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

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Gerald Lamont Jones of Randallstown is a “self-made entreprenuer [sic] who clearly understands hard work, commitment, and discipline,” according to his bodybuilding website, joethebodybuilder.com (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

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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.

Too Rich: Alleged cocaine trafficking mastermind Richie Rich isn’t going down without a fight

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2013

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Baltimore is rife with neighborhoods ravaged as fronts in the drug war, but the area around 30th and St. Paul streets, in Charles Village, isn’t one of them. This is a “college town” neighborhood near the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, frequented by many who study or work at Hopkins, not by drug dealers.

Yet, on Oct. 8, 2010, the area around 30th and St. Paul streets suddenly became ground zero in the intelligence-gathering efforts of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to take down one of Baltimore’s major cocaine suppliers.

“We were pretty excited,” DEA special agent Mark Lester says, referring to the moment he and his colleague, special agent Todd Edwards, realized that Richard Anthony Wilford, who goes by the nickname “Richie Rich,” had walked into their investigation of another drug dealer, Lawrence Lee Hayes Jr., who they’d been pursuing for two months. Literally walked, because the agents watched as Wilford and Hayes spent an hour walking up and down the block around 30th and St. Paul, Lester says while testifying during a Jan. 25 hearing in the resulting case.

“Edwards knew that Mr. Wilford had been arrested before,” Lester explains, and that it was “widely known that he was suspected of being a large-scale drug dealer.”

As the investigation progressed, sussing out the details of the cross-country scheme—the coke would come from California and cash would be sent back—it uncovered the telltale elements of a classic shadow-economy scheme: legitimate-looking businesses, cars, and other assets put in the names of other parties, including ties to a Baltimore City court commissioner and a man working at City Hall.

Hayes allegedly stood at the top of a supply chain that, when it was brought down in the spring of 2011, put in the government’s hands a massive haul of cocaine—nearly 150 kilograms, 136 kilos of it in a tractor-trailer driven by Robert Nyakana, a Ugandan who made the DEA’s “Most Wanted” list while a fugitive, until he was later arrested—and about $3.5 million in cash (including $1.6 million taken from a house in Randallstown), $600,000 in jewelry, 23 vehicles, six pieces of real estate in Georgia, and some expensive electronics. Wilford, Hayes, and four others were indicted in federal court, and five other co-conspirators faced indictments in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Wilford went on the run, hiding in Los Angeles until August 2011, when he was spotted by agents, who raided his home there and recovered $68,000 in cash. Then he laid low in Baltimore, at a house near Pimlico Race Course, where, when he was finally arrested on Sept. 16, 2011, agents found $190,000 in cash. So even as a fleet-footed fugitive, running from the U.S. marshals months after the coke scheme had been dismantled, Wilford still had access to substantial means.

Today, in the federal case, all but Wilford have pleaded guilty. He’s retained an expensive, well-regarded attorney, William Purpura—the same one Wilford has used in his criminal cases for years—to battle the government with a vengeance. Wilford says not only that serious errors were contained in affidavits in the case, but that Lester, Edwards, and their fellow law enforcers conducted illegal electronic surveillance in pursuing him and his co-conspirators by monitoring cellphone “pings”—the communication signals that bounce between phones and cell towers—and global positioning systems (GPS) devices attached to vehicles.

But if not for this warrantless electronic surveillance—which had been common practice until January 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered warrants for “slap-on” GPS devices, and August 2010, when the D.C. Circuit’s appellate court handed down a similar ruling—Wilford contends that Lester and Edwards would not have known to be in Charles Village that October day to watch him meeting with Hayes. If Wilford’s arguments prevail, the government’s case against him would suffer, or even be dismissed, as key evidence could no longer be presented to a trial jury.

Purpura and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sippel offered testimony and argued their respective takes on these questions for much of the day on Jan. 25, before U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, who has scheduled more arguments for March 8. During the hearing, Purpura points out that “we guessed, and guessed correctly” that slap-on GPS devices were used in the investigation—a detail that the government had not volunteered and then “gave it up in drips and drabs.” Whichever way Hollander rules—and she indicated she was leaning in the government’s favor, despite a law enforcer’s affidavit in the case that was “replete with mistakes,” she said—the resulting decision will likely go to Richmond to be reviewed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wilford, at a few inches shy of 6 feet and with neither much fat nor muscle on his frame, is not an imposing man. In the courtroom for the Jan. 25 arguments, he appears relaxed as he waves and mouths conversations with friends and family there to support him. Despite the prison jumpsuit, he looks very much a mild-mannered, legitimate businessman, with a sharp look in his eye. But the man’s not going down without a fight, and if he wins, not only will he likely go free, but drug cops are going to have to push a lot more paper getting warrants before they go pinging suspects’ cellphones—just like they have to do now, thanks to the Supreme Court, before slapping GPS units on suspects’ cars.

To say it’s “widely known” that Wilford is “suspected of being a large-scale drug trafficker,” as Lester put it, is a bit of an understatement. Wilford’s nickname has figured in some of the more storied chapters in the modern annals of Baltimore drug dealing.

Wilford’s first federal drug case, brought in 1992 when he was 19, was a conspiracy that included two men who were then twice Wilford’s age—legendary Baltimore gangsters Walter Louis Ingram and Walter Lee Powell, who are now in their 60s and, like Wilford, in trouble again with the feds (“Old and in the Game,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 19, 2012). Wilford’s cocaine conviction in that case got him five years in federal prison, and after his release, in 2001 he caught another federal stint—two years for possession with intent to distribute heroin.

Then, while still on supervised release for his 2001 conviction, Wilford in 2008 emerged in the vortex of law-enforcement intrigue surrounding a corrupt Baltimore cop named Mark Lunsford (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009); Querida Lewis, a cross-country drug dealer (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14, 2009) with ties to three-time Baltimore felon Milton Tillman Jr. (“Citizen of the Year,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008), a politically connected bailbondsman, longshoreman, and real-estate developer; and a bevy of other Baltimore drug dealers, among them Gilbert Watkins, Donta Dotson, and Dante Chavez.

Wilford’s ties to all of this came into focus in court documents, many of them sworn out by Lunsford, a former DEA task-force officer who pleaded guilty to theft and lying and who was released from federal prison in March 2012. The documents describe Wilford and his partner, Mark Anthony Hawkins, as large-scale marijuana and cocaine suppliers.

Ultimately, neither Wilford nor Hawkins got in much trouble. Wilford pleaded guilty in Baltimore County court and received probation before judgment, while the feds seized $39,045 of his money, returning $5,000 of it pursuant to a settlement agreement. During the motions battle in the case, which was built based on wiretaps, Purpura argued that Lunsford’s involvement in the probe undermined its integrity and that agents had failed to constrain their eavesdropping to relevant conversations by recording exchanges about Wilford being a “daddy to be” and “shooting over to Shorty’s [for a] cookout.” Hawkins, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to time served.

The others weren’t so fortunate: Lewis, Dotson, Watkins, and Chavez all remain in federal prison for their convictions.

Thus, when October 2010 rolled around and Lester and Edwards discovered Wilford walking around Charles Village with Hayes, the two DEA agents were understandably “excited”—a target of longstanding significance was suddenly in their sights. Wilford’s criminal past and flashy present—an informant told investigators he drove a $150,000 Mercedes and, indeed, several months earlier he’d been clocked at 111 mph in a Mercedes on the Washington Beltway—made him worthy prey if he was, in fact, still in the drug game.

The details of the Wilford investigation, revealed in a myriad of court documents, bring into focus the shadowy elements of the criminal enterprise, including not only the legitimate-looking business endeavors of the conspirators, but their ties to local government as well. The businesses, including Blow It Off Power Washing, R.A.W. Enterprises, B’Mores Dumping, M&M Construction, and Eight K Contracting, were varied, and some of the investigation’s targets had legitimate jobs, including one who worked for a private special-education school, the Chimes School, and another who was on the Baltimore City Hall payroll.

The picture, in all its high-resolution glory, emerged not from wiretaps—none were obtained in the case—but largely thanks to high-tech surveillance aids that provided Lester, Edwards, and their law-enforcement colleagues with nearly real-time location data about the whereabouts of their targets’ vehicles and cellphones. If someone was on the move, law enforcers could watch on computer screens and react quickly, hitting the streets to gain valuable insights leading to hard intelligence about their targets’ habits, associates, and affiliations, wherever they may lead.

