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.

Former Sonar Co-Owner Dan McIntosh Convicted, but Spared Mandatory Life Sentence

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 7, 2012

After a 25-day trial, Daniel McIntosh and Keegan Leahy were convicted on Nov. 1 by a federal jury that was convinced each played roles in a 16-member pot-dealing and money-laundering conspiracy (“Risky Business,” Feature, Aug. 15)—but not all the roles prosecutors alleged.

For McIntosh, the erstwhile co-owner of Sonar, the shuttered downtown Baltimore nightclub, the verdict means he will be spared the mandatory life sentence he would have faced, thanks to his prior pot convictions, if he’d been convicted of dealing 1,000 kilograms or more of weed (The News Hole, Sept. 13). Instead, the jury held him accountable for 100 kilograms or more, so he’s facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years, with the possibility of life.

The jury was not informed of the fact that one of the drug witnesses who took the stand against McIntosh, Andrew Lloyd, tested positive for heroin shortly after testifying (“Drug Test Shows McIntosh Trial Witness on Heroin,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 24), which McIntosh’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, sought to introduce as evidence.

McIntosh was also convicted of helping the conspiracy launder money, though not in connection with Sonar—the trial evidence of Sonar’s cash deposits being connected to drug dealing appeared flimsy (“Dollars and Sense,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 17). He was also acquitted of maintaining drug-involved premises at Sonar and at a house on Weldon Avenue in Medfield, but was found guilty of interstate travel to promote crime.

Leahy, meanwhile, faces a maximum five-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute less than 50 kilograms of pot and for interstate travel to promote crime. He was acquitted of money-laundering charges. He has no prior criminal convictions, so will likely be punished leniently.

Both men are scheduled to be sentenced on April 1, according to Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Marcia Murphy, who adds that McIntosh, who was free pending trial, is now jailed until then, while Leahy will remain on release.

Dollars and Sense: McIntosh trial includes flimsy evidence of pot-money laundering at Sonar

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 17, 2012

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Before the Sept. 11 start of the federal pot-conspiracy trial involving Daniel McIntosh, the erstwhile co-owner of Sonar nightclub in downtown Baltimore, prosecutors already had proven much about the alleged $30 million, Baltimore-based, cross-country marijuana business in which McIntosh is accused of participating (“Risky Business,” Feature, Aug. 15). They had, after all, secured guilty pleas from 10 co-defendants, who admitted to a large body of facts about the nearly decade-long scheme. But proving beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury the criminal accusations they’ve leveled against McIntosh and Keegan Leahy, the alleged operation’s pilot, who is also on trial, has been a complex undertaking – and not without pitfalls.

A central challenge for the prosecutors – assistant U.S. attorneys Deborah Johnston and Mara Greenberg – has been that, in essence, they are staging two trials: one against McIntosh and the other against Leahy, as the two men occupy distinct corners of the alleged conspiracy. McIntosh is accused of laundering drug money through Sonar and of picking up, delivering, and unloading pot shipments to Maryland-essentially a hands-on, street-level role in Baltimore, relatively far down the organizational chart. Leahy, meanwhile, is accused of helping to purchase, operate, and rent airplanes, which he piloted, to transport pot and cash across the country-a higher level role, involving some of the alleged conspiracy’s top leaders, and having very little to do with Baltimore other than occasionally touching down at airports in the region.

Putting on such a case has been further complicated by the efforts of McIntosh’s court-appointed attorney, Carmen Hernandez, to undermine the testimony of an important government witness: Timothy Green, an Internal Revenue Service criminal investigator.

Green probed the bank accounts of McIntosh and Sonar, ostensibly proving to the jury that, as he put it on the witness stand, McIntosh made “cash deposits commingled with proceeds derived from the sale of drugs.” To do so, Green prepared a summary chart of his findings, showing cash deposits made in six bank accounts, four of them in Sonar’s name, in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Even though Sonar was a cash-heavy business, based on its large crowd of alcohol-purchasing patrons, Green testified that such large cash deposits are evidence of drug-money laundering.

