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.

Frisky Business: Faked drug-dog certification puts Baltimore drug-money forfeiture at risk

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 23, 2014

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Early last year, the U.S. Supreme Court elevated the legal status of drug-detecting dogs, ruling that a police search can be presumed lawful if it is predicated on a positive alert by a well-trained dog with basic paperwork. Such training, though, is bunk if not accompanied by valid certification of the dog and its handler. Not only was it lacking in an ongoing drug-money forfeiture case in Maryland U.S. District Court, in which the government is seeking to keep $122,640 in cash seized last September from a passenger’s luggage at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but a fraudulent certification was produced by Maryland Transportation Authority Police (MTAP) and used by federal prosecutors, who sought to disguise and downplay the document’s false provenance, according to a Baltimore attorney’s recent filing in the case.

When the government is caught producing a fraudulent document in litigation, and then proceeds to stand by it, suffice it to say the matter is highly sensitive. It came to light during a July 9 deposition in the forfeiture case, which the government filed last December, and was made public last week in a claimant’s motion to dismiss the case.

The claimant is an Indiana real-estate investor, Samantha Banks, whose attorney, C. Justin Brown, asked U.S. District judge James Bredar not only to dismiss the case, but to “impose any other sanction the Court deems appropriate, on the grounds that the Government violated its duty of candor,” the motion states. The lead prosecutor, Stefan Cassella — a titan in the field, who wrote a 1,250-page book on federal asset-forfeiture law — cited personal reasons in asking for an extension until September to respond to the dismissal motion.

Brown’s motion calls to mind a dust-up last year involving Cassella, when he was reprimanded in another drug-related asset-forfeiture case by U.S. District judge Paul Grimm for coming “uncomfortably close” to violating his “duty of candor to the Court” by disingenuously cherry-picking supportive elements of cases in prior court rulings that, in their entireties, actually undermined the government’s position.

“The motion speaks for itself,” says Brown of the Banks’ case, “and beside that, I can’t comment.”

Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Marcia Murphy provided an emailed statement, saying that “we are looking into the document issue” and that “there was no intent to deceive anyone.” She also explained that Cassella is “on long-term family medical leave, and we won’t be able to respond to the claim until he returns,” but “the U.S. Attorney’s Office will file a full response to Mr. Brown’s allegations.” She noted that “the dog did not find the money,” but “subsequently was brought in to sniff the currency” after “a Transportation Security Administration [TSA] employee found $122,640 bundled in heat-sealed plastic in a bag checked for a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta.” The money, Murphy added, “is subject to forfeiture if it is from an illegal source, regardless of whether it had the odor of drugs.”

The cash was seized last Sept. 12 from Jerry Lee Banks, Samantha Banks’ husband, after a TSA inspector opened his unlocked, checked luggage and saw “a clear plastic vacuum sealed bag containing a large amount of U.S. Currency” that was sitting “on top of the clothing,” wrapped in “black rubber bands,” according to an affidavit signed by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task-force officer Kevin Davis, which was attached to the initial forfeiture filing. Another bundle was found “concealed inside a pair of sweat pants located in the bag,” the affidavit continues, and still others were found “underneath more articles of clothing in the bag.” Jerry Lee Banks’ explanation for the money was that “he was in the real estate business and that some transactions are done in cash,” the affidavit states.

After the cash was seized, MTAP K-9 officer Joseph Lambert had his drug-detecting dog, Falco, sniff it, and Falco gave it a positive alert for the presence of narcotics. This is not surprising, since forensic studies have shown the vast majority of bank notes in circulation are contaminated with narcotics, especially cocaine.

Three days later, on Sept. 15, Samantha Banks talked on the phone with law enforcers about the cash. She “stated that she was the owner of Banks Management,” Davis’ affidavit explains, and that “she felt that she had done nothing wrong.” She told agents the money was for a real-estate purchase, though “she could not provide an address or a person that she was purchasing from” or explain why it was “concealed in a suitcase in vacuum sealed freezer bags.” She added that “she had researched how to travel with U.S. currency with TSA and Delta Airlines and stated that she wasn’t doing anything illegal.”

Within a month of the government’s December filing of the forfeiture case, Brown filed a claim for it on Banks’ behalf. The litigation proceeded in the usual fashion, with Cassella providing discovery to Brown, including documentation in support of the government’s seizure. On April 15, a packet arrived with a cover letter from Cassella, stating that the certification for Lambert and Falco, dated Aug. 16, 2013, was included. Cassella described it as “a reproduction of the original certificate.”

Brown’s motion last week called the document “a critical piece of evidence” because it “would have been operative for the dog and handler at the time of the narcotics scan of the defendant currency.” Brown’s attention was drawn to the document not only because of its legal significance, but because, as he wrote, it was “produced as a color copy,” the only document “produced in this form.”

Brown’s efforts to get more documentation from Cassella to back up the K-9 team’s training ended with a June 16 letter from Cassella, stating that “after a reasonable search of the files in the possession of MTAP’s training personnel, the certification score sheets and photographs for the Aug. 16, 2013 Certification cannot be located.” It added that “this office is unaware of any information relating to any lack of competency, integrity or reliability on the part of Cpl. Lambert.”

The game-changing day in the case came on July 9, during a deposition of Michael McNerney, described by Brown as the head trainer of MTAP’s K-9 trainers. Cassella and another assistant U.S. attorney, Evan Shea, who is not the attorney of record on the Banks forfeiture, at the last minute had tried to cancel the deposition, but Brown’s efforts to have it go forward prevailed — and it unearthed remarkable admissions by McNerney.

The sworn deposition of McNerney, a partial transcript of which is included in Brown’s motion, revealed that he believed the certification was a fake; that it had been made specifically for the Banks forfeiture case on a home computer by one of MTAP’s K-9 trainers, officer John McCarty, who provided it to Lambert; that MTAP’s chain of command knew about the document’s production, as did MTAP’s assistant attorney general, Sharon Benzil, and federal prosecutors Shea and Cassella; and that all of them, when he raised concerns about the document, responded by saying simply that it was a duplicate.

During a break in McNerney’s deposition, Brown “questioned the two prosecutors about how they could use such a document in litigation,” his motion states. “Shea initially claimed that he had verbally told [Brown] about the true nature of the document,” and when Brown told Shea “this was not correct,” Shea “then changed his position and stated that the nature of the document had been disclosed in a letter from Cassella,” a point on which “Cassella agreed.”

The two prosecutors then referred to the April 15 letter from Cassella that called the document a “reproduction of the original certificate,” and, according to Brown’s motion, “took the position that, by calling the document a ‘reproduction,’ they had adequately disclosed the truth about the document.”

They also “took the position that Cpl. Lambert, Officer McCarty, and others at the MTAP had done nothing wrong in this episode – despite Officer McNerney’s assertion that his colleagues had committed fraud. Shea and Cassella further stated that they had made no follow up inquiry and had not contacted either Lambert or McCarty about the document.”

Brown contacted McCarty, though, who explained that “because Lambert was his superior officer, he felt that he was compelled by a direct order to produce the certificate,” according to Brown’s motion. McCarty described the certificate as having “no value,” the motion continues, because it lacked “underlying documentation, and he had no way of knowing whether August 16, 2013, was the correct date of the certification. When he faxed the document to Lambert, he did not know that the document he produced would be passed off in litigation as a ‘reproduction.'” As Brown point out in his motion, “somehow, the certification was transformed from a black-and-white fax” sent to Lambert from McCarty “into a color document with a gold seal.”

After McNerney’s deposition, Brown’s motion states, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office proceeded as if nothing remarkable had happened.” Brown’s motion, though, suggests he was shocked at what had transpired.

“This episode,” the motion states, “amounts to a violation of the Government’s duty of candor and merits dismissal of the case. It is not disputed that the K-9 Falco and the handler Lambert were actually certified at the time in question. But to focus on that fact misses the point. What matters is the lengths to which members of MTAP and the U.S. Attorney’s Office went to mislead the Claimant and gain an advantage in litigation. What matters is the institutional harm caused when officers of the court commit this type of conduct. It is inescapable that the April 15, 2014, letter was designed to prevent the Claimant from learning the truth about how the document was created. In addition, it appears that the letter was at least partially intended to provide cover in the off chance that somebody discovered the truth.”