During the Jan. 25 hearing, Lester explained that four slap-on GPS trackers were affixed to a total of 12 different vehicles during the investigation, which also obtained “pinging orders” from judges for at least 23 phones, allowing the agents to quickly receive GPS coordinates for those phones via emails from their service providers. If a tracked vehicle or phone moved, the agents would quickly know, and could decide whether to go out and do some good old-fashioned eyeball surveillance.

Wilford’s attorney, Purpura, had a last-minute witness to put on at the Jan. 25 hearing: Joshua Brown of GLS Litigation Services, who demonstrated with mapping software how revealing the government’s GPS-derived data can be about a person’s movements and patterns in life. City Paper visited GLS’ offices at Clipper Mill a few days later, so Brown and his partner, Gabriel Saunders, could give a guided tour of what is shown by the 30,000-or-so latitude/longitude points the government has on Wilford’s phones and vehicles over a nearly 11-month period starting in late October 2010.

“It helps you find important places,” says Brown, pointing out Wilford’s mother-in-law’s home in Los Angeles, his shopping routines when in Los Angeles, his regular routes to and from his luxury home near Elkton in Cecil County, and a trip Wilford took to the Catskills at one point. “Places of interest might also emerge when you have monitored phones intersecting with cars that were monitored—you can use both to determine whether people are together, or whether people are in a car together.”

“We take the data the government has,” says Saunders, “and make it understandable to people.” He ponders the implications as technology advances: “It won’t be long before there’s software that analyzes this, and starts to predict where you will be,” and before facial recognition capabilities can be applied to images caught on public closed-circuit television camera—so that so-called “aids to surveillance” become simply surveillance, done remotely.

While scanning the mapped data on a computer monitor, it is clear that Wilford—or at least his car—went to Baltimore’s jail complex for about two hours on Nov. 19, 2010, and that in late January and early February 2011, both his car and his phone were at the industrial waterfront in Canton, possibly to fill dump trucks with sand from the stockpiles there. On March 9, 2011, multiple cars and phones were at Perring Plaza at the same time—likely a meeting of the conspirators. At various times, the monitoring placed phones and cars in Little Italy, near Mo’s Crab and Pasta Factory and the nightclub Milan, and investigators learned that Wilford and his associates hung out at a barbershop on the 3700 block of Wabash Avenue. Throughout the period of phone- and car-tracking, the conspirators maintained a nearly constant presence in the Union Square neighborhood, in West Baltimore, in a block near Lombard and Calhoun streets that’s known for open-air drug dealing.

What Brown and Saunders show is a remarkably detailed, nuanced portrait of Wilford’s movements not only in Baltimore but Los Angeles and elsewhere. As long as he and his co-conspirators’ cars and phones were being tracked, their lives—or at least their locations, which led to a host of possibilities for surveillance and follow-up investigation—were open books.

One of the places to which electronic surveillance led the agents was 1020 Park Ave., the Symphony Center Apartment Homes, near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This, they learned, was where Hayes laid his head, in unit number 907. They’d seen Hayes leave the apartment with a backpack, meet Wilford over near 30th and St. Paul, and exchange the backpack for a large cardboard box that Wilford would bring, and then Hayes would take the box to an apartment at Belvedere Towers, at Northern Parkway and Falls Road. When agents raided Hayes’ Symphony Center apartment in May 2011, they found and seized $318,006 in cash and seven expensive watches. And even before they raided the Belvedere Towers apartment, they did a trash dump there, after watching one of the co-conspirators throw some garbage in a dumpster, and found evidence that cocaine was being processed there after being shipped in hollowed-out computer towers.

But before all that, in late Sept. 2010, the agents looked into who was leasing the Symphony Center unit used by Hayes. Turned out, it was a man named Damon Crump, a Baltimore City district court commissioner at the Pataspco Avenue courthouse in Brooklyn, whose day-to-day duties involve setting defendants’ bails and reviewing sworn statements of charges to make sure they pass muster for probable cause.

Edwards, in an affidavit, explained that Crump, along with one of Hayes’ and Wilford’s co-conspirators, Alvin Purcell Wells, leased the apartment on Hayes’ behalf. Crump’s name also was on the BGE account for the apartment. “In addition,” Edwards wrote, Symphony Center’s management “identified Hayes as the individual they knew to be Damon Crump,” while Wells paid the rent—and had run up a couple thousand dollars in credit.

Crump, who was not charged with any crime for the role Edwards ascribes to him in the investigation, said in a Feb. 1 phone interview that “I’m a victim” for having helped Hayes, who he says he’s known since “I was 8 years old.” He explains that Hayes came to him in 2006 and said he’d been “put out from his home and needed a place to stay, so I got the apartment for him” by signing the lease.

The first year, Crump continues, Hayes was “doing fine, selling cars and doing carpentry and landscaping work,” and so “I see that everything is going well, so I’m going to back off.” Then Hayes talked “Wells into putting his name on the lease too,” and “so I am not down there [at the apartment] from the middle of 2007 on,” since the rent’s being paid and Wells—who Crump says he’s known since middle school, and whom he describes as “a legitimate businessman who had a group home”—is sharing responsibility for the lease. Then, Hayes gets arrested in the Wilford investigation and “I was just dumbfounded,” says Crump, adding that “I had no involvement—if I did, I would have been arrested—and if I’d known, I would’ve broken the lease.” As for Wells, Crump says, “he could have been a victim too”—and, indeed, prosecutors later declined to pursue the charges against Wells.

Much less detail is available about a target in the investigation who court documents say was on that payroll of Baltimore City mayor’s office in 2009 and early 2010, during the waning days of Sheila Dixon’s tenure there. His name appears in the Baltimore City Circuit Court case file against one of Wilford’s co-conspirators, Michael Smooth, who owns a dump-truck company, B’Mores Dumping, located at a Wilford-owned industrial property near Cherry Hill. The target is described in a “report of investigation” as one of several unindicted targets in the case, without any further details—except that he also earned income from a clothing store he owned in West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood, a few blocks from the near-constant cluster of locational data points turned up by the investigation’s GPS tracking efforts.

Attempts to contact the target were unsuccessful, as were efforts to learn his duties at the mayor’s office, but a visit to the clothing store’s location reveals it is no longer in operation, and its listed phone number is no longer active. As he was not charged and could not be located, City Paper is not publishing his name.

That the Wilford investigation touched on a court commissioner and a man on City Hall’s payroll is perhaps not surprising in an era of Baltimore crime-consciousness informed by intricacies of The Wire, with its thought-provoking fictional portrayals of the drug game’s far-reaching consequences. But this is real life—at least insofar as the agent’s sworn facts reflect reality—and the Wilford case stacks up as a big one by Baltimore standards.

In 2008, a 40-kilo cocaine seizure was touted by the Baltimore police as the biggest in the department’s history (“Man Gets Federal Charges for Historic 40-Kilo Coke Bust Next to Kevin Liles Drive,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 23, 2009), though two prior ones at the Port of Baltimore were bigger, but involved other law-enforcement agencies (“OK, But It’s Probably Like the Third-Biggest Drug Bust Ever. At Least,” The News Hole, March 2, 2009). One of those larger ones, in 2004, involved a little over 130 kilograms—a few kilos less than in the Wilford case.

At the very same time as the Wilford investigation, another probe handled by the DEA in California, involving Hollywood-based figures with Baltimore ties, turned up evidence that nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine were shipped to Baltimore over a six-week period, with more than $4 million in cash going back to California (“Bringing It Back Home,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011). Aside from the large amounts of California coke being exchanged for Baltimore cash, the case has another similarity to Wilford’s—some of the coke in both cases was shipped in hollowed-out desktop computer towers.

In a case involving Mexican cartel coke coming to Baltimore, trial testimony from a cartel operative provided some context for these amounts (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23, 2011). The operative, Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, told jurors that he had been one of the Gulf cartel’s Houston-based distributors, and his group handled about 300 tons of coke a month coming over the border from Mexico—that’s more than 272,000 kilograms per month. On the Baltimore end, Mendoza-Cano said he delivered 40 to 60 kilos per month for six months to one of the case’s co-conspirators.

The Wilford investigation, then, turned up big amounts by Baltimore standards—but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, it’s not a case prosecutors care to lose over the question of whether or not the agents failed to get needed warrants for their highly effective electronic-surveillance tactics—which is precisely what Wilford is trying to make happen. Whether or not Wilford wins, he can at least say he tried.

