Machine Gun Mama Returns: Lightly sentenced machine-gun seller gets another 6 months in prison for again violating the terms of her release

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 8, 2015

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Jennifer Debois Dickerson’s Facebook photo from 2012.

“Leave the girl alone,” Richard Debois says to a reporter entering Maryland U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett’s courtroom on Apr. 16 to cover the violation-of-supervised-release hearing of Debois’ daughter, 35-year-old Jennifer Debois Dickerson, whose machine-gun case has drawn repeated City Paper coverage since August 2012. That’s when Bennett, despite Dickerson’s prodigious flurry of drug-related arrests in late 2011 and early 2012, gave her a surprisingly light sentence: time served for a conviction that carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. She’d sold a machine gun to an undercover federal agent.

Since then, Dickerson has already come before Bennett a second time, receiving a six-month sentence in 2013 for violating the terms of supervised release by testing positive for cocaine and morphine and failing to appear for court-ordered counseling. So this is her third trip before a judge who’s given her extraordinary opportunities to fly straight.

Dickerson, her long, straight hair flowing freely to the middle of her back, is wearing a yellow jumpsuit as she sits with her attorney, assistant public defender Susan Hensler. Bennett explains the alleged violations: In addition to testing positive for a variety of drugs, including cocaine, morphine, and marijuana, four times between Nov. 20, 2014 and March 12, 2015, she also left Maryland without permission on Dec. 31, 2014, failed to submit monthly supervision reports as required, failed to stay employed since her last job at Vagabond Sandwich Company in Bel Air, failed to notify authorities when she changed address, and failed to participate in required mental-health treatment.

Dickerson “has been a frustrating person to supervise,” assistant U.S. Attorney John Purcell tells Bennett, since she’s “not making whole-hearted efforts to essentially save her own life.” Still, Purcell explains, there is “an unusual way we are proceeding on this,” because, despite the fact that Dickerson’s “continued drug use” is clear, the government acknowledges the “uncertain nature of some of those tests.” So Dickerson is agreeing to plead guilty to only two violations: leaving the state without permission and failing to submit monthly reports.

Hensler says Dickerson is “struggling still with addiction,” since “she hasn’t been able to get her drug problem under control.” She adds that a recent “psychiatric diagnosis” is “the issue that has not been addressed,” and suggests to Bennett that treatment for the condition, which is not disclosed in open court, “may help Ms. Dickerson address this insidious addiction.”

Dickerson’s history of interaction with law enforcers, other than the machine-gun sale, depicts a working mother living in a nice Green Spring Valley home whose life spiraled out of control. The arrests started to mount in September 2011, when cops raided the home she shared with her husband and son and discovered a trove of pot, prescription pills, and cash. She pleaded guilty to pot possession in that case, but in January 2012, she sold 4 ounces of weed to an undercover cop in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, and when she was later arrested, she was holding weed, heroin, and equipment for shooting it up. The same day, the cops raided her father’s Ellicott City home and turned up evidence of a high-volume pot-sales enterprise, along with some LSD, hashish, hash oil, and a handgun. Dickerson and Debois were both convicted of pot dealing in Howard County as a result.

“I apologize,” Dickerson says to Bennett, for “coming back here again” and causing “so much problems and worry” for those around her. She “made attempts” to get her act together, she continues, and when she served the six months at Federal Correctional Institution-Danbury (the facility where Piper Kerman was incarcerated, and subsequently wrote the book on which the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” is based), “all I got was a drug-education class.” But, she tells Bennett she was drug-free while in prison, and that “I’ve had periods of abstinence,” but “outpatient programs” were “not good enough” to help her stay clean in the long haul.

“Do you know how many people stand here and have drug issues?” Bennett asks Dickerson, rhetorically. Saying she’s caused “great pain” to her father, mother, and son, who Bennett said was 9 years old in 2013, “who’s doing quite well without you,” Bennett declares that she is going to “have to go back to prison again” and adds that “we’re determined to use all the resources we can to get to the root of this problem.”

Explaining his philosophy of handling offenders still beholden to him, Bennett says, “I’m not of the mind … to just cut them free,” because “we don’t give up on people. I want to keep my thumb on them. That’s how I feel about it. I’m not going to throw in the towel on people.”

“I wish you the best of luck,” Bennett says to Dickerson, after pronouncing another six-month sentence followed by two more years of supervised release. “You just have to buckle down. It requires a certain amount of self-discipline.” Meanwhile, he adds, “your son is growing up,” and he’s “doing it without you.”

The Maryland GOP on Pot: Free State Republicans have been warming to marijuana reform, but support for legalization so far remains a pipe dream

By Van Smith

Published April 20, 2015 in City Paper

While 2014 was a watershed year in the annals of liberalizing Maryland’s pot laws, ringing in decriminalization and revamped medical-marijuana laws, 2003 was a big one, too.

That’s when then-governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, signed into law a bill meant to protect medical-marijuana users from serious criminal penalties for possession. Ehrlich wholeheartedly supported the measure, even though only 35 percent of his party’s legislators gave it the thumbs up, according to voting records. When the med-pot laws were reformed last year, though, the Maryland GOP’s evolution on the issue was shown to be a sea change: 75 percent of them voted for it.

“They’ve come a long way since 2000, when I first sponsored the medical-marijuana bill,” says Donald Murphy, a former Republican state delegate who represented parts of Baltimore and Howard counties from 1995 to 2003 and now works as a federal-policies analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national group looking to liberalize pot laws.

The nation’s views on pot have shifted significantly too since Murphy first proposed medical-marijuana liberalization in Maryland. In 2000, according to long-term polling by Gallup, 64 percent opposed legalizing marijuana use, 31 percent supported it, and 5 percent had no opinion. In 2014, it was 51 percent to 47 percent in favor, with 2 percent having no opinion. The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, found support for legalization jumped quickly this decade, from 41 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2014. Legalization is popular in Maryland–a majority support it, according to the Goucher Poll, which also found that Marylanders think tobacco, alcohol, and sugar pose more serious health risks than pot.

These changes pose a conundrum for Republicans, who “tend to be conflicted between their desire for small government and their support for law and order,” explains Murphy. “But they are beginning to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a failure, a significant waste of resources, and more and more have to face the hypocrisy of their own prior drug use. There are few who will take the lead in drug-policy reform, but just as few who support the status quo.”

Among conservatives looking for ways the GOP can gain a toehold on the winning side of culture wars, marijuana is a hot topic–so hot that activists are looking to make it an issue that can help separate the wheat from the chaff in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, according to Brookings Institution fellow John Hudak’s analysis of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., which drew about 3,000 attendees. When polled on the question of legalization, 41 percent of CPACers said they support it, while another 21 percent said they want it legally available for medical purposes only. Marijuana policy “made its way into speeches and Q&A sessions not as a tongue-in-cheek, light moment,” Hudak wrote, “but as one of many serious policies of interest to the CPAC crowd.”

The shifting conservative landscape on pot laws is significant to Maryland because, for this year and the next three years (and possibly the next seven), any pot-liberalizing bills the Democrat-controlled legislature may pass–legalization being the Holy Grail–will need the signature of new Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose upset victory last fall in this heavily Democratic state wowed the nation. In 2018, presumably he’ll run for re-election with all the benefits of incumbency. While Hogan’s position on weed appears unequivocal–”I’m opposed to full legalization of marijuana,” he wrote in the Sun’s Voter Guide last fall–he’s left himself some wiggle room by sounding alarm bells about how prohibition is enforced: It “seems unjust,” he wrote, to imprison people “for a very small amount of marijuana, destroying their chances of employment, and exposing them to violent offenders.”

A majority of Republicans in the Maryland Senate, meanwhile, have shown themselves to have open minds on the pot issue. Seven of 12 GOP senators voted for decriminalization last year. While this surely had little bearing on the GOP’s gains in last fall’s elections–two seats were picked up in the Senate, and seven in the House–this pro-decriminalization crowd is moving up in the world of Republican politics in Maryland.

Only two of the seven pro-decriminalization GOP senators remain in the Senate, but of those who left, two are county executives–Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Barry Glassman of Harford County–and two joined the Hogan administration: David Brinkley is the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, and Christopher Shank is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Of the GOP’s two pro-decriminalization senators still sitting, one–J.B. Jennings (District 7, Harford and Cecil)–is the chamber’s minority leader and has announced he’ll run for U.S. Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District), should Harris run to take the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

On the House side, on the other hand, almost all Republicans were loathe to support decriminalization last year. Only three of the 43 GOP delegates voted for it: Michael Smigiel (District 36, Caroline, Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s), Robert Costa (District 33B, Anne Arundel), and Herb McMillan (District 30, Anne Arundel). Costa retired, McMillan is now chief deputy minority whip, and Smigiel lost a close race in last year’s primary–but recently announced he’s back in the game, planning to run in 2016 against Harris, in part because of Harris’ much-publicized, unsuccessful effort last year to derail Washington, D.C.’s pot-legalization law.

Thus, among this year’s roster of 64 GOP senators and delegates, only three who voted for decriminalization–Jennings, McMillan, and Sen. Edward Reilly (District 33, Anne Arundel)–still sit in the legislature. But voting in the recently ended General Assembly session shows that room still remains in the Maryland GOP’s tent for pot liberalization-and it’s coming in part from newly elected legislators.

A bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia passed this session, and while only one Republican voted in favor of the Senate version–Justin Ready (District 5, Carroll)–among House GOP members it fared surprisingly well. Seven voted for it: Carl Anderton (District 38B, Wicomico), Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C, Wicomico and Worcester), Robert Flanagan (District 9B, Howard), Robin Grammer (District 6, Baltimore County), McMillan, Christian Miele (District 8, Baltimore County), and Chris West (District 42B, Baltimore County). In a sign that last fall’s elections may be prompting a slight shift in House Republicans’ heretofore rigid anti-pot mindset, five of them–Anderton, Carozza, Grammer, Miele, and West–are newly elected.

West voted to decriminalize pot paraphernalia because, he says, “so long as someone can’t be put in jail for possessing marijuana itself, it makes no sense to have laws on the books” that make possessing pot-smoking paraphernalia like rolling papers or a pipe a criminal offense. However, he stresses, “I’m against totally legalizing marijuana until at least two things happen.” First, he says he would need to be shown that marijuana “does not permanently damage your brain.” Second, he continues, “there needs to be a way to deal with people driving under the influence of marijuana,” since there’s “no way” right now to determine whether a driver is high without “drawing blood,” and, “I don’t think people would permit state troopers to pull out a syringe and take their blood, or be detained for hours so a they can prepare a warrant for a doctor to draw blood.”

Hogan and Shank declined to offer insights into their current views of the changing marijuana-law landscape. Asked to comment on the findings of City Paper’s analysis of how GOP legislators’ voting patterns on pot-reform measures have been changing, and how lifting prohibition fits in with conservative values, both demurred through their communications directors. Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, confirmed that Hogan’s campaign position on the issue–that he’s anti-legalization but concerned about the social costs of penalties for possessing small amounts—remains unchanged. Both Montgomery’s and Shank’s communications manager, Patty Mochel, said the men would be happy to discuss the issue once Hogan decides whether or not he’ll sign the pot-paraphernalia bill.

Among GOP legislators, meanwhile, legalization appears to remain anathema. Typical sentiments are those voiced by state Del. Kathy Afzali (District 4, Frederick and Carroll), who’s on the record as “adamantly opposed to the legalization of any drugs,” and Ready, who’s stated that “while I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of decriminalization, if we legalize it, we say to children and young adults that it’s OK to smoke marijuana.” But some have left room to shift their stances. Grammer told the Dundalk Eagle that he’s opposed to legalization, though he’s “not going to commit without seeing a bill.” Newly elected state Del. Haven Shoemaker (District 5, Carroll), meanwhile, told the Carroll County Times last fall that “I oppose marijuana legalization at this time until we have had a chance to see the effects of legalization in states like Colorado.”