The problem, though, as Hernandez showed the jury, is that Green’s chart failed to include about $82,643 in cash deposits made in 2007 just prior to McIntosh’s control of the accounts-thus making it appear that large cash deposits only started after McIntosh took the reins. What’s more, the chart did not include cash deposits made to Sonar’s accounts during 2006, when Sonar’s bank accounts were controlled by its prior owner, Lonnie Fisher. During that year, Hernandez showed, Sonar’s accounts had $616,378.25 in cash deposits-more than the approximately $500,000 in cash deposits that were made during the entire three years that Green investigated when McIntosh controlled the accounts.

“McIntosh’s money was pot money, but Lonnie Fisher’s money wasn’t?” Hernandez asked. She added, “there were the same, or more, in cash deposits in 2006 – does that give you pause as to your conclusion [that McIntosh was laundering drug money]?” Green responded, “No.”

In addition, Green looked at McIntosh’s personal bank account and one in the name of another business he controlled, Independent Investments, Inc. The cash deposits made to McIntosh’s personal account amounted to $48,100 over three years, an average of $16,033 per year, Green testified. The Independent Investments account, meanwhile, had a total of about $40,000 in cash deposits during those three years.

“Doesn’t sound like 1,000-kilogram marijuana-conspirator money, does it?” Hernandez asked. Green demurred on that question, but when Hernandez pointed out that the man at the top of the conspiracy – Matthew Nicka (pictured), who remains a fugitive – made $16 million over one and a half years, Green confirmed the information. “I had heard that, yes,” he said.

McIntosh has much at stake in the trial. He has four prior pot-related convictions-three from 1998, when he was charged as a result of an investigation in Hanover, Pa., and one in 2005 in Baltimore County. Prosecutors will use them, presumably, to color McIntosh as a shameless, long-term pot dealer. The most dire consequence of McIntosh’s prior convictions, though, may kick in if the jury finds him guilty of possessing with intent to distribute 1,000 or more kilograms of weed. If that happens, federal sentencing law* dictate he serve a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

*Correction: McIntosh’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, points out that federal law, not federal sentencing guidelines, require a mandatory life sentence should McIntosh be convicted of possessing with the intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, due to his prior convictions.

Judgment Day: Dan McIntosh’s pot-conspiracy co-defendants to be sentenced in the coming days

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 14, 2012

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Now that a federal trial jury has found former Sonar co-owner Daniel McIntosh and Keegan Leahy guilty of some of the counts against them (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 7) in the massive, 16-defendant indictment alleging a cross-country, decade-long pot-dealing conspiracy (“Risky Business,” Feature, Aug. 15), the rest of the defendants who answered the charges with guilty pleas will soon meet their fates.

Four – Matt Nicka (pictured above), Gretchen Peterson, David D’Amico (pictured below), and Jeffrey Putney – remain fugitives and, thus, will suffer the peculiar penalty of being on the run. But the 10 who pleaded guilty before trial are scheduled to receive their sentences in the coming weeks and months.

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What follows describes the facts each admits is true, the counts to which they pleaded guilty, and the dates and times of their scheduled sentencing hearings, if available. All of the hearings will take place before U.S. District Judge Roger Titus in Courtroom 2C of the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt, Md., located at 6500 Cherrywood Lane.

Joseph Spain

Alias: “Goose”

Scheduled sentencing: TBD

Guilty count: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: From about March 2008 until about March 2009, Spain served the conspiracy as a truck driver, bringing seven loads of weed to Maryland from California. He did so at the behest of Sharpeta and “solicited his brother Jeffrey Spain to assist with some of the trips.” The first trip was a 50-pound “test load” of pot, and the remaining six “ranged from 100 to 300 pounds.”

Amount of weed attributed to Spain: at least 400 kilograms, but less than 700 kilograms.