Cooking Goose: “Stop Fucking Snitching” figure gets snitched on in prison

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 24, 2013

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Sherman “Goose” Kemp, one of the cash-loving, drug-dealing stars of 2004’s anti-rat Baltimore street-culture documentary Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. I, already had a prodigious list of prior drug-related convictions before he was charged anew in early 2012 with conspiring to smuggle heroin into federal prison, where he was serving a 30-year sentence, and sell it at a huge mark up: two federal convictions in the 2000s and one Maryland conviction in the 1990s. Now, having copped to the new charges, Kemp’s list of priors is even longer.

After signing a guilty-plea agreement in October, Kemp (pictured, in a Stop Fucking Snitching scene) was recently sentenced – and received a pretty good deal, given that such priors often result in draconian sentences: four more years added to his existing term, shifting his release date from 2035 to 2039, when he’ll be about 60 years old. He actually got a 10-year sentence, but U.S. District judge Catherine Blake ordered six of them to be served concurrently with his existing prison term.

According to the plea’s statement of facts, “beginning in April 2011, through November 7, 2011, Sherman Michael Kemp, agreed with Lasheta Claybourne and others to smuggle heroin from Baltimore, Maryland, into FCI Beckley, West Virginia, where he was serving a federal sentence. Once the heroin was smuggled inside the prison, Kemp and other distributed the heroin at approximately $600 per gram.”

The statement has an additional sentence, with lines drawn through it, indicating that Kemp and the government do not agree that this could be proven: “Additionally, in September through November 2012, Kemp worked with others to try to smuggle heroin into the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was being held pretrial.” The facility is run by Maryland’s prison agency and now is used to house federal pretrial detainees, but until early 2011, it had long been used as the state’s “Supermax” prison, formally known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.

In the prison-heroin case, another Beckley inmate ratted Kemp out, according to court records, prompting investigators to uncover a complex smuggling scheme involving Claybourne, who has not been charged publicly. She is described in court documents as a licensed nursing assistant at University of Maryland Medical Center who arranged for heroin shipments to be sent to Kemp in Beckley and managed the scheme’s money.

Kemp’s 2008 firearm-and-cocaine conviction in Maryland, for which he received a 180-month sentence, was followed with a jury conviction in a Pennsylvania case that yielded Kemp’s 30-year sentence and $31 million judgment for his part in the sprawling and murderous Phillips Cocaine Organization, in which other Baltimore players were in the picture, including Anthony Ballard and Shawn Green. Kemp’s name also appeared in court documents in the 2010 racketeering case against the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang in Maryland, with his phone tied to that of the gang’s on-the-streets heroin dealer, Kevin Glasscho.

Back in 2004, before Sherman “Goose” Kemp went to prison to serve 30 years for successive federal drug-trafficking convictions in Maryland and Pennsylvania, his appearances in Stop Fucking Snitching made law enforcers bristle. The Baltimore street-culture documentary’s core message-that those who cooperate with cops should be silenced by violence-went viral on both sides of the issue, and when Kemp’s 2007 Maryland indictment came down, Baltimore DEA’s then-assistant special agent in charge, Carl Kotoswki, said in a press release that “if convicted, Kemp, a self-proclaimed star of the streets, will have years in federal prison to refine his acting skills.”

In February 2012, Kemp, now 34 and serving a sentence set to end in 2035, was indicted again in federal court, this time for running heroin in prison. Details that emerged in court on June 28 reveal that, just as in his prior two cases, snitching made it happen. If convicted, he faces a possible life sentence.
In September 2011, a fellow inmate at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Beckley, in West Virginia, sparked a new DEA investigation into Kemp’s alleged heroin-dealing at the medium-security prison. The scheme, as described in court documents, involved an intricate chain of phone calls, text messages, shipping, and smuggling that made Kemp “responsible for the majority of the heroin that is being smuggled into and trafficked within” FCI Beckley, which has an inmate population of 1,643, plus another 416 in an adjacent minimum-security camp.
Each of the inmates served by Kemp’s alleged scheme had to give him half the heroin they smuggled in, which, according to court documents, commanded a price of $600 per gram-much higher than the $200 or so per gram it costs on the street. Thus, the single 10-gram package agents tracked and seized during the investigation could have been sold for $6,000; Kemp stood to make a good living this way – and based on what Kemp had to say in Stop Fucking Snitching, it’s the only kind of living he cares to make.

In one scene in the movie, according to court documents, Kemp talks with his friend Tremain Tazewell as they sit in the West Baltimore bar they then ran together, Pete’s Place. Kemp declares that it doesn’t “count” if “you got money from your grandmother dying or your mother passed away or someone died on an airplane,” or “you were hurt from when you were born,” or “you made your money from baseball, basketball, football and shit.” The only money that “counts,” he says, is “street money, blood money, money in rubber bands,” adding that “if it don’t come in rubber bands, vacuum sealed, freezer bags, or ziplock bags, shit don’t count.” Then Tazewell chimes in: “And trash bags.”

Tazewell later ended up convicted of drug crimes; now 34, he’s scheduled to be released from federal prison in 2025. Many others who appeared in or helped make Stop Fucking Snitching, including producer Ronnie Thomas (better known as Skinny Suge), Van Sneed, Akiba Matthews, George Butler, Warren Polston, and Eric Bailey, were later convicted in federal court on drug-related charges. In addition, two former Baltimore City police officers mentioned in the film, William King and Antonio Murray, were convicted of robbing drug dealers and selling the drugs themselves.

The details of the investigation into Kemp’s prison-heroin indictment emerged when prosecutors filed documents in Maryland U.S. District Court on June 28 to oppose Kemp’s argument that investigators employed unlawful tactics to build their case. The filing offered the first public glimpse of the evidence against Kemp.

The alleged scheme involved numerous steps. First, once Kemp “approved of an inmate receiving heroin inside of FCI Beckley,” court documents say, the inmate would be provided the cellphone number of Kemp’s “female associate in Baltimore City, Lasheta Clayborne,” described as a licensed nursing assistant at University of Maryland Medical Center. The inmate would then have his girlfriend call Clayborne and say, “I’m calling for (insert inmate’s name); he said to give you an address.” Clayborne would respond by telling the girlfriend to “hang up and text her the address,” and then would mail to the address a package, “usually a box of candy,” that “contained a quantity of heroin secreted in small balloons.” Once the heroin arrived, “it was then up to the inmate’s girlfriend to smuggle the heroin inside to the inmate”-usually by “body carrying” in “private areas of the body” or by “mouth transfer” when kissing the inmate.

Clayborne, who has not been publicly charged for her alleged involvement in Kemp’s case and could not be reached for comment, also had an important role on the money side of the alleged scheme. “Kemp frequently directs Clayborne to send money to other individuals involved in his heroin smuggling operation,” court documents say, and she “sends money into Kemp’s account via Western Union.” Kemp’s prison customers, meanwhile, are “directed to have someone on the outside send an amount of money to Clayborne,” who then “notifies Kemp the money has arrived” in payment.

Kemp has maintained his innocence in the prison-heroin case, as he did in the Pennsylvania case-in which he was one of 11 defendants in a violent drug-conspiracy case against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO) which included the murder of a federal witness. Kemp and two others, including kingpin Maurice Phillips, stood trial for three months as co-defendants, and cooperators testified for the prosecution. After Kemp was convicted of a single cocaine-conspiracy count, he asked for a new trial, saying the government had failed to disclose to him, as required, evidence that could have been used to impeach one of the cooperators who testified against him. When his motion was denied, he appealed, and still awaits a ruling.

Back when Kemp was a “star of the streets,” kicking it in his posh waterfront apartment at Spinnaker Bay in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood and owning a sporting goods store on Loch Raven Boulevard, life carried some risks. In the early 2000s, for instance, when a vicious drug-dealing outfit headed by rap-music producer Willie Mitchell was warring with the infamous Rice Organization, a rival drug crew with political pull, Mitchell’s underlings hatched an aborted plan to rob and kill Kemp, according to court documents.

But Kemp lived large-as seen in Stop Fucking Snitching, when, hanging at Pete’s Place, he “pulls wads of cash out of his pocket” that are “wrapped in rubber bands,” court documents say. No matter what happens in his prison-heroin case, those days are long gone.

