 supporters.

While the opponents may not get fat checks from national celebrities, they do have prodigious resources. NOM’s involvement brings not only money but strategy—including, as revealed earlier this year, attempts to divide the African-American and gay-and-lesbian communities. The idea, according to a NOM memo that turned up as part of one of its federal lawsuits to evade campaign-finance disclosures, is to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize, and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”

NOM’s strategy has been put in play in Maryland. McCoy has been “equipped” by NOM with direct employment as executive director of MMA—a salary he apparently needs, given the $32,586 federal tax lien filed against him by the IRS in 2011 in Prince George’s County Circuit Court. Jackson, too, has financial reasons to be “energized” about NOM’s agenda. NOM gave $20,000 to Jackson’s High Impact Leadership Coalition, which, along with NOM, bankrolled Jackson’s Stand4MarriageDC, which unsuccessfully sought to put Washington, D.C.’s law legalizing same-sex marriage up for referendum. (Stand4Marriage’s other donor, with a token amount, was Chuck Donovan of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed an anti-gay hate group.)

Evidence abounds of a media campaign objecting to the idea of same-sex marriage as a civil right, the second part of NOM’s three-part wedge strategy, as McCoy, Jackson, Burns, and many other African-American pastors have regularly turned to this theme in their public speaking.

As for the third element of NOM’s strategy, McCoy claimed at his speech at Manna Bible Baptist Church that “I’ve been told that I’m a racist, a bigot, a hater—and I said, ‘Wow, I never knew in my life that I’d be called those things.’” He did not, however, say who the name-callers were or where and when they made such statements.

Whether Jump the Broom for Marriages is also part of NOM’s Maryland operations remains to be seen: October’s campaign-finance reports should clarify whether NOM’s supporting the effort. JBM’s approach, though, will likely reflect the hardball political tactics of longtime Maryland political operative Julius Henson, who—after his May election-law conviction over the 2010 robo-calls scandal involving former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich’s gubernatorial campaign—told the Maryland Gazette he’d be helping JBM. The group’s signs bear the telltale purple-and-yellow color scheme of many of Henson’s campaigns in the past, and its leadership includes many former Henson clients, including Lisa Joi Stancil, a former Baltimore City State’s Attorney candidate, and Deborah Claridy, who ran for Baltimore City sheriff in 2010.

Despite the positive polling, political clout, and celebrity backing Question 6 supporters are getting, NOM and MMA will continue to mount a memorable, combative campaign. Their motivation, after all, comes from above—as McCoy pointed out at his Manna speech.

“When we are in the Kingdom,” McCoy said, whipping himself and his audience into a fury, “we are supposed to be the third team on the field. We have a different rule book. This rule book is the Word of God,” so “our obligation is to be . . . the team that says no, we play by a different set of rules.” Just like “the prophets [who] spoke to the kings” in the Bible “about what God said, and what was good and what was bad, and what was right and what was wrong,” McCoy exhorted Manna’s congregation to “believe we have a voice of authority, and we can declare and decree.” Referring obliquely to Question 6 supporters, he said, “I get what they’re saying over here, but God says it differently,” adding, “we cannot let this go down on our watch.”

If Question 6 fails, McCoy will have reason to believe his words were prophetic.

Dismemberment Plan: Gruesome murder case highlights violence in the pot trade

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 25, 2012

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Peter Blake shouldn’t have been in the United States on the evening of Dec. 16, 2009, much less at an apartment on Daybrook Circle, near White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County. Blake, now 54, had been deported back to Jamaica, his homeland, in 2004, after serving a lengthy federal prison sentence for 1990 drugs-and-firearms convictions in Texas. Yet, by his own admission in court documents, Blake was there at the apartment, where he participated in a brutal contract murder and dismemberment (“The Scarface Treatment,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010; “Reefer Madness,” Mobtown Beat, March 9, 2011).

The victim, 50-year-old Michael Paul Knight, was a bulk-cash transporter for a massive Baltimore-based marijuana-dealing enterprise and had been entrusted with $1 million in the business’ proceeds, but more than $200,000 of that money had gone missing. He was killed after failing to explain the missing money, despite being beaten until one of his eyes came out of its socket and being threatened with a gun. Ultimately, Blake helped hold Knight face down in the apartment’s bathtub, and Blake and another man stabbed him until he died, according to Blake’s guilty plea. Over the next three days, Blake and two others sawed up Knight’s body and discarded the pieces in two or more dumpsters around the Baltimore region. Blake’s plea says the top conspirator in the killing, Jean Therese Brown, paid $100,000 to have Knight killed and have his body disposed of.