Sean Costello

Alias: “Chong”

Scheduled sentencing: TBD

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: There were two time frames for Costello’s involvement in the conspiracy: from about January 2003 until August 2006, and from the spring of 2008 to June 2009. During his first stint, Costello was busted while bringing about 30 pounds of pot on a train from Baltimore to Florida for D’Amico. During his second stint, Costello worked with D’Amico and Leahy, a pilot, to set up a business that owned and operated a small jet for transporting pot and money back and forth across the country and also helped the conspiracy launder money.

Amount of weed attributed to Costello: at least 400 kilograms.

Pot proceeds received by Costello: at least $50,000.

Michael Phillips

Scheduled sentencing: Jan. 15, 8:30 A.M.

Guilty count: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: Phillips was “a mid-level dealer and distributor” who, between 2008 and July 2009, obtained pot from co-conspirators and distributed it in Pennsylvania. He arranged for deliveries via Peterson and traveled to Baltimore to pick them up from Andrew Sharpeta and others. On April 20, 2011, when he was arrested, Phillips acknowledged his role in the scheme.

Amount of weed attributed to Phillips: more than 100 kilograms, but less than 400 kilograms.

Andrew Sharpeta

Aliases: “Ken Thomas,” “Bird”

Scheduled sentencing: Nov. 19, 9 A.M.

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: Sharpeta was “directly involved with all aspects of the marijuana conspiracy” from about June 2008 to about June 2009, “including collecting monies, arranging for the transportation and storage of marijuana by airplane and tractor trailer, receiving orders for marijuana, transporting bulk currency to marijuana suppliers, and delivering large quantities of marijuana to mid-level dealers in and around Baltimore.” He also laundered money by participating in transactions “designed to conceal the nature, location, source, ownership and control” of the pot-dealing proceeds, including “transporting bulk currency across state lines, renting a warehouse under an alias for the receipt, division, and distribution of marijuana, and purchasing a van for the storage and transport of large quantities of marijuana.”

Amount of weed attributed to Sharpeta: more than 1,000 kilograms, but less than 3,000 kilograms.

Pot proceeds received by Sharpeta: about $250,000.

Ian Travis Minshall

Scheduled sentencing: Nov. 19, 12 P.M.

Guilty count: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: Minshall was a “mid-level dealer and distributor” for the conspiracy who “maintained” a property – 3835 Falls Road, owned by a company tied to co-conspirator Jeremiah Landsman – “for the purpose of storing and distributing marijuana.” In March 2009, Baltimore County police raided the place and seized 32 pounds of pot, nearly $16,000 in cash, digital scales, and two cell phones, all of which Minshall admits was part of the conspiracy.

Adam Constantinides

Aliases: “Matthew Thomas Anderson,” “Mike,” “Bossman,” “Ted,” and “A.D.D.”

Scheduled sentencing: Nov. 19, 3 P.M.

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: A “mid-level dealer and distributor” for the conspiracy, Constantinides from 2002 until March 2009 handled “substantial quantities” of pot in Maryland: from 10 to 35 pounds every two weeks “when marijuana was in season,” and “up to 50 pounds on at least one occasion,” paying between $2,600 and $4,000 per pound. In addition, from 2006 until March 2009, Constantinides helped the conspiracy manage its money, using proceeds to rent vehicles and lease space to transport and store marijuana.

Amount of weed attributed to Constantinides: at least 700 kilograms.

Pot proceeds received by Constantinides: at least $50,000.

Anthony Marcantoni

Alias: “Mr. Purple”

Scheduled sentencing: Dec. 10, 3 P.M.

Guilty count: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: From 2008 through January 2011, Marcantoni “regularly obtained large shipments of marijuana” – from 50 to 250 pounds, as often as twice per month – “and also arranged for other individuals to receive large shipments on his behalf.” He received deliveries “at various locations in Baltimore,” including “the parking lot outside of the Whole Foods in the Mount Washington neighborhood.” He paid his pot suppliers “more than ten times,” giving them “more than $100,000” on “multiple occasions.” Marcantoni’s main supplier awarded his “performance selling marijuana” with “a Rolex watch.”