The Nose: Stoned Justice

By the Nose

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2013

Daniel McIntosh, the erstwhile co-owner of the erstwhile downtown nightclub Sonar and Hampden’s McCabe’s, is a thrice-convicted pot dealer, currently jailed and awaiting a possible life sentence for his part in a massive cross-country pot conspiracy involving 16 defendants, four of them still fugitives, that City Paper covered to death until the trial ended last fall. If McIntosh ever does leave prison, he’ll still be on the hook for $6.3 million-the amount U.S. District Judge Roger Titus, after hearing arguments from Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Johnston, ruled is attributable to McIntosh’s involvement in the scheme, and thus the amount McIntosh owes the government.

Geez, it’s just pot. A lot of it, yeah, but the Nose thinks this is a case of prosecutorial overkill-and defense attorneys recently pointed to evidence that it may even be a case of prosecutorial misconduct.

In this age of pot-law liberalization in numerous states, including Maryland, what’s going on in the McIntosh case looks way out of proportion. First off, there’s no hint of violence here, and absent that, the Nose thinks even repeatedly convicted pot dealers should be given a chance to someday resume their lives with the liberty that allows them to be productive. McIntosh is now 37, so a prison sentence much longer than the mandatory minimum of 10 years would hamper his chances of paying off the punishing financial debt he’ll owe the government.

Titus, in coming up with the $6.3 million figure, ruled that McIntosh procured the services of a truck driver, Phillip Parker, who on six occasions brought 300 to 600 pounds of pot from California to Maryland, and that McIntosh oversaw the delivery of another 304 pounds of pot from Canada. The jury also found that McIntosh participated in the conspiracy’s money-laundering activities but did not do so with respect to Sonar, in which the lead conspirator – Matthew Nicka (pictured below), who’s still at large – is alleged to have been a shadow partner.

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Thus, McIntosh helped set up a multi-trip pot-trucking scheme and was in charge of one large shipment. One would think helping such high-volume movements of high-value contraband would yield a gold mine. But anybody who has even a faint familiarity with McIntosh’s lifestyle – while he was quite effective at making himself into an attention-grabbing vortex of nightlife buzz, the Nose believes McIntosh was devoid of millionaire pot-dealer trappings – would roll their eyes at the idea that McIntosh has ever been close to anything approaching $6 million. More like $60,000, maybe. Even then, the chump change likely would’ve disappeared into one of his skin-of-his-teeth entertainment schemes, leaving him virtually penniless.

By all appearances, McIntosh was a bit player here. Even if the Nose buys into the $6 million argument, compare that amount to what the conspiracy made. Prosecutors put its value at $30 million over about a decade, but that’s likely a major undercount. The Nose recently spoke to a person who was in the pot business with the defendants, and asked to remain anonymous, who estimated that the overall conspiracy pulled in $150 to $200 million a year. That’d make it more like a billion-dollar enterprise, with only $6 million tied to McIntosh.

It seems to the Nose that the lead prosecutor, Johnston, feels that McIntosh’s real crime was fighting the charges. Only McIntosh and one other defendant – Keegan Leahy, who was convicted for piloting aircraft that transported the conspiracy’s weed and cash, and in April was sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay $775,096.31, the amount Titus ruled was attributable to Leahy’s involvement – didn’t cop a plea. And for that, McIntosh, it seems, is paying dearly.

McIntosh was scheduled to be sentenced on June 12, but his attorney, Carmen Hernandez, won a motion for postponement (it’s currently scheduled for Sept. 18), in part because there was an outstanding “motion to disclose intercepted communications” to which Johnston had referred during Leahy’s April 1 sentencing. Then, on June 12, Leahy’s attorney, Michael Montemarano, went further, asking the judge to chuck the entire case “due to governmental misconduct” because “communications involving counsel, which referenced trial strategy, were intercepted and overheard by the government.”

The basis for the misconduct allegation arose during Leahy’s sentencing hearing, when Johnston stated that the government knows “for a fact that there’s been telephone communications” between defense attorneys and a Philadelphia lawyer named Michael Farrell. The statements suggest the government listened in on lawyers’ conversations about the case, and that’s a no-no that, if proven, may breach attorney-client privilege and poison the integrity of government’s entire case.

In response, Johnston said that DEA special agent Cindy Buskey did not find any improperly intercepted attorney-client communications when she reviewed case materials. Montemarano on June 20 shot back that Johnston’s response “entirely fails” to address the issue because it was Johnston, not Buskey, who had revealed the information.

“There is of course another possibility” in play here, Montemarano added: that Johnston’s “claims of purported knowledge” about the attorneys’ communications “could have been false, and knowingly so, when she made them on April 1.” Indeed, given Johnston’s response – that Buskey’s search yielded negative results – Montemarano wrote that “based upon the record, such falsity is the only alternative possible explanation” for Johnston’s statements.

In other words, Montemarano argues that Johnston either told the court false information about the attorneys’ communications or she’s failed to disclose how she could have known about them.

To risk torpedoing years of investigative and prosecutorial work in the case by providing ammunition for such dire defense claims seems like a prosecutorial mistake – but one that, given the out-of-whack penalties in the offing for McIntosh, may serve the larger interests of justice. After all, it’s just pot.

Aquageddon: A disappearing island shows what rising sea levels mean for the Chesapeake Bay

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2013

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My trusty handheld GPS helps keep me safe while kayaking, letting me know precisely where I am on a map. But bringing it along on kayaking trips, it turns out, can serve more than my own personal safety: It’s also a useful tool to map the land-devouring effects of sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay.

On April 21, 2007, I kayaked around James Island (pictured), at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The outing, for which I made camp at the nearby Taylor’s Island Family Campground, was part of my research for an article about exploring the Chesapeake Bay’s vanishing islands (“Wetlands,” Feature, May 23, 2007), about 40 of which oceanographer William Cronin had chronicled in his 2005 book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.

As Cronin pointed out, sea-level rise in the bay had been estimated at 3 feet per millennium until about 1900, but then, over the course of the 20th century, a 1-foot rise was observed-an acceleration that washed away at least three notable islands and was eating away at the rest.

As I circumnavigated James Island in 2007, hugging the shoreline as closely as possible while dodging fallen pine trees partially submerged in the murky water, my GPS recorded my route, laying it out like a bread-crumb trail on its map. In the end, I’d mapped the contours of the island’s shore-or, rather, the coastline of its three islets, since James is no longer a single island.

 

In 1914, J. Fred. Hunter of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) studied several of the Chesapeake’s fast-eroding islands near the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers, including James Island. After chronicling the land-loss facts based on available evidence, Hunter hazarded a guess: James Island “should disappear in about 150 years,” while adding the blanket caveat that “numerous other factors may enter to disturb the present conditions and rate of erosion.”

Interestingly, should James Island’s land-loss rate of the past six years continue apace, Hunter’s prediction that it will have vanished by 2064 would prove quite prescient. If it continues to lose about 67 percent of its acreage every six years, by 2064 only a third of an acre would remain.

Since I can’t paddle over land, and wasn’t willing to trespass on the Oyster Creek farmland to walk the edge of its cliffs with my GPS, it’s anybody’s guess how much of its acreage has been lost-and how much more will calve off into the bay in the future. But more will; as James Island’s destruction continues, the shore it protected from the waves will take ever-worse beatings and more direct hits by wind-driven waves.

Meanwhile, Hunter’s caveat in making his prediction about James Island’s disappearance-the “other factors”-recently entered into play. The fact that the Chesapeake region’s land continues to subside, thanks to a combination of long-term regional settling of the Earth’s crust after the glaciers last melted, starting about 18,000 years ago, and the more recent drawing down of groundwater as population swelled, only compounds the sea’s accelerating encroachment on land. And that encroachment, based on recent science, is becoming more and more worrisome.

In a paper appearing last June in Nature Climate Change, USGS researchers identified a 1,000-mile long “hotspot” on the East Coast between Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and just north of Cape Cod in Massachusetts – which includes the bay – where sea-level rise has accelerated at three to four times the global average over the last 20 years. This discovery was followed in October by a Geophysical Research Letters paper by a two-man, British-American team of oceanographers who found that the bay’s sea-level rise may have sped up from 1 to 3 millimeters per year in the 1930s to 4 to 10 millimeters per year so far in the 2000s. If the 10-millimeter high end holds true in the future, then the bay’s water will rise a little bit more in the next 100 years than it did in the 1,000 years prior to 1900.