Blake, during his 1990 trial in Texas, was alleged by prosecutors to have admitted to “killing 10 people, two of which were police officers in Jamaica” in the past, though on the stand he denied making this admission, according to court documents. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction based on the prosecutors’ inclusion of the multiple-murder suggestions raised before the jury, but the appeals court ruled that Blake had impeached his credibility in so many other ways while testifying that the prosecutors’ fast-and-loose conduct on this score was a wash.

The charges against Blake in the Maryland case—one count of “conspiracy to commit murder and kidnapping in aid of racketeering” and one count of “aggravated re-entry of a deported alien”—were filed in February, and he pleaded guilty to them in April, before U.S. District Judge William Quarles, Jr. The maximum sentence for the murder-conspiracy count is 10 years in prison. The others alleged to have been involved in Knight’s murder—Brown, Hubert “Doc” Downer, Dean “Journey” Myrie, and Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton, Jr.—are in much more serious trouble.

Brown, Downer, and Myrie face mandatory life sentences for murder in aid of racketeering if convicted of Knight’s killing. They are fortunate not to be facing the death penalty, which, until early July, when the U.S. Department of Justice declined to pursue capital punishment in this case, had been a real possibility.

Smith, meanwhile, was murdered in Tijuana, Mexico, in April 2010. He allegedly was shot in the head by Leo Alvarez Tostado-Gastellium, one of three defendants in a separate pot-distribution indictment filed in April in U.S. District Court in Maryland. That indictment, which does not include a murder count, also charges two other men—Julio Carlos Meza-Mendez and Gabrial Campa-Mayen—with participating in the Baltimore-based pot conspiracy involving Brown, Smith, and others, which prosecutors have dubbed “the Brown Organization.” After Smith’s murder, the indictment says, Brown called Meza-Mendez to confirm Smith’s murder.

Myrie had been a fugitive until early July, when he was picked up in New York City as a result of an America’s Most Wanted segment that aired recently. At his first appearance at Baltimore’s federal courthouse on July 17, the tall, barrel-chested Myrie, who has a close-cropped beard and a shaved head, appeared unmoved as U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm explained his rights.

Numerous others have been charged in federal court for their part in the Brown Organization, which court records say grossed $1-$2 million per month, selling weed for $1,000 per pound. The other codefendants in the main conspiracy case are Tamara Henry, Robert Henry, Dmytro “the Russian” Holovko, Jason Carnegie, and Anthony Hendrickson. Two other men—Mowayne McKay and Shamar Dixon—were arrested at their Ellicott City residence in March 2011, charged separately, and pleaded guilty in July and August 2011.

The scope of the Brown Organization’s alleged pot-distribution scheme was enormous and long-lasting and was orchestrated from Baltimore and Miami, Fla. The indictment says it started by 2000, at the latest, and continued until Oct. 2011, and other court documents state that it moved as much as 1,000 pounds of pot at a time, once or twice a month. Brown owned and operated trucking companies, including one called Full Range Trucking, to move the shipments of marijuana from Arizona and California to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, and make shipments of cash payments back to Arizona and California. Another Brown trucking company, called Coast to Coast Express LLC, was based in an office at 6400 Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville, according to its business records.

Brown “concealed” some of the profits in Baltimore, court records say, and some of the money was carried to her native Jamaica by couriers, including Knight. Once the money was in Jamaica, authorities say, some of it was converted to real estate held by Brown, Smith, and their relatives.

When Brown was charged in the pot-conspiracy indictment in Feb. 2011, she pleaded guilty to bulk-cash smuggling and received a 37-month prison sentence. Her codefendant in that case, Debbie Ann Shipp, also pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced.

Prior to her indictment in the pot conspiracy, Brown cooperated with authorities investigating the case against her and her codefendants—though her attorneys, Gary Proctor and Thomas Crowe, have moved to have her statements suppressed. According to their filings, “Ms. Brown has given extraordinarily detailed statements to law enforcement officers implicating Messrs. Downer and Holovko, among others, which include, but are not limited to, three audio-video statements with a combined running time slightly in excess of seven hours.” Proctor and Crowe argue that two interviews of Brown, conducted by Baltimore County police detectives in Oct. and Nov. 2010, were involuntary, even though they were given with the permission of her attorney at the time, Sebastian Cotrone of Florida, who was not present when the interviews took place.

The shocking violence that Blake has admitted to not only implicates the others accused in Knight’s murder, it also serves as a reminder that the pot trade, though often thought to be a more peaceful enterprise than dealing cocaine, heroin, or other harder drugs, can prove tragically lethal.