Murphy of the MPP, when told of Shoemaker’s statement, remarked that “if you can talk about this in red-meat conservative Carroll County, then you can talk about it anywhere.” Still, Murphy does not see legalization coming to Maryland any time soon. He says that the newly minted decriminalization law and the just-reformed med-pot laws in Maryland “slow the process down,” because legislators want to “watch and see what happens” as the fresh changes are rolled out, just as they want to “see what happens with legalization in other states.”

“I understand the delay on this,” Murphy says of Maryland’s currently cool reception to the prospect of legalization. “It took us 15 years to get to medical marijuana, so I don’t expect that recreational will happen overnight,” he says, “but it’s more a matter of when than if. Legislators are getting in the way of the people on this, and it’s only a matter of time before they wise up. I suspect they’ve wised up already but are afraid to act on it, and Colorado gives them an excuse to wait.”

Nic Fit: Puffing Through the Great Vape Debate


By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 9, 2014

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Recently, I started huffing vapors produced by heating up compounds used in some types of antifreeze. If swallowed, the liquid I’m vaporizing can be poisonous, even fatal, especially to children. No one yet knows what the long-term health effects of inhaling this stuff will be, yet it is cheap, widely available, glamorized in advertisements, and almost completely unregulated by the authorities. In some major cities, all of Arkansas, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Utah, and a growing list of towns and counties, it’s illegal to huff this stuff wherever it’s illegal to smoke tobacco.

So why am I using it? It sounds strange, even counterintuitive perhaps, but I’m using it to improve my health.

It is called “vaping,” and the devices I’m using to “vape” are called electronic cigarettes or “e-cigs,” whose rechargeable batteries heat up “e-juice” to release vapors I inhale. The flavored e-juice I use in my new e-cigs contains nicotine, though not all e-juices do. The more I’ve vaped, the fewer cigarettes I’ve been smoking. My smoke-weary lungs have been feeling increasingly better as a result, though my decades-long nicotine addiction continues-for now.

The e-cig industry was hatched in China about a decade ago, and arrived in the U.S. in the mid-2000s. Its remarkably rapid growth has been happening so fast, it’s hard to track, but Wells Fargo Securities, in a series of recent reports put out by its “Tobacco Talk” survey team, now estimates it to be a $2.2 billion industry. The team predicts that it will reach $10 billion by 2017, and that by 2023, one of the biggest tobacco companies, Reynolds American, will realize $5.2 billion in e-cig revenue, compared to $3.1 billion it will reap from peddling traditional cigarettes.

Big bankers, in other words, are banking on the idea that e-cigs will be bigger than cigarettes within a decade. In Maryland, scores of retail vape stores and online e-cig businesses have sprung up in the past year, while three have opened in Baltimore City since last summer, with a fourth scheduled to open this month.

I followed e-cig media coverage for more than a year before making the leap. Navigating the rabbit hole of e-cig information is dizzying, as one is see-sawed from scary messages (Its ingredients are used in antifreeze! E-juice kills babies!) to rational claims that the technology reduces harm among cigarette smokers. While many questions remain about the long-term effects of inhaling the vapors from e-juice’s ingredients-propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), and the flavorings infused in them-the ingredients themselves are common and approved as safe for use in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both PG and VG are used in antifreezes designed to reduce harm from accidental ingestion, such as those used in machinery involved in food production. Nicotine, meanwhile, is a powerful and addictive stimulant that can be highly toxic, so the recent rise in reported poisonings from e-juice has prompted a media frenzy-and the widespread use of child-proof caps by e-juice makers and warnings by industry leaders that users should take smart, responsible steps to ensure e-juice doesn’t get ingested by children and pets.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 4 issued a press release saying that there have been 2,405 e-cig nicotine-poisoning calls to poison centers from September 2010, when there was one call, to February 2014, when there were 215, and more than half of them pertained to kids under 5 years old. To put this in context, though, poison control centers got more that 20,000 calls in 2012 alone about people poisoned by ingesting fluoride toothpaste, and almost all of them involved children 5 or younger.

Inhaled e-cig vapors have been shown in studies to have trace amounts of some harmful compounds-formaldehyde and acrolein, in particular-at levels far below those found in smoke from burning tobacco. As a review of such studies by Drexel University public health professor Igor Burstyn concluded last summer, “no evidence” currently exists that vaping exposes users to contaminants “that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure safety of workplaces,” and “exposures of bystanders are likely to be orders of magnitude less, and thus pose no apparent concern.”

The FDA intends to regulate e-cigs by deeming them tobacco products under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, but the nine-step process of doing so is currently stuck on step four, as the White House Office of Management and Budget reviews whatever the FDA is currently proposing. In the meantime, the FDA says in a statement emailed to City Paper that “further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes.”

The public-health community is divided on the issue. Some revered medical institutions, like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, advise against using e-cigs; Mayo says on its web site that “until more is known about the potential risks, the safe play is to say no to electronic cigarettes,” while pointing those who want to quit smoking to the “many FDA-approved medications that have been shown to be safe and effective for this purpose.” Other public-health experts see great promise in e-cigs as a safer alternative to smoking that can help people quit, often more effectively than other FDA-approved options.

Burstyn, in a recent interview with City Paper, says, “If all smokers switched to vaping, it would be the equivalent of them quitting, and it would change the world for the better, in my opinion.” He adds that “all serious scientists are pretty much in agreement that e-cigarettes are the way to go,” while public health professionals who say otherwise “are doing harm, clearly-every time a smoker doesn’t switch to e-cigarettes because of their advice. It’s smoking! One of the most harmful things we do, and so widespread. Their opposition to e-cigs is ideology, it’s not science, and in the end you need to listen to the quality of their arguments and use your own brain.”

In January in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an opinion piece by David Abrams of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aired the same concerns about the risk of ideology trumping science in the public health community’s reception of e-cigs.

“If e-cigarettes represent the new frontier,” Abrams wrote, “tobacco control experts must be open to new strategies. Statements based on ideology and insufficient evidence could prevent the use of this opportunity before it becomes established as part of harm reduction strategy.” Regulatory overreach, he suggested, “might support the established tobacco industry, whose rapid entry into the marketplace and history of making potentially misleading claims of harm reduction could promote poly-use of all their tobacco products, and thus perpetuate sales of conventional cigarettes well into the next century rather than speed their obsolescence.” He added that “independent manufacturers of e-cigarettes could compete with tobacco companies and make the cigarette obsolete, just as digital cameras made film obsolete”-a prospect he calls “an extraordinary opportunity to end the cigarette century well before the 100th anniversary” of the first 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health.

The controversy over the relative risks of e-cig versus cigarette use “makes no sense to me,” adds Michael Siegel, a physician and public health professor at Boston University. “I’d rather have people use a safer product than a dangerous one,” he tells City Paper in a recent phone interview, adding, “there’s no question [e-cigs are] safer than smoking.” He estimates that e-cigs are currently “saving maybe thousands or tens of thousands of lives” of people who are quitting smoking by using them, and adds that “it’s quite shocking to me, actually, when public-health advocates don’t applaud people quitting in this way. It’s the most promising innovation in my 25-year career.”

The just-released 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report generally withholds judgment on e-cigs but allows that they are likely to be helpful as cigarette use-which the report blames for nearly 21 million premature deaths since 1964, and which, according to the CDC, was down from 42.4 percent of adults in 1965 to almost 18.1 percent in 2012-continues to be stamped out. “The promotion of electronic cigarettes,” the report states, “is much more likely to be beneficial in an environment where the appeal, accessibility, promotion, and use of cigarettes are being rapidly reduced.”

Convinced that vaping wasn’t going to kill me faster than cigarettes, and might actually prolong my life if I could successfully replace cigarettes with e-cigs, on Feb. 16 I went to the Vapory (, Baltimore’s first bricks-and-mortar “vape” shop on Preston Street in Midtown, and paid $57.46, taxes included, for a starter kit and two bottles of tobacco-flavored e-juice.


The Vapory is in the basement of 19 W. Preston St., so customers step down from the sidewalk to enter the small shop. Its aquamarine walls are crowded with framed prints of old art. Arrayed on nearly all available surfaces are curios: Victorian statuary, skulls, a small bronze of William Donald Schaefer, and figurines of the RCA dog, a caped Robin, and the Super Mario Brothers. The wares for sale-vaping devices, some of them strikingly similar in appearance to the hyposprays made famous by Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy, plus accoutrements like carrying cases and colorful tips and tanks, plus rows and rows of e-juice bottles-are in glass display cases. A small table and a couple of chairs are set up for sampling different flavors of e-juices. As if one needed to get more comfortable in this calm, cluttered, bohemian environment, there are two couches in the corner to settle into.

“All out of Thug Juice, but I’m getting more soon,” the Vapory’s owner, 49-year-old Adam Fordham, tells a customer. Flavored with grape, watermelon, and menthol, Thug Juice is one of Fordham’s best-selling e-juices, he says. Made by Bellingham, Wash.-based Mt. Baker Vapor, it’s one of the two brands he carries, the other being Richmond, Va.-based Avail Vapor.

Fordham, a heavyset dandy of a man with a shock of swept-back greying blond hair, used to be an incorrigible smoker. “I was two packs a day for 29 years,” he says, “and I was never going to quit, because I enjoyed it that much.” He first tried vaping, he says, “so I could smoke and drink at a bar,” and “I was very surprised that it replicated” smoking so well. Then “cheapness kicked in,” he continues, as “I saw how much money I was saving. And that’s what really did it for me-especially for someone who never had any intention of quitting smoking. So when that last carton of Marlboros had run out, I didn’t buy any more. And now I’m nearing my one-year anniversary of no cigarettes. I’ve had four drags since, and I couldn’t stand it.”

Fordham opened the Vapory on July 27, 2013, after a long career in what he calls “materials management and supply operations. My first job was as a stockboy at Woolworth’s, and I hardly ever left that. I did it for University of Maryland, did it for Johns Hopkins, and then I was working for a hospital that closed, so I was actually unemployed when I opened the shop. No one was answering my resumes, but I had a short little severance, and I saw how the business was growing, so I thought if I could find a decent space, I could open in time to be the first one in the city.”

The kit Fordham sold to me was manufactured by Shenzhen, China-based Innokin Technology Co. and included two rechargeable batteries, a USB cable and plug for recharging them, and five “cartomizers” that you fill with e-juice and screw into the sleek, black batteries. The cartomizers are clear tanks topped by form-fitting tips and wicks inside them that carry the e-juice to the battery, which, when you push a button to turn it on, vaporizes the e-juice, allowing you to inhale the fumes through the tip. When the cartomizer runs low on e-juice, you add more from the bottles.

The nicotine content of the 25 milliliters (ml) of e-juice I bought from the Vapory-18 milligrams (mg) per ml-means it is the nicotine-equivalent of approximately 375 cigarettes, since each cigarette delivers about 1.2 mg of nicotine (an admittedly rough estimate). Thus, for a little less than $60, I purchased the ability to vape about the same amount of nicotine as I would take in by smoking almost 19 packs of cigarettes costing about $7.50 each-or $140, give or take a few bucks.

This was clearly a huge bargain compared to smoking cigarettes, and the potential savings grew eye-popping as the weeks passed. In March, I went to Bmore Vapes ( on Light Street in Federal Hill-the second vape shop to open in the city-and purchased three 10-ml bottles of e-juice containing 24 mg/ml of nicotine, flavored to taste like rum, whiskey, and honey-infused tobacco. Their higher nicotine concentration means each bottle contains the nicotine-equivalent of 10 packs of cigarettes. The three bottles cost about $15, potentially replacing about $225 worth of smokes.