In short, scientists recently started to detect a “hockey stick” shape to the sea-level-rise curve for the Chesapeake Bay, which would spell faster-arriving impacts from the already-expected inundation resulting from climate change. No wonder, then, that James Island’s land loss has been appreciably faster in the last six years than in the preceding period back to 1848. It’s just one example of a near-endless litany of anxiety-inducing repercussions that faster-rising seas are expected to have on the bay.

Stevenson, who says he first came to live on and study the bay in 1972, says that “when I first started talking about sea-level rise, people thought it was just sort of flat-it was increasing but it wasn’t accelerating. But now it is inflecting upwards, and that spells trouble. You just get much more erosion since the water level is higher and higher in the flood plain, and the wave attack is much, much higher, and places that once were underwater only a few hours a day get inundated much more of the day, so they just keep getting this wave action that just keeps beating on it. If sea level is inflecting upwards, then it’s all just going to happen a lot quicker than we had seen in previous centuries of sea-level rise. And that, in a nutshell, is what a number of us who are concerned about sea-level rise are worried about.”

Not surprisingly, such worries have been getting high-level attention.

On Dec. 28, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed an executive order that, had it been read at the time by Marylanders trying to enjoy a holiday break from their routines, would likely have caused some to choke on their eggnog.

It’s purpose was dry enough-that state agencies incorporate the risk of inundation from coastal flooding and sea-level rise into all planning for future state-capital projects, that agency construction projects be built at least 2 feet above the 100-year flood line, and that additional recommendations for safely building or renovating state structures in light of sea-level rise be devised quickly. But its preamble-the “Whereas” section-cited the recent USGS “hotspot” study to tick off a list of current and anticipated problems sea-level rise entails. Among them were:

-“The State of Maryland is currently losing approximately 580 acres every year to shore erosion.”

-“Alarmingly, thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost.”

-“Future changes in sea level threaten to increase the State of Maryland’s vulnerability to storm events, causing more shore erosion and severe coastal flooding, inundating low-lying lands, submerging tidal wetlands and marshes, and resulting in additional salt-water intrusion, and high water tables.”

-“The State of Maryland has approximately 450 existing State-owned facilities and 400 miles of roadways within areas likely to be impacted by sea level rise over the next 100 years.”

-“Billions of dollars of investments in public infrastructure will be threatened if the State of Maryland fails to prepare adequately for climate change.”

In the neighboring state of Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell (D) got into the act in January, with a “state of the state” address that envisioned a future so threatened by rising seas-and especially the hurricanes that come with them-that the time has arrived to do triage on what can and cannot be protected. Calling last fall’s Superstorm Sandy a “wakeup call,” Markell said that Delaware must start “strengthening dikes and dams, conserving wetlands, improving drainage, or nourishing beaches,” but “the need for this infrastructure exceeds the resources available,” so the state must have a “frank conversation” about how to “prioritize and finance projects, so that we protect what we can and make realistic choices about what we cannot.”

There have long been such frank conversations about restoring the bay’s vanishing islands with dredging spoils, 3 to 4 million cubic yards of which are scooped out of the bay’s channels each year to keep the Port of Baltimore accessible to ships. Since 2006, James Island has been one of the islands selected to be built back up this way, as part of something called the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration Program, which would provide new uplands and wetlands as wildlife habitat and also recreate a buffer to help protect the Little Choptank River coastline from ongoing loss of land. But other than studies-many of them have been conducted, providing a wealth of details about James Island’s history, ecology, and geology-there’s been no further action.

The project is “unfortunately stalled,” says Maryland state Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-District 37B), who represents several bay-facing Eastern Shore counties and strongly supports the program. The reason, she says, is that it relies on “federal money that has not been dedicated other than to planning.” Still, she stresses the need to “shore up those islands” to provide a buffer for communities and landowners to the east.

“The longer we put it off,” she says, “the more expensive and harder it is to rectify.” She says that on Hooper’s Island, just south of Taylor’s Island, “gravesites have been going into the water” and notes that “it’s amazing, the cliffs that have been created” by the gouging action of the waves hitting the shore.

At Taylor’s Island Family Campground, owner Bruce Coulson has a front-row seat to the damage wrought by sea-level rise. He and his group, the Dorchester County Shoreline Erosion Group, have long promoted ways to reduce the force of the waves pounding the shoreline in these parts so the bay’s increasingly ravenous appetite for nearby land will be slowed. He has good reason: The bay’s been stealing away his land-though not as fast as it’s been taking it from other nearby landowners, thanks to the huge chunks of concrete he’s placed along his shoreline. Each weighs 15,000 to 20,000 pounds, he estimates, yet the waves of Superstorm Sandy still managed to move them. Of the 15 acres of land that once comprised this parcel, 11 remain. “The other four is out there in the bay,” he says.

The land loss on Taylor’s Island and other parts of the Little Choptank River waterfront, including a lot of farmland, “just keeps adding pollutants and nutrients and sediments to the bay,” he says. “It’s terrible. It’s chewing off everything. You can sit there and do all you want to clean up the bay, but until you control something like this, you’re just not doing the job.”

One option, he says, is offshore breakwaters to reduce the force of the waves hitting the shoreline. Do that, he says, and coastal property owners might stand a chance to establish “living shorelines” that are being promoted as an environmentally sustainable alternative to lining the shore with heavy rocks. If there were breakwaters, which he estimates would cost about $70 million, based on studies from the late 1990s, “then you can probably put in your living shorelines up and down the bay, but you’ve got to stop that force from coming at you first.”

Another idea Coulson tosses out concerns the imminent problems at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, which since the 1920s has been holding back huge volumes of sediment that otherwise would have entered the bay. It is nearing capacity, and when it does, new sediments coming down the Susquehanna will simply enter the bay unimpeded, unless something is done. “They’re talking about dredging it,” he says, “and I’m thinking, put it all on barges and dump it off at James Island.”

“If you put that island back in there, you’ve built a breakwater,” Coulson says. Without it, he says, “when James Island is completely gone, up here at Oyster Cove it’s going to really nail us with the northwest wind. There’s farmland that’ll go, but what’s next is the road, and then the county’s going to have to spend a lot of money.”

Until something is done, though, Coulson’s campground will continue to take a beating, protected by the concrete chunks. Erosion has gouged out a cove just south of his property, and during a visit, a stiff breeze was slamming waves relentlessly into the roots of the adjacent pine forest. The bay’s water was thick and gray with sediment, which was being carried northward in discolored tidal currents as downed pine trunks pounded around in the surf.

This is what active, everyday erosion looks like, and it’s not pretty. It looks like what it is: pollution. As the seas continue to rise, scenes like this will become more and more commonplace along the bay’s shores, eating away land and further undermining the bay’s health.

Stevenson knows Coulson and says he “has a lot of good common sense, and he’s a good observer.” But Stevenson is not as sold as Coulson is that rebuilding James Island or building offshore breakwaters is a solution. “I don’t think we can solve it,” Stevenson says of the inexorable erosion caused by winds and waves carried by rising seas. While agreeing that the active loss of large amounts of farming may be a serious pollution issue for the bay-“there’s a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous associated with farmland,” he says, “and 30 acres has a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous that’s going into the bay, as well as the sediment itself that makes the water murky”-he’s essentially gloomy about the whole problem. “We might be able to protect some things and slow it down,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s a fix.”

The bleak outlook seems uncharacteristic for a man whose career has been dedicated to finding smart ways to reverse the long decline of the bay’s ecological health. Yet there it is: “I think that we’re just going to get submersion of land,” he says. “And we’re just going to see more open water.” He holds out a depressing fact for consideration: “We’ve looked at how much marsh is being formed versus how much we are losing-for every 10 acres that we’ve lost, we’ve only gained one over the last 30 years. I’m pessimistic.”

The very real prospect of climate change driving sea-level rise at a quickening pace, and more so in the bay than most other parts of the world, has Stevenson very worried, and he wonders about the wisdom of attempting to concoct technological fixes for the symptoms rather than treating the disease, which he says is clear: the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, in the modern era. “If you really look at the expense for the whole Eastern Seaboard and maybe part of the Gulf Coast” for preparing for more rapidly rising sea levels, “it’s maybe better to do something about containing greenhouse gases. But that argument doesn’t seem to have much resonance.”

Major hurricanes – not like Isabel in 2003 or Agnes in 1972, but ones like the one that stormed up the bay in 1938 and is etched in the Eastern Shore’s collective memory – are what make Stevenson “pull my hair out with worry,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time” before one hits, he says, “and it really will be formidable. There’s a lot of places that now exist that won’t. Baltimore is not immune either, with the surge amplified as you go up the bay. It may come in at 3 to 5 feet at the mouth of the bay, and reach 10 feet as you get up to Baltimore. Sea-level rise keeps adding to your base water level, and then you get the storm and what used to be a problem is now a mega-disaster.”