Cassella’s letter, despite his knowledge of the certification’s fraudulent origins, also vouched for Lambert’s character, stating that “this office is unaware of any information relating to any lack of competency, integrity or reliability on the part of Cpl. Lambert.”

In arguing for dismissal and sanctions, Brown’s motion stresses that “it is irrelevant that Falco and Lambert were probably actually certified around the time in question” because “the Supreme Court has rejected this very type of argument” in a case in which a party’s attorney had introduced into evidence an article the attorney had co-authored, but claimed the co-author was the sole author. When “proof of the fraudulent claim regarding authorship surfaced,” the Supreme Court noted that one can’t “escape the consequences” of deception just because the fake document’s contents were truthful, saying “truth needs no disguise.”

Whether Cassella and the U.S. Attorney’s Office can escape the consequences Brown is asking for is in the hands of Bredar, who will rule after Cassella responds to Brown’s motion sometime in the early fall.

 

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.

Rather than life in prison, 51 months is sought for Baltimore cocaine trafficker and money launderer George Frink

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 29, 2014

After being caught red-handed with kilograms of cocaine, and after bank records showed him repeatedly laundering money, prosecutors last fall said George Sylvester Frink, Jr. of Baltimore was looking at a maximum sentence of life in prison. Now, though, under the terms of a guilty-plea agreement filed on July 25, Frink is likely to get just 51 months at his sentencing hearing, scheduled for Oct. 31, for his part in a vast, sophisticated conspiracy that law enforcers say was responsible for bringing in as much as 3,000 kilograms of coke from California.

The alleged leader of the scheme in Baltimore, body builder Gerald Lamont Jones, has not been charged with any crimes. But court documents in Frink’s case and in a civil suit, in which the government seeks to take title to numerous pieces of real estate, describe Jones as a sophisticated high-volume drug trafficker and prolific money launderer whose criminal conduct remained hidden behind his legitimate business pursuits. Jones, a real-estate and construction entrepreneur, also owns a Gold’s Gym in Owings Mills and Rami Bros., a chain of Baltimore car dealerships that trades under the name Pimlico Motors. Frink, according to court records, was employed by Golds Gym and Pimlico Motors, in addition to having his own real-estate company, GSF Enterprises.

Jones and Frink came to law enforcers’ attention as a result of a high-volume California coke-conspiracy case with glitzy Hollywood ties involving Baltimore natives Charles Dwight Ransom, Jr., Darrin Ebron, Ricky James Brascom, and others, who used private jets to move drugs and money across the country. Indicted in 2011, the case resulted in convictions for all three Baltimoreans, though Ransom is not yet sentenced, while the conspiracy’s alleged leader – Heriberto “Eddie” Lopez, with whom law enforcers say Jones had dealings – remains a fugitive.

Since Frink’s arrest last fall, when he was found with 14 kilograms of cocaine in front of Jones’ Pikesville office, Pimlico Motors has fallen into hard times financially, being sued successfully by a bank, while some of Jones’ real estate, including 141 acres of land in Reisterstown that is one of the assets the federal government is seeking to forfeit, has fallen into foreclosure. Frink, meanwhile, on July 14 filed for bankruptcy protection, listing nearly $500,000 in assets and nearly $1.2 million in liabilities.

Jones and the government have been engaged in settlement discussions in the forfeiture case, according to July 16 letter filed in court by assistant U.S. attorney Richard Kay, who wrote that “our discussions are now including criminal implications and a potential global resolution.” In other words, charges against Jones may still be coming.

Frink’s case, though, has been resolved already. Among the factors weighing for his light treatment is the U.S. Department of Justice’s support of anticipated changes to federal drug-sentencing guidelines by the United States Sentencing Commission, which are expected to result in the early release of tens of thousands of federal inmates around the country in coming years. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office in recent months has been agreeing not to oppose downward departures from the sentencing guidelines for drug defendants, including Frink, based on how the guidelines are expected to change.

To get a sense of how lenient Frink’s anticipated punishment is, consider how some repeat low-level drug-offenders have been treated in federal court in Maryland. One, Barry Green — a low-level, non-violent repeat drug offender in Baltimore — in 2011 got more than a dozen years in prison for possessing three vials of cocaine and $214 in cash. While Green was a hand-to-hand dealer in the streets of Baltimore, Frink was caught up in a sophisticated, cross-country conspiracy involving the movement of hundreds of kilos of coke and millions of dollars in cash in airplanes and trucks.  While Frink’s admitted role was a fraction of the overall scheme — he’s copped to 14 kilograms of coke and laundering nearly $100,000 — his punishment is likely to be a fraction of Green’s.

 

Missing Evidence: Possibly Exculpatory Documents Not Given to Defense Team in Child Rapist/Murderer Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 6, 2008

“Absolutely not,” Sandra Goldthorpe says when asked if she’s seen an annotated, front-and-back diagram of a human form, describing the head-to-knee external injuries to 4-year-old Ja’niya Ebony Williams’ body, as observed by the Baltimore medical examiner at her autopsy on June 24, 2006. “That would have been useful to have from the get-go,” she says, because it shows that “there are way too many bruises on her for what Ronald confessed to doing.”

Goldthorpe is talking about her client, Ronald Albert Hinton*, who is serving a life sentence, plus 25 years, for raping and murdering Williams. A Baltimore City jury decided in May that Hinton’s false-confession defense and the prosecutors’ flawed DNA evidence at trial did not raise reasonable doubts about his guilt. Hinton, who was Williams’ baby sitter and had just turned 15 when the child was killed, maintains his innocence and has filed an appeal.

Goldthorpe and her law partner, Janice Bledsoe, are in their downtown law office on July 30, looking at Baltimore Police Department (BPD) records of the investigation that led to Hinton’s conviction. City Paper‘s recent feature article about the case (“Puzzling Evidence,” Feature, July 30) was based largely on these documents, and showed how Hinton’s jury was not privy to available evidence that some of Williams’ many injuries–including bite marks that Hinton confessed to giving her–were described as “old” or “faded” at the time of the June 21, 2006, incident that led to her death several days later. But Hinton’s lawyers say they haven’t seen some of the documents before, which they would have liked to use for his defense at trial since doubts about his guilt could be raised by the existence of prior injuries at the hands of others.

“That’s the first I have heard of that,” Bledsoe says, when shown a detective’s notes of efforts to compare the bite marks on Williams’ body to Hinton’s teeth. BPD homicide detective Todd Corriveau, who attended Williams’ autopsy, had the medical examiner prepare to-scale photographs of the marks with the hope of comparing them to molds of Hinton’s teeth. Corriveau’s notes show that on June 28, 2006, he conferred with an expert, University of Maryland forensic dentist Warren Tewes, who told him a comparison could not be made because the marks lacked the necessary definition.

“I would have called up Tewes,” Goldthorpe says, especially in light of the fact that Corriveau’s notes say that “Tewes provided general, basic information regarding the bite marks on the victim’s skin that may or may not be of relevance” at trial, and that “details” of that information were not included in the notes. “I would want to know more about that,” Goldthorpe says. “And we didn’t get the to-scale photographs of the bite marks, which would have been very helpful” Bledsoe says.

“In fact, I had never seen any of Corriveau’s notes concerning the autopsy,” which showed that the detective described “faded” bite marks on Williams’ buttocks. “I would have wanted to ask him about that when he was on the stand,” Bledsoe says, adding that “I’m a little concerned about [Corriveau] saying [in his notes] there were prior bite marks and then [prosecutors Joanne Stanton and Temmi Rollock] not giving that [information] to us.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns says “prosecutors followed the law and complied with Maryland’s discovery rules and disclosed all evidence” to Hinton’s defense attorneys. Though the office has what’s called an “open file policy,” in which defense attorneys have access to everything the prosecution has, it has nonetheless long been criticized for failures to provide exculpatory information. Bledsoe, in fact, is representing another Baltimore defendant, Kenneth Perry, who won a new murder trial because of the state’s failure to provide exculpatory evidence at his first trial when he was convicted in 2001.