Amount of weed attributed to Marcantoni: more than 700 kilograms, but less than 1,000 kilograms.

Daniel Fountain

Alias: Danny Boy

Scheduled sentencing: Dec. 18, 2 P.M.

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: Fountain, “a mid-level dealer and distributor” for the conspiracy, rented a Landsman-owned house on Hickory Avenue in Hampden and subleased it to D’Amico. When the house was raided in March 2009, law enforcers found much evidence to advance their probe, including more than 100 pounds of pot, $20,000 in cash, 31 cell phones, and records about the small jet that Costello, D’Amico, and Leahy were purchasing to help transport weed and cash. From 2003 until August 2009, Fountain helped the conspiracy manage its money by handling rental payments for property used to stash pot and proceeds, using “at least one art gallery that he owned to conceal and launder proceeds,” and attempting to purchase the Hickory Avenue property from Landsman.

Like Landsman, Fountain also lied to the federal grand jury investigating the conspiracy. At his August 2009 appearance before the jury, for which he was subpoenaed, Fountain made “several false statements,” including “lying about D’Amico’s identity, how D’Amico came to rent” the Hickory Avenue property, and “his contact with D’Amico” while D’Amico lived there. Fountain “also presented a false and fraudulent lease agreement to the grand jury.”

Finally, Fountain went on the lam “for over a year” after the case was first indicted in December 2010, “living under an alias. While fleeing from the U.S. Marshal’s Service, at times Fountain abandoned property, used eight different cell phones, and obtained a government-issued identification in the name of his false identity.”

Ryan Forman

Scheduled sentencing: Dec. 19, 11:30 A.M.

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: From 2006 until March 2009, Forman “assisted the conspiracy by locating and introducing large-scale local distributors to receive and distribute marijuana in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.” He also assisted with the rental and purchase of aircraft the conspiracy used to move pot and cash back and forth across the country, and came to Maryland at least twice “to deliver multiple Rolex watches to Nicka,” who “gave them to his co-conspirators as Christmas bonuses.” Forman also helped manage the conspiracy’s pot proceeds, depositing about $430,000 in cash into bank accounts and transferring proceeds to other accounts so it could be used to rent or purchase aircraft. In all, the money-laundering transactions involving Forman amounted to “more than $400,000 but not more than $1,000,000 in proceeds of the marijuana conspiracy.”

Amount of weed attributed to Forman: over 400 kilograms, but less than 700 kilograms.

Jeremiah Landsman

Alias: Jeremy Landsman

Scheduled sentencing: Jan. 7, 2 P.M.

Guilty counts: Conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Admitted facts under plea agreement: Landsman, a Baltimore developer who operates a host of companies related to his JBL Real Estate, headquartered in Fells Point, “personally distributed at least 100 kilograms of marijuana, brokered other conspirators’ purchases of marijuana, and maintained several properties used for marijuana storage and distribution.”

Between about June 2003 and August 2009, Landsman helped the conspiracy launder money by participating in “several financial transactions involving at least $400,000 but less than $1,000,000 in proceeds of the marijuana conspiracy.” Among the methods he used was to facilitate the “lease, purchase, and/or sale of property to, for, and between members of the conspiracy” in order to conceal “the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of drug proceeds, disguising the source of those funds and promoting the aims of the conspiracy” via properties owned by Landsman under seven limited-liability companies: JBL 2, JBL Aqua, JBL Keswick, JBL Services, 3520-22 Hickory, Weldon Chapel Properties, and McCabe-Falls.

Landsman also lied to the federal grand jury investigating the conspiracy when he was subpoenaed to testify in October 2009, making “several false statements,” including “lying about D’Amico’s identity, his contact with D’Amico” while D’Amico lived at a Hampden property at 3522 Hickory Ave. that was owned by a Landsman-related company, and “his knowledge of and involvement with” Nicka. Landsman “further lied about his knowledge of and involvement in” the marijuana conspiracy, “as well as his knowledge of and involvement [with] several members” of the conspiracy.