I added to my e-juice collection at Gypsy Vape (, a recently opened shop just inside the Beltway on Route 40 West, by buying three 12-mg nicotine bottles flavored to taste like spiced tobacco, rum, and caramel coffee. Then I returned to the Vapory to buy three more cartomizers for another $15, so I could have eight cartomizers to match my eight flavors.

All told, I’ve spent a little over $100 to become a well-stocked vaper-and my e-juice supplies, which look likely to last me for months to come, contain the same amount of nicotine as roughly 1,275 cigarettes, or about 64 packs, which would have cost me in the neighborhood of $500.

I’m about six weeks into vaping now, and I’m still buying and smoking cigarettes. But the amount I’m smoking has regularly decreased as I’ve come to enjoy vaping more and more to satisfy my need for nicotine. Whereas I used to smoke a half-pack a day, usually a little more, I recently re-upped after taking five days to go through a pack. So I’m at about four cigarettes a day: one in the morning, two during the day, and one before bed. That’s puts me within reach of quitting entirely-which I now intend to do, since, unlike ever before in my long smoking career, it seems like a reasonably obtainable goal.

When I tell Fordham I’m still smoking, albeit less and less, he tries to encourage me by gently shaming me. “What’s the point?” he says. “Segue, dude, you gotta segue.”

Stories about customers who’ve successfully quit smoking start flowing out of Fordham. “I have one guy, he smoked as much as me,” he recalls. “He came in on my second day in business, and he hasn’t smoked since, and since then people come in because they know Larry quit.”

Asked to describe the demographics of his shop’s customers, Fordham says: “It’s like smoking, there’s hardly a demographic because it’s everybody-all races, walks of life.” And he’s clearly satisfied with the sociability of his new career. “I’ve definitely met a fascinating bunch of people since I started this,” he says, before telling an anecdote to illustrate the unlikely camaraderie that arises among those in the vape culture.

“I had one customer who was in here, a University of Baltimore law student,” Fordham recalls. “Then in came this artist who does drag once in a while, these MICA students, and there was a PhD candidate at Hopkins. They all came in about the same time, and everyone’s just really talking about vaping.”

“The UB student,” Fordham continues, “after everyone else left, he was like, ‘You know, I don’t think in any other social situation we would have had a conversation, even if we were in the same bar as each other, which is unlikely. But we’re all talking about this vape, and it’s completely different from the normal crowd I would have met. And these are all people who have started vaping and quit smoking, and almost every one of them is surprised, because they’ve all tried to quit before, and nothing ever worked. And when it works for them, they are very supportive of everybody else.'”

The most prevalent types of e-cigs, known as “cigalikes,” are sold at convenience stores and gas stations, with brand names like blu, NJoy, and Blaze, often in either disposable or rechargeable models. They cost about $5 to $10 each for disposables, or $20 to $70 for rechargeable kits, and offer fewer varieties of flavors, often packaged in cartridges rather than e-juice bottles for use in refillable cartomizers. So cigalikes are more expensive to use over time than the e-cigs sold at vape stores, which cater to those looking to customize their vaping experience with a variety of higher-powered technology and nearly limitless flavor options.

Despite the higher cost over time of disposables and fewer choices, some cigalike users have found them quite useful for quitting smoking. “I was a smoker for ten-plus years,” explains Adam Sahhar, captain of Urban Pirates, which runs playful excursions on the faux-pirate ship Fearless out of Fells Point. “Most days I would smoke a whole pack of cigarettes,” he continues, and “when I decided that I could no longer justify the cost, smell, and harm to my body anymore, I decided to try the blu disposable brand, to work my way off smoking. I stopped smoking cigarettes altogether within a week and have not lit up in over a month.” He adds that using blus “is cheaper and has saved me over $100 in one month.”

Sahhar’s experience with cigalikes may have once been more common than mine, involving cartomizers and a host of tasty flavors. But vape culture centered on what is purveyed online and at vape stores rather than cigalikes from convenience stores is a growing phenomenon. The Wells Fargo Securities team in late March estimated that roughly 60 percent of all e-cig sales is happening in this hard-to-track segment of the economy, and puts the number of vape stores in the U.S. at about 5,000.

In Maryland, the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy at the University of Maryland School of Law has tried to keep tabs on the growth of vape shops. Its deputy director, William Tilburg, says, “I don’t have a comprehensive list,” but “the list we have” amounts to “32 bricks-and-mortar shops around the state.”

City Paper‘s attempt to create a list based on new business filings at the Maryland Department of Assessments & Taxation (MDAT), where anyone starting a business goes to file incorporation or trade-name application papers, is also incomplete by necessity. But it indicates that the vape-shop explosion in the Free State is remarkably active-and that Tilburg’s crew has some catching up to do.

Joining the parade of newly forming Maryland vape businesses in March were the Vape Shop in Sykesville, the Vapor Kingdom in Glen Burnie, MD Vapor in Thurmont, Vaperista in Easton, the Vapor Vault in White Plains, Vapor Trails in Hagerstown, Vapeculture in Gaithersburg, Vape Puffin Stuff in Cheltenham, Vape Jungle in Owings Mills, and DC Vapor and Vapor VII in Germantown. In February, there was Gypsy Vape, Vape Exchange in Germantown, Vapor Worldwide in Bethesda, The Vapepad in Odenton, and Vapin Time in College Park. And in January came the Vaper’s Knoll in Pasadena, All Day Vapors in Reisterstown, Vapor-Tek in Elkridge, Vapestore USA in Essex, Vaper-Café Timonium, Vapor Gators in Stevensville, and Vaporrise USA in Hagerstown.

That’s 23 new vaping enterprises in Maryland since the beginning of the year, and is likely not the complete picture. In Baltimore City, for instance, sisters Margee Brooks and Monica Schubel opened Mystic Vape ( earlier this year on Falls Road in Hampden, becoming the city’s third vape shop. “These shops are popping up all over,” says Brooks, who was attracted to the prospect of opening one by Schubel, who quit smoking by using e-cigs. “I knew nothing about it before then,” Brooks continues, “but I came into this business saying, you know what, financially this is going to work. I believe in it.”

A fourth city vape shop, District Charm Vapory, is set to open on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown on April 11, according to an email from Rachel Alexander, who co-owns the business with Laura Greeley.

The pace appears to be picking up, since City Paper‘s MDAT business-filings search counted over 30 new vape businesses forming in Maryland in all of 2013. Last year’s new arrivals included the Vapor Hut in Oakland, the Vape Vine and Mean Street Vapor in Glen Burnie, Vape Bros in Ellicott City, the Vape Lounge in Bel Air, Vaping Apes in Forestville, Vape Social in Rockville, Great White Vape in Arnold, Vapor Jacks in Silver Spring, Vape Daddy in Damascus, and Vaporiot in Dundalk.

Clearly, Maryland’s vape scene is burgeoning as customers look for more choice and convenience. To Fordham, what he’s been seeing among his growing customer base is surprising: “It’s the closest thing to religious converts that I can think of.” He’s also surprised at his own transformation: “I never thought I’d be, like, turned into an advocate, you know, some kind of activist or something. I just didn’t see that coming.”


“I never wanted to be an activist in my life, for anything. For anything. It never even crossed my mind,” says 43-year-old Ron Ward, an attorney who last year opened up The Vapers’ Edge, a vape shop in Parkville. “And then I started these things,” he says, holding up his e-cig, “and here’s the answer to a problem that I’ve been looking for my entire life. And within six months I was an activist, full on. It’s exciting, and being a vendor is very exciting. It’s like throwing the rope back over the fence for people, to help them find an alternative to smoking. And they’re thankful. I have people thank me during the course of the day.”

Ward is a board member of CASAA, the acronym for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, and now finds himself calling and writing legislators weighing how to regulate e-cigs. He did so in Maryland, urging the state not to institute a proposed ban on e-cig sales while supporting a measure to prohibit sales to minors, and both bills ended up how he’d hoped they would.

As vaping grows more widespread and acceptable, Ward says, “there is power in numbers. We’re very enthused” as the vaping community grows more organized. “Vapers aren’t like smokers,” he says, observing that, “when the smoking ban went down” in 2007 in Maryland, “there weren’t hundreds of smokers descending upon Annapolis to fight against these bills. Vapers are very enthusiastic and want to get involved. So the more vapers we have on board, the more numbers we have, the more we can fight these bans.”

Carl Phillips, a public-health scientist and longtime proponent of tobacco harm reduction who serves as CASAA’s scientific director, believes proposed bans and heavy-handed regulation that may threaten to undermine the e-cig industry are being aided by an inherent irony resulting from an important federal appellate-court decision in 2011 that essentially bars e-cig manufacturers from making claims that their products can help people quit smoking.

“It would be enormously beneficial if they could just tell the truth,” Phillips says, “but instead they have to resort to messages about how it’s a cool alternative to smoking. They are stuck advertising this way, and then they are criticized for using these marketing tactics.”

Boston University’s Siegel agrees, saying that allowing e-cig makers to “make a therapeutic claim is the best thing they could do, since it would allow these companies to inform consumers that they are safer than cigarettes, which is the truth. Instead, companies go to other tactics-how sexy it is, how you can use these where you can’t smoke.”

Siegel points out that “many decisions in public health are made in the absence of complete data”-a real problem for e-cigs since “they just came on the market and there hasn’t been enough time for thorough study yet”-yet “no one is claiming they have short-term effects, the only question is long-term effects, and it takes a very long time to establish what they might be.” New drugs are approved by FDA and “put on the market without any understanding of their long-term effects all the time,” he adds, so such decisions “often have to be made with uncertainties.” The bottom line, he says, is, “we should be doing everything in our power to combat smoking, and e-cigarettes are helping many, many people do just that.”

Here in Baltimore, Bmore Vapes owner Cornelius Sylvester says he’s seen it all when it comes to the controversies over e-cigs. He’s been in the business since 2009, when he started out working for Max Cigs, an e-cig company based in Texas, where he was living at the time. “Now that it’s popular,” Sylvester says, “everyone’s putting out so much misinformation, it’s crazy. Is it 100 percent safe? Nope, but nothing is. But is it safer? Is it a safe alternative? Yeah, it is.”

Sylvester and industry activists like CASAA’s Phillips and Ward agree that the e-cig industry needs regulation, but they’re worried that whatever gets put in place could threaten e-cigs’ availability to consumers whose health could be improved and lives lengthened by using them to quit smoking.

“There should be guidelines,” Sylvester says, “a lot of just basic regulations for this industry that would make everything so much simpler and promote safety.” He worries that, instead, “it’s going to be, take out as many small people like me as possible, replace them with electronic cigarettes in small pen styles from the big tobacco companies, and let the big pharmaceutical companies, who have rival quit-smoking products, do the dirty work and come down and wipe us out. All that’ll be left are the big tobacco companies, who are going to work with the FDA to do it this way, and pretty much take over the market.”

Time will tell whether Sylvester’s pessimistic vision turns out to be prescient or misplaced. In the meantime, though, his business is booming. He says he now has nine employees and will need more as he expands to a new, bigger location in Baltimore County, and another in the planning stages at Arundel Mills Mall. He says some small e-cig companies’ growth is staggering.

“I know one guy, I sold him his first e-cigarette in Texas,” Sylvester says. “Since then, he opened up his own store, doing online sales, and he did over $50 million last year. I’m like, wow.”

“The people you’re talking to are already the converts,” says Pamela Clark, a public health research professor who is director of the new University of Maryland Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (UMD-TCRS), when I mention the raft of stories vape connoisseurs have told me about people quitting smoking by switching to vaping.

“They’re the born-again breathers, and they’re passionate,” Clark continues. “They’re the ones who show up and testify at government hearings. They’re really part of the subculture, and they go to vape fests and are technologically oriented and disdainful of cigalikes,” which increasingly are produced by big tobacco companies. “The tobacco industry is not involved with” the vape stores’ products so far, which she calls “very funky looking,” and she believes that “many of [their customers] were never smokers.”