The technological fixes for that kind of threat are truly huge public-works projects, he says, and he has at times brought them up, “arguing that maybe we really start to think about a tidal gate” across the Patapsco River. “That’s what it’ll take, if you really want to keep the infrastructure that you’ve got around the Baltimore harbor, especially if we get this acceleration in the sea-level rise,” he continues, “but it’s billions of dollars for something like that, and then you have Annapolis and Norfolk to worry about too.

“We’re on the edge of a major change, I think, and it’s almost getting to be inevitable,” he continues. “Even the bay cleanup, I think, is at risk, because you see all the pollution just from the erosional processes that we’re going to have to take care of, even more so than in the past, and I don’t know if we can really spend that much money on it. I don’t know what the willingness to pay is to keep the bay in good shape, as global warming and sea-level rise really has a major, growing impact, and I think it’s going to get harder and harder to control the forces we’re unleashing.”

Like most people, Stevenson says he “would like to leave something for the next generation, and I always thought that we could make a big dent here, in terms of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.” In the early 1980s, when the bay cleanup program really got into gear, “I thought at that point, Well, they’re probably a little trigger-happy, trying to do too much too quickly. But I thought we had a chance to make a dent. After 30 years, I’m not so sure right now. I think sea-level rise is going to bite us in the ass.”

By the time that happens, James Island will likely have already been bitten out of existence. As long as it’s still around, though, its shrinking, sinking acreage can serve as a reminder that, at the very least, people and leaders around the bay need to prepare for an increasingly inundated future.

Hot Grease

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 6, 2013

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On normal shifts working the mean streets of Baltimore’s northwest police district, officer Maunda Williams catches people engaged in typical Mobtown crimes, like shooting people. But just after midnight on Oct. 18, 2012, Williams’ shift started with something oddly amiss, right before his crime-keen eyes. It was going down right next door to the police station, at the Roost, the beautifully retro drive-in eatery that is far-famed for its deep-fried fare, especially its delectable lake trout.

Long lines of fried-food connoisseurs regularly form at the Roost, so its fryers work overtime, needing fresh oil on a regular basis-and producing huge volumes of used oil that restaurants like the Roost sell to companies that recycle it into animal feed or biofuels. That night, Williams had reason to suspect the Roost’s prodigious quantities of old fryer fat were about to go somewhere they shouldn’t, which would rob revenue from both the Roost and its used-oil recycler.

Williams, after returning to his personal vehicle to retrieve some items he needed for his shift, “observed a white Freightliner truck with a green tank on the back” as it entered the Roost’s property, he wrote in court records. Williams “began to observe the actions of the truck driver in the rear of the restaurant” as the man “extended a long blue hose” from “a vacuum pumper type of tank on the rear of his truck” to two 300-gallon tanks “that are kept in the rear of the location to store the used cooking oil of the Roost.”

Williams knew a thing or two about the used fryer-fat market-more than, say, a casual fan of The Simpsons, which in 1998 ran an episode, “Lard of the Dance,” in which Homer and Bart try haplessly to enter the grease-theft racket.

“This used oil is very valuable,” Williams wrote, “and is often specifically targeted by thieves who have the proper trucks and pumper equipment needed to syphon this used oil,” which is “then sold to recycling companies and is worth approximately $3.00 per gallon.”

The two tanks, Williams pointed out, bore signs announcing them as “the property of Valley Proteins, Inc.,” yet “this truck did not bear any markings or company information,” which “struck me as odd,” since “I have seen these types of vacuum trucks in the past and have always observed the recycling company information to be clearly displayed.”

Williams “decided to approach and investigate further.” After returning to his patrol car and driving next door to the Roost, he “asked the driver/operator if he was authorized to collect this used oil,” the court records state. When confronted, the driver, Anthony Lamont Fitzgerald, explained that “he was a subcontractor for Valley Proteins” and, as proof, showed Williams a black binder that “contained detailed listings of restaurant used oil collection locations from across” Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

Williams was not impressed. He called Valley Proteins, using the phone number displayed on the Roost’s tanks, and reached Marcus Singletary, described in the court records as “the transport manager who is in charge of the used oil collections for this region.” Singletary explained that “his company does not employ any subcontractors and no one other than his employed drivers are authorized to collect used oil from their storage tanks.”

Since Fitzgerald isn’t a Valley Proteins employee, Singletary confirmed what Williams suspected: “If he’s taking oil from our tanks,” Singletary said, “then he’s stealing from my company.”

Busted-and not for the first time, nor the last. This was the second of three grease-theft cases brought against Fitzgerald since 2011. He got suspended prison sentences and probation for the first two, and is currently facing fresh charges in Baltimore County.

Fitzgerald should count his lucky stars that it was the lightly punitive local authorities that brought the boom down on him. It could be much, much worse. As accused grease thieves in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have learned over the past year, more potent law enforcers are on the case: the serious hardasses working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Though used cooking oil is often stored outside, next to restaurants’ garbage Dumpsters, it is not waste. It is “yellow gold,” as Homer calls it. Thanks to the efforts of Valley Proteins and other well-heeled interests that lawfully collect used cooking oil for processing and resale, pilfering it is now being prosecuted at the federal level-and if convicted, those charged so far are facing as much as 15 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine.

 

“Grease thieves are huge,” says Neil Gagnon, Valley Proteins’ district manager, whose bailiwick includes its Baltimore plant in Curtis Bay. Formed in 1949 and headquartered in Winchester, Va., the company is one of the bigger players in the rendering industry, an ancient trade that cooks, cleans, and separates the leftovers of food production to make raw materials for a myriad of products, from biofuels and animal feed to paint and cosmetics.

Back in 1995, Gagnon took City Paper on a tour of Valley Proteins’ Baltimore plant, one of 15 the company operates in states from New York to Florida. Located in Curtis Bay on the banks of Cabin Branch, the plant’s grinders, cookers, and centrifuges process millions of pounds of offal and restaurant grease each year, separating the liquid fats from the solid proteins. The fats are rendered into high-end tallows and lesser-valued “yellow grease,” while the proteins become meat-and-bone meal, the core ingredient of animal feed.

Restaurants used to pay renderers to haul away their used oil. That changed in the mid-2000s-Gagnon pegs it to about 2005 or 2006-as rising fuel prices prompted increasing demand for biofuels that can be used in petroleum diesel vehicles. As a result, restaurants’ waste oil has become a hot commodity, so renderers and biofuel producers pay restaurants about $1 per gallon for it-sometimes up to $2 per gallon-and then turn a tidy profit by processing and reselling it at higher margins.

At Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative, which has fueling stations at the Mill Valley General Store in Remington and at Merriweather Post Pavilion, members can purchase biodiesel currently for $3.75 to $4.50 per gallon, according to its website. Yellow grease, meanwhile, has been going for between $2 and $3 per gallon, according to market surveys. So every gallon of grease stolen is one less gallon that renderers and biofuel producers can buy, taking a bite out of their profits.

“It’s such an issue that we have a full-time lawyer on it, to help deal with the millions of pounds that grease thieves steal from us on a weekly basis,” Gagnon explains, adding that the Baltimore/Washington, D.C./Philadelphia area “is the hardest hit for our company,” though “it’s a nationwide issue.”

That lawyer, Charles Gittins, says that “across our company, we estimate that we lost over $5 million last year to grease theft. It’s serious money.”

Gittins says “my job is basically to try to educate law enforcement” about grease theft, “track the problem,” and “hire investigators to identify the loci of big theft.” He was hired by Valley Proteins in May 2012 after leaving a long and notable career as a military-justice defense attorney for those accused in some of the most notable military scandals in memory, from the Navy’s Tailhook sex scandal to the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners and the Haditha massacre of unarmed civilians in Iraq. So Gittins is no stranger to taking on big adversaries.

In joining Valley Proteins’ team, Gittins signed on with an outfit with some serious industry clout. The company’s president, Gerald F. Smith Jr., chairs the National Renderers Association (NRA), the industry’s alliance of 51 companies that operate more than 205 rendering plants in North America, according to its website. The NRA has been taking grease theft very seriously, including the creation of a Grease Theft Task Force that Gittins has joined.

