U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett tossed out evidence in a gun case Dec. 6 because, as he wrote in his opinion, the testimony of the Baltimore police officers who arrested the defendant “simply strains credulity.” In September, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz did the same in a heroin case.
In both instances, the evidence was obtained as a result of traffic stops for minor infractions, and was at issue during motions hearings at which the arresting officers testified. In both cases, the officers’ credibility did not survive scrutiny, raising questions about the efficacy of the police practice of using minor traffic violations as a pretext for going after major crimes.
The most recent case charged Travis Gaines with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gaines was arrested in January near Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street by three members of the Central District Operations Unit: Jimmy Shetterly, Frank Schneider, and Manuel Moro, according to Bennett’s written opinion. Two of them were allegedly assaulted by Gaines after one of them patted him down and found a gun in his waistband. The problem, Bennett wrote, was the officers’ reason for pulling over the car in which Gaines was a passenger: that they saw a crack in its windshield.
“This Court does not believe it was possible for the police officers to see the crack in the windshield,” Bennett wrote, so “the gun must be suppressed as the fruit of the illegal stop”—despite Gaines’ alleged assault of the officers, since it occurred after the unlawful search. The “gun was discovered before the assault, and the fact that Mr. Gaines engaged in allegedly unlawful behavior after the discovery of the gun does not expunge the government’s unlawful conduct in making an illegal traffic stop” (emphasis in the original).
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says his office is “reviewing the case and there is a strong probability that we will appeal” Bennett’s ruling. In the second case—against Stephen Chester, who was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin—Rosenstein’s office did not appeal Motz’s ruling to throw out the government’s evidence, but instead opted to dismiss the charges against Chester.
Motz did not issue a written opinion in Chester’s case. But the courtroom drama exposing the false testimony of the police who took the stand during the motions hearing is reflected in the transcript.
During the Aug. 31 hearing, two Baltimore Police detectives—Timothy Stach and Jamal Harris—testified that they and other officers pulled over Chester’s car on April 16, 2009, in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, because they saw he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt; and that they flashed their unmarked police vehicles’ lights as they conducted the traffic stop so that the defendant would know they were police. Yet, on cross examination, defense attorney Chris Nieto of the Office of the Federal Public Defender played video footage of the stop, which convinced Motz that the detectives’ version of events was false.
“I think that the video speaks for itself,” Motz said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Celeste at the end of the hearing, as he granted the defense motion. It’s “a scenario where there’s certainly a reasonable inference that Mr. Chester thought he was being robbed. And that sort of makes . . . your case fall apart.”
It is “rare” for evidence to be thrown out in federal cases, Rosenstein says, because “these cases are carefully reviewed” by his office before they are charged. Prosecutors first sift through the police reports and then they “meet with the police officers face-to-face and interview them about the facts,” a process that “screens out potential problems.” But it is still “possible that new evidence might come up, and that’s what happened in the Chester case.”
“The video,” Rosenstein adds, “shows that [the police detectives’] testimony is incorrect.” While he declined to comment specifically about any repercussions from the Chester case, he says “whenever there are concerns about officers’ credibility, we discuss it with departmental officials.”
Baltimore Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi says “we obviously take extremely seriously” any instance when police credibility on the witness stand is found lacking, and such cases are “normally referred to internal investigations” to probe whether or not disciplinary proceedings are in order. Because Bennett’s ruling in the Gaines case happened only recently, Guglielmi was not in a position to discuss the status or existence of such a probe. By press time, he had not produced any information about any repercussions for the officers who testified in the Chester case.
As for the practice of pulling people over for traffic violations in pursuit of larger crimes, Rosenstein says “as a police tactic, it is useful. A lot of times, all it results in is a traffic citation. But in other cases, the result is a major arrest for drugs or guns. It is part of [a police officer’s] job to stop people for traffic violations,” he adds, and the tactic “is accepted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court as good police work.”
But the defense attorneys for Gaines and Chester say it comes with a price—the confidence and trust regular, law-abiding citizens place in their law enforcers.
“For every suspect traffic stop that results in the recovery of contraband,” Nieto says, “there are countless more involving law-abiding citizens whose rights are violated when they are pulled over, removed from their cars, and searched for no reason.” Those instances don’t receive public attention because “the people involved are never charged with a crime.” Yet, Nieto continues, “These citizens are the same people that sit on our city juries, who hear Baltimore City officers testify, and are asked to believe every word they say. It surprises me that prosecutors and the police department don’t understand that it is this type of bullying that contributes to our city’s juries being so skeptical and distrusting of Baltimore City police.”
Nieto’s colleague in the public defender’s office, Joseph Evans, who represented Gaines, adds, “The larger point is that people are beginning to realize that this is very counterproductive. It generates disrespect for the law and law enforcement and creates a lot of antagonism in African-American communities in particular against law enforcement. And this is actually a shame.”
On Feb. 25, a Baltimore drug conspiracy was in the limelight as part of the public unveiling of an ongoing federal effort to destroy the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico. At a press conference in Washington D.C., officials said that Operation Xcellerator, an anti-narcotic initiative targeting the powerful cartel’s operations in the United States, had in the past 21 months arrested more than 750 people and seized more than $59 million in drug proceeds, 12,000 kilos of cocaine, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.3 million Ecstasy pills, and more than 160 weapons.
Eight of those arrested and charged for their dealings with the Sinaloa Cartel are part of a Baltimore-based drug conspiracy that is tied, through one of its members–Lawrence Schaffner “Lorenzo” Reeves–to an educational seminar program for children seeking to enter the entertainment business. Reeves is co-founder of the seminar business, called Hollywood in a Bottle, and a seminar it held last summer at a Baltimore City public school received support from Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt.
“Just 40 miles from here,” said acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Michele Leonhart, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by her side, “we took down violent drug traffickers which were supplied with hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Mexico.”
Later that day, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein told City Paper that the case Leonhart was referring to was against Reeves and his seven accused co-conspirators. Rosenstein added that the Reeves conspiracy is the only Baltimore case that falls under Operation Xcellerator. It was indicted late last August, and has since received extensive coverage in City Paper (“The Hollywood Connection,” Aug. 29, 2008).
Reeves, who has prior drug convictions in Maryland and Arizona, pleaded guilty in January to his part in the conspiracy to import more than 330 pounds of cocaine from Mexico. His criminal-defense attorney, Gary Proctor, had no comment for this story.
In July 2008, a City Paper reporter dropped by the National Academy Foundation School, a Baltimore city public school in Federal Hill, where the well-attended Hollywood in a Bottle program was being held. It featured experienced Hollywood professionals sharing career advice with youngsters.
“Joan Pratt was our biggest sponsor,” the event’s publicist, Sharon Page of Synergy Communications, proclaimed at the time. A month later, after Reeves’ indictment, Page backed off on that claim, saying that Pratt only “paid for our T-shirts.”
When asked in a Feb. 26 e-mail about the heightened profile of the Reeves case, Pratt gave the following prepared statement: “I’m always concerned about crime and it is troubling to hear about this investigation. I have no knowledge of this conspiracy or facts surrounding this investigation.”
Last August, Pratt explained to City Paper that, while she does not know Reeves personally, she does know Reeves’ Hollywood in a Bottle co-founder, LaVern Whitt, a native Baltimorean and former Hollywood stuntwoman. Pratt, who runs an accounting business aside from her public duties, filed incorporation papers on behalf of Page’s Synergy Communications.