“The organizations that distribute marijuana often engage in the same kind of violence that we see in any drug gang,” says Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. “Maybe the users aren’t as dangerous,” he adds, “but sometimes the dealers are.”

Top Round Carry Out: A heart-busting meat platter smorgasbord

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 25, 2012

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Sometimes we want to eat something that would prompt earnest foodies such as Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan to take us to the woodshed and force us to learn exactly how scrapple is made. Getting such a cheap, killer meal would likely lead us to a all-day-breakfast joint such as Top Round Carry-Out, near the Shot Tower. Given its name (nothing is as explicit as a thick cut of meat), it’s no surprise Top Round’s menu offers a heart-busting meat platter ($6.25) with two eggs; homefries or grits; bacon, ham, scrapple, and sausage; and toast. But that’s not all the breakfast meat they have on hand, so we also got a bologna-and-egg sandwich ($2.57) to round out our fat-and-protein smorgasbord. It was good, hot, greasy, and so over-the-top filling we’re gonna stop typing now and take a nap.

811 E. Baltimore St., Balt., MD 21202; (410) 752-0061; 6am – 3pm

Claws Out: Competition at Southwest Baltimore’s “Crab Corner” is good for crab lovers

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 16, 2012

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This looks to be a banner year for crab lovers. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, Maryland’s and Virginia’s annual winter-dredge survey results, released in April, showed a two-thirds increase in the Bay’s crab population over last year, when about 67 million pounds of crabs were harvested. If this year’s harvest increases by the same ratio, it could outstrip even 2010’s blockbuster harvest of 92 million pounds.

Regardless of the harvest, though, an intense and longstanding crab-selling rivalry in Southwest Baltimore tends to benefit buyers. It’s known as “Crab Corner,” where three crab houses—Bay Island Seafood Carry Out (1903 W. Pratt St., [410] 566-0200), Sea Pride Crab House (201 S. Monroe St., [410] 624-3222), and Always Cooking Best Crabs (225 N. Monroe St., [410] 233-5804)—compete near the intersection of West Pratt and South Monroe streets, infusing the surroundings with the mouth-watering scent of steamed crabs.

According to Gary Moree, co-owner of Bay Island, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and sold 31,000 bushels of crabs in 2010, landing it the No. 2 slot on the Baltimore Business Journal’s list of the largest crab houses in the Baltimore area, Crab Corner’s patrons are mostly from the surrounding neighborhoods, and the prices are as low as they go.

“We sell extra-large males for $60 or $65 [a dozen] right now,” Moree said during a recent visit, “but at places out in the suburbs and on the waterfront, they’ll go for more like $90. We can only charge so much, because our customers can’t spend that much.”

The cut-throat competition for this thin-walleted clientele is evident in the crab houses’ marketing strategies. Bay Island’s motto, “Can’t Be Beat,” is printed on its plastic carryout bags, which also feature its mascot, a fierce-looking crab wearing boxing gloves. At Best Crabs, a hand-painted sign out front reads, “Bigger Better Over Here,” and one inside claims that “nothing will make ‘their’ crabs taste better.”

This smack-talking tone, appropriately enough, is reminiscent of a mind-set known as “the crab mentality,” inspired by the behavior live crabs display when put en masse into pots. As individual crabs try to escape, others grab at them and pull them back, ensuring that all share in their collective fate. In the case of the crabs, that fate is the steamer; in the case of the Crab Corner carryouts, it is relatively low prices for crabs—a plus for customers, who rave about all three places in online reviews.

“I’ve had a lot of crab claiming to be Maryland crab, but I have yet to have crab like this!” writes one Bay Island reviewer, adding that the “seasoning is amazing! Perfectly blended, perfectly spicy!” Another says “this place is really a locals’ joint due to the somewhat sketchy location, but the service is friendly and generous and the crabs are a decent size and good eating.”

Best Crabs gets concise, thumbs-up treatment: “Crabs are steamed hot and are very good!!!” writes one, while another adds, “Good crabs, cheap,” and yet another confirms the boast in the name: “The crabs there are the best.”

Sea Pride’s secret spice earns its special treatment, including the ringing endorsement of a long-traveling customer from Virginia, who says, “any time we have a crab feast we drive to Baltimore” to get them, and that “no others compare to Sea Pride,” where “the spice they use is not Old Bay, they won’t give you the recipe, but it really makes these crabs.” Another reviewer jokes that “here you can kill two birds with one stone” because you “can buy crabs and crack on the same block,” but contends that Sea Pride’s crabs “are so far above good that you will find yourself here the next day.”