Earlier this year, the NRA published a “Restaurant Grease Theft Backgrounder,” which puts some numbers on the industry-wide scope of the problem. From 2005 to 2012, the number of grease-theft incidents reported increased 150 percent to nearly 6,000, while the number of criminal charges filed jumped from 12 in 2005 to 188 in 2012. An industry survey found that the volume of grease stolen annually stands at about 8 percent of the total collected-an amount valued at nearly $40 million in lost revenue. The tanks and stout locks that are meant to prevent theft often get damaged during the crimes, adding an additional loss of around $3.26 million per year.

Given those eye-popping loss numbers, it’s no wonder the NRA and Valley Proteins took the offensive. A key moment occurred in November 2012, when the NRA hired the Freeh Group, a consulting firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, to meet with senior DOJ and FBI officials in Washington. As Gittins explained it in an article in the October issue of NRA’s magazine, Render, the purpose was “to educate them on the magnitude of the grease theft problem in the rendering industry and the collateral criminal activity that accompanies the individual thefts, including interstate transport of stolen grease, money laundering, and tax evasion.”

Based on what’s been happening since, hiring the Freeh Group appears to have been a smart move. Grease thieves have definitely been feeling the pain from the feds.

 

“Actually, I don’t do the biodiesel,” says Richard Arturo Figueroa of Hunt Valley. He’s talking on his cellphone while driving, and there’s a lot of loud noise in the background, like what a big truck might make, but he understands he’s talking to a City Paper reporter. “I just collect the waste vegetable oil, that’s all we do. We pick it up from restaurants and have a facility where we process it.”

Is that the place in Middle River? “Not anymore, that’s somebody else.” Then, only about a minute into the conversation, he explains that he’s approaching a toll booth and really should get off the phone, and maybe call back in an hour.

Figueroa seems not to know that he and his business-Rafxcel Services-are in the middle of a federal grease-theft investigation in Maryland that has resulted in charges and a guilty plea from Ahmad Qaabid Abdul-Rahim, the 37-year-old owner of a College Park grease-collection company called Waste Not Inc. If Figueroa does know he’s squarely in the middle of this ongoing probe, he’s being mighty coy about it.

According to Rahim’s plea agreement, Waste Not in 2011 had 650 legitimate contracts to collect waste vegetable oil (WVO) from restaurants, but Rahim also stole grease-and “would take both his legitimate WVO and the stolen WVO to R.F.’s collection facility” at 1701 Leland Ave. in Middle River. Once at the facility, the WVO “would be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others,” the plea agreement states, and “the Pennsylvania fuel company would send trucks to” the Middle River warehouse, “load the WVO, and transport it back to the fuel company’s location in Pennsylvania.”

Money from the sales went into bank accounts held by Figueroa’s company, Rafxcel Services-and generated a ton of revenue: $1,575,982 between Jan. 18, 2012 and Sept. 20, 2012, according to Rahim’s plea agreement, which says that Waste Not’s take from this arrangement was $361,356 for 180,678 gallons of WVO-an even $2 per gallon.

But here’s the rub: Rahim sold the stolen WVO at a marked-down price of $1.05 per gallon, according to the plea agreement, which means his legitimate WVO-86,500 gallons of it-sold for $3.03 per gallon.

Thus, Rafxcel Services paid about two-thirds less for stolen grease than for legitimate grease.

This is why Gittins says he wishes law enforcers would crack down on grease buyers who are only too happy to accept low prices with a wink and a nod, and thus enable the thieves to convert their quarry to cash.

“The thieves are selling it well under market,” Gittins says, “so the buyers should be on notice.”

Steve Blankenship, the logistics manager in the Washington, D.C. region for Greenlight Biofuels-which, like Valley Proteins, has been working hard to get grease thieves caught and prosecuted-adds that “that’s the problem, the buyers aren’t really interested in what the source is. And the problem is not going to solve itself without some sort of regulation of the buyers, to make sure it’s coming from legitimate sources.”

 

Rafxcel Services was not alone at the Middle River warehouse. Also there was a company called Green Initiative Global (GIG), a Delaware concern that advertises in Manhattan as a used-restaurant-oil collector. GIG’s resident agent in Maryland, Anthony Jean Claude, registered in February with the U.S. Department of Transportation as a carrier of “WVO Waste Vegetable Oil” out of the same Leland Avenue address as Rafxcel Services’ Middle River warehouse.

Claude has another Maryland company, MDGB (short for Maryland Green BioFuel), based out of an Arbutus address it shares with a company called Parking Management Enforcement, which does business as PME Towing-an outfit also mentioned in Rahim’s plea agreement. Corporate records show Rahim and Claude formed Parking Management Enforcement in 2006.

After several years operating PME as a towing business, in May 2010 “A.C. suggested that he and Rahim could make money stealing WVO from restaurants in Maryland and Virginia and selling it to out-of-state oil companies,” Rahim’s plea agreement states. So the two did just that, “using Rahim’s flatbed tow truck from PME towing.” From May to October 2010, the plea agreement states, they “simply stole the WVO using the flatbed truck and a tank and mechanical pump.”

After Rahim started Waste Not, he obtained a proper vacuum-pumper truck, got legitimate grease-collection contracts, and hired a driver, referred to in the plea agreement as “J.L.,” who suggested they use the truck not only to service the contracts but also to steal WVO from other locations. From October 2011 until September 2012, J.L. would take the truck to Northern Virginia “to collect stolen WVO,” the plea agreement states, and deliver it to the Middle River facility, where “A.C. used this warehouse to collect the stolen WVO, process it, and store it” until arranging for “the refined WVO to be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others.”

Attempts to reach Claude at numerous phone numbers in the Baltimore area, Washington, D.C., and Florida-where in 2009 and 2010 he was a director of a now-defunct Miami company called MD Biodiesel Corporation-were fruitless.

GIG and Rafxcel in July were sued by a Hawkins Point company, BakerCorp, which leases heavy-duty tanks, pumps, and filtration systems. BakerCorp’s lawyer, Mark Lynch, says the company “leased grease collection tanks to Rafxcel,” and successfully sued for their return. Lynch says grease collection is a “popular use” of BakerCorp’s leased tanks, stressing that “BakerCorp had absolutely no idea that the tanks were going to be used potentially for any illegal purpose.”

It takes a lot of money to lease a grease-collection tank from BakerCorp, according to Blankenship. “They’re not cheap,” he says, adding that “if you have the means to lease one, you’re in it big-time.”

Figueroa and Claude have not been charged publicly with any crime related to the Rahim investigation-though Rahim was charged on Aug. 27 with interstate transportation of stolen goods in Maryland U.S. District Court and entered his guilty plea on Sept. 23. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3.

A call back to Figueroa at the appointed time, an hour after he talked on his phone while driving, went to voicemail. He never returned the call. A quick Google search turns up the likely location of the new facility he referred to in the earlier call: Rafxcel Services is now at 8213 Rosebank Ave. in Dundalk, on the banks of Back River.

 

On Aug. 15, a little less than two weeks before Rahim’s grease-theft charges were filed in Maryland, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia issued a press release: “Philadelphia Man Charged with Stealing Cooking Oil.”

That’s a quaint headline in the realm of federal law-enforcement press releases, which usually announce milestones in efforts to take down more sinister-sounding criminals like drug kingpins, child pornographers, or big-time financial fraudsters.

But the recent federal grease-theft crackdown has meant more such publicity coming out of law enforcers’ PR teams. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office press release announcing Rahim’s case was titled “Owner of Waste Collection Business Pleads Guilty to Transporting Stolen Waste Vegetable Oil.” An even wordier one was issued by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office last December: “Three Indicted in Alleged Theft of Used Cooking Oil From Hundreds of Massachusetts and Rhode Island Restaurants.”

The fact that these press releases are being written at all, though, is evidence of progress for Valley Proteins, Greenlight Biofuels, and other big players in the kitchen-grease collection business. It means their concerns are prompting tangible action at the highest levels of national law enforcement, and the resulting publicity is spreading the word about the grease-theft phenomenon.

The Rhode Island case is replete with an inside snitch, thousands of gallons of allegedly stolen oil transported in approximately 50,000-pound loads, an attempt to camouflage the alleged theft operation by outfitting a pickup truck with a camper cap and a quiet pump, and a mobster-probing FBI agent interviewing grease buyers.