Bledsoe is hesitant to argue, based on what documents she knows she did not have at trial, that Stanton and Rollock failed to provide her with exculpatory evidence, as required. “Is it exculpatory? It’s right on the line,” she asserts. “It might be a cumulative thing,” in which, taken altogether, documentation not provided to the defense could have been used to persuade the jury to have reasonable doubts about Hinton’s guilt.

Hinton confessed to biting Williams, for instance, but the jury knew that DNA recovered from the bite wounds did not come from Hinton; in fact, female DNA was recovered from bite marks on the upper thigh. Thus, the dental expert’s conclusions about the size of the bite marks, as documented in Corriveau’s to-scale photographs, may have been useful to the defense in further suggesting to the jury that Hinton could not have bitten Williams, despite his confession. But Hinton’s lawyers didn’t know about the dental expert, so they didn’t know to explore the possibilities of what he might say in front of a jury.

City Paper attempted to contact Tewes to ask him what he told Corriveau about the photographs of the bite marks. E-mails including detailed questions sent to him and the University of Maryland Dental School media office got no response, and neither did multiple phone messages.

Bledsoe acknowledges that the prosecutors did provide her with some documentation of older injuries on Williams’ body that the jury never saw because she was frustrated in her efforts to elicit corroborating testimony.

“I’m trying to be self-critical,” she says. Bledsoe, despite her evidentiary frustrations, emphasized the prior injury theory in her closing arguments at trial.

In particular, Bledsoe’s files contain documentation that the doctor who cared for Williams at the hospital observed “old bites on chest, and left thigh,” and that one of the medics at the scene of the incident noted “bruises were older” than indicated by Hinton’s interpretation of what injured her–that she had just fallen off the bed.

The doctor’s observations appeared in the search-warrant application in the case that was filed before Hinton’s confession, but not in the one filed afterward, perhaps, Bledsoe suggests, “because his confession was not consistent with old bruises and bite marks,” so the phrase was omitted from the second application. The medic’s comment, Bledsoe continues, were contained in a transcript that was provided to the defense after the start of the trial, so she missed it in the rush to prepare.

Goldthorpe takes a phone call while Bledsoe continues to go through City Paper‘s documents from the BPD files. It’s Steven Drizin calling for Bledsoe. Goldthorpe takes a message: Drizin is the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and he has just read the City Paperarticle about Hinton.

Drizin specializes in juvenile false confessions. As of press time, Drizin and Bledsoe had not yet had the opportunity to discuss the case. But Hinton’s mother, Francine Toney, who is convinced by the DNA evidence that her son falsely confessed, says any attention to the case by a specialist such as Drizin “is hope, and we need hope.”

*Ronald Hinton is the son of the late Baltimore Police Department trainee Sean Hinton , whose body in 1992 was found floating off Manhattan with his wrists tied in front of him by the drawstrings of his jacket, and whose death was ruled a suicide despite allegations of police corruption immediately prior.

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.

Believe It … Or Not: Measuring O’Malley’s March on Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Aug. 27, 2003

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Good news is never hard to find when mayors seek re-election. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s last political campaign in 1995 published a whole book of good news about his administration’s then-ongoing efforts in Baltimore. As is now widely recognized, though, the bad news far outweighed the good during the Schmoke years, which were marked by a cerebral approach to governance that produced paltry results and left the city’s psyche stigmatized by failure.

Schmoke’s charismatic successor, Martin O’Malley, was elected in 1999 on an ambitious anti-crime platform and a promising slogan, “For Reform and Change.” He won with a strong mandate that created high expectations and a refreshing sense of hope for the city. As he now runs for re-election as the distinct favorite in the six-way Democratic primary, O’Malley croons earnestly about the upturn Baltimore has seen during his four years in office. While his new campaign slogan–“Because Better Isn’t Good Enough”–suggests that his record has shortcomings he is willing to acknowledge, he’s still found plenty to boast about. Here’s a taste of some of the O’Malley campaign’s bragging points, lifted from its promotional materials:

  • “Baltimore has, in just a few years, achieved the largest [violent-crime] reduction of any major city in America.
  • “Baltimore’s per pupil spending increased by 15 percent [since 1999] . . . improving from 6th to 2nd highest in the state.
  • “In 2002 alone, the Baltimore Development Corporation’s efforts brought 6,000 jobs to Baltimore.”

Also available to help boost civic optimism during this election season is the Believe campaign, a multimillion-dollar advertising effort underwritten largely by the nonprofit Baltimore Police Foundation. The campaign aims to empower Baltimoreans to overcome the ravages of illegal drugs, and its most visible impact has been the thousands of images of the word “believe” that have placarded the city since last year. Believe’s latest media blitz, which started this summer and is ongoing, charts and celebrates the city’s progress since 1999. That’s the year before O’Malley took the reins of City Hall. Thus, Believe’s current feel-good message is not only about Baltimore’s efforts to tamp down its violent drug culture but also about O’Malley’s record as mayor.

Amid this propaganda, it’s hard to know what to trust. Critical thinking, after all, demands an innate skepticism of messages in advertising, because campaigns, whether political or commercial, are designed to make use of advantageous information rather than present a balanced picture.

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For instance, one could reason that Baltimore’s chart-topping reduction in violent crime is less remarkable than it sounds because, as the most violent city in the United States in 1999 (now the second most violent, behind Detroit), positive trends here have a greater statistical impact than in other, less violent cities. And while per-pupil spending increased 15 percent overall between 1999 and 2002, school enrollment during that period declined by almost 9 percent. With fewer students entering the system each year, per-student spending would increase naturally with a flat budget–and dramatically so with the modest budget increases that have been secured during O’Malley’s tenure in City Hall.

As for the 6,000 new jobs in 2002, attributed to the work of the city’s quasi-public economic development agency, that’s a lot of slots in a city where the number of unemployed people hovers around 25,000. The fact remains, though, that there were nearly 2,000 more unemployed people in the city’s labor force this June than there were in the beginning of 2002. And the unemployment rate has risen slightly rather than dropped during the same period. These facts strongly suggest that those 6,000 jobs were not filled predominantly by city residents but by commuters from surrounding areas.

Thus, the O’Malley camp’s upbeat take on the last four years begs other relevant ways to plumb Baltimore’s progress–different gauges than O’Malley’s people are emphasizing, ones that instead look at facets of city life not necessarily found in the campaign leaflets. The following results are mixed, and thus will please O’Malley supporters and detractors alike. And they show that O’Malley’s assertion that “better isn’t good enough” is dead-on in summing up his first term. The city’s stock has risen, but there’s room for improvement.

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On election day 1999, Martin O’Malley was the beneficiary of a very important statistic when he chalked up 53 percent of the votes in what had shaken down to be a three-way, racially charged Democratic Primary pitting him, a white guy, against former City Councilman Carl Stokes and then-City Council President Lawrence Bell, both of whom are black. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” O’Malley often said that summer–a sentiment that, along with his bold promises to reduce crime using New York City’s successful approach as a model, resonated with an electorate that seemed exhausted from years of decline, violence, and divisiveness.

After the votes were counted, even some of those who worked against him were ebullient. “Martin O’Malley has a clear mandate from the entire city,” said former City Council president, 1995 mayoral candidate, and current 14th District City Council candidate Mary Pat Clarke, who supported Bell in the 1999 race. “This city, black and white, voted for Martin O’Malley. And it was not marginal. It was resounding. He has a mandate to lead the whole city. It’s a wondrous thing to behold.”

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O’Malley’s votes in that race, nonetheless, reflected the realities of the city’s stark divide between poor African-Americans and everyone else. The precincts that supported O’Malley–including many predominantly black precincts–were spread thickly across the city, with the exception of two, hard-to-ignore areas: the blighted, poverty-stricken swaths on the east and west sides, which form a butterfly-wing pattern with midtown at the center. These neighborhoods–Upton, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Rosemont, Poppleton, Edmondson Village, and others on the west side, and Middle East, Berea, Clifton Park, Jonestown, Greenmount West, and others on the east side–did not buy into the O’Malley agenda as it was spelled out during the ’99 campaign. Stokes or Bell won most of the votes in these butterfly wings, which are overwhelmingly black and are home to about a third of the city’s population.