She worries, though, that the rise in vape culture “may re-normalize smoking” thanks to “advertising on television,” turning back the ebb tide that cigarette use has seen for decades until now, when “it’s down below 20 percent of the population,” while also reversing the decline in teen smoking. On the other hand, she says, putting the brakes on e-cigs’ growth presents an “ethical dilemma,” because “a lot of people will anecdotally quit with them,” presenting a “problem of denying these things from people who want to quit.”

Clark, who says she got her first grant to study e-cigs in 2011, is guiding UMD-TCRS as it embarks on major new e-cig research funded last year by the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with the FDA. Some of the defenders of vape culture cited this forthcoming study when, in March, the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates held a hearing on House Bill 1291, which sought to ban vaping wherever smoking is already banned by law in Maryland.

Cheryl Zolnierek, who goes by the nickname “Vape Mom” as vice president of Maryland Vapers (, a group that hosts social meet-ups and an online community of vapers and vendors, asked the committee to “please, wait until this study is released, see what they have to say,” before passing an indoor-vaping ban. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, representing the Association of Tobacco and Candy Wholesalers in opposing the bill, urged the committee to “await objective, concrete scientific facts and evidence before acting” and pointed out that Prince George’s County, which had been considering passing an indoor-vaping ban last year, decided it would hold off until the Clark-led study produced results.

The bill’s sponsor, state Del. Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery County), told the committee to “err on the side of public safety” and allow the proposal to go forward to a floor vote, since it’s “like the wild, wild West out there” with “no FDA oversight.” She claimed that “many of these studies that have been conducted” are “not conclusive” as to the risks of vaping, which may be a “gateway product” leading nonsmokers to pick up cigarettes.

Joining Miller in support of the bill was Donald Shell, head of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Cancer and Chronic Disease Bureau, who said that reported e-cig “nicotine overdoses” in Maryland had increased from seven calls in 2012, two involving children, to 11 in 2013, nine of them kids. He added that “we are not clear what the potential risk is at this time” from vaping.

Del. Melvin Stukes (D-Baltimore City) signed on as a co-sponsor of Miller’s bill, and says in an interview with City Paper that “nobody knows what’s coming from these things,” adding, “I did hear there are some things involved with the vapors that are hazardous.” Another co-sponsor, Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), who is a physician, adds that he’s heard e-cigs “help people quit” smoking, but “that’s not proven,” adding, “it’s always good to err on the side of caution until the facts are clear.”

But at the committee hearing, vaping proponents argued that enough is already known to avoid banning the convenient use of this promising smoking-cessation technology. “Vaping is 99 percent less risky than smoking,” said CASAA’s Phillips. The suggestion that “a bystander would be harmed” by vaping is “misguided,” he said, since the toxicity of vaping “is far below the level to create any health concern,” and “that’s the exposure to the user herself.” People who switch from smoking to vaping, Phillips continued, “are reducing their health risk almost as much as if they’d quit cold turkey,” and if Maryland law was changed to “take away that convenience” of vaping indoors in public places-like bars, restaurants, and even vape shops-“more people will keep smoking and die from it.”

Also testifying against the bill was Bill Godshall, the founder of SmokeFree Pennsylvania and a CASAA advisor, who said the bill, if passed, would “protect cigarette markets” by creating disincentives for smokers to start vaping, a practice that he estimates has “replaced about one billion packs of cigarettes in the U.S. in the past five years,” while “last year, U.S. cigarette sales dropped by 4.6 percent as e-cigarette sales skyrocketed to replace them.” The more vaping goes mainstream, the more it “denormalizes cigarette smoking,” Godshall argued, adding that just as e-cigs have burgeoned, “teen smoking has declined to record lows.”

Godshall’s teen-smoking point was meant to counter widely cited data from the CDC, which he mentioned to the committee, finding that high-schoolers’ e-cig use rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent from 2011 to 2012. When these findings were released, CDC director Tom Frieden surmised publicly that they raise the specter that e-cigs are a gateway to cigarette smoking. But the CDC also found that 9 out of 10 high-schoolers who reported vaping were already cigarette smokers and that teen smoking overall had declined-facts they released belatedly, and which suggest that many vaping high-schoolers may be dual users on the road to quitting cigarettes or have already fully switched to vaping.

Boston University’s Siegel found CDC’s behavior in releasing its data in successive bites highly suspect, writing on his blog, The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary (, that “CDC officials certainly had plenty of opportunity to let the public know that there was no discernible increase in cigarette smoking among youth concomitant with the observed increase in e-cigarette use,” and the fact they reported the former only after the media rippled with news of the latter, suggests they’ve come to “a pre-determined conclusion that e-cigarettes are evil.”

In the end, the Economic Matters Committee voted 19 to 3 to stop Maryland’s proposed indoor-vaping ban in its tracks. Bereano, in an interview after the vote, says it’s likely the majority struck the bill down “because they are sensitive to business and cautious about government regulation of business and business products,” especially since, given the reliability of information currently available, “they couldn’t call vaping dangerous and harmful.” Stukes, though, says that while the proposal is “dead for now, it will be back next year.”

“I smoked 31 years,” says Rick Willard, a 47-year-old retired Baltimore City cop. “I was doing almost two packs a day. I would raid houses with a cigarette in my mouth. In Edmondson Village, my nickname was the Marlboro Man. I always had a cigarette. I would chase a bad guy down the street for a couple of blocks, and I’d have to stop and smoke a cigarette to kick-start my lungs.”

Willard is telling war stories of his days as a chronic smoker while sitting in the lounge area of Gypsy Vape, a shop he recently opened with his longtime friend and fellow former Baltimore cop Kevin Hoff. “I tried the patch, gum, Chantix, hypnosis-everything you could imagine to quit smoking,” Willard continues. He discovered e-cigs about five years ago, he says, and “quit smoking 100 percent on January 17 of 2013.” He says he’s cut the nicotine content of the e-juices he vapes to 6 mg/ml, sometimes as low as 3 mg/ml, and “I could probably go to zero,” but, “I have no intention of quitting.” But “once you switch all the way,” he continues, “after a couple of weeks, you’re going to see a difference in how you feel. I could barely walk up a flight of steps without getting winded before. Now, I can run five miles. I feel better all over, my whole body.”

Hoff, a longtime Goth and Renaissance Festival enthusiast, says, “I vape no nicotine. I have no wish to vape nicotine, and half the vapers out there don’t vape nicotine.” He was “a hookah smoker before I got into vaping,” he explains, but grew worried about “what they put in that charcoal” used in hookahs, and “how much of that is still getting through the water filter.” So he switched to vaping-and now he enjoys something that may be the only aspect of vape culture that is controversial among vapers themselves.

It’s called “cloud chasing,” and it involves exhaling mass quantities of thick vapor, enough to fill a room, much like a theatrical fog machine can. Those who build the e-cigs that can do it have to be hard-core geeks about the vaping technology. When I ask Hoff what he uses to chase clouds, he says this: “I’m running a 20-gauge, four-wrap wire on an IGO-W drip atomizer that subohms at about anywhere from .06 to .13.” This is how cloud chasers talk.

Ron Ward, the lawyer with the Parkville vape shop, tries to be tolerant about cloud chasers. “I’m libertarian by nature,” he explains, so, “I have no problem with it at all.” But he clearly does, based on what he says next: “If you do blow industrial size clouds of vapor in public, it’s going to ruin it for the rest of us. It’s going to be what they point to when they say these things should be banned indoors, because people are being disrespectful. It honestly creates such an immense amount of vapor that it could be offensive to a lot of people. It’s offensive to me, and I’m a vaper.”

Cloud chasing “started in the Phillipines,” Ward continues, “I’d say it’s been a year and a half, and it’s become very, very popular. Culturally, it seems to be mostly young people and hobbyists, people in their 20s who like to rebuild things and want to build something that makes the most vapor.”

Or people like 48-year-old Hoff, who says he wore a blue Mohawk for part of his six years on the police force, and the last thing most people would think when looking at him is “ex-cop.” But Willard, who looks every bit the ex-cop, echoes Ward’s concerns. While cloud chasers “do it everywhere” because “it’s fun and they enjoy it,” Willard says, “sometimes people aren’t responsible. If they really thought about the future of vaping, they wouldn’t sit in a Chuck-E-Cheese and subohm and blow a cloud, because the perception of that cloud, after years of indoctrination of what smoke is, people don’t understand it. And then they get fearful for their kids.”

But the geek factor involved in cloud chasing is indicative of a larger theme in hardcore vape culture, one in which, unlike with people trying to quit smoking, nicotine isn’t really part of the picture.

“Probably 50 percent of our customers don’t even do nicotine,” Hoff explains. “A lot are people who were into hookahs, without nicotine, so we supply non-nicotine e-juice to a lot of people who just enjoy vaping, who just have a pastime where they sit around and socialize. Now, a lot of young people are going to vape shops the way, when I was younger, we used to bar-hop. It’s kind of like a hobby to a lot of people, and they go around and collect things, build things, look at things, collect the different mods, the different drippers”-component parts of high-end e-cigs that people build themselves, so they can control the ohms and voltage of the batteries and the amount of e-juice delivered.

“It’s a whole different subculture that is literally springing up overnight,” Hoff says. “I can’t remember a subculture that sprang up this quickly.”

But “our primary customers,” Hoff adds, “are people who want to quit smoking. They’ve tried everything. They come here, and we sell them just the basic kit to get started on their journey. And it works. They’re surprised that they’re not doing cigarettes anymore, and the thought of smoking turns their stomach.”

Hoff’s wife, Jennifer Langenfelder, pipes in: “One thing I don’t miss is smelling like a cigarette.” She was a pack-a-day smoker until the shop opened, three weeks earlier, and hasn’t had one since. “It’s gotten to the point where I can smell it on somebody, and it just makes me want to gag. You get to the point where it just smells and tastes disgusting.”

“That’s how we can tell if our customers are being honest or not about quitting,” Hoff concludes. “You don’t get that smell, you know it’s working.”

For now, I still carry that smell-though less so, given that I’m smoking only three or four cigarettes a day. I look forward to the day I can go to the Vapory or Gypsy Vape or Bmore Vapes, and they’ll notice I don’t reek.

Jewelry Dealer Boasted of Drug-Dealer Ties

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2014

Today, Eugene Petasky is a humbled man, serving a 41-month prison sentence at West Virginia’s Morgantown Federal Correctional Institution after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last fall to laundering drug money through his jewelry business, Metro Brokers, for nearly a quarter of a century. But on Nov. 8, 2006, when still a free man, Petasky spoke with apparent pride of his drug-world connections, sharing the details with an undercover cooperator in a sting operation that resulted in his indictment weeks later.

The account of Petasky’s litany of drug-world ties is contained in documents included in a civil forfeiture case, entered into the federal court record on April 7, in which the government is seeking to keep two firearms and ammunition seized from Metro Brokers during a November 2006 raid. To back up its forfeiture pleading, the government included a search-warrant affidavit written by Sharnell N. Thomas, a special agent with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. The affidavit includes a paragraph describing Petasky’s conversation with the cooperator.

“Petasky discussed being associated with several drug traffickers,” Thomas wrote, including “Darryl Henderson, also known as ‘Bam,’ [who] would kill anyone that hurt Petasky.”

Thomas wrote that Petasky stated that he “paid Bam’s legal fees” and that “Bam was an associate of Greg Parker, a well known drug trafficker” in Baltimore. According to the affadavit, he also discussed another “well known” Baltimore drug dealer named “Ya Ya Brockington” and recalled selling “a large chain with a pool table encrusted with diamonds and rubies” to “an individual named ‘Wimpy,'” and “discussed the possibility that Wimpy was killed by another well known drug trafficker . . . Rudy Williams.”