Three men were indicted: brothers Andrew and Bruce Jeremiah-the owners and operators of three companies, Jeremiah Motors Corp., Removal Services, and Green Energy, who both have prior drug-conspiracy convictions-and one of their truck drivers, Anthony Simone Sr., also a drug convict, who cooperated with the FBI in the final stages of the investigation and pleaded guilty in the resulting indictment. The Jeremiah brothers’ trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 5, and if convicted, they face possible 15-year prison sentences and $500,000 fines.

The case records allege that starting in January 2012, a New Hampshire trucking company, Abenaqui Carriers, delivered 806,740 pounds-almost 110,000 gallons-of used cooking oil from the Jeremiahs’ operation to a New Hampshire biodiesel producer, AMENICO, which is short for American Energy Independence Company. Between Jan. 31, 2011 and Nov. 5, 2012, the court records show, AMENICO paid the Jeremiahs’ business Removal Services $429,268.07 for deliveries of used cooking oil.

As part of the ongoing Jeremiah investigation, FBI agent Jeffrey Cady-a veteran of taking down New England mobsters-in May interviewed two companies that buy unrefined used restaurant oil to establish the going price per gallon, according to court records. Mopac, a rendering company in Souderton, Pa., was willing to pay approximately $1.75 per gallon, and EnviroTek USA, a biodiesel producer in Tewksbury, Mass., would pay $2 gallon if “there was a large volume of oil being sold.”

The Jeremiah case also has an interesting tidbit about tactics in the grease-theft world intended to lessen the attention unmarked pumper trucks attract. Andrew Jeremiah allegedly wanted the collection operation to be more “mysterious” so they could “rob things . . . right in the [expletive] daytime,” court records state. To that end, he allegedly took “several steps towards camouflaging his Dodge pickup truck,” including “attempting to outfit it with a low profile oil tank, a quiet pump with a custom muffler, and a camper cap” without windows.

The Philadelphia case is against Bernard Corbin, whose indictment remained under seal from February until shortly before he was detained in August. His trial date, initially scheduled for October, was recently reset to start in January. He’s accused of setting up a company called Simply Green that “hired employees to travel around the Philadelphia area and steal used cooking oil from storage containers used by restaurants and then bring the cooking oil back to the Simply Green facility,” according to the indictment.

Corbin is also accused of supplying his employees with “bolt cutters to cut open the locks which restaurants used to secure” the waste-oil containers, and “vans containing holding tanks and pumping systems to pump the stolen oil” out of the containers.

The Corbin indictment also describes the fate of Simply Green’s allegedly stolen oil, illustrating the multi-tiered, multi-player, integrated nature of the grease-theft economy. Corbin allegedly “sold the cooking oil to K.D., a cooking oil merchant,” who sold it to “J.K., a broker located in New Jersey,” who sold it to “a New York company named ‘B Green Group,'” who “hired a Minnesota trucking company to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up the stolen oil. After further processing, the oil was shipped around the United States.”

If the feds’ cases against Corbin and the Jeremiah brothers proves the scenarios they’ve alleged, and if the Rahim probe expands from its already admitted complexity, there are many, many players in the grease-theft world who may find themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs.

After all, each of these probes in ongoing, and the available evidence suggests they could travel far and wide.

 

Valley Proteins’ Gittins knows all about Anthony Fitzgerald, the guy Baltimore police officer Maunda Williams busted at the Roost last fall.

“He came out of our Baltimore plant,” Gittins explains, claiming that “two of our former employees have been out there stealing. We call them ‘the Two Anthonys.'”

The other, Anthony Barner, has not been charged criminally-though Valley Proteins sued him in September 2011, several months after he resigned as one of the company’s truck drivers who picked up used restaurant grease.

“He kept his uniforms, the keys to the locks at the restaurants, [and] the manifest” that listed Valley Proteins grease-collection customers, says Gittins, echoing what the lawsuit claims.

On June 6, 2011, according to the lawsuit, Barner was stopped and ticketed by Rockville police “after he caused a grease spill from a green vacuum truck he was driving on Rockville Pike”-and when this happened, he “was wearing a Valley [Proteins] uniform” and had a Valley Proteins “service manifest” listing the company’s “restaurant customers on Rockville Pike.”

Then, the lawsuit continues, on Aug. 31, 2011, also while wearing a Valley Proteins uniform, Barner went to America’s Best Wings in Randallstown-whose owner confronted him, prompting Barner to leave.

The lawsuit, which was settled after three lawyers for Valley Proteins spent more than a year litigating the case (including relentless efforts to serve Barner), concludes that he “has taken or attempted to take grease” from Valley Proteins customers “while misrepresenting himself” as an employee.

While trying to serve him, the lawyers discovered that in August 2011, Barner started a company in White Marsh called Planet Fuel Recovery-another feel-good corporate name along the lines of others in the picture of the grease-theft probes, like Simply Green, Waste Not, Green Initiative Global, and Green Energy.

Gittins says Valley Proteins got its property back and the lawsuit was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Greenlight Biofuels’ Blankenship says his efforts to make grease thieves feel the pain have started to bear fruit too. The thefts are “so easy to do,” he explains, but by “educating law enforcement on the problem, saying, ‘This is a problem, we need some help,’ it’s starting to get on their radar.”

Blankenship’s optimism is tempered by the scale of the problem, though. “We filed 647 police reports about grease thefts last year,” he explains, “and we’ve filed about 350 so far this year. But I believe theft is not down. It’s unbelievable the number of people out there doing this. The thieves are just getting smarter.”

A short, link-littered history of City Paper’s Black Guerrilla Family coverage

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper in April, 2013

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The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), though long known to be active in Maryland’s prisons and Baltimore’s streets, has suddenly become hot news, with the April 23 announcement of a federal indictment against 25 alleged members, including 13 Maryland correctional officers (COs). But the BGF had already burnished its image in the public’s mind in April 2009, when federal prosecutors announced two indictments against alleged BGF members, including correctional officers.

City Paper jumped on the story, covering the press conference announcing the indictments and the BGF’s ties to a Baltimore bar called Club 410. From that point on, the stories kept rolling – starting with the unnerving news that the BGF had offered $10,000 to anyone who killed people involved in helping to build the case. A series of profiles, dubbed “Family Portraits,” was assembled, spotlighting co-defendants Nelson Arthur Robinson, Rainbow Lee Williams, Randolph Edison, Eric Marcell Brown, Deitra Davenport, Calvin Renard Robinson, and The Black Book (pictured), the BGF’s 122-page self-improvement guide that was subtitled “Empowering Black Families and Communities.” A lengthy feature provided a birds-eye view of the case.

By the fall of 2009, the first guilty pleas were entered, including by two COs, and a few defendants were sentenced, including Marlow Bates, the son of a famous Baltimore gangster. Meanwhile, City Paper discovered an inmate’s federal lawsuit that had unearthed a trove of evidence that Maryland’s prison administrators had turned a blind eye to the long-known problem of gang-tied COs, including the lawsuit’s defendant, Antonia Allison, who the inmate accused of facilitating his brutal beating by a group of gang-members. (Allison is now one of the 13 recently-indicted COs.)

Driving home that the issue was an ongoing problem, a state criminal case was brought against another CO, Lynae Chapman, accused of delivering a cellphone to her unborn child’s father, a BGF member who was in a Baltimore jail awaiting trial on murder charges. Chapman’s case was intriguing, in part because she initially was denied the opportunity to enter a guilty plea. Then, in March 2010, another CO was charged for bringing pot and cellphones into the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Almost exactly a year after the 2009 BGF indictments, prosecutors took another whack at the gang, and this time the focus was on its infiltration of an anti-gang non-profit group. One of the more fascinating defendants was Kimberly McIntosh, a health-care worker with no criminal record who was accused of being at the “epicenter” of the gang’s street-level operations.

Shortly after the 2010 indictment was filed, City Paper ran a lengthy feature examining the issue of corrupt COs, and how the Maryland General Assembly had just passed reforms that would make it harder to discipline them. After the article ran, concerns were elevated as another CO, Alicia Simmons, was charged in the federal BGF probe, when the 2009 and 2010 indictments were rolled into one, big racketeering case, and another inmate gained traction with another federal lawsuit alleging a gang-tied CO facilitated his prison beating.

Finally, in 2012, after covering the courthouse fates of some of the BGF defendants here and there, City Paper ran a lengthy feature about the BGF probe’s impact – which, given recent developments, would seem to have been lacking. Maybe this next round, as it unfolds, will have more lasting repercussions.