These neighborhoods, more than any others in the city, have the most to gain from City Hall’s policies since they suffer most from Baltimore’s famous ills. Here, according to data published by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (www. bnia. org), a Charles Village-based nonprofit that has taken on the Herculean task of collecting and analyzing myriad measures of Baltimore’s communities, a fifth of all serious crime is violent, vs. a 10th in the rest of the city. Here, more than a third of family households are headed by single mothers, vs. a fifth in the rest of the city. Here, about 60 percent of mothers receive first-trimester pre-natal care, vs. three-quarters of the mothers in the rest of the city. Here, nearly 40 percent of working people don’t use cars to get to their jobs, vs. less than 25 percent in the rest of the city. And here, out of every 1,000 juveniles, an average of 124 were arrested in 2001, vs. 95 in the rest of the city; the rate of juvenile arrests in these neighborhoods jumped to 142 per 1,000 juveniles in 2002. The list of disparities is long and poignant.

If, as his 1999 campaign materials noted, New York City was O’Malley’s model for success, then Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods would benefit most from his policies, as happened during New York’s renaissance in the 1990s. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approach–while widely vilified, largely because of the man’s brusque personality and a few horrific incidents involving his police force–was to commit resources where they were most needed, and thus he helped spur revival in Gotham’s most hard-pressed areas as well as its most prosperous. And, despite opinions to the contrary, Giuliani achieved these gains while reducing the number of police-involved shootings compared to his predecessor. So, has the approach worked in Baltimore under O’Malley’s guiding hand? Yes and no.

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There’s just no arguing the gains made in the critical early grades of the Baltimore City public schools during the last five years. Scores in the nationwide TerraNova standardized tests rose dramatically across the board between the 1998-’99 and 2002-’03 school years in the city’s elementary-school grades. And those gains, reflected in a recently released school system report, have been greatest in schools serving the city’s poorest neighborhoods–though the situation is reversed in scores for sixth-graders. The greatest climb in average percentile rankings was in poor areas’ second-grade reading scores, which jumped an average of 23.2 points in the five-year period, while the scores rose 17.1 points for second-graders in the rest of the city’s schools. Sixth-graders scores in the poor schools, though, climbed an average of 9.6 points, compared to 19.6 at all the other city schools.

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O’Malley attributes this overall success in part to expanding programs that target kids before they enter first grade. “We have gone from 109 full-day kindergarten classes to 297, reaching that mandate five years ahead of when the state wanted us to,” he cited during a recent interview with City Paper in his City Hall office. “And we’ve gone from one full-day pre-K program to 91.” He also pointed out that the school system’s efforts to standardize course content have helped, too, given that “a lot of kids are in three or four or five different schools in the course of a year, [and are faced] with a different curriculum every time.”

Kids living in poverty, O’Malley observes, have to prevail over more severe obstacles in order to learn well, so the greater improvements in test scores at schools serving poor children are that much more impressive. “The neighborhood environment from which our poor children are drawn have a lot bigger societal problems . . . [such as] violent crime, drug addiction, and the sort of societal abandonment, familial abandonment, that those things fuel, than in other areas of our city,” he said. “Unfortunately, [these students] have to overcome a lot more of the baggage that we as a society still allow to be heaped upon them through no fault of their own.

“So I don’t think it’s accidental that our kids are doing better in school as the city’s becoming safer and as more parents are getting into drug treatment,” he continued. “I think all of this works together. And the expectations for their success I think are greater than maybe they’ve been in years past.”

Of any single area under city government’s bailiwick, though, the school system is the one over which the mayor has the least direct influence. This is the result of a partial state takeover of city schools during Schmoke’s last term–a negotiated outcome to settle a long-litigated lawsuit. Thus, while O’Malley has some say over schools policy by virtue of his control over nine appointments to the 18-member school board and the city’s 23.5 percent contribution to the system’s 2002 budget, he can’t take full credit for its success or failure. Nonetheless, his limited clout in the schools arena means he can tout–with a measure of modesty–the remarkable rise in test scores as part of his record as mayor.

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By and large, the city’s poorest neighborhoods fall in two of the city’s nine police districts, the Eastern and the Western. Examining the crime numbers in these two districts in 1999 and 2002, vs. the other seven districts, turns up mixed results. According to police department data, overall violent crime in the Eastern and Western districts combined has dropped 31 percent from 1999 to 2002, while nonfatal shootings have dropped almost 38 percent. But murders rose nearly 15 percent in 2002 compared to 1999–and the two districts’ share of the city’s total number of homicides has increased from nearly 30 percent in 1999 to more than 41 percent in 2002.

Running the same analysis on 2003’s year-to-date figures in the Eastern and Western districts as of Aug. 9, vs. 1999’s numbers on the same date, show that the disparity is even greater this year. Murders are up 50 percent from 1999, while violent crime has dropped more than 42 percent and shootings more than 18 percent. According to the police department’s own statistics, the Eastern and Western districts have become less violent but far more deadly.

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“I had never seen these murder numbers broken down like this before,” O’Malley commented while reviewing these statistics. “It’s an interesting way to break them down.” But his response was to repeat Giuliani’s mantra: “We apply our resources to where the problems are.” And then he opened his crime-numbers notebook and recited figures showing that violent crime is down dramatically in every district, including the Eastern and Western.

“You know,” he added, “all of this is a work in progress. I’m not happy with 253.” That’s the number of murders committed citywide in 2002–a far cry from the 175 he had promised by that date during the 1999 campaign and during the first two years of his administration. “We’re going to continue to go down from there.”

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And the mayor got exercised over projections of this year’s final murder tally, which as of press time is on track to reach about 285 by the end of December. “Everybody always wants to project that year-end number,” he said with palpable disgust. “I mean, they want to do it in July. And a half a year’s left. And it is awful and it’s morbid and it’s cold to talk statistics. One homicide is one homicide too many.

“But we deploy our resources to where the problems are,” O’Malley continued, getting back to the disproportionate violence in the Eastern and Western districts. “And all of this, it is still young. The open-air drug trade in this city was allowed to grow and flourish and develop and become as acute as it did over a 25-year slide. And so we are going to continue to hammer it.”

Another area that O’Malley has targeted is police corruption. It’s a ticklish subject, and one on which he mounted his bully pulpit starting in 1993, when he was a young councilman. “The few bad apples are just that–the few,” he said in an impassioned speech on the council floor 10 years ago. “But there is not a single knowledgeable person in federal, state, or local law enforcement today who will deny that we have a growing problem with street-level corruption.”

During the 1999 campaign, O’Malley repeatedly stressed the importance of “policing the police,” and continued to fuel the perception that the corruption problem in the department was acute. And he asserted that the problem had been swept under the rug for years. After he was elected, he hired a consulting firm, the Maple/Linder Group of New York City, to do a full assessment of the police department, including an internal survey of sworn officers. The findings on corruption were eye-popping. “While 48.7 percent of respondents believe that five percent or less of . . . officers are stealing money or drugs from drug dealers,” the report reads, “23.2 percent believe the number is greater than a quarter of the department.” Based on the buzz O’Malley sounded, many in Baltimore expected to see heads starting to roll.

It never really happened. There was one infamous case–Agent Brian Sewell, who was accused of planting drugs on an innocent suspect as a result of a sting operation. But the case tanked when the alleged evidence against him was pilfered by the lead investigator in the case from a secret internal-investigations office in Essex around Christmas 2000. (The department used its administrative procedures to fire Sewell. He appealed successfully, winning the right to a new trial-board hearing, but agreed to leave the force rather than go through another proceeding. Sewell recently died in an accident at Andrews Air force Base, where he had been assigned for duty with the Maryland National Guard.)

Other than Sewell, police department spokesman Matt Jablow says only three other officers–Jacqueline Folio, Scott Fullwood, and an unnamed member of the force–failed the 217 drug-related integrity stings staged by the department’s Internal Affairs Division since the beginning of 2000. The unnamed officer, Jablow explained, “struck a deal” and retired, so the department is unwilling to reveal his name.