While Thomas’ affidavit describes several of the drug-world figures cited by Petasky as “well known,” only one—Rudy Williams —may qualify as truly famous. The savage criminal career of Linwood “Rudy” Williams was the subject of a lengthy 1992 article in the Baltimore Sun by David Simon, who compared Williams to William Shakespeare’s dramatic and bloody portrayal of King Richard III. Simon’s piece includes an account of “Curtis ‘Wimpy’ Manns, who took Williams into his own drug organization, then ended his career as a corpse in Baltimore County, with partner and friend Williams as the prime suspect.”

In all likelihood, the “Wimpy” Petaski referred to was Manns. Williams, meanwhile, is serving his life sentence at the high-security United State Penitentiary—Canaan, near Scranton, Pa. Details of the other drug dealers Petasky mentioned—Darryl Henderson, Greg Parker, and Ya Ya Brockington—remain inscrutable as of press time.

Given the number of years that have passed since Williams and Manns were on the scene, Petasky’s 2006 boasts may have been more reminiscent of times past than of his contemporary stature on Baltimore’s mean streets. But that a man with Petasky’s trappings—records show he was a donor to Maryland politicians, drove luxury vehicles, had a diversified investment portfolio, and owned a nice home on Woodvalley Drive near Stevenson in Baltimore County—would claim such ties, even in vaunted rhetoric, speaks volumes of the drug culture’s reach into respectable circles.

Petasky’s past—he was previously convicted by a jury in 1990 in connection with a similar money-laundering scheme involving Metro Brokers and an attorney, Neil Steinhorn, who was also convicted—meant that he was prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition. As part of Petasky’s plea deal, though, prosecutors dismissed the firearms charges, along with numerous other counts of financial crimes. He pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count of money laundering, and agreed to forfeit $336,000 to the government as ill-gotten gains. Petasky is scheduled to be released from prison on Jan. 1, 2013.

The Quiet Revolution: Can Heather Mizeur Ride Maryland’s Wave of Progressive Politics to the Governor’s Office?


By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 15, 2014


More than a quarter-century has passed since Maryland’s last truly competitive Democratic primary for governor in 1986, when Attorney General Stephen Sachs lost to Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. So this year’s polling on June 24 will be historic, simply because two statewide elected leaders – Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler – are on the ballot. Complicating their efforts to attract the most votes from Maryland’s roughly 2 million registered Democrats is a third bona fide candidate: 41-year-old state Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, a state legislator with sterling credentials as a Democratic Party activist.

City Paper met with Mizeur at the Starbucks on Church Circle in Annapolis to discuss her candidacy. The sit-down occurred on the first day of this year’s General Assembly session-apt timing, given Maryland’s increasingly apparent leftward leanings in recent years, passing laws to repeal the death penalty, ramp up gun control, extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, and grant in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants.

While Brown and Gansler grapple, Mizeur’s candidacy seems to be tapping into this leftward trend by proposing to legalize and tax marijuana to pay for universal pre-K public education, to raise the minimum wage by nearly $10 per hour over the next decade, and to provide small-business tax relief while closing loopholes that let large out-of-state companies off the tax hook. The small-town Illinois native with working-class roots has toiled in the partisan vineyards since the 1990s: as a staffer for three Congressional Democrats; as domestic-policy director for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry when he ran in the 2004 presidential election; as a Takoma Park city councilwoman; as a superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention; as a 2009 appointee to the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee; and as a veteran of seven (and counting) Maryland General Assembly sessions.

If elected, Mizeur would be many firsts for Maryland: the first woman governor, the first openly gay governor, and the first same-sex married governor. She would also be the first governor elected using the state’s public-financing mechanism for statewide campaigns, an arrangement that constrains campaign spending but opens up a funding level that might otherwise have been elusive, given the well-established money-pumping machines working for Brown and Gansler.

City Paper: The clock is ticking, with a June primary.

Heather Mizeur: It is, but we take a pause now for a 90-day legislative session with great expectations on what we can get done to make a difference in peoples’ lives. We seem to be unified in trying to increase the minimum wage, and I’m hoping we’ll also get paid sick leave and some small-business tax relief. We don’t have to have either-or economic policy. We can pay people a living wage and have paid sick leave while also providing tax relief to our small businesses as long as we close some corporate tax loopholes that are allowing a handful of multi-state companies to hide their earnings outside of the state and avoid paying any taxes. I think we’re going to be able to make some progress on marijuana policy reform and hopefully protect us from unregulated shale-gas drilling. It’s a big agenda.

CP: Does it change the dynamic, being a candidate running against the lieutenant governor and the attorney general during the session?

HM: I’m sure there’ll be some elbows thrown trying to keep people from being seen as successful. That’s not how I come at this. I come at this as a public servant. I don’t view my opponents in the campaign as my enemies. We’re all good people, trying to get good things done for the state. We just have vastly different visions for where we take Maryland. I’m definitely looking forward to being the one that helps set the agenda for what that will be starting in 2015.

CP: You strike me as the extra-establishment progressive candidate.

HM: What do you mean by that?

CP: You came up in the Democratic establishment and right now, with your candidacy, you are challenging it.

HM: Very much so, because in Maryland our next governor should not always be dictated by who’s standing next in line. The way it typically has worked in Maryland is, once a governor gets elected, insiders start looking at who appears to be next in line and funneling money and building favors and establishing deeper relationships to get in good with them. When a candidate like me looks at getting in, I’m technically supposed to look at the millions of dollars in their bank accounts or the endorsements they’ve already lined up years ago, and say, “Well, I can’t compete against that, I should never get in.” That perpetuates a system of advancing the person next in line to protect the status quo.

My campaign is about re-empowering the people so they have alternatives and choices and can come together and say, “We have a different vision. We believe in something else than what is spoon-fed to us that we’re expected to go along with.” We’re in it to win it, and we’re incredibly thrilled with the support of a robust grassroots base all across the state.

CP: This race doesn’t seem to be a coronation, though, and sometimes those coronations don’t work, like in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s case in 2002. You worked on Townsend’s campaign, right?

HM: I was Joe Kennedy’s legislative director, her brother, when he was in Congress. Toward the end of that campaign, he asked if I would consider going and helping his sister’s campaign out. And I was very interested for a variety of reasons in trying to help out that effort.


CP: The primary, a lot of people seemed to be interested-but I’m blanking on who actually ran against her.

HM: Nobody. That was the problem. [Actually, Robert Fustero ran against her, getting 20 percent of the vote.] There were a handful of people who were interested in running, but they took a look at money, endorsements, all those things, and decided not to run. I think contested primaries are good for democracy, to engage the electorate to feel ownership over the process. But even a contested primary is usually the next-in-line guys duking it out. It’s not someone like me, who’s seen as jumping the line and not waiting your turn.

I just reject the notion that these elections should be about whose turn it is. This is about the problems our state faces, how to address those problems, and an ability to capture the imagination of the electorate to come together to stand for what is the right course of action. How’s that ever going to be addressed by just looking at who thinks it’s their political birthright by virtue of, “I’ve done this job, and now it’s my turn to do that job”?

When people ask me, “Well, why don’t you run for comptroller or why didn’t you be someone’s running mate?,” I say, “Because that is me trying to set a pathway for my career, and that’s not what this is about.” This is about being in a place and time where my ideas and my willingness to address the challenges facing us are better than the competition. So I am a better candidate and I will be a better governor, and it’s time for me to step forward and give voters that option.

CP: Every state has its own nuanced political geography, but Maryland is essentially three states: the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, and the Baltimore-Washington corridor, where most of the population lives. You seem to represent a progressive set of beliefs that is often shared by well-educated people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. How do you address your progressive politics to those parts of the state that don’t share those ideas?

HM: I actually reject the notion that progressive values and ideas are only shared by people of a certain educational attainment or living in a certain region of the state. Progressive values come from a place of being willing to make progress on problems that have plagued us for too long and the solutions have been too risk-averse. I do believe in a one-Maryland approach to governing. I am not just campaigning in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. I think that it is convenient to try to take a progressive viewpoint and put it in the box of one region or another, but I’m finding the depth of support for the ideas that I’m discussing across the board.

Some people might disagree with me on some of the specifics I’m advancing, but they are backing my candidacy because they find it refreshing for a candidate to actually stand up and say what he or she believes. I’m taking very bold, principled stances on a range of issues, providing clear, in-depth policy proposals for the public to determine if they want to support my candidacy based on what I believe. I add a lot of pragmatism to my progressive stances.

People all across the state want to be able to earn a decent salary. Where the concern has been is, you can’t do that without hurting small businesses. Yes, I’m pushing for a living wage, and I’m bringing to the table tax relief for small businesses, but I’m also for holding corporations accountable for their fair share. That might be called a progressive priority, but it is just about fundamental fairness in expecting all of us to play by the same rules. And our failed war on drugs, the impact that marijuana prohibition has had on people’s lives, is something that is resonating in every corner of the state.

I’m not offering up campaign slogans and empty promises and things that will help us do just enough to have a bumper sticker to get reelected in four years. I’m coming in to make transformational change happen, and I’m giving a very clear road map on how I will accomplish it, and that’s exciting a base of people to be engaged and involved in a candidacy that is going all the way to win. I am finding that that spark is catching fire. I have Republicans, Greens, independents reaching out to our office about changing their voter registrations, because they have to under our current system, just to have the opportunity to vote for me because they see this as a real shift in what has been politics as usual in Annapolis.

CP: What types of positions are you finding that people respect, even if they disagree with them?

HM: I have some people say, “I don’t smoke marijuana, not sure I’m all that cracked up about the policy, a little bit worried about a stoner on every corner. But when I hear you connecting the dots to the larger negative impact these laws have on people’s lives and that they detract money from law enforcement focusing on more serious and violent crime, it starts to make sense.” And this new revenue source can go to something they do believe in-having universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, which people understand is expensive, that’s why we don’t have it. It’s not because people in Annapolis are opposed to educating our toddlers. It’s a really expensive thing to do, and no one’s been able to find an appropriate revenue source to pay for it. Changing our drug policy and dedicating that revenue to something that will lift our communities up in a really positive way will benefit everyone by eliminating the achievement gap in our schools and making sure every child enters kindergarten ready to learn.

CP: And the other candidates, are you saying they are prone to platitudes and slogans and lack clear policy proposals?

HM: I think that the style and substance of the three campaigns are very, very different, and the voters are seeing those differences very clearly.

CP: What sets you apart from Brown, for instance?

HM: I was opposed to the casino-gaming expansion as a lazy form of economic development because there are better ways to create jobs that lift our communities up, like putting people to work rebuilding our schools. He was a big backer and supporter of that approach. We have seemingly parted ways on marijuana policy. I fought against the teacher pension-shift last year because we have one policy requirement in our constitution, and it’s related to giving our children an outstanding K-through-12 public education, and we can’t do that without attracting and retaining the best qualified educators in the nation.

I just have a different set of priorities. We share a priority of giving our kids access to universal pre-K, but we differ vastly on how we would go about doing it. He would rely on low-income families losing money in casinos, and his whole plan is predicated on casino revenue hitting a certain threshold to be able to implement it. My proposal is a more stable revenue source that will guarantee that we can follow through.


We’ve both spent eight years in the legislature, and I’d put my record up against his or anyone else’s in this race. Past is prologue, so what have you gotten done in the job you already had? I’ve pushed through a bill that allowed young adults to stay on their families’ health plans through age 25 four years before it was rolled into national health reform. I had legislation to identify and enroll 50,000 of our eligible but uninsured children. I’ve worked across the aisle to get a family-planning expansion passed for 35,000 more women by convincing my GOP colleagues that it’s a win-win for us by lowering the abortion rate and saving the state money while improving maternal health outcomes. I did expansion of coverage for foster kids, led the charge on trying to make sure we protect ourselves against fracking in the state, and marriage equality.