Pratt and her private attorney, Sharon King Dudley, who was hired last year by Baltimore City to investigate employee-discipline matters, were two of Hollywood in a Bottle’s four listed sponsors on the company’s web site.
Nothing has come to light suggesting that Pratt had any direct interactions with Reeves, or that Pratt had any knowledge of Reeves’ criminal activities.
Whitt has said she didn’t know about Reeves’ involvement in drug activities either. “I needed help, so he came on board,” she told City Paper after Reeves’ indictment. “I just met him five months ago. This is my hard-earned idea. I need sponsors to help me. I have no idea about that other world. I don’t know him like that.”
Whitt had Baltimore criminal defense attorney Warren Brown handle any further inquiries on the matter. On Feb. 26, after being told that Operation Xcellerator tied Reeves to Sinaloa, Brown said that Whitt, “is just like probably tons of other people who may have received funds from this guy. She would not know about his involvement in any criminal activities.” Lending credence to this claim, he said, is “the fact that she was never contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office” in connection with the case.
Nonetheless, Whitt’s partnership with Reeves has tainted some of her other endeavors, including a documentary-in-progress she’s co-producing with entertainment titan Kevin Liles, the executive vice president of Warner Music Group and also a Baltimore native. Called Women in Power, a seven-minute promo of which was screened at the historic Senator Theater early last year, the film’s subjects are Baltimore’s four top elected officials: Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and Pratt. In late 2007, Whitt did on-camera interviews with each of them. All four have since sought to distance themselves from the project.
After the Reeves indictment came down last year, City Paper contacted the subjects of Women in Power to ask them what they knew about Whitt and her involvement in Hollywood in a Bottle and her relationship with Reeves. Dixon’s then-spokesman Sterling Clifford said he’d vetted Whitt before she interviewed the mayor and turned up no red flags, but Dixon’s office had no comment for this story.
Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty asserted on Feb. 26 that the council president regarded Whitt as simply another member of the media seeking access. “Ms. Whitt came to this office to do filming for a documentary,” O’Doherty said, “and we granted it, just as we do others, and the relationship ends there.”
Jessamy’s office, which last year confirmed that Whitt had interviewed the state’s attorney, did not return calls for comment on the matter.
Other than Reeves, two other members of the eight-man conspiracy–Devon Marshall and Otis Rich–have also pleaded guilty. Both have violent criminal histories. Marshall was described by prosecutors as Reeves’ enforcer, someone who could be counted on to inflict violence to settle disputes. When his Harford County home was searched last year, among the guns that turned up was an assault rifle with 20 armor-piercing bullets. His familiarity with street-level violence landed him on the potential witness list of a death-penalty trial that ended abruptly last spring when two of the three defendants, Harry Burton and Allen Gill, pleaded guilty to charges of running a murderous, decade-long drug conspiracy based at the Latrobe Homes housing project in East Baltimore. Court records indicate that the third man in the Latrobe Homes case, Stanford Stansbury, who has family ties to notorious Baltimore bailbondsman and ex-con Milton Tillman Jr. (“Grave Accusations,” April 23, 2008), negotiated a pending plea deal in the case.
Rich’s criminal career includes two convictions for drugs and firearms, amid three other dropped murder and attempted-murder charges. On Feb. 20, Rich’s name came up in a court hearing in the federal drugs-and-guns case against Andre Kirby. Prosecutors explained that Kirby, on the day that he was arrested last May, had given Rich a ride to the hospital after Rich had been shot amid a surge in gang-related violence.
The five remaining members of the alleged conspiracy have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are awaiting trial, scheduled to begin Aug. 17.
Two of them–Juan Nunez and Marcos Galindo–have transportation-related businesses. Nunez’ trucking company, J&R Transport, was run out of an East Baltimore building that also houses his former bar, El Rancho Blanco on Fagley Street, and Nunez’ loan for purchasing the building was co-signed by Gilbert Sapperstein, a well-known politically connected figure who was convicted in 2005 of bilking millions of dollars through city government contracts. During hearings in the case, Nunez was described as using drug cash to buy luxury cars from a Los Angeles-based car dealer, selling vehicles with hidden drug-stash compartments, and, despite having no reported income, depositing large amounts of money into bank accounts. Galindo, who has prior guns-and-drugs charges in Arizona, is director of a Mesa, Ariz.-based company called Precision Installation, which designs office space and delivers furniture.
Two other co-conspirators–William Leonardo Graham of Baltimore and Nathaniel Lee Jones of Calvert County–have prior drug-related convictions, and Graham has a prior gun conviction. Also charged in the case is Justin Santiago Gallardo of Annapolis, whose prior criminal history appears to consist of driving-related offenses in Maryland and Arizona.
The prosecution of the Reeves case, says Rosenstein, “makes the obvious connection that drugs are coming to Baltimore from outside of Maryland. We will continue to trace the drugs back to the source, work our way up to the top, and ultimately indict the major players.”
U.S. District Court Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz’s temper flared during the March 20 sentencing hearing of Baltimore mortgage broker David Lincoln, who pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud for his part in an alleged drug and money-laundering conspiracy headed by fugitive Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” March 12).
“I’m getting myself riled up here,” Motz said from the bench. “I don’t understand why Mr. Lincoln isn’t here as a co-conspirator . . . on the white-collar end of a major drug operation.” Green, himself a former mortgage broker, clothing-store owner, and record-studio executive with a thin rap sheet, has been in hiding since early last year, after being indicted for cocaine and heroin trafficking and money laundering. The indictment calls for the forfeiture of property and assets totaling more than $4 million.
The senior judge’s remarks came as assistant U.S. attorney Kwame Manley was seeking a 10-month prison term for Lincoln for helping Green launder drug money. Motz indicated he would prefer to put the 38-year-old mortgage broker behind bars for 10 years. The judge’s comments were unusually stark and echoed widespread discontent among the federal judiciary regarding decades-old sentencing guidelines that weigh heavily against low-level drug offenders and street-corner dealers.
“So I’m going to postpone the sentencing, think it through myself,” he said before rescheduling Lincoln’s hearing until April 4, the same day that Green’s mother, Yolanda Crawley, is scheduled to be sentenced for using her son’s drug proceeds to pay off fraudulently obtained mortgages on luxury homes in Florida, Georgia, and Maryland.
On March 18, Motz had been less stern when a third participant in the mortgage-fraud scheme–attorney Rachel Donegan, Lincoln’s ex-lover–appeared for sentencing. Donegan, who surrendered her law license after pleading guilty last fall, left Motz’s courtroom in tears, even though the judge had sentenced her to three years probation rather than prison time.
Motz had justified Donegan’s light sentence after defense attorney Gregg Bernstein argued that she was a minor participant who did not know she was dealing with drug money, and that her judgment was clouded by Lincoln’s dominance over her. “I think those arguments are very well put,” Manley said, agreeing with his adversary. “I don’t have any quibble with that at all.” Another mitigating factor, Bernstein argued, was that Donegan was distracted by a bitter custody battle involving her young niece. “Tough to give probation to somebody who committed mortgage fraud who is a member of the bar,” Motz replied, before doing just that.
But on March 20, with Lincoln before him, Motz said he may have misread Donegan’s role. “I came in based upon the Donegan sentencing” believing that “she was motivated into committing a crime because she was trying to maintain a relationship that had fallen apart with Mr. Lincoln,” Motz said. “That may be inaccurate,” the judge observed, after hearing Lincoln’s attorney, William Purpura, oppose attempts to transfer blame to his client.