“We’ve been doing 100 integrity stings a year for the last few years,” O’Malley explained, somewhat apologetically. “Some of them are targeted, a lot of them are random. Like everything else we do in this department, there is plenty of room for improvement as far as how we police our police. We’re doing more of it than we ever have. We have not come across that sort of beehive’s nest of every officer on a shift in a particular precinct [involved in corruption], like they had in New York, where they had a couple of celebrated cases. But [police Commissioner Kevin] Clark believes that we can do those targeted stings even more effectively than we have done them in the past.

“You don’t start a new effort like that and have it perfect overnight,” he continued. “And obviously from some of the problems that we had in some of those prosecutions [e.g., the Sewell case], it was pretty apparent that this was something new for us. But I had been somewhat surprised not to find more of that, given the way the drug trade took over big swaths of the city. But we’ll continue to be on the lookout for it and to improve the effectiveness of the investigations.”

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In 1999, as O’Malley was running for mayor on an anti-crime platform, critics sometimes complained that he was a one-trick pony. Even his economic development ideas were built on crime-fighting. When asked during an interview that summer what the government’s role is in creating jobs and improving the business climate, for instance, he responded that “you do both of those things by first accomplishing job one of any organized government, which is public safety. I think there is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets.”

But there was more to his plan than boosting law-enforcement. It also involved “having a mayor more actively involved with our lending institutions and letting them know where opportunities exist in this city,” he continued, “where they can make a dollar and where they can help build this city again. Businesses, their knock on city government isn’t a whole helluva lot different than citizens. Nobody returns their phone calls and nobody listens. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Today, O’Malley likes to talk about the $1.6 billion in new construction that he says is underway in Baltimore. Apparently, by that measure, his one-two punch of crime-fighting and massaging the investing class has worked pretty well. While unemployment remains high–the June figure for the city was 8.8 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for the metro region and 4.3 percent for Maryland overall–that’s largely out of his control, given the national economic recession that took hold in 2000, just as he was getting traction as the new mayor.

“We haven’t taken as severe a hit to our overall job base [during this recession] as other cities,” says Anirban Basu, an economist who heads the Fells Point-based consulting firm Optimal Solutions. “And that’s a radical departure from the recession of the early 1990s, when Baltimore was a laggard in recovering compared to other cities, which tended to come out strong during the rest of the decade. A lot of people expected a repeat performance this time, and that never materialized.” Basu attributes that in part to the wealth in the region, which means more businesses and individuals qualify to take advantage of the historically low interest rates on bank loans: “That’s why we have had such a terrific housing market in Baltimore City, which has the cheapest housing stock in the region, so it is likely people are going to look there first for deals. And many would-be renters have been empowered to buy homes.”

Baltimore’s relative prosperity amid a recession is hard to attribute directly to O’Malley’s efforts. But his efforts have certainly helped. While several formal economic-development strategies have been conceived during O’Malley’s four years in office, two were much ballyhooed early on. First, and the one that was promised often during his 1999 campaign, was to leverage the power of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the federal law requiring banks to make loans in poorer neighborhoods from which they draw depositors. And the second, adopted after he gained office, was to grow the local technology industry in a drive that was dubbed “The Digital Harbor.”

It’s hard to quantify how effectively O’Malley has wielded the CRA to bring new investment to Baltimore. But the extent to which he’s succeeded at all is an achievement, because the CRA has become an increasingly impotent tool in recent years. The main trend that has weakened the CRA is the fact that national mortgage-lending companies have increasingly become the lender of choice for many homebuyers and for those refinancing their mortgages. Such companies generally do not have local branches where consumers make deposits, and thus are not subject to the CRA’s provisions.

So, while O’Malley talked a big CRA game during the 1999 campaign–saying, for instance, that he would use “that hammer of monitoring the banks and the threat that you’ll mess up their business and their ability to merge and do what banks like to do in this era”–his tone has been much more conciliatory toward the banks since he took office. “A lot more of our banks were more savvy [on the CRA front] than we had anticipated,” he explained recently.

Despite the CRA’s increasingly limited reach, several local banks that do take deposits from Baltimore have outstanding CRA ratings, and they’ve stepped up to the plate with sizable CRA-eligible loans for local development efforts. Most impressive has been the Bank of America, which, by O’Malley’s tally, has financed or invested in ongoing local projects to the tune of approximately $170 million.

And O’Malley can take credit for getting banks to help underwrite the efforts of the Community Development Finance Corp., a quasi-public lending institution that makes risky loans for redevelopment in low-income areas and that was riddled with scandal under Schmoke. “Quite frankly,” he explained, “many of [the banks] were very reluctant to do it unless we put better checks and balances in place to safeguard the value of their loans. But I had several one-on-one meetings with them and lots of phone calls, lots of lobbying, begging, arm-twisting. We changed the rules at CDFC in terms of giving the banks some greater voice in the loans that we make and some greater oversight. But we got the banks to re-up, and that was to the tune of $26 million that they put into the CDFC.”

In the heady early days of his administration, Digital Harbor quickly became the most heralded piece of O’Malley’s economic-development package. “Our working waterfront,” O’Malley proclaimed in an early-2000 speech before a large gathering of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that promotes results-oriented governance, “once again has become our port to a new economy with dozens of Digital Harbor companies filling revitalized space formerly occupied by manufacturing and warehouse equipment. We have made recruiting, supporting, and growing tech companies our highest economic-development priority because the Digital Harbor is Baltimore’s future.”

Digital Harbor was just getting up and running in 2000 when the tech-industry bubble burst. While little positive news has been heard about it since the tech collapse, local tech-industry leaders remain upbeat. “Baltimore City has done extraordinarily well” given the industry’s downturn, says Penny Lewandowski, who directs the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, a trade group based in the American Can Company complex in Canton. “I can name only three companies that did not survive–Cycle Shark, Gr8, and Tide Point LLC.” Her rosy take has required a slight shift in perspective. “Digital Harbor,” she explains, “is not just about companies that are exclusively technology, but how technology affects traditional businesses as well. So, did the mayor make the right bet? Absolutely.”

Basu gives a less optimistic appraisal of the tech industry’s status in the city today, but he backs Lewandowski’s basic conclusions. “The collapse hasn’t been quite the bloodbath it’s been nationally,” he says, pointing out that the large infusion of federal research dollars into the local economy and regional tech industry’s reliance on those federal contracts have helped. “Federal-government contracts account for about 40 percent of the state’s tech-industry revenues, versus about 10 percent in Silicon Valley.”

The main reason for tech’s resilience in Baltimore in the face of a national downturn, Basu says, is that Baltimore had less to lose than other cities. “Baltimore has not been a hotbed of private-sector technology in much of its history,” he explains. “It was late in coming to the table–and then, just as the momentum was building, the tech industry goes bust.”

O’Malley’s focus in the tech arena also has shifted since the tech collapse–from information technology and telecommunications, which were the hardest hit areas, to biotechnology, which is a less mercurial beast. “What we are trying to do,” he explained, “is to create the expectation that in our already fairly diverse economy, that we are ready and have the natural resources–the colleges and universities and research institutions–to be able to grow that sector of the economy which could be called the new economy. And I think our area, where we have greater strengths than others, is going to be in biotech.” To that end, the city is soon to become home to two biotechnology parks–one on the east side and affiliated with Johns Hopkins University; the other on the west side, being developed by the University of Maryland.

City government’s role in all of this is not so much “the bricks-and-mortar visibility,” O’Malley said, but work-force development–investing in programs that will prepare city residents to participate in the new economy. And he’s more than happy, along with his technology coordinator, Mario Armstrong, to recite a list of new initiatives. First and foremost, O’Malley and Armstrong explain, is the radical gain in the ratio of students to computers in the classroom. “We used to be at 10 to 1, now we’re at three-and-a-half to one,” Armstrong said enthusiastically. “That was us making it a priority,” O’Malley continues, “Carmen [Russo, the outgoing city schools chief] not fighting us on being involved in it, a million dollars of general funds, and 6,000 computers from the Social Security Administration, which we paid to have retrofitted.”

Armstrong’s list of other programs and accomplishments is long and sounds impressive. The Hewlett-Packard Digital Village program aims to train teachers to use computers and incorporate them into class curriculum so students learn in a tech-savvy environment. Digital Village Hubs, which are after-school centers that provide public access to computers, have been established at three locations on the east side. Many of the city’s public-housing projects now have computer centers, and about 1,200 people a month are using them. Five computer-oriented Youth Opportunity Centers have been opened around the city, giving children more occasions to use computers after school. And three Digital Learning Labs have opened, which provide computer-training courses that, in June, taught almost 500 people how to use the technology.