As you can tell, I’m uncomfortable with the question. It is not the kind of campaign I’m running. I don’t want to win by convincing everyone that there is something wrong or ineffective about the other people in the race. I want to win by everyone realizing that I’d be a better governor. Some of the way that gets done is by drawing contrasts, and I’m probably not a great politician from that perspective. Where I come from, from a place of spirituality, doesn’t fit well with trying to make someone else look lesser in order for you to look better. I think people are resonating with the positive campaign that I am running, and the issues that I’m advancing, and I think we’ve done a better job of having a clearer road map on a range of large issues on how our administration would tackle them.

CP: Name recognition is kind of the name of the game when it comes to electoral politics. Yours is still very low.

HM: Suffice it to say that the polls that have been talked about publicly so far were out before I had a chance to make my mark on this race. We started out in July with an early theme of wanting to build and strengthen commitment to public service, and using that as an initial ground force of people. So we built playgrounds, painted schools, read to school kids, cleaned up marshlands, rebuilt homes with Habitat for Humanity in Frederick. While doing that work, we started rolling out our policy initiatives in late October. There’s been no polling done since we’ve done all the great work on our education platform, our detailed 10-point jobs- and economic-development plan, our marijuana-legalization proposal, public financing of campaigns, big environmental initiatives, principals for fixing the flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act. We are very confident that our message is growing, our support is growing, my name recognition is growing. We’re going to have what it takes to win this election.

CP: Have you been doing any internal polling of your own?

HM: Because of our decision to become a publicly financed campaign, it is very restrictive on how much money we can raise and spend. We have had to make some unconventional decisions on where we spend our money and need to really wait to spend most of our resources on the last efforts. So we are not afforded the same luxury of being able to do consistent polling. But I do benefit from knowing of other polls that are happening around the state, and people tell me that jaws are dropping when the results are coming in, that there’s been some good movement.

CP: Equality Maryland has endorsed Brown. That must’ve been a disappointment.

HM: Of course. There is no ticket that has done more for the LGBT community than ours. Not only me, as an open LGBT member of the caucus who fought for this in a very personal way-my own marriage was at stake-but without Delman Coates [Mizuer’s running mate, who is senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County], I don’t know if that would have won the vote at the end of the day in the legislature if there hadn’t been some black clergy that came forward to say it was an important civil rights issue, that we had to separate church and state, that the church can still teach whatever it wants to teach, but we have to treat everyone equally under the law. And Delman helped lead that.

It’s a puzzling selection, but there’s a lot of politics that come into play. The supporters of these organizations anticipate the selection to be based on who they think the best governor will be, who’s been the best on their issues. But people are starting to realize that those decisions tend to more often be centered on who looks like they’re going to win. And who has that crystal ball right now, right? There’s still six months left in the campaign.

I would say this even if they had endorsed me: No community is monolithic, and no one votes based on how an organization recommends that somebody vote. At the end of the day, it is still incumbent upon the candidates to run the best campaigns to inspire and motivate people to vote for them. And I’m very confident of the level of support I have in the LGBT community in Maryland.

CP: You’ve been reaching out to voters of a diversity of ideologies, but in terms of the Maryland electorate’s progressivism, does it seem to be growing?

HM: Maryland has always been more progressive than its leadership. We saw that with the Marriage Equality Act and the Dream Act. We had to fight like the dickens to get both of those bills passed with very razor-thin margins because of the conservative prevailing ideology in the legislative bodies. Then both ballot initiatives won with strong support from the people, not just from the places where people expected it. Marriage equality didn’t just win in big urban areas. There were six jurisdictions that voted for it by majority. So I think the voters of Maryland have been incredibly progressive and have been hoping for their leadership to catch up. My candidacy is offering an opportunity to come out of the closet, if you will.

CP: What is the core problem that’s being addressed in your suite of progressive policy prescriptions?

HM: Economic justice is the biggest one. We have a growing spread of the haves and have-nots, and I think the progressive movement is not just about the people at the bottom rungs, yet that is an important voice-people in poverty who are most vulnerable need a political class fighting on their behalf. But our middle class is seemingly being eviscerated, and we’ve got to make sure that middle-class families are able to earn more and are taxed less. Under this administration, the millionaires’ tax was allowed to expire while taxes were increased on families making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year. That’s backwards from how I see the world, and my tax plan would reverse that.


CP: How are you going to play it in Baltimore City?

HM: We’re working on that every day, and even before I thought about running for governor, I was building relationships in Baltimore City when I walked through city schools and saw the deplorable conditions and started to work with the Baltimore Education Coalition and BUILD and the ACLU Education Reform Project on creating the strategy that became known as Transform Baltimore, to bring in the school construction revenue for the city. I wrote an op-ed with Tom Wilcox of the Baltimore Community Foundation in October of 2011 in The Baltimore Sun that carved the framework and path for the success that we got in the 2013 session.

I was very involved in fighting the administration’s plan to build a youth jail in the city. They wanted to build a 120-bed facility at a cost of $70 million, and I was among the early voices saying we have to end our focus on mass incarceration and the crib-to-prison pipeline and just always looking to build more jails for kids rather than creating affirmative opportunities for them.

In our early-childhood education plan, we have a critical component of fixing the child-care subsidies so that truly middle-class families have access to affordable child care and investments in after-school initiatives and summer programs for our kids. Those are the biggest investments of anything we’ve proposed in this race. They are very big, comprehensive plans that I’ve been talking about how to pay for, but it’s about setting priorities and those are my priorities.

There is no candidate from the city, and I think we’re all working to establish a presence and a base of support. And we will have a robust “Baltimore for Mizeur-Coates” organization that helps us with all of our house parties and community events. I think some of the earned media that we’ve been able to generate in the Baltimore market on our policy ideas has helped. We’re having these conversations directly with the people, and I’m very pleased with the growing support. We’ve got more time left in this campaign than what we’ve already invested in it, to keep up the momentum.

CP: The biggest potential for gaining success in Baltimore City is boosting participation, because turnout is typically so low.

HM: We’re looking at probably less than 500,000 people who turn out for this primary election, statewide. Sad but true.

CP: How do you solve that problem?

HM: By getting people energized and motivated and believing in politics again, that it’s not a dirty profession, that it’s not politicians trading favors with their best corporate sponsors and special-interest pals. That’s part of the reason we made the decision to do public campaign financing. We knew we’d have enough to compete and win under the rules, but it was as important to reestablish trust with the electorate and restore integrity in the process. You don’t have to become part of the problem to win, you don’t have to play by the same rules that have turned everybody off. You can do it differently, build trust with the voters, and have them engage in the process again.

Not only will that be part of our campaign’s theme, but it will be how we govern after we win, showing what can happen when engaged communities come together to awaken our higher selves. We all have dreams. We all have things we believe in. We all have a vision for the kind of community that we want to live in together. Somewhere along the line we stopped talking about that, stopped sharing those dreams, because we stopped believing in each other and our ability to make it happen. We’re going to prove in this campaign that that’s possible again.

Special Treatment: Tracy Love’s killing snuffs out a snitch-filled Baltimore life

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 2013


When 29-year-old Tracy Robin Love (pictured) bit the bullets in West Baltimore shortly after midnight on Nov. 9, he was nearly two years out of federal prison. How he got there—and the reason he was freed so much earlier than some of his co-defendants—says volumes about the carnage crime causes in a city whose street culture condones assassinating those who cooperate with law enforcers.

Between 2002 and 2006, the “Special” drug organization worked the area just east of where Loch Raven Road approaches Greenmount Avenue, taking in about $25,000 a day selling cocaine and heroin and protecting their enterprise with violence. As the law came down on the crew, which was headed by Melvin Gilbert, suspected snitches were shot dead in hails of bullets—including John Dowery, who, after surviving the shots he took in a 2005 hit attempt, was murdered on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 at the Kozy Korner bar on Bartlett Avenue, smack in the middle of Special territory.

Dowery had testified previously against Love and his younger half-brother, Tamall Parker, two top Special lieutenants who were on trial in state court for murdering James Wise in 2004 after Wise and an accomplice robbed their drug crew.

The Baltimore City jury didn’t convict Love and Parker—but in 2009 the two became snitches themselves, cooperating with authorities. Love testified before a federal jury against their Special co-defendants, fingering them for murder, shootings, and drug dealing.

For cooperating, Love and Parker earned an eventual return to the streets, with Love regaining his freedom in December 2011 and Parker set to follow in November 2016. Those they testified against—Gilbert and the other Special co-defendants who went to trial, James Dinkins and Darron Goods—escaped the government’s desire to put them to death but instead were sentenced to life in prison. (Gilbert, meanwhile, surfaced on wiretaps in the 2009 Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the Black Guerrilla Family [BGF] prison gang, which recorded his cellphone conversations with BGF leader Eric Brown about corrupt correctional officer Alicia Simmons.)

Back in April 2007, photographs of Love and Parker appeared in The Atlantic magazine’s lengthy, award-winning article by Jeremy Kahn, “The Story of a Snitch.” The piece went deep into Dowery’s tragic experience, detailing how his interactions with Love and Parker ended with bloody retribution for snitching on them, and drove a national discussion prompted initially by the 2004 release of a Baltimore street-culture documentary, Stop Fucking Snitching, which advocated deadly violence to silence witnesses.

Love’s silence, like Dowery’s before him, now is permanent. Shortly after midnight on Nov. 9, detectives found him in a car on North Athol Avenue, where it separates the new Uplands housing development and Edmondson West-Side High School. He’d taken numerous shots to the head. A survivor, unidentified by police other than to confirm his name is “Allen,” took bullets in the belly.

Prior to this, Love in September had been arrested by Baltimore police and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and escape. He had been scheduled to appear in federal court on Nov. 14 so a judge could review whether his charged conduct amounted to a violation of his supervised release.

U.S. probation officer Toni Duncan, though, on Oct. 22 had advised the court that Love “was found Not Guilty” of the charges, according to court records, and requested that “the pending alleged violations of supervised release be withdrawn.”

That’s the tail end of what had been an intriguing and dramatic series of events.

Love’s arrest occurred on Sept. 19 at the Madison Park North Apartments on North and Park avenues in West Baltimore, and the circumstances were described in court documents written by police officer Peter Johncox.

Johncox and two other officers were in a patrol car near the apartment complex at about 7 p.m., and “observed a large group of persons standing in the open area between the apartment buildings,” Johncox wrote. Among them, “the officers observed a light skinned black male wearing a gray jogging suit and gray hat who the officers know as Tracy Love Jr.,” and Johncox added, “Mr. Love does not live in the apartment complex.”

When Love spied the other two officers coming, he ran—around a corner and right into Johncox, who arrested him and put him in handcuffs, telling him “he was under arrest for trespassing,” Johncox wrote. Then Johncox “noticed a clear plastic bag containing various multi-colored topped vials containing white rock substance, suspected cocaine,” and when he “reached down to pick up” the drugs, Love “pulled away” and “ran.”

Johncox ran after Love, telling him to stop, but Love kept going—even as Johncox “drew his taser and fired” it at Love, but “the probes did not make contact,” so Love “continued the foot chase.”

When Johncox “was finally able to catch up to Mr. Love and drive stunned him in the torso” (“drive stun” means to hold the taser against the body, without projectiles), Love “fell to the ground where he started kicking his legs and flailing,” so Johncox “drive stunned Mr. Love again in the torso” and “was successful in taking him into custody.”

The drama did not end there, though. “Mr. Love was screaming and yelling and a large group of people began crowding around,” Johncox wrote, and as Love was escorted to a police wagon and taken away, his “yelling incited more of a crowd.”

Love was taken to the Central District, according to Johncox’s report, “where he was debriefed by homicide detectives.”