On a recent visit to Crab Corner, City Paper went to each crab house and asked for the same thing: “a dozen of your largest males.” This uniform request resulted in three vastly different orders, though all of them were generous in terms of crab counts, which far exceeded a dozen. Sea Pride quickly handed over a $30 bag of reheated crabs. Bay Island charged $40 for a bag, also reheated. At Best Crabs, a bag of freshly steamed crabs cost $60, plus a long wait while they cooked. The more money spent, the heavier the bag.

All who shared in eating them agreed on how to rank the quality. The best, most meaty, and largest were the pricey, freshly steamed ones from Best Crabs. Next up was Sea Pride’s, which were perfectly good for being reheated, followed by Bay Island’s, which were soggy and nothing to brag about.

The experience at Bay Island suggests that patrons interested in the biggest possible crabs should press about their availability, because Moree, after learning that City Paper was there doing an article, said he had some huge ones for $65 a dozen. The request for the largest available males, though, had already been taken, and yielded the lackluster $40 bag.

A famous aficionado of Crab Corner culture, former Sun scribe and The Wire producer David Simon, says in a recent e-mail from New Orleans that he misses Sea Pride, which is his favorite. Simon worked there for a few days in the 1990s because Gary McCullough, the late protagonist of The Corner, in which Simon explored the tragic hopelessness of the drug war, was an employee. (McCullough, an addict, died before the book was published.)

Simon recalls that “after working a day in a Southwest Baltimore crab house, you go home and have crab dreams at night.” One day, he continues, a bushel of live crabs broke open, and watching them “race sideways around Monroe Street, trying to escape in every direction, is genuinely funny to me for some reason. I haven’t had Sea Pride crabs for a couple years now. Their spice is one of the best in the city. This is making me homesick.”

Rest assured, Simon: When you get home, Crab Corner will be there, smelling of crabs and showing off that crab mentality that, thankfully, means good, cheap crabs for the masses.

A Step Above: Stoop-sitting in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 16, 2012

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Back in the late 1980s, a New York architect told The New York Times that Baltimore’s stoops are “without balusters, without railings, just three crisp marble steps.” This prompted the Times’ scribe to call Mobtown’s stoops “pure and parsimonious” compared to Gotham’s, which grace the fronts of brownstones and apartment buildings and are “invariably inviting wherever one finds them.”

“Balusters” are also known as “stair sticks,” and, along with the railings they support, they take up valuable stoop-sitting space. Baltimore’s “parsimonious” stoops may be small, this being a city of narrow rowhouses, not grand brownstones, but they are every bit as “invariably inviting” as New York’s. Invited or not, people stoop-sit in Baltimore. It’s one of the city’s hallmarks, up there with steamed crabs, beehive hairdos, and Bmore club music.

The famous Baltimore stoops of white marble may not be as bright and shiny as in generations past, when they were bleached and scrubbed immaculate. (Maybe that’s what the Times meant by “pure.”) Where they still remain, though, they are kept relatively clean by the fidgety butts that sit on them. And there are plenty of those, thanks to the ever-unfolding theatrics of the street. Stoop-sitting and storytelling are kissing cousins for good reason: Stories are told on the stoops, and the stoops, over time, tell stories.

On the leisure scale, stoop-sitting beats sitting inside watching TV and runs about even with hanging out in the backyard, but it falls short of actually going out and doing something. Unlike those other options, though, it has an added, communal benefit: more eyes, ears, and noses to observe the goings-on. In theory, people behave better when others are watching.

The social qualities of stoop-sitting are not unique to Baltimore, of course, and, since the U.S. Census doesn’t plumb the subject, gauging Baltimore’ s per-capita stoop-sitting rank isn’t an option. But those stoops, baluster-less and lined up like teeth, make for such fine front-row seats to the streets that, in many neighborhoods, people in large numbers risk random arrest or violence to sit on them. And that, perhaps, is the best measure of how “invariably inviting” they are.

Old and In the Game: “Wire”-inspiring gangsters face new prison time

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2012

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When they went to prison in separate early 1990s drug cases in Baltimore, Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell had been convicted as bit players in larger schemes. Such was the case, too, when their identities were used—though not their real stories—to create characters in HBO’s The Wire: Savino Bratton (pictured, from Season 5) and Anton “Stinkum” Artis, two of the five prominent enforcers in Avon Barksdale’s crew.

Today, 55-year-old Braxton and 60-year-old Powell are again in drug trouble, and their federal cases reveal how the gangster lifestyle can keep an obdurate hold on those whose only game in life has been “the game”—and they underscore the serial prison terms that lifestyle can exact on players.