Whether all of this activity actually results in a more job-ready work force for the city’s still-fledgling new economy is the question. As Basu says of the city’s work force-development initiatives, “it will be interesting to see how well it works, but it’s good to see they’re trying.”

It’s less clear that the O’malley administration has been trying on another front where he promised progress when he first ran for mayor: maximizing budget efficiency by reducing the amount of money granted to contractors for “extra work” on city contracts. “I think there are areas where we spend too much [city] money,” he said during a campaign interview four years ago. “One of those is in the letting of public-works contracts through the Board of Estimates. I think that the additional work orders and the inflation on those contracts really needs to be checked.”

Just to be clear, we’ll call what O’Malley was talking about “contract add-ons.” They are routinely passed by the city’s five-member Board of Estimates, which approves much of the city’s spending on a weekly basis and which is controlled by O’Malley by virtue of his seat on the board, plus two mayoral appointees. When the board approves a contract add-on, they are granting city contractors payments in addition to the amount of the original contract. The payments were the subject of occasional controversy during Schmoke’s tenure at City Hall, based on suspicions that some such payments were unnecessary and wasteful. After O’Malley came into office, City Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr. in 2000 announced that, based on numbers he had obtained, the city had spent $99 million on such additional work in the previous five years–though he never completed his promised report on the problem.

Board of Estimates records of two three-year periods of city spending–1994-’96 under Schmoke, and 2000-’02 under O’Malley–reveal a mixed bag of progress on this front. While the board has granted fewer add-ons under O’Malley than they did under Schmoke and has reduced the number of contracts receiving additional work, the amounts granted have grown–especially when measured as a share of the total value of city contracts receiving additional payments. While the city spent $24.2 million on add-ons during the three-year period under Schmoke, it spent $27.4 million on such additional payments under O’Malley–and the add-ons’ share of the total value of contracts rose from 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent.

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The mayor’s office provided alternative figures to City Paper, but they don’t square with the records of the Board of Estimates, which were the basis for City Paper‘s analysis and which are the only source available for the public to independently research city spending patterns. Raquel Guillory, the mayor’s chief spokeswoman, told City Paper the total value of contracts from 1994 through ’96 was $323,649,981, with add-ons comprising 8.4 percent of that total, while the figures for 2000 through ’02 were $379,340,369 and 7.2 percent, respectively. Thus, the O’Malley administration’s numbers show efficiency–add-ons as a percentage of total contract amounts–has increased under O’Malley, while City Paper shows greatly increased inefficiency under O’Malley.

City Paper asked Guillory to explain how city government arrived at their figures. She said that the city’s numbers were derived from the sum total of construction contracts that came before the Board of Estimates for contract add-ons. City Paper based its figures on the sum total of all city contracts–including everything from waste-water treatment improvements to consulting work to digital mapping of the city.

Guillory also explains that two projects worked on under the O’Malley administration–extensive and glitch-riddled contracts on the police headquarters building and Hopkins Plaza downtown–were held over from the Schmoke administration and made up for a large amount of the extra work passed by the Board of Estimates during O’Malley’s term. Also, O’Malley adds, city managers have “been trying to do a better job in terms of the degree of detail that’s in the contracts to begin with, when they go out for bid,” explaining that “if we put out better contracts, we might get the job done for less, without these expensive overages.” So far, the Board of Estimate records don’t reflect the improvements O’Malley suggested have had a money-saving effect, because both the amount and the share of additional work have risen markedly compared to the Schmoke administration in the mid-1990s.

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In the heady days after winning the 1999 primary, O’Malley sat down with a reporter to discuss his victory. One of the many interesting facets of the story was the demise of the once-famous friendship between O’Malley and his longtime partner in politics, Lawrence Bell, whom he trounced at the ballot boxes. Bell, O’Malley believed, had messed up his electoral fortunes with a variety of missteps, but primarily by ditching his long-established political persona as an independent rebel and choosing instead to align himself with the established political forces behind Schmoke.

“I said,” O’Malley recalled in 1999, “‘Even if you are lucky enough to stumble into this thing backwards, you are not going to be able to usher in the sort of change the city needs by relying on the old warhorses. It won’t be possible.’ I said, ‘How you win also dictates how you are able to govern.’ I said, ‘If you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.'”

O’Malley’s 1999 mayoral campaign, in contrast to Bell’s, was marked by efficient fund-raising and spending, a hard-working and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from a panoply of state leaders, and support from an energized public. Like Bell, though, he relied on old warhorses–even older than Bell’s. Not Schmoke’s people (though many of them have since come into the O’Malley fold), but those of his father-in-law, state Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr., and those of State Comptroller (and former mayor and governor) William Donald Schaefer, whose long-loyal cronies turned up in thick numbers in O’Malley’s 1999 campaign and have been well represented in O’Malley’s brain trust. Among them are lawyer-advisor Richard Berndt and former deputy mayor Laurie Schwartz, who left O’Malley’s cabinet last winter after serving since he was elected.

If O’Malley’s advice to Bell was accurate–that “how you win also dictates how you are able to govern”–then O’Malley’s admirably well-run 1999 campaign would lead to overall good governance with fundamental reform limited by his reliance on “old warhorses.” Either way, O’Malley now sums up his first four years in office with the half-apologetic campaign slogan “Because Better Isn’t Good Enough.” And now it’s up to the voters to decide whether–given his record of improved school-test scores, more deadly violence in poor neighborhoods, limited success fighting police corruption, greater private investment and work-force development efforts, and inefficient city contracts–better was in fact good enough. We’ll find out when the votes are tallied.

The Colombian Connection: Feds say Baltimore man was trusted client of Colombian heroin traffickers

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 1, 2014

For nearly six years, Paul Eugene Sessomes of Baltimore was on the radar of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in New York and Bogota, Colombia, who believed he was coordinating delivery of heroin proceeds on behalf of Colombians at the top of the supply chain. In December, those suspicions were unveiled in an indictment against Sessomes and three others in New York, where they face federal money-laundering conspiracy charges.

The two lead defendants in the case, Jorge Humberto Espitia Arciniegas and his nephew Carlos Andres Espitia Garcia, were arrested in Colombia in early December and are expected to be extradited, according to press coverage there. The other defendant, Marleny Amparo Torres, is a mother of two who lives in Stamford, Conn., and works as a nanny for a Darien, Conn. psychotherapist and her husband, the founder of a health care company, according to court records.

Sessomes, who is in his early 60s and has been previously arrested twice on drug charges that later were dismissed, pleaded not guilty to the charges when he was arraigned on Dec. 12 before New York U.S. District Judge Ramon Reyes Jr., and was ordered temporarily detained, with bond set at $125,000.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 6, federal authorities moved to take ownership of two Baltimore-area properties tied to Sessomes, claiming they are tied to his alleged drug-money transactions: a luxury condominium he owns at 414 Water St. in downtown Baltimore and a home on Jericho Road in Columbia which he co-owns with Juliet Branker.

Two of the prosecutors handling the cases involving Sessomes—Adrian Rosales in the New York criminal case and Darrin McCullough in the Maryland forfeiture lawsuit—work out of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) headquarters in Washington, D.C., suggesting Sessomes’ alleged conduct has attracted attention at high levels of U.S. anti-drug efforts. Both work for DOJ’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, which, according to its website, targets “priority national and international drug trafficking groups.”

City Paper first wrote about Sessomes in a 2010 article detailing Baltimore cases in which targets are alleged to deal directly with foreign sources of drugs (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010). At the time, the DEA had recently seized $535,200 in cash from two storage lockers leased by Sessomes, saying they were tied to Sessomes’ transactions with the Espitia heroin-trafficking organization, based in Colombia. The allegations in the storage-lockers search warrant mirror those in the recently filed forfeiture case, which adds new details indicating Sessomes was held in high esteem by his Colombian contacts.

Sessomes was Arciniegas’ “best client” at “selling ‘H,’” or heroin, and was “very ‘honest and good’ because Sessomes always maintained the money correctly and never tried to cheat” the Espitia organization, court documents state. A cooperating source told agents that, from 2006 to August 2008, he met Sessomes about a dozen times to pick up heroin proceeds of between $70,000 and $120,000, which he would pick up in Baltimore and deliver to New York for deposit into bank accounts.

DEA investigators have previously tied Sessomes to Thomas Corey Crosby, a convicted Baltimore heroin dealer who is currently in prison. In 2008, when Crosby was named in connection with, but never charged in, a 2007 federal drug case involving Fat Cats Variety store in Southwest Baltimore (“All the Emperor’s Men,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008), agents alleged Crosby laundered drug money through Westport Auto, Inc., a used-car business tied to Sessomes.

The defense attorney for Sessomes and Crosby at that time, James Gitomer, when asked by City Paper to comment about Sessomes’ current legal problems, responded with a “No thanks.” Sessomes’ court-appointed attorney in New York, John Michael Burke, did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Carr, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, responded to City Paper’s inquiries by stating that “at this stage of the case, we are unable to provide additional details beyond what is in public court documents,” and explained that DOJ Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs Section prosecutors “get involved in cases that are both multi-jurisdictional and international in scope.”

Court documents indicate that investigators’ interest in Sessomes—who court documents describe as a “member” of the Espitia organization who is “actively involved in its illegal activities”—began on April 4, 2008, when Arciniegas left on Sessomes’ phone a voicemail message that was intercepted by the DEA in Bogota, saying, “Good morning, Paulie, it’s Georgie, I have the good news very soon. I’ll call you very soon.”

Subsequently, as the DEA’s probe continued, agents concluded that two Espitia members, one in New York and the other in Miami, “were regularly traveling to the greater Baltimore area to collect narcotics proceeds from Sessomes,” court documents state. Both of those members, who later became cooperating sources for DEA’s investigation, allegedly went to Baltimore to collect $300,000 on Aug. 3, 2008—a transaction that became the core conduct charged in the money-laundering conspiracy indictment against Sessomes and his co-defendants.

About a month later, court documents state, agents watched as Sessomes met in Baltimore with two people—Diego Neira and Maria Espitia-Garcia—described as “known money launders [sic] for the Bogota, Columbia [sic] based Espitia heroin organization.”

The indictment was filed under seal on Aug. 1, almost exactly five years after the $300,000 transaction. Five years is the statute of limitations for most crimes charged under federal law, including conspiracy. The same day it was unsealed, on Dec. 6, Sessomes appeared before Maryland U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey, who ordered him detained and committed to New York to face the indictment.

Miller’s Crossing: Anthony Jerome Miller Convicted in Redwood Trust Double Murders

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 21, 2007

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Just before 4 p.m. on March 15, as a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury was preparing to render its verdict in the double-murder case against Anthony Jerome Miller, prosecutor Sharon Holback turned to the victims’ family and friends, who were assembled in the courtroom, and said, “Let’s hope for something poetic with a verdict on the Ides of March.” The jurors did indeed hand down a poetic verdict, convicting Miller of two counts of second-degree murder, nearly four years after the April 2003 night when 22-year-old Sean Wisniewski and 31-year-old Jason Convertino were shot to death in Convertino’s Upper Fells Point apartment.

Judge Robert Kershaw, who presided over the nine-day trial, scheduled sentencing for June 8, and each murder count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. But the jury also acquitted Miller of eight other charges arising from the state’s theory that he went to Convertino’s apartment intending to rob, shoot, and kill the victims. If they had believed the large body of evidence that the crime was premeditated, as the state contended, the jurors would have found Miller guilty of first-degree murder and the other felonies, and he’d be facing two life sentences–and then some.

Miller, 31, was charged last January, after Baltimore Police detective William Ritz took over the lapsed investigation as a cold case in late 2005. Ritz quickly developed evidence that included Miller’s DNA on a latex glove left at the murder scene, a map of the movements of Miller’s cell phone at the time of the crime, business records indicating Miller robbed Convertino, and testimony from Convertino’s next-door neighbor, who was first interviewed by police two and a half years after the slayings.

After the verdict, the two sides made the usual statements. “I believe my client was not guilty, and we’re going to continue to fight to prove his innocence,” said Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, who promised to file an appeal. State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko said, “We’ll obviously ask for the maximum” sentence. Holback announced that she was “very happy” with the outcome.

But Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan of Binghamton, N.Y., says she is disappointed that the jurors didn’t hand down convictions for first-degree murder, gun crimes, and robbery. “I guess I should be grateful for something,” Morgan says of the guilty findings the day after the verdict. “But how do they think the bullets got in the kids’ heads?”

The autopsy revealed that Convertino’s fatal back-of-the-head shot was accompanied by two others, one also to his head and the other to his right arm. Wisniewski died of a single gunshot to the head. A firearms expert testified that the bullets were fired from a .38- or a .357-caliber handgun.

Morgan sees Miller’s conviction as partial justice not only because the verdict wasn’t as comprehensive as she would have liked, but because she remains convinced that Miller did not act alone. She intends to pursue her theory that the killings were a conspiracy, as she has since shortly after the crime. “It’s not really over for me,” Morgan says. “I have to say I’ll definitely not be sitting back on this.”

Scott Henry, a prosecution witness and Wisniewski’s friend and employer, agrees that Miller’s prosecution addresses only a part of the crime’s complexity. “I hope this is only the beginning, because you and I both know there is a lot more to this [case],” Henry told City Paper after his hourlong testimony on March 6. Neither Wisniewski’s family nor the jurors could be reached for comment in time for this article.

Trial testimony described the nightlife milieu in which the murders occurred. Wisniewski worked as Henry’s assistant and handled radio programming for Buzzlife Productions, a concert promoter based in Washington, D.C. At the time, Buzzlife held events on Saturday nights at Redwood Trust, the historic downtown bank-turned-nightclub where Convertino was general manager. Shortly before the murders, Miller had worked briefly at Redwood Trust on the security staff. Convertino worked for Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Piscatelli, but at the time of the murders he was arranging to leave Piscatelli and take the gigs he was booking at Redwood Trust to Bohager’s, another venue that has since closed.

The state’s case was that Miller was hardly employed, working itinerantly at a car wash and as a security guard at a car dealership, and was marrying Tarsha Fitzgerald, a successful older woman, so he needed money to pay for their honeymoon in Mexico. With greed as his motive, the state tried to prove that Miller gunned down Convertino (Wisniewski was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time), stole and pawned his laptop, and fraudulently used his credit card to pay the travel agency. Holback painted Miller as a cunning and deceptive charmer who fooled a lot of people, including Convertino and Fitzgerald. Holback described the latter as Miller’s “living victim.”

Polansky’s defense of Miller was composed solely of four character witnesses, including New Psalmist Baptist Church Bishop Walter Thomas, who testified that the defendant was a religious man who would never commit such atrocities. But Polansky also cross-examined the state’s witnesses in an effort to suggest a vague, alternate theory of the case to jurors: that Piscatelli, not Miller, had a motive to kill Convertino, who was in the process of taking high-profile hip-hop events away from the Redwood Trust. Investigators, Polansky stated in his closing argument, “rushed to judgment” in deciding early in the investigation that Miller was the killer, and suffered from “tunnel vision,” so they “didn’t look at Nick Piscatelli a little more carefully.”

Piscatelli testified as a prosecution witness for 45 minutes on the second day of the trial, March 6. Holback asked him to look at the jury and answer a series of questions about whether he killed Convertino, or had Miller kill him. Piscatelli repeatedly answered “no” to the questions. He also stated that he doesn’t know Miller: “I thought I might recognize him today,” Piscatelli said from the witness stand, “but I do not.” Piscatelli told City Paper for an article last year (“Late Discovery,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 6) that Miller asked him for money to pay for the honeymoon, which Piscatelli declined to lend. “I didn’t really know” Miller, he said then.

“The truth is in the evidence,” Polansky said during the trial, arguing that “this was an execution” and “not a robbery at all,” and that “what happened here is that Jason Convertino crossed the wrong people.”

In addition, Polansky pointed out that Holback made Miller out to be “so slick, so smart,” yet at the same time the evidence against Miller attests to a remarkable level of stupidity. It’s as if Miller “wanted to get caught,” Polansky said, because he “leaves the only evidence that he was there . . . right on the dead man’s bed,” where the glove containing Miller’s DNA was recovered. The evidence also showed that Miller left his fingerprints all over the fruits of the alleged robbery by pawning the laptop at a shop Miller regularly patronized, producing his driver’s license to validate the transaction, and using Convertino’s credit card after the murders.

“Either Anthony Miller did it,” Polansky told jurors, “or somebody went to an awful lot of trouble to make you believe he did it.” Judging by the verdict, the jurors decided Miller did indeed do it–though they didn’t buy the state’s version of how the deed was done.

Late Discovery: A New Twist in the Redwood Trust Double-Murder Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 2006

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“I don’t know why they’re digging into my past,” remarks 56-year old Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, a local developer and owner of the now-defunct downtown nightclub Redwood Trust. He’s on the phone with a reporter, commenting about the double-murder case involving the club’s former manager, Jason Convertino (pictured, above left), who was shot to death in April 2003 in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment, along with Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right), who worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company that held events at Redwood Trust. Suspect Anthony Jerome Miller‘s trial in the case, which turns largely on the presence of DNA consistent with Miller’s found in latex gloves discovered at the crime scene, is scheduled to start in January. But Piscatelli is concerned about recent indications that the case is delving into the possibility that he had something to do with the crime.

“I see what they’re going to do, which is a shame,” Piscatelli continues, referring to Miller’s defense, mounted by attorney Paul Polansky. “Which is to cast doubt and get this guy off.” Neither Polansky nor prosecutor Sharon Holback will discuss the case, and there is no indication that information about Piscatelli will be used by either side at Miller’s trial.

Casting doubt to get people off is what criminal-defense attorneys do for a living, and part of that effort involves understanding the evidence that police and prosecutors gather to bring charges against their clients. In Miller’s case, the nature of that evidence had been limited for the most part to the DNA analysis–until recently, when a new prosecutor took over the case and, as the law requires, submitted to Polansky voluminous documentation about the lengthy investigative process that led to Miller’s indictment in January. Delays in “discovery,” as this process is called, in large part have been responsible for rescheduling the trial date, which was reset four times and is now scheduled to start Jan. 24, 2007.

In October, Polansky argued in court that the state’s discovery failures had been so severe that the charges should be dismissed. A judge disagreed, so the case is proceeding, and on Dec. 5 Miller’s request for a change in his no-bail status was denied. Meanwhile, the late-arriving discovery has fattened the case file with information stating, among other things, that Convertino’s mother was told shortly after the murders that Piscatelli ordered them.

On Oct. 27, Holback disclosed in a memorandum to the defense that “Pam Morgan [Convertino’s mother] has stated that an unknown man approached her at a benefit in Binghamton, New York, held for her son’s child shortly after his murder. The man advised her that Nick Piscatelli was behind her son’s murder, he covered his tracks and hired someone to kill him.” The memo does not indicate when Morgan shared this information with investigators, but she told City Paper during a Nov. 30 phone interview that the event was held in May 2003, just weeks after the murders.

“At the benefit, this guy comes up to me and he says he knows who was behind my son’s murder” Morgan recalls. “I didn’t know Nick [Piscatelli] at that point.” Since then, though, Morgan says she has kept in regular, friendly phone contact with Piscatelli.

“Oh boy! She said that?” Piscatelli says when informed of Morgan’s statement about the man’s visit to the Binghamton gathering. “That’s unfortunate. I’ve spoken to her several times, and she’s never mentioned anything like that to me. That’s certainly sad to hear. There has been no animosity between us.”

Over the phone from her home outside of Binghamton, Morgan describes the man who dropped Piscatelli’s name at the benefit as white, in his 30s, several inches shy of six feet tall, with “lightish hair,” of “medium build,” and “wearing a long coat, like a trench coat.”

“He came in, talked, and left,” she continues. “I was like, `Whoa!’ And that’s when I first started questioning the club, and had these theories [that Piscatelli might be involved]. And I also thought, did [the man] do it purposefully, to throw it off someone else by naming Nick? Because there is no evidence against Nick.”

Still, she says she’s fearful of Piscatelli, and now that her suspicions have been made public in Miller’s case file she says she will stop calling him. “That was my last call to him, probably in September,” Morgan recalls, when she says she discussed with Piscatelli items still in his possession that belonged to her son. (The Oct. 27 memo also discloses that Morgan told investigators that this reporter shared with her information about Piscatelli obtained through unnamed sources.)

Morgan’s statements are not the only ones mentioning Piscatelli in the discovery documents. A Nov. 9 discovery memo states that “a record of firearms owned and registered to Nicholas Piscatelli” was shared with the defense. Piscatelli reacts to this news by saying that “it was years ago–during the 1990s, or the 1980s–that I bought a couple of guns for hunting or target practice,” and asserts again that Polansky and Miller are “trying to use whatever they can to cast a shadow of a doubt.”

On Oct. 24, court documents also show prosecutor Holback shared with the defense “notes of detective’s interview of Carl Weaver (who is believed to be also known as Carl Curry)” that provide information about Weaver’s relationship with Piscatelli and “several other men,” including one that “obtained drugs for Nick Piscatelli.” Neither Weaver nor the two men whose names are mentioned could be located by City Paper in time for this article, and Piscatelli asserts he doesn’t know them. As for Weaver’s allegation about drugs, Piscatelli, who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Howard County, doesn’t directly respond but says that “there were no drugs in that club and no evidence of that going on.”

In fact, as City Paper has previously reported (“Club Trouble,” Mobtown Beat, June 11, 2003), evidence of drugs at the Redwood Trust does exist in the public record. In 2002, police executed a search-and-seizure warrant there and seized small amounts of cocaine and other drugs from the club. However, despite the evidence, the Baltimore City Liquor Board acquitted Redwood Trust of the resulting violations. “The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” then-liquor board Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the 2002 hearing.

In a November 2003 police report, Piscatelli stated that, while at the club, he was forced to sign a fraudulent promissory note for the sale of the nightclub business to another party, who, along with three armed men wearing masks, threatened Piscatelli and his business partner, Paul Chrzanowski, and asked them to sample “cocaine in a paper towel” (“Deadwood Bust,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2004). No criminal charges resulted from the incident, though competing lawsuits over the promissory note ended in October 2005, with Piscatelli winning a $1 million judgment against the buyer, Omar Haughton of Ellicott City.

Miller, meanwhile, worked for Redwood Trust, according to Piscatelli, who said prosecutors have asked him to produce Miller’s employment records. In court cases against him in the 1990s, Miller used an alias and three different dates of birth that today would place him in his mid-30s. One case, for murder in 1993, resulted in an assault conviction and two months of incarceration. Miller’s other conviction was for forgery in the mid-1990s, though he has dodged drug-conspiracy and other charges.

The state has accused Miller not only of murder in the Redwood Trust case but also armed robbery. This is apparently due to the fate of Convertino’s laptop computer, which court documents show Miller pawned the day after the bodies were found on April 16, 2003. Court records also indicate that Miller used Convertino’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico. Miller was first interviewed by detectives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on May 14, 2003, when he and his wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, returned from their honeymoon. During that interview, according to a detective’s notes contained in the court file, Miller described Convertino as a friend.

“Jay was a good guy,” the detective wrote of Miller’s statements at the airport. “Jay was willing to help anyone out at any time.”

Miller has consistently maintained his innocence and asserted his right to a speedy trial since his arraignment this past March. Until the trial, it’s anyone’s guess how Miller’s DNA was found in the gloves left at the murder scene, what Miller was doing with Convertino’s laptop, and how Miller came to use the victim’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon.

Piscatelli says Miller also asked him for honeymoon money, though he declined to lend it. “I didn’t really know [Miller],” Piscatelli says, “and didn’t really hire him” to work at Redwood Trust. That, he maintains, was Convertino’s decision.

Piscatelli is bewildered by indications that the case against Miller is developing to include information that suggests Piscatelli is being investigated in connection with the crime. “It’s a shame this thing is going in this direction,” he states ruefully. “I wouldn’t ever dream of doing anything like that. . . . I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”