Three days later, Love made $25,000 bail and was released pending trial, when he was exonerated. Despite the drug evidence described by Johncox, Love did not face drug charges.

An unnamed source—the person asked not to be named “due to the caliber of the dudes” in the picture of Love’s life—says the mother of both Love and Parker is Mayreda Henderson, who court records confirm has shared an address with Parker in Essex, where the police say Love lived. Attempts to reach Henderson, including by leaving detailed messages on cellphones believed to be hers and a relative of hers, to ask her for comment on Love’s recent arrest and violent death were unsuccessful.

The mother of Love and Parker has been an important part of their public lives, though, as she was part of their alibi the night James Wise was killed—according to The Atlantic article, they claimed they were at their mother’s hair salon in West Baltimore, across the city from where Wise was murdered. Henderson, court records show, as recently as last year was doing business as Mayreda’s Hair and Nail Salon. It was located at 736 W. North Ave.—an address at the Madison Park North Apartments, where Love was arrested. The 45-year-old is also a federal drug convict herself, having been released in 1999 after a prison sentence for her part in a massive 1980s conspiracy headed by Tommy Lee Canty Jr.

By the time Love testified in federal court against his Special co-defendants on May 26, 2009, his and Parker’s culpability for the Wise murder was clear, exposing the falsity of their alibi. Yet, perhaps to avoid implicating his mother, while on the stand, Love would not admit it had been concocted.

“No,” Love said, according to the court transcript, when Dinkins’ attorney asked him, “You didn’t have your mother say, ‘Oh, the time Mr. Wise got killed, he was at the hair salon with me?’” When pressed, Love said, “not as I recall, no,” adding “that was a long time ago.”

During his testimony, Love also tried to limit his role in Wise’s murder, saying that he only pointed the direction Wise had run so his brother could go do the deed. This scenario, though, conflicts with the version told in The Atlantic article—that right after Wise was shot dead, “I got that motherfucker, six times in the chest,” Dowery heard Love yell down the street for all to hear, including his Special crew. “Next time, one of y’all gonna do it. I’m tired of doing this shit.”

Either way, now that someone else has done it to Love, he’ll never have to do it again.

The Game Remains The Same: Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale’s new charges ring familiar

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

Over the last half-decade or so, City Paper has done in-depth reporting about how Baltimore’s drug game is tied to heroin arriving from Africa, gangsters who double as gang interventionists, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang’s broad reach in prisons and the streets, and legendary old felons getting charged anew. Now, with federal drug-and-gun charges unsealed Nov. 26 against Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, one man embodies all four themes.

The case involves Barksdale’s alleged dealings with co-defendant Suraj Tairu, a man with a 1990s New York conviction for helping to import heroin from Africa, and involves heroin contained in an “egg-shaped object”—a type of heroin packaging that is commonly swallowed and later excreted by so-called “internal smugglers” from Africa who bring them to the U.S. on commercial airline flights. Initially, only Tairu was charged in the case, on Sept. 12, and court documents state that he was supplying heroin to “a long-time, high ranking member of the BGF”—who, once the indictment was unsealed, was revealed to be Barksdale.

Barksdale grew up hustling in West Baltimore’s since-demolished Lexington Terrace projects in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the end of that decade he had become a local criminal legend whose violent exploits were depicted in a 2009 docu-drama project spearheaded by Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, a stevedore and strip club manager with his own outsize past in Baltimore’s drug game. The project, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, claimed Barksdale was the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a key character on the HBO series The Wire—a claim The Wire’s co-creator David Simon rejects. Two other old school Baltimore gangsters whose identities were used to create Wire characters—Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell, whose names were applied to characters who were enforcers for Avon Barksdale, Savino Bratton, and Anton “Stinkum” Artis—have also faced federal drug charges in recent years and are now in federal prison.

The Baltimore Sun’s reporting on Barksdale’s latest arrest revealed that he’d been working as a gang interventionist for Safe Streets, a publicly funded project managed by local nonprofits that seek to employ ex-felons to diffuse street violence before it happens. The Sun’s coverage quoted Safe Streets’ Delaino Johnson, director of the outfit’s branch in Mondawmin, as saying Barksdale “had a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area.”

In a wide-ranging City Paper interview in 2009 for a feature about Unwired, Barksdale described how, at that time, he worked “informally” with his nephew, Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets worker, to help stem violence among the younger generation.

“I try to keep some of them from traveling the same path I’ve traveled,” Barksdale said, noting that, “when I show up, it keeps some stuff from happening.”

Hiring ex-felons as street-violence mitigators has long been proposed and carried out, with mixed results. Radio talk-show host Marc Steiner in 2008, for instance, urged “cities, states, philanthropies, and businesses” to “spend millions” to “hire, train, and supervise hundreds of ex-felons to work in the streets with youth and families.” That year in Chicago, two anti-violence workers for the program after which Safe Streets was modeled, CeaseFire, were indicted and later pleaded guilty to drug dealing, and one of them, according to prosecutors, “promoted controlled violence among gang members in an effort to avoid subsequent and random retaliatory murders.” Also in 2008, the executive director of an anti-gang nonprofit in Los Angeles, No Guns, admitted to gun-running charges and another gang-interventionist pleaded no contest to drugs and firearms charges.

Subsequently, Safe Streets emerged in prior federal BGF cases in Maryland in 2009 and 2010. “Operation Safe Streets located in the McElderry Park and Madison East neighborhoods is controlled by the BGF, specifically Anthony Brown, aka ‘Gerimo,’” court documents in those cases state, adding that “BGF members released from prison can obtain employment from Operation Safe Streets.” Another Baltimore anti-violence nonprofit that previously had received Safe Streets funding, Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), employed two men who were convicted in that round of BGF cases: youth counselor Todd Andrew Duncan, who prosecutors described as the BGF’s “city-wide commander” at the time, and outreach worker Ronald “Piper” Scott.

Still, Baltimore’s Safe Streets program is credited with having stopped much bloodshed. A 2012 Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the program concluded that its workers mediated 276 incidents between July 2007 and December 2010, 88 percent of which “involved individuals with a history of violence” and three-quarters of which “involved gang members.”

Barksdale’s name emerged in the 2010 round of BGF indictments, which were investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was described in court documents as “an active BGF member” and a “B. Barksdale” was thanked in the acknowledgements section of The Black Book, a 122-page, soft-bound self-help guide published by BGF leader Eric Brown that authorities portrayed as a gang-recruitment tool whose sales helped finance the BGF.

“Hell, no!” Barksdale told City Paper at the time, when reached by phone at the number listed in the court documents and asked if he was an active BGF member. “I ain’t no motherfuckin’ member,” he says. “When I was in prison, I mean, yeah—but that was 20 years ago. I’m a filmmaker. I’m pushing 50, man. I’m too old for that. That’s for teenagers.”

In the current case, the heroin-possession charge against Barksdale and Tairu arises from their alleged interactions on June 22—when Barksdale allegedly tried to hoodwink Tairu after a police stop for a seatbelt violation resulted in the seizure of 1 ounce of heroin in the egg-shaped package. The stop occurred shortly after the two met at a Rite Aid parking lot off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, court documents say, though Barksdale was not arrested. About a half-hour later, Barksdale called Tairu to explain what had happened and told Tairu that the police “took both of them.”

“Based upon that conversation,” a federal agent wrote in court papers, “I surmised that” Barksdale “had actually been in possession of two ‘eggs’ of heroin and that the second ‘egg’ was still” in Barksdale’s possession, but that he “misled Tairu into believing that both ‘eggs’ were seized.”

On Nov. 27, Barksdale pleaded not guilty to the charges, which are being prosecuted by assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, who handled the complex series of cases filed against the BGF in 2009 and 2010. Barksdale’s court-appointed attorney, Nicholas Vitek, declined to comment. The case was initially assigned to U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who scheduled a three-to-five-day trial starting Feb. 24, but on Dec. 6, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge George Levi Russell III.

Prove It: Judge Still Not Satisfied That Drug-Dealer’s Mercedes Is Drug-Related Property

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 8, 2013

Maryland U.S. District judge Paul Grimm spent more than 15 years as a federal magistrate judge before being elevated to his current perch in 2012. That’s a lot of time to gain a nuanced understanding of the rules of evidence that must be met before law enforcers can lawfully seize or search property – one of a magistrate’s key bailiwicks.

So now that Grimm is a district judge with a docket that includes civil proceedings, called forfeitures, in which the government seeks to keep criminally derived property it has seized, he has a sensitive nose for the required legal thresholds – and in one case this year, he’s twice cited a dearth of evidence in denying the government’s move to keep convicted drug-dealer John Edward Butler Jr.’s 2003 Mercedes Benz CL500.

Butler was a St. Mary’s County drug dealer who pleaded guilty in a large federal cocaine conspiracy, and in 2011, the government filed a forfeiture case to keep his seized Mercedes. Grimm’s second denial, issued on Oct. 2, was in response to the government’s motion for reconsideration of his first, which was handed down in July. What’s clear from the second is that Grimm’s patience with the government’s arguments is wearing quite thin.

Grimm recapped his July decision by explaining that, “although the Government had shown that” Butler purchased the Mercedes from Gaunzie Hart for $4,000 up front, with the promise of another $9,500 over time, and that “the vehicle was seized in front of a location” that Butler used for drug-dealing, “the Government had not shown that Mr. Butler’s payment to Ms. Hart was proceeds from drug transactions” or that Butler “drove the Mercedes to and from the drug distribution location or that he drove it to distribute drugs, rather than to visit his mother.”

“Significantly,” Grimm continues, “the Government has not alleged that the Mercedes was Mr. Butler’s only vehicle at the time or that he never visited his mother’s residence without engaging in cocaine distribution. If either were the case, then I could reasonably believe that, on at least some of the occasions that Mr. Butler drove the Mercedes to his mother’s residence, he drove it there to engage in drug trafficking.”

Grimm aimed stinging criticism at the prosecutor in the case, assistant U.S. attorney Stefan Cassella – who, as CP has noted before, is considered the nation’s top asset-forfeiture prosecutor, having written a 950-page book on the intricacies of seizing and forfeiting criminally derived property.

In essence, Grimm accuses Cassella of making disingenuous pleadings in the case of Butler’s Mercedes because his arguments ignored the court’s contrary position in prior forfeiture cases Cassella had brought since he was hired in 2009 by Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.

“While I do not find Counsel’s failure to disclose this history of directly contrary rulings to be a violation of his duty of candor to the Court,” Grimm wrote, “it comes uncomfortably close.”

In order for the government to keep Butler’s Mercedes, Grimm explained, Cassella will need to put on the record enough detailed evidence to support a reasonable belief that “at trial, the Government will be able to prove the nexus between the Mercedes and Mr. Butler’s criminal activity by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Cassella had argued that this threshold could be sidestepped because, despite the fact that all the required public notifications had been made about the impending forfeiture of Butler’s Mercedes, no one came forward with a timely and legitimate court claim to it. Grimm acknowledged that Cassella, citing precedents in various districts, had found “some instances” in which that was sufficient to grant forfeiture – but he implied that Cassella was again being disingenuous by leaving out important elements of the cited cases that cut the other way.

“It appears that the Government has cited these cases selectively to support the proposition that I should reconsider my denial,” Grimm wrote, adding that “far more significant is what the Government has omitted from its discussion of the cited cases.” Looking at them “in their entireties,” Grimm continued, “supports the conclusion reached here, that, at least in this district and perhaps more broadly, the Government has the obligation to provide sufficient facts to support a reasonable belief that the Government will be able to demonstrate a substantial connection between the defendant property and the alleged criminal conduct by a preponderance of the evidence at trial.”