But first, an acknowledgement about the use of real people’s names from Wire co-creator David Simon: “We mangled up real Baltimore surnames and real Baltimore given names and real Baltimore street names” to create Wire characters, he says in an email.

“Why?” Simon continues. “To give reality a chance to exist on its own, while at the same time creating a collective sense of the real Baltimore that we were depicting. Having all the correct surnames and street names floating about—but in the wrong order, and clearly disconnected from the correct narrative street history of Baltimore—tethered us loosely to the real, but at the same time allowed the actual survivors of that history some fair and legitimate distance.”

“We also,” Simon adds, “thought it would make people who knew the game from either side—street or stationhouse—smile a bit. An inside joke for those with ears to listen.”

Thus, “Savino Bratton,” the Wire character, has a story that does not jibe with that of real-life Savino Braxton. Simon, as a Baltimore Sun reporter covering the 1990 heroin conspiracy of Linwood Rudolph “Rudi” Williams, described Braxton as “a sizable westside dealer in his own right who sold narcotics to the Williams group.” Bratton, meanwhile, is an enforcer for Avon Barksdale’s crew who drives snitching strip-club frontman Wendell “Orlando” Blocker and undercover detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs to a shooting ambush that leaves Orlando dead and Greggs critically wounded.

The Wire’s “Stinkum,” also a key Barksdale enforcer, ends up as gangster-robbing Omar Little’s second revenge victim. His role in the narrative seems much larger than that of real-life Walter Lee Powell, who served as an errand-runner and bill-collector for his real-life bosses, Baltimore drug dealers Walter Louis Ingram and Patricia Carmichael.

Braxton’s initial undoing began in 1990, when phone-tapping cops heard him say “I got to see you” over the phone to Rudi Williams, then one of Baltimore’s biggest law-enforcement targets in the narcotics trade. They proceeded to build sufficient evidence to raid Braxton’s home, where they found a little over 27 grams of heroin and other drug-dealing evidence.

Three years after Braxton’s 2006 release from prison, he was on law-enforcers’ radar again, thanks to a cooperator’s tip, and a raid on his Frankford apartment turned up 35 grams of heroin in his car; and in his apartment, another kilogram, more than $4,000 cash, and a variety of drug-dealing appurtenances, prompting new charges (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009).

Braxton is fighting the charges—though he took a break from doing so in early 2010, when he left the Volunteers of America facility on East Monument Street, where he’d been ordered to reside on a pre-trial release, to go to a medical appointment, and failed to return. For more than two years he was a fugitive, a status that ended ignobly on Aug. 17, at BWI Airport, when he tried to board a flight with a fake driver’s license and was caught.

Since then, Braxton has filed with the court a series of legal motions, handwritten in floral script, including one asking that his appointed attorney, Archangelo Tuminelli, be replaced—a request that was denied during a Dec. 12 motions hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who cleared the courtroom to resolve the attorney-client dispute. The case, which is scheduled for trial in February, is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorney John Purcell, who is seeking an enhanced penalty of a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years based on Braxton’s prior federal conviction, though Bennett signaled during last week’s hearing that Purcell may want to back off that hard-edged stance.

Braxton told Bennet during the hearing that he’s anxious to obtain video evidence from a Kentucky Fried Chicken video camera near the location of his arrest that would show officers lied in sworn documents presented as evidence against him. Bennett reminded Braxton, though, that “you prejudiced yourself by absconding” for more than two years and that “the cameras may or may not be there” anymore.

Unlike Braxton’s case, the current one against “Stinkum” Powell is already over; Powell pleaded guilty and on Nov. 30 received a 121-month sentence. Its details, which overlap with other FBI heroin cases populated by the likes of big-name federal defendants such as Steven Blackwell, Christian Gettis, and Roy Lee Clay Jr., stretch from Baltimore to Philadelphia, New York, Miami, and Africa. Powell ran some of his illicit business out of Quantico Carwash on Reisterstown Road, according to court documents, and some of his dealings were intercepted over a phone issued by his employer, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit based in Windsor Mill.

Meanwhile, one of Powell’s former bosses from back in the day—Walter Louis Ingram, now 61, whose earlier criminal career Simon wrote about extensively for The Sun—is also facing federal charges filed in 2010 (“Old Folks’ Boogie,” Mobtown Beat, July 22, 2010). He’s accused in a heroin conspiracy involving eight others, and all but Ingram and one other defendant have pleaded guilty—despite jailhouse attempts to dissuade them from doing so by using improperly obtained evidence in the case (“In the Wrong Hands,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2011). The lead conspirator, Kevin Hently, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, so Ingram, if convicted, can expect the same or more, given his long list of priors.