In addition, Donegan and Lincoln have been sued recently in connection with mortgage irregularities that suggest their improprieties may not have been limited to phony loan applications on behalf of Shawn Green. One lawsuit seeks a full audit of their loan-processing activities.
Outside the courtroom after his hearing, which fell on his birthday, Lincoln seemed taken aback when told by a reporter that Donegan received probation after blaming him for her actions. When asked whether the blame was misplaced, he paused, then replied coolly, “After I think it through, I’ll call you.”
Finger-pointing aside, Motz said his larger concern was how the case reflects entanglements between drug dealers and white-collar professionals. “Seems to me, Mr. Lincoln was on the edge of society” with people who are “probably worse than street dealers,” the judge said. “Here’s an intelligent person . . . taking illegal money and putting it into the legal mainstream.” In contrast to Manley’s recommended sentences for Donegan and Lincoln, Motz continued, prosecutors routinely go for 20-year career-criminal sentences against street dealers.
Manley acknowledged there was “some evidence” that Lincoln knew he was helping a drug dealer, and that the government could have charged Lincoln as a co-conspirator. However, the prosecutor said, “To be fair to Mr. Lincoln . . . he did not participate in the selling of drugs.” In addition, Manley said, Lincoln offered prosecutors a list of 10 clients referred to him by Green: “When people sit down with the government and make efforts to talk with us, help us out, we will do so in response.”
Lincoln and Donegan offered title services and mortgage brokering for real-estate transactions, turning out loan applications via two companies: Guilford Title and Escrow and First Metropolitan Mortgage. Green is described in court proceedings as a social and business acquaintance of Lincoln.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein told City Paper on March 20 that Green’s alleged conspiracy includes at least two other men charged with drug-trafficking crimes. In 2006, Green was stopped in a car containing nearly $1 million in cash, along with Maurice K. Phillips and Anthony W. Ballard, who since have been indicted in Pennsylvania and Maryland, respectively. Phillips is the alleged kingpin of the Phillips Cocaine Organization, whose members are charged with murder-for-hire to protect a $31 million international enterprise that stretched from Mexico to the U.S. East Coast. Unlike Green, Phillips and Ballard are in federal custody awaiting trial.
Adding to Green’s mystique are his ties to a pair of politically connected East Baltimore businessmen: Noel Liverpool Sr. and Milton Tillman Jr. Green turned to Liverpool Sr. in the mid-1990s for help in setting up a now-defunct urban apparel store, Total Male II, in Mondawmin Mall. Tillman Jr., a convicted felon and former club owner who boasts the largest share of Baltimore City’s bail-bonds market, is a founding board member of the company that owns the Total Male trade name, which Green used with the company’s written permission.
Law enforcement documents obtained by City Paper also show one of Green’s addresses as 2330 E. Monument St., a location shared by Total Male and two of Tillman Jr.’s companies: Four Aces Bail Bonds and New Trend Development.
Green and his far-flung connections loom over the pending sentencing hearings for Yolanda Crawley and David Lincoln–and the lenient sentence that Motz already handed to Rachel Donegan.
Challenging Donegan’s love-gone-bad story are court records claiming that other home loans processed by Guilford Title and Escrow are improper. Two lawsuits recently filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court portray a pattern of questionable conduct rather than an “isolated, aberrant episode” during the summer of 2005, as Donegan’s attorney successfully argued before Motz. The lawsuits allege that, since that summer, she failed to record numerous loan documents with the courts, a lapse that has clouded title to at least seven properties in the Baltimore area.
One lawsuit claims the total number of affected properties is unknowable without a full audit of the company. That has yet to happen, but the lawsuit contends available records “raised additional questions concerning the proper handling of funds received and disbursed by Guilford,” and calls transactions in and out of Guilford’s escrow account “highly unusual.”
The other lawsuit makes the same claim–that Donegan failed to record loan documents–regarding a home purchase by Carolyn Pratt and Cynthia Glover, also named as defendants. Pratt confirms she was in the bail bonds business at the time of the purchase and wrote bails in conjunction with Milton Tillman Jr.’s company as recently as 2006. A public-records search for contact information for Glover leads to an address related to Shawn Green’s drug conspiracy: 2339 Eutaw Place. The Reservoir Hill apartment building was owned by Green until the government seized it in a forfeiture proceeding and sold it at auction on March 20–the date of Lincoln’s cut-short sentencing hearing.
Pratt says she knows little about Donegan and Lincoln, and nothing about Green. “This mixes us up with something that we don’t even know anything about,” she says, adding that she and Glover are “kind of stuck in the middle of not knowing what these people are up to.” City Paper‘s attempts to reach Glover, including through Pratt, were unsuccessful.
Green’s alleged ties to the Phillips Cocaine Organization add to the intrigue. Details of his own conspiracy case remain under seal, but the Phillips indictment offers a road map for the convoluted world of high-level drug dealing.
The 62-page Phillips indictment that federal authorities filed last September identifies several key modus operandi requiring the services of lawyers and money managers. They include: compartmentalizing the organization so that members of the conspiracy do not know what the others are doing; using fraudulently obtained loans to purchase investment properties, and drug proceeds to repay those loans; employing relatives, friends or money-laundering associates to open bank accounts and purchase expensive homes and cars; and making cash payments to attorneys representing co-conspirators and other drug traffickers to engender loyalty.
The question Judge Motz will be asking at David Lincoln’s sentencing on April 4 is: To what extent was he knowingly involved with more than simply a handful of bogus loans? The question Lincoln and his lawyer could be asking is: How did Rachel Donegan get off without facing a single night in prison?
New York criminal defense attorney Robert Simels calls himself the “Rolls Royce of attorneys.” The claim is based in large part on his 90 percent acquittal rate and his representation of legendary gangsters such as Henry Hill of Goodfellas fame. But his stature as a legal titan is more complicated than his success in fighting for clients. It is also based on his controversial methods, which have long irked judges, prosecutors, and peers alike.
Simels’ critics, whose concerns have been aired publicly since the 1980s, at times in open court, may not find it surprising that he was recently arrested in New York on federal charges that he plotted to intimidate witnesses on behalf of the head of a violent Guyana-based drug organization.
Yet while Simels has carved a reputation in New York worthy of some twisted episode of Law and Order, he also has established a deep roster of clients with Maryland ties (see article at left), including the Guyanese kingpin with whom Simels was allegedly scheming this summer to “eliminate” witnesses.
The defendant’s name is Shaheed Khan, though he also goes by Roger Kahn and “Boss Man.” In the early 1990s, he was a gun-running, pot-dealing extortionist in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He fled to Guyana after U.S. authorities charged him in 1993 with being a felon in possession of a firearm. There, Khan heads a vast cocaine-trafficking organization that operates a paramilitary death force called the Phantom Squad, according to separate U.S. charges filed in 2006.
On Sept. 10, the international intrigue surrounding the Khan organization peaked, as Simels and co-counsel Arienne Irving were arrested and charged in federal court. The affidavit for their arrest chillingly portrays the attorneys going too far to protect their clients’ interests, and raises questions about how far they might have gone in the past. Intercepted conversations, many of them recorded via body wire worn by an informant and member of Khan’s Phantom Squad, show Simels and Irving discussing violence as a means of “eliminating” witnesses or “neutralizing” their testimony against Khan.
The intercepted conversations suggest that Simels intended to place potential witnesses in difficult positions. According to the affidavit, which details a series of meetings and discussions over a four-month period, Simels explored “a range of options, from offering them money to murdering their family members.” In one of the conversations, Simels is recorded telling the Phantom Squad member-turned-informant that Khan “wants you to do whatever needs to be done.” Off limits, however, was another witness’ mother. “Don’t kill the mother,” Simels tells the informant during a June meeting at his law office, or “the government will go crazy.”
Federal prosecutors have been wary of Simels, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1970s, long before the Khan case. He handled a drug-conspiracy case in New York City in 1988, for instance, in which two government witnesses recanted their sworn statements and a third was shot. After the shooting, Simels met privately in prison with the man who confessed to shooting the witness and got him to change his story, according to court records. Prosecutors told the judge that Simels had warned the confessor that he should not testify against his “friends” from the street “while his family was out there.” A legal logjam ensued, as Simels figured to become both a witness and the lead attorney in the case; the judge declared a mistrial.
In 2005, according to a New York Law Journal article published on Sept. 11, 2008, New York federal judge Joanna Seybert aired her suspicions that Simels withheld full information from his own client about a plea-bargain offer, possibly so the case would continue and Simels could continue getting paid or tap into some of his client’s drug profits. Just last year, in the Khan case, New York federal judge Dora Irizarry criticized Simels for revealing the names of potential witnesses at a press conference in Guyana. Irizarry declined to sanction Simels but wrote that his “reckless” conduct “degrades the standards of this profession.”
Now, as Simels faces witness-intimidation charges, Baltimore-based prosecutors and defense attorneys similarly express discomfort with him and his methods. One assistant U.S. attorney who has gone up against Simels, speaking on background, puts it like this: “He has done cases [in Maryland] a number of times involving serious, sizable drug dealers. He doesn’t have a good reputation. His clients never cooperate, even when it is in their best interests. I find that unusual, and one could wonder about whether his loyalty is to the client.”
Towson-based criminal defense attorney David Irwin, a former federal prosecutor, says Simels is aggressive and hard charging. But the veteran defender cautions that attorneys must be careful to balance such zealousness against ethics–and the law. “I tell my young associates,” Irwin says, “make sure when you are talking to a witness, that if someone were taping the conversation, you wouldn’t mind hearing it come out in court or in the media.”
Regarding the taped conversations that led to Simels being charged with witness intimidation, Irwin says, “It certainly sounds as if Simels is at least stomping on the line, if not stepping over it.”
The drug-dealing charges against Khan don’t indicate that his cocaine came to Maryland. However, in 2004, a large haul of Guyanese coke totaling more than 150 kilograms was seized coming from Georgia to Baltimore.
Simels’ attorney in the witness-intimidation case, Gerald Shargel, has been quoted in news coverage calling the government’s allegations against Simels false. “Bob Simels is well-known as a tenacious, effective, and highly capable defense lawyer, and he was doing his work,” Shargel said, adding that “it’s easy for prosecutors to make an accusation, but it’s quite another thing for them to prove it.”
After fleeing from a federal indictment in early 2007 (“Flight Connections,” March 12), Shawn Michael Green was arrested Dec. 14 in Pennsylvania and taken to Maryland to face drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.
Aside from those charges, court records in other proceedings point to connections with an allegedly violent cocaine conspiracy under indictment in Pennsylvania involving associates of Green, who has hired New York criminal defense titan Robert Simels as his lawyer.
First appearances in federal court in Baltimore on Dec. 19 set a high-profile tone for Green’s case, in part because Simels is under indictment in New York on charges of witness intimidation (“Team Player,” Sept. 24.)
Between the Pennsylvania and Maryland cases, Green and his associates, who have alleged drug ties to Mexico and property interests all along the Eastern Seaboard, are now under the federal looking glass.
“It is a big country,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in a statement, regarding Green’s arrest. “But most fugitives on federal felony warrants are caught before long. We look forward to Shawn Green having his day in court.”
According to federal court documents, Green was a “known narcotics trafficker” in February 2006 when federal agents observed him in a Prince George’s County parking lot with two men currently indicted in federal court in Philadelphia: Maurice Phillips and Anthony Ballard, leaders of the alleged Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO). After the meeting, in which Phillips retrieved a black duffel bag from Green’s car, agents stopped Ballard and seized more than $900,000 cash.
Phillips was indicted in 2007 on drug-trafficking, money-laundering, and murder-for-hire charges. Ballard, a 38-year-old Baltimore man with Eastern Shore ties, has agreed to plead guilty to drug-conspiracy charges in the PCO case, and in October in Maryland he pleaded guilty to drug-distribution charges and participation in a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration identity-theft scam.
Green’s precise role in the PCO is unclear, and he has not been indicted in that case, but according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright Jr., in Philadelphia, “You can match the overt acts of the Phillips indictment” with the allegations against Green in Maryland “and draw your own conclusions.” In all, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland says it has seized or forfeited five properties belonging to Green, Ballard, or Phillips, who owns real estate from New Jersey to North Carolina. Another Baltimore man charged in the PCO case, Sherman Kemp, featured in the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, pleaded guilty in Maryland in July to drug conspiracy and was sentenced to 180 months in prison.
In addition to his Pennsylvania ties, Green is an associate of politically connected businessman Noel Liverpool (“All Around Player,” Oct. 8.) Green, whose Reservoir Hill house was forfeited this spring, and Liverpool, a Morgan State University two-sport star in the 1980s, were in business together in the 1990s in a clothing store, Total Male II. Liverpool has never been the subject of drug-related charges.
While Green, age 42, was on the lam, his co-conspirator and mother, Yolanda Crawley, was convicted and sentenced for mortgage fraud and drug-money laundering. Lawyer Rachel Donegan and mortgage broker David Lincoln also pleaded guilty in the fraud scheme, which involved luxury homes in Maryland, Georgia, and Florida. Green’s role in this conspiracy is part of his current indictment.
The accusations against Green “demonstrate how criminal drug dealers operate in Baltimore,” according to Rosenstein. “People who do business with drug dealers often know where the money comes from,” he says. “Drug-enforcement efforts can be successful only if we follow the money.”
On Dec. 19, Simels arrived in Baltimore to enter his appearance on behalf of Green, who already had been brought before U.S. District Court judge James Bredar on Monday, Dec. 15, the day after his arrest. Perhaps 15 to 20 family members and friends of Green packed the courtroom, and several conferred at length with Simels before the hearing.
Though Simels did not contest prosecutor Kwame Manley’s request that Green be detained pending trial, he cautioned against holding him at the Supermax facility in downtown Baltimore, where he is currently detained. “I’m concerned about the potential cooperators also housed there that he may be unfortunately exposed to,” Simels said. Bredar left the issue to be worked out between counsel and set scheduling on motions leading up to a trial date that has yet to be set.
By Van Smith, with additional reporting by Jeffrey Anderson
Published by City Paper, July 14, 2008
The Double T Diner in Catonsville is an odd place for the mayor of Baltimore to go for a breakfast meeting. Located about 10 miles west of City Hall on Baltimore National Pike, just outside the Beltway, the Double T is a large retro-styled restaurant serving diner food–the same schtick, albeit in a scaled-down space, can be had one block north of City Hall at the Hollywood Diner.
Yet at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, July 16, 2007, according to Mayor Sheila Dixon’s official desk calendar, she was at the Double T, having a “follow-up meeting” with five powerful men. Three months later, on Oct. 16, at 9:30 a.m., Dixon’s calendar says she was there again with the same five men, along with several other influential people. Those were the only two visits to the Double T recorded in Dixon’s calendar since she became mayor in January 2007.
The five whom Dixon’s calendar lists as present at both meetings are Ronald H. Lipscomb, Brian D. Morris, Owen M. Tonkins, Daniel P. Henson, and Talmadge Branch. Three of them–Lipscomb, Morris, and Tonkins–figure in state and federal probes that in recent years have been examining the city’s dealings with minority developers. Neither Dixon, nor the men at both meetings, nor the remaining people listed as attending the second meeting, would confirm their presence at either get-together, much less answer questions about what was discussed there.
Both Double T meetings coincided with important developments in Maryland State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh’s ongoing, two-year investigation into Dixon’s affairs. Last July 14, the Saturday before the July 16 breakfast at the Double T, law enforcers interviewed furrier Richard Schwartz and learned that gift certificates were used by a Lipscomb associate to purchase furs for Dixon. And Dixon’s former campaign manager, Dale G. Clark, whose company formerly ran the City Council’s web site, was interviewed last Oct. 16, the same day as Dixon’s second Double T meeting. Clark has since pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns. During the interview, Clark was asked about financing for a group trip to the Bahamas to celebrate Dixon’s 50th birthday.
The dates and details of the Schwartz and Clark interviews, along with information about many other dealings involving Lipscomb and Dixon, are contained in a search-warrant affidavit for last November’s law-enforcement raid on the East Baltimore offices of Lipscomb’s Doracon Contracting. The affidavit surfaced in a June 24 Sun article, which included Dixon and Lipscomb admitting to a past affair. The 46-page affidavit spells out evidence of gifts and trips to then-City Council President Dixon from Lipscomb and suggests that his companies benefited as a result. Lipscomb is a highly successful minority developer participating in projects that continue to reshape the Baltimore skyline.
The affidavit describes matters occurring largely in 2003 and ’04, when Dixon and Lipscomb say their affair occurred. The latest step in Rohrbaugh’s investigation occurred on June 17, when a search-and-seizure warrant was served on the mayor’s home.
Two of the others at both Double T meetings, Morris and Tonkins, surfaced in a federal probe in 2003 and ’04 that focused on minority developers tapping into the city’s program to promote minority participation in business. That investigation, which also explored the Dixon-Lipscomb nexus, collapsed in 2004 without indictments when then-U.S. Attorney for Maryland Thomas DiBiagio lost his job for appearing to behave politically in pushing for public-corruption indictments.
Morris is a developer who sometimes partners with Lipscomb on projects. In early 2004, he and Lipscomb were subpoenaed by DiBiagio to produce records of financial benefits their companies received from the city, and of any gifts they gave Dixon or other city officials. Morris, who in 2000 served as the interim chief of the Office on Minority Development under then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, has been on the Baltimore City School Board as an O’Malley appointee since 2003 and has been the board’s chairman since ’05. Messages for Morris left at the school board office were not returned.
Tonkins came from Paterson, N.J., in 2001 to replace Morris as O’Malley’s minority-business chief. He stayed in that position until his resignation in December 2003. After he left, The Sun reported that DiBiagio’s investigation was looking into whether Tonkins received gifts from Lipscomb, Morris, and other developers. The paper also reported that Rohrbaugh’s office had a grand jury looking into Tonkins’ dealings with developers, including one who claimed Tonkins penalized him for refusing to hire two New Jersey men for no-show jobs.
Tonkins appears not to have been charged in either investigation. He did not respond to phone messages and e-mails sent to his business, A.R.T. Enterprises, located on Hillen Road. Since 2004 Tonkins has been quoted in the press as the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC), and a 2006 court judgment against NAMC was served on Tonkins at A.R.T.’s Hillen Road address. However, calls to NAMC’s listed phone number were answered by an operator who had not heard of Tonkins and could not refer a reporter’s questions to anyone from the association. The operator suggested going to the NAMC web site, http://www.namcline.org, to leave an e-mail, but the site, which sells office supplies and industrial equipment, says nothing about NAMC and has no e-mail links.
The remaining two men listed on Dixon’s calendar as present at both Double T meetings, Henson and Branch, are not known to be tied to any of the Dixon investigations. Henson was then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s housing commissioner in the mid-1990s and is now a developer. Reached for confirmation that he was there for both meetings, Henson said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Goodbye,” and hung up the phone. Branch is the majority whip of the Maryland House of Delegates, representing East Baltimore 45th District. He did not respond to messages left at his office.
Also listed in Dixon’s calendar as present at the second meeting are attorneys William H. Murphy Jr. and Michael A. Brown, Baltimore County state Del. Adrienne Jones (D-10th District), and Terry Speigner, chairman of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee.
Brown’s law firm, Brown and Sheehan, merged with Murphy’s firm last year. Murphy is a former judge and longtime criminal-defense attorney. One of his current clients is Prince George’s County state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-25th), chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee. Currie’s home was raided May 29 by federal agents looking for evidence involving Currie’s undisclosed employment with a grocery-store chain. Currie’s other attorney is Dale Kelberman, who also is representing Dixon. Murphy, when reached by phone, declined to answer questions or confirm his presence at the Double T breakfast last October.
Brown’s firm employed Martin Cadogan, O’Malley’s longtime campaign treasurer. Between 2000 and ’06, when The Sun reported on the situation, the firm got $1.2 million in work as outside counsel for the city. Brown also was tapped in 2000 by newly elected O’Malley to head up a committee of civic leaders tasked with recommending public-safety reforms in city government. In recent years, according to state business records, Brown has been doing corporate legal work setting up companies for Lipscomb; he is listed as the resident agent of many of the 52 Lipscomb-related companies listed in last November’s affidavit for the Doracon search warrant. Messages left on Brown’s cell phone and at his office were not returned.
Jones phoned City Paper in response to an e-mail asking whether she attended the Double T breakfast meeting, but the call was missed; she did not respond to follow-up messages. Speigner did not respond to an e-mail but answered his phone, saying he was in a meeting and to please call back in a half-hour. He, too, did not respond to follow-up messages.
Rohrbaugh, reached at his office, declined to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation his office may or may not be conducting, which he does routinely. This time, though, Rohrbaugh was more specific in declining to confirm anything. When asked about the Doracon affidavit, and whether he could share the times of day when the Schwartz and Clark interviews occurred, he said, “I don’t even acknowledge that that is a true or accurate affidavit.”
The mayor’s official desk calendar, though, is a different kind of document. City Paper obtained it using the Maryland Public Information Act, and before it was released by the mayor’s office, many entries were redacted. There also are many appointments listed as “private,” with no details provided. City solicitor George Nilson explains in an e-mail that such entries are “not pertaining to city business.” Since the Double T meetings were not redacted, and not listed as private, the reasonable conclusion is that they pertained to the mayor’s official duties. Yet, as of press time, Dixon’s office declines to confirm her presence at the meetings or describe their nature and purpose.
For more than two decades, East Baltimore clothing store Total Male has been associated with fashionable urban attire. Located on a bustling block of Monument Street, not far from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the popular store has also sold tickets to concerts and hip-hop DJ events.
But a federal drug and money-laundering indictment unsealed last year against 41-year-old fugitive Shawn Michael Green, who was the president of an affiliated West Baltimore store called Total Male II, complicates Total Male’s image as simply a place for scenesters to buy clothing and tickets to parties.
The indictment also opens a window into two well-connected East Baltimore businessmen with interests in Total Male–and in politics: Milton Tillman Jr., a sizable figure in real estate, nightclubs, and bail bonds, who was part of the company that owns Total Male, which is located at 2330 E. Monument St.; and Noel Liverpool Sr., a former football star at Morgan State University who has had interests in bars, apparel, and real estate, and who helped Green open Total Male II, in Mondawmin Mall in 1996; Total Male II has since closed.
The ties between these two men and Green suggest an overlap in the city’s legitimate business economy and the drug underworld.
Green suddenly disappeared sometime around March 26, 2007, when federal agents attempted to bring him in on drug charges after arresting his mother, Yolanda Crawley, and serving search warrants on a number of their Maryland and Florida properties. As a result, the investigation was disrupted, but the unsealed indictment accuses Green of drug trafficking since 1998 and calls for forfeiture of $4 million in cash, property, and other assets. On March 20, a four-story Reservoir Hill apartment building owned by Green is scheduled for auction as a result of the forfeiture.
Though Green remains at large, three of his co-conspirators–lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother–pleaded guilty last year for their parts in his alleged drug and money-laundering scheme and await sentencing in the coming weeks. All three copped to wire fraud that allowed Crawley to purchase luxury homes in Maryland and Florida using false loan applications. The probe into Green’s alleged conspiracy is ongoing, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the indictment mentions “others” who are allegedly involved, in addition to Green, Crawley, Donegan, and Lincoln.
Green’s case is intriguing in part because he fled, but also because of the stature of Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. Nothing to tie Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. to Green’s alleged conspiracy has come to light publicly so far.
To some, these two businessmen are icons in the underserved communities of East Baltimore. Together, the two are fully in charge of large swaths of property that bear the scars of inner-city poverty. Between them, Tillman Jr., Liverpool Sr., and their family members, along with their various companies, own scores and scores of properties around the city and surrounding counties, including more than a few along East Monument Street. On a recent afternoon on Monument, for example, near where Total Male operates, there was a palpable sense of disorder along the strip of liquor stores, carry-outs, bail-bonds companies, and tax-service providers that populate the block. A Baltimore police officer was writing up an older gentleman for what appeared to be loitering while ignoring a crew of young street-bike riders as they tore off down the street popping wheelies.
The trade name Total Male was registered from 1993 until it lapsed in 1998 to All Pro Sports Enterprises Inc., which was formed in 1985 with Tillman Jr. as a board member. In 1996, Liverpool Sr. helped Green set up Total Male II, according to the attorney who filed the incorporation papers, with the written permission of Total Male’s resident agent.
Green is listed in incorporation papers as president of Total Male II, and his mother and his father, Michael Green, are also listed as officers of the company. Corporate records list the principal office as 2339 Eutaw Place–the address of Green’s forfeited apartment building scheduled to go to auction, which also served as home base for Green’s Platinum Hill recording studio.
Among the many mysteries surrounding Green and Total Male is the claim to the brand name. Anthony J. Dease of Royal Supreme Motors, an auto dealership and tag-and-title service a block away from Total Male’s East Baltimore location, claims that “I was in Total Male long before Shawn Green was there. I started the business like 25 years ago.” Dease was convicted for stealing city funds in the mid-1980s, but adds, “I work for the city now.”
Confusion about Total Male’s ownership structure is only partly cleared up by state business records. The trade name was owned by All Pro Sports, and in 1992 Dease was listed as the company’s president. In 1993, John H. Bates Sr.–who owned the Monument Street property that houses Total Male and other Tillman businesses–became the resident agent. The property is now owned by Tillman Jr.’s son Milton Tillman III, who bought it in 2005. Reached by phone in early March, Bates contends that he is “one part of Total Male, the one in Mondawmin Mall,” and when asked if he knows Shawn Green says, “Yes, I do,” but declines any further comment.
The formation of Total Male II comes with its own backstory. Attorney Leronia Josey drew up its corporate papers in the mid-1990s. She recalls dealing not with Shawn Green but with Noel Liverpool Sr. in setting up the company. Though she confirms that Bates gave Green written consent to use Total Male II as a business name, she says she never met Green.
“I remember [Liverpool] as an enterprising person who wanted to own a piece of the American Dream,” says Josey, a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents who currently sits on the Maryland Higher Education Commission. “I do a lot of work for churches and small businesses. There was a big push for economic development at the time.”
According to Josey, Liverpool saw a market for fashionable urban apparel. “I went to Mondawmin Mall and said, `I need to see what you’re doing with this store,'” she recalls. “There were all these nice coats and jackets.” She says she hasn’t had contact with Liverpool in more than a decade.
Green’s indictment potentially sullies the images of Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. as community leaders and raises questions about whether Baltimore’s illicit economy is intertwined with its legitimate business and civic landscape.
Most emblematic of this, perhaps, is their ties to politicians. One of Liverpool’s companies, Liverpool Enterprises Inc., has donated $4,000 to each of the campaign committees of Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway. Conway’s CIG Professional Tax Services is located directly across the street from Total Male, at 2331 E. Monument St., and her husband, Baltimore City Liquor License Board employee Vernon Conway, is her partner in that business.
One of Tillman Jr.’s real-estate companies, New Trend Development, has donated $1,000 to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith’s campaign and $500 each to former Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell and former Baltimore State’s Attorney Stuart O. Simms, who ran for Maryland attorney general in 2006. Tillman’s 4 Aces Bail Bonds has contributed $4,750 to politicians since 2001, including $1,200 to Maryland Del. Talmadge Branch and $1,000 to state Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Though Liverpool Sr. has a clean criminal record in Maryland, Tillman Jr. has twice been convicted in cases that reverberated in Baltimore political circles. The first, in 1993, was an attempted $30,000 bribe of Gia Blatterman, then the acting chair of the Baltimore City zoning board. In 1996, shortly after Tillman was released from prison in that case, a jury convicted him of tax evasion for his use of front companies to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in nightclub revenue. Most recently, Tillman Jr. and others were acquitted of illegally using property to underwrite bail bonds in criminal cases.
Attempts to reach Liverpool Sr. and Tillman Jr. for this article were unsuccessful. Jeffrey Chernow, an attorney for Liverpool Sr., did not return several calls. Tillman Jr.’s attorney Gregory Dorsey said he would relay a message to his client, who did not return the call.
Much less is known about Shawn Green. Despite being indicted as a longtime major drug trafficker, he has managed to fly below the radar. Federal court records in Florida indicate he has had previous drug arrests, but in Maryland he’s only been charged before with one crime: a 1992 disorderly-conduct charge in Baltimore City. In 2006, according to court documents, federal law enforcers seized more than $900,000 in cash from people they identified as Green’s associates. Federal law enforcers decline to say how the cash seizure helped investigators move the conspiracy case forward–or any other details or insights about the case against Green.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein insists that Green’s sudden disappearance last March is not unusual. “Usually we catch them in a week or two,” he says. “About five or 10 suspects a year remain at large.” He says he has no idea when Green fled but believes it was after federal agents arrested his mother and served search warrants at six properties on March 26, 2007. Rosenstein also does not seem flustered by Green’s flight. “There were two priorities,” he says, pointing to the intended arrest of Green and seizure of drugs, money and documents. “The main priority was to execute the search warrants.” He adds, “We have lots of evidence that we won’t disclose unless or until we go to trial.”
Which means there’s more to Shawn Green than what’s in the public record. And though Josey may have been satisfied that Total Male was simply helping its owners chase the American Dream, court records show that some of its employees and principals have engaged in illegal activity. Other than Dease and Tillman Jr., who have criminal backgrounds, those records show at least two Total Male employees were convicted on federal drug trafficking charges.
And then there’s Shawn Green, indicted for major drug-related crimes, but yet to be caught or convicted.
From the looks of Lavern Whitt’s Myspace page, the Baltimore native is not only making it in Hollywood–she’s living the dream.
The former stunt woman, now a TV, film, and video producer, poses for photos with celebrities at resorts from Cancun, Mexico, to California. Her list of acquaintances includes fellow Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith and husband Will Smith, comedian Cedric the Entertainer, and actress Lisa Raye, the former first lady of Turks and Caicos Islands and star of the sitcom All of Us. In one photo on MySpace, Whitt cuddles with “my partner,” Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis.
But Whitt’s pretty-people world came crashing down around her on Aug. 28 when another man she refers to as “my partner” on her web site–a lesser-known figure named Lawrence Schaffner “Lorenzo” Reeves–was indicted in federal court in Baltimore on drug-trafficking charges.
The indictment of Reeves, along with a Harford County resident with East Baltimore ties, Devon Anthony Marshall, and an Annapolis man named Justin Santiago Gallardo, has prompted Whitt to pull the plug on two media projects linked to Baltimore City Hall. One is an unfinished documentary on the lives of the four black women who govern the city, titled Women in Power. The other is a seminar called Hollywood in a Bottle, designed to educate youngsters on how to get into the film business.
Reeves, a co-founder of Hollywood in a Bottle LLC, appeared in federal court on Sept. 3 along with Marshall, where prosecutors described wiretap evidence of Reeves employing Marshall as a menacing street enforcer tasked with inflicting violence over drug-money disputes.
Whitt’s business ties to Reeves expose an intersection of two worlds: one populated by entertainers, financiers, lawyers, and politicians, the other by people accused of facilitating large shipments of cocaine to the Baltimore region.
Baltimore’s top elected officials–Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt, and State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy–were interviewed on camera last fall by Whitt. The resulting seven-minute promotional film for Women in Power was screened earlier this year at the Senator Theatre.
All four say they have never met Reeves. Some are distancing themselves from Whitt, who tells City Paper she was driven to launch Hollywood in a Bottle by the urge to “give back” to her community. She and Reeves formed it in March with Reeves as the resident agent, using an Odenton address. Whitt says she brought in Reeves because “he seemed like a cool brother” who could help finance her vision.
Hollywood in a Bottle held a seminar at a Baltimore City public school on July 26. It cost more than $100 per attendee and featured seasoned Hollywood veterans coaching youngsters on various paths to stardom and behind-the-scenes success. Within a day of learning of the indictment of Reeves, Whitt’s web sites for Hollywood in a Bottle and a YouTube promo clip of Women in Power came down.
Official desk calendars obtained by City Paper show that Rawlings-Blake, Pratt, and Dixon each met with Whitt late last year to be interviewed for Women in Power.
Following the Sept. 3 meeting of the city’s Board of Estimates, on which Dixon, Rawlings-Blake, and Pratt serve, Dixon refused to answer questions about Whitt. However, in a telephone interview later that day, mayoral spokesman Sterling Clifford says he vetted Whitt when she pitched the City Hall film project and found nothing amiss. Asked if the mayor is concerned about revelations that Whitt is partnered with an indicted cocaine trafficker, Clifford replied in an e-mail, “That will depend largely on what we learn of what Whitt knew and when she knew it.”
Approached by a reporter after the same Board of Estimates meeting, Council President Rawlings-Blake asked, “What kind of connection are you trying to make?” and characterized Whitt’s documentary pitch as a routine media matter.
In response to City Paper‘s written inquiries, Pratt writes in an e-mail that she met Whitt through a neighbor, and that she provided T-shirts for the Hollywood in a Bottle seminar on July 26. Public records show that Pratt, a certified public accountant, filed incorporation papers on behalf of Hollywood in a Bottle’s publicist, Synergy Communications. Pratt and her private attorney Sharon King Dudley, whom Baltimore City recently hired to investigate employee-discipline matters, are two of the four listed sponsors of Hollywood in a Bottle.
A spokeswoman for Jessamy confirms that the city state’s attorney met with Whitt on Nov. 26, for an on-camera interview. “It was sold to us as something totally legitimate, and something that would promote Baltimore,” writes Jessamy spokesman Margaret Burns in an e-mail.
On Sept. 3 Reeves and Marshall, both 37, appeared before U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar for detention hearings. Both men have criminal records: Reeves was convicted in 2001 of drug trafficking in Arizona and in ’02 in Maryland; Marshall has a prior conspiracy conviction and numerous criminal charges in Maryland for drugs and violence dating to the 1990s.
Reeves, short, balding, and wearing a maroon jumpsuit, enters the courtroom and opts not to fight his detention pending trial. But Marshall–six and a half feet tall, heavily tattooed, and upward of 300 pounds–seeks pretrial release.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Gallagher tells the judge the government tapped Reeves’ phone from June until late August. The drug shipments came in “large quantities,” she says, describing numerous intercepted telephone conversations between Reeves and Marshall, who allegedly served as a violent “enforcer-collector” for Reeves. The indictment accuses the two men, along with Justin Gallardo, of conspiring with “others known and unknown to the grand jury.”
According to the prosecutor, a recent search of Marshall’s Abingdon home produced three loaded weapons, including one she describes as an assault rifle containing 20 armor-piercing bullets. Marshall’s attorney argues that the weapon belongs to Marshall’s wife, and urges his client’s release because he has four children and a job prospect at the Sparrows Point steel-making complex.
Judge Bredar points out that Marshall has used multiple aliases, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers, and has a remarkable criminal history involving violence, though few convictions. He orders Marshall held in custody.
When first contacted on Aug. 29, Whitt enthusiastically describes her endeavors but expresses dismay at news of Reeves’ indictment. She says Hollywood in a Bottle is her attempt to reach out to youngsters who might not have the wherewithal to launch a career in Tinseltown.
To finance her vision, Whitt says she intends to channel corporate donations through nonprofit organizations, such as Say It Loud, a California 501(c)(3) listed on Hollywood in a Bottle’s web site as its “fiscal sponsor.” “I kicked it off in Baltimore because that’s my hometown,” Whitt says, adding that she plans to hold seminars in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Whitt, who also has an interest in fancy cars and music videos, says she met Reeves through a mutual associate at a Mercedes dealership. “I needed help, so he came on board,” she says.
Until news of Reeves’ indictment surfaced, Hollywood in a Bottle and Women in Power held promise for Whitt. Executive vice president of Warner Music Group, fellow Baltimore native Kevin Liles, partnered with Whitt as co-producer of Women in Power. Whitt’s publicist, Sharon Page of Synergy Communications, tells City Paper on Aug. 29 that the documentary is gaining interest: Film and TV producer Tracey Edmonds (Soul Food, Who’s Your Caddy?)–the ex-wife of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Eddie Murphy–may want to turn it into a sitcom. “It’s a major story,” Page says.
Now, however, Whitt’s endeavors seem up in the air. Businesses associated with her risk being tainted by her connection to Reeves. Her California production company, Journey Entertainment LLC, lists Maryland state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-40th District) as a publicist for Women in Power. (Pugh did not respond to calls for comment.) Whitt’s other Hollywood in a Bottle partner, Freeman White III, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and the director of Women in Power, has his own entertainment company, A Free World Productions LLC, also based in California.
Then there’s Whitt’s “partner” Ray Lewis. While their relationship is unclear, another of Whitt’s production companies, Journey T-52 Productions LLC, based in Encino, Calif., contains the Ravens linebacker’s jersey number in the company name. Photos of Whitt and Freeman White posing separately with Lewis suggest the three are close. Lewis did not return calls for comment.
On Sept. 5 Baltimore criminal defense attorney Warren Brown, who represents Whitt, downplays her involvement with Reeves: “He is a guy who invested some money, unbeknownst to [Whitt], as he was about to be indicted.”
Visitors to Liberty Ford in Randallstown would probably have a hard time imagining Robert W. Koopman, a bespectacled, gray-haired customer service manager, mixed up with an alleged international drug trafficker. Sitting behind his desk inside the service bay, Koopman, with his quiet demeanor and warm handshake, seems more grandfather than gangster.
But through his acquaintance with a woman named Querida Lewis, who was indicted with two co-conspirators in Maryland last July for running a marijuana-trafficking operation from Mexico to Baltimore via Texas, Koopman’s life has become complicated. After buying a house in Owings Mills from Lewis in 2004, Koopman says Lewis got him to rent the house to Milton Tillman Jr., a politically connected bail-bonds impresario and two-time felon with a fearsome reputation who is under investigation by the IRS, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Now Koopman is suing Tillman. In a case filed late last year in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Koopman alleges that Tillman, who is listed as the sole lessee, owes him $12,400 for four months of unpaid rent at 9833 Bridle Brook Drive, a two-story home in the upscale Rolling Ridge subdivision. Yet public records show that after Lewis sold the property to Koopman, she continued to use the house as a residence and business address into 2008. Forfeiture documents springing from the criminal case against Lewis state that “drug traffickers very often place assets in names other than their own to avoid detection.” Tillman allegedly stopped paying rent in August, right after Lewis was arrested.
Court records show that Lewis was involved in a drug operation that extended to Corona, Calif.; McAllen, Texas; St. Paul, Minn., and Philadelphia. The investigation has led to seizure of more than $100,000 in cash and a car belonging to others tied to the alleged scheme, some of whom have not been charged. An unindicted co-conspirator has a trucking company that leased a warehouse and back lot at 300 South Kresson St. in East Baltimore, which wire-taps show were used to move drugs.
Lewis’ alleged activities, spelled out in court documents and other public records, also involved cocaine trafficking (though she is charged only with marijuana); residences on two coasts; a trucking company; a courier service; a Reisterstown Road funeral home; her mother, who has a church and nonprofit foundation; and a FedEx driver who handled drug packages addressed to Johns Hopkins University, where his wife works as an administrator. Lewis’ trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore was scheduled to start Jan. 20, but has been delayed. She did not return calls for comment. Law-enforcement documents in the Lewis case do not indicate that Tillman is part of the drug investigation
After Lewis was arrested, Koopman posted a $50,000 bond for her in August, helping to secure her release pending trial. She has no criminal record, although in the mid-1990s her name came up in court documents when her then-husband was charged as a drug dealer, fled, and later was convicted.
“You’ll have to talk to my lawyer,” Koopman says when reporters visit him at Liberty Ford, where his colleagues seem amused by his plight. He says he is aware of Tillman’s reputation, which includes a history of ties to drug dealers, but won’t say much more. “I’ve read all the articles in City Paper” about Tillman, he says.
Tillman’s attorney Greg Dorsey, who has requested a jury trial in the lawsuit against Tillman, declines to discuss the relationship between Tillman, Lewis, and Koopman. “Those questions should be posed to Mr. Koopman,” he says. When reached by phone, Koopman’s lawyer, Norman Polovoy, hangs up.
After Koopman bought the Bridle Brook Drive house and listed it as his principal residence, state records show that Lewis’ mother, Beverlie Woodland, ran Arrival Messenger Couriers, a company Lewis started in 1994, out of the house. Though Woodland is not charged in Lewis’ case, court records state she “is aware” of her daughter’s criminal activities and “is taking an active role in collecting and hiding” Lewis’ drug money. In August, Lewis was released to Woodland’s custody pending trial. The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment.
Woodland and her husband, Bishop Robert F. Woodland, are incorporators of Destiny of Hope Apostolic Ministries and officers of the nonprofit Talent Exposition Foundation, which works with children. They answered the door at their Pikesville home on Jan. 7 wearing robes, and referred questions for this story to Koopman. As for the now-defunct messenger service, Beverlie Woodland says “I took it over when Querida moved to California in 2004. She said ‘Mommy, please.'”
On June 16, court records say, Lewis began orchestrating nationwide drug transactions from Corona, Calif., including instructions to have her mother handle the drug money. “They need to be very careful on who was giving us money,” Beverlie Woodland told her daughter on a wiretapped call, after bank officials had spotted two counterfeit $20 bills among the deposited cash.
Lewis and a Pennsylvania woman, Inga Bacote, then traveled in a motor home to McAllen, Texas, near the Mexican border, where Lewis owned one stash house and was looking to buy another. Once in Texas, court records state, Lewis shipped marijuana to Baltimore from a Kinko’s FedEx store, where Ruben Arce let her use his employee discount to ship the drugs. Bacote and Arce are also indicted in Lewis’ case.
Back in Baltimore, on July 8 FedEx driver Robert Wilson prepared to receive an 80-pound shipment of Lewis’ marijuana at a Johns Hopkins University address, according to court documents. Wilson’s wife, Amanda Wilson, works for Hopkins as an education assistance program manager. Investigators concluded that Wilson used his wife’s business address and described him as an “active co-conspirator” in the Lewis case.
Amanda Wilson tearfully denies any knowledge of these matters in a conference call, during which her husband admits delivering “packages” to Lewis. Though Robert Wilson is not charged in the case, investigators seized $78,490 in cash from the Wilsons’ Abingdon home.
Koopman’s life has been disrupted by Lewis as well. On a second visit to Liberty Ford, he steps outside his office to speak with reporters and says he is unclear about how he got tangled up in Lewis’ affairs.
“She came in to buy a car about eight years ago,” he says, declining to explain why he posted a $50,000 bond on her behalf when she was arrested. “I never knew [Tillman] before all of this,” Koopman says. “Ms. Lewis made all the arrangements.”
Matt and Mike look to be in their 20s. They are keeping warm from the mid-January cold in Turtle Deluxe, Inc.’s stark office trailer, nestled between its loading dock and warehouse in Millington, a small town near the headwaters of the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. An electric heater hums, casting an orange glow on the room’s many bare surfaces, as Matt sits behind the expanse of a clean metal desk and Mike stands, the shelving behind him also empty. They say their boss, Turtle Deluxe owner Mike Johnson, is out of town on vacation.
Yes, Matt and Mike confirm, Turtle Deluxe processes common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and sells the meat for people to cook and eat, but not at this time of year, and usually not for over-the-counter sales. Turtle Deluxe products typically end up shipped through other suppliers to restaurants in Philadelphia and Louisiana, they contend, and no, they don’t know of any Maryland restaurants that serve its turtle meat.
“Kind of unusual,” Matt says of the stuff, “but it sells.”
Maybe in the spring Turtle Deluxe will have some turtle meat, Mike and Matt say. Then again, maybe not.
“It’s hard to say,” a bemused