Grimm has invited Cassella, again, to present such facts. Absent that, though, it’s looking like Butler may someday be able to drive his Mercedes to his mother’s house again. Either way, given Grimm’s stern admonishments, it’s a safe bet that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland will be seeking to tighten up its evidence in future forfeiture cases – and certainly so in cases that come before Grimm, whose name must seem especially poetic these days to Cassella.

On the Rocks: Baltimore businessmen in federal crosshairs for massive cocaine conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 18, 2013


Gerald Lamont Jones of Randallstown is a “self-made entreprenuer [sic] who clearly understands hard work, commitment, and discipline,” according to his bodybuilding website, (pictured). But if federal authorities are correct in the allegations they’ve recently disclosed about Jones, who owns Gold’s Gym in Owings Mills, the Pimlico Motors chain of auto dealerships, and JBL Construction, among other companies, then his entrepreneurial success has a secret ingredient: large-scale cocaine trafficking.

Jones has not been publicly charged with any crimes and has no prior criminal record in Maryland. But on Oct. 28, just days before Jones took second place at the International Drug Free Athletics bodybuilding championships in Ontario, one of his employees, George Sylvester Frink Jr., was charged in Maryland U.S. District Court with possessing 15 kilograms of cocaine while in the parking lot of the nerve center of Jones’ business affairs, a small Pikesville office building at 8 Church Lane.

In the ensuing weeks, more details emerged in Frink’s case, including court documents implicating Jones. A search-and-seizure warrant affidavit signed Oct. 25 by DEA special agent Robert Blanchard and docketed in the court record on Nov. 12 says that a California drug organization’s cocaine shipments to Jones and others came in 24 shipments of between 50 and 60 kilograms of cocaine, 10 shipments of between 50 and 120 kilos, a 150-kilo shipment, and a 200-kilo shipment. That means that, if Blanchard’s affidavit is to be believed, Jones and others—the affidavit suggests the bulk of it was bound for Jones—received between 2,050 and 2,990 kilograms of cocaine, eye-popping amounts whose wholesale value comes to about $60 million to $90 million.

The probe is being conducted by DEA and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. Part of Blanchard’s 21-page affidavit—which supported an application for a warrant to raid two properties associated with Frink, including 8 Church Lane—describes alleged patterns of money laundering in records of Jones’ personal and business banking accounts, which showed 380 cash deposits totaling more than $2.6 million between 2008 and 2012.

Attempts to reach Jones by phone and email were unsuccessful, as were efforts to determine whether he is represented by a criminal defense attorney. Jones’ civil attorney, Diane Leigh Davison, who manages legal aspects of many of his business dealings, wrote in an email to City Paper that “I have no comment as I know nothing about any of these allegations.”

Blanchard’s affidavit dubs Jones’ alleged California suppliers the “Lopez-Brascom DTO,” short for drug-trafficking organization, and notes its members were indicted in California in 2010. City Paper covered the case (“Bringing It Back Home,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011), since it involved Baltimore-bound cocaine and three defendants—Ricky James Brascom, Charles Dwight Ransom Jr., and Darrin Ebron—who originally hailed from Baltimore.

In that case, which involved shipments of 400 kilograms of cocaine and more than $4 million in cash during a six-week period, DEA wiretaps recorded conversations between Brascom and his alleged girlfriend, the actress and singer Drew Sidora Jordan, while Ebron—a star-tied fashion designer and deejay who performed at Eddie Murphy and Tracey Edmonds’ 2008 wedding on the island of Bora Bora—claimed his wiretapped conversations were not about drugs but about music-industry work he was doing for Brascom and Ransom’s company, Behind Da Scenes Entertainment, which produced the rapper Paypa.

At the time, City Paper determined that Behind Da Scenes was actually Jones’ company and that Jones had given two pieces of Baltimore real estate to Ransom in 2007. When reached for comment, Davison said Jones had “has no involvement in or awareness of” the allegations in the “unfortunate” California indictment and explained that “the real estate transactions have no relation to the recent allegations,” adding that Jones “has always tried to assist and mentor family and friends in business, and tried to do the same for his former college fraternity brother, Charles Ransom.”

While Ebron—convicted and currently in prison, set to be released in 2017—and Brascom—with a 2019 release date—met the same fate, Ransom escaped from a South Carolina jail shortly after the indictment and remained on the lam until his arrest in California in March. He pleaded guilty in September and is scheduled to be sentenced in January. The indicted head of the DTO Heriberto Lopez remains a fugitive, according to Blanchard’s affidavit.

The investigation into Frink and Jones began in October and November 2010—just as the California indictment was handed down—when a “cooperating defendant” that Blanchard’s affidavit calls “CS1” told DEA agents that he or she “routinely got kilograms of cocaine” from a man named Paul Alexander at “On the Rocks” bar on Liberty Road in Randallstown, and that Frink, who owned the place and was Alexander’s cocaine partner, would be present at the meetings. According to business records, Frink’s bar was actually On the Roxx, located in the Randallstown Plaza Shopping Center.

CS1’s information paled in comparison to that provided by CS2, a “cooperating source” interviewed by DEA agents in February 2011, according to Blanchard’s affidavit. The Lopez-Brascom DTO brought hundreds of kilos per month from California to Maryland, CS2 explained, and in 2008, shortly after CS2 introduced Ransom to Lopez, Jones flew to California to meet with them. Ransom told CS2 that Jones was his “partner in the cocaine distribution business.”

When the scheme got up and running in 2008, the affidavit continues, Jones allegedly received 10 shipments of 50 to 120 kilograms of cocaine hidden in secret compartments in cars that Jones and Ransom had provided to Brascom and Lopez. The coke-laden cars would then be placed on “tractor-trailer auto-carriers that were destined for Baltimore,” the affidavit states, and once the coke was sold, the cars’ secret compartments would be filled with cash for shipment back to Brascom and Lopez in California. Then the cross-country circuit would begin again.

But in May 2009, the affidavit continues, after law enforcers stopped a Honda Ridgeline being transported from California to Pimlico Motors’ Liberty Road location and seized cocaine, the DTO switched up, opting instead to ship the coke hidden amidst legitimate cargo carried by tractor-trailers.

Other than information provided by the two cooperators, much of Blanchard’s affidavit is filled with observations gleaned from surveillance, which circumstantially links Jones to criminal conduct—if the agents’ conclusions based on what they saw were accurate.

They noted, for instance, that on July 2 Jones moved items from one vehicle to a minivan in the parking lot of 8 Church Lane, and concluded that “Jones was moving bundles of cash into the minivan, preparing it for transportation out of state to purchase more kilograms of cocaine,” since “Jones and his coconspirators in the drug business have a long history of moving drugs and money in this fashion.”

While Jones has not been charged, Frink is facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Kay, speaking at a Nov. 21 court hearing. Frink had initially been ordered detained pending trial, but at the hearing he won supervised release after his attorney, Kenneth Ravenell, pointed out that what the government had called Frink’s lies—about his employment at Gold’s Gym, for instance, and where he resided—were, in fact, true.

“You were given information that was not accurate,” Ravenell told U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Gesner at the hearing, “by a less than stellar investigation.”

Jones must be hoping the same is true of the affidavit calling him a high-volume cocaine trafficker.

Rye Shills: A Short History of City Paper’s Long Obsession with Pikesville Rye

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 23, 2013


A text message lit up my phone in the middle of the night recently: a New York friend was at a pub in Edinburgh, Scotland, and wanted me to know that “they have a bottle of Pikesville Rye behind the counter.” How far the lowly have risen, for the self-styled “aristocrat of whiskeys,” distilled in Kentucky but based on an old Maryland process, to be stocked deep in the peaty heart of exalted single malts.

Even here in Baltimore, where rye traditions run deep, Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey has proven at times a rare commodity. Certain joints and packies have reliably purveyed it for years, but most didn’t – and barkeeps and store-owners would even, at times, claim total ignorance of its very existence. That’s been changing of late, though. Just as rye generally has enjoyed a revival over the past 10 years or so, Pikesville, too, has re-emerged as an old faithful. And we here at Baltimore’s most Pikesville-Rye-promoting weekly will presume, however unscientifically, to take some credit for that.

For all practical purposes, written history today begins with online content, and City Paper‘s reveals an abnormal, against-the-grain obsession with Pikesville Rye. It started with Tom Scocca’s “You Gonna Eat That?” feature in 2000, which, along with other notable Maryland edibles (crab cakes, scrapple, etc.), established the nutritional values for rye . A year later, after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, David Dudley wrote in from Canada, where he was living at the time, that he celebrated by doing shots of Pikesville and spinning Kix albums.

Our Pikesville-promoting ways picked up steam in 2004, when an Eat feature about shad roe included a photograph of the dish – and in the frame, inexplicably, was a one-third empty bottle of Pikesville . More rational was its inclusion in a photograph for that year’s “Some Like it Hot” feature, about hot drinks, which recommended Pikesville for making hot toddies.

Starting in 2005, and continuing nearly unabated since, we’ve been hyping Pikesville Rye in Best of Baltimore awards:

2005’s Best Cheap Drink was a Pikesville Rye with a soda back at Mount Royal Tavern (hereinafter called, simply, “the Tavern”). Ditto in 2006, also at the Tavern, except substitute Natty Boh for the soda back. In 2008, a Pikesville Rye mention was included in Best Wi-Fi Spot, awarded to the Tavern , while Best Opportunity for Free Whiskey went to Alexander’s Tavern, where a shot of rye goes to anyone who puts a Dropkick Murphys song on the jukebox . Club Charles was dinged for not having Pikesville when it got Best Bar for Tourists in 2009, and in 2010 it got Best Bar, Station North, in part because Pikesville’s place behind the bar had been restored. In 2011, the Tavern got Best Cheap Drinks, with a nod to its low price for Pikesville, and Best Totally Disgusting Thing to do with a Natty Boh went to Windup Space’s “Kosher Boh,” a Pikesville Rye-involved concoction.

The Nose made much of the relative benefits of the Tavern and the Club Charles as Pikesville Rye purveyors in 2005 and 2007. In the first instance, we were shocked – shocked! – to find Club Charles out of the stuff on Christmas night, saying “we’d been tasting our favorite rye there since we had more pimples than wrinkles,” so “this news was drink-shattering,” then adding that we “huffed off to the Tavern, where they reliably serve Pikesville in topped-off rocks glasses-a neat feat if ever there was one, especially for the reddening Nose at closing time.” In 2007, by which time Club Charles had started stocking Pikesville Rye again, the Nose got into it with proprietor Joy Martin, who told us the high pricing is “because only you drink it,” adding that so few people buy it that “we have to toss” out bottles before they’re empty – “but the fruit flies seem to like the stuff.”

In the Holiday Guide, a bottle of Pikesville Rye has only been recommended as a gift once, in 2005, though in 2011, when touting a bottle of Sloop Betty wheat vodka, we declared that “we won’t be satisfied with the Maryland craft-booze scene until we get Pikesville Rye back in Pikesville.”

In 2009, an end-of-the-decade recollection of the year 2000 painted a picture of a Pikesville-Rye addled writer, obsessed with the shadow-economy figures who’d opened a car-chopping shop next door, and in 2010, four paragraphs of a seven-paragraph review of Frank DeFord’s book, Bliss, Remembered, were dedicated to deconstructing DeFord’s references to Pikesville Rye (his mistakes were duly forgiven).

Finally, in 2012, all of this shilling started to pay off. The City That Drinks celebrated Pikesville Rye, raising hopes that someday a rye will be distilled in Maryland again. Juice extolled rye generally as a Manhattan’s foundation, while dryly acknowledging Pikesville’s long-ago exit from Maryland. Topping it all off, Joe MacKeepacigarhandy, in a calendar write-up for the Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival, boasted that “we’ve been imbibing Pikesville Rye for years and recommending it to anybody who will listen, and now ‘the hottest adult beverage in the market today’ will have its own special tasting area” at the festival.

Apparently, our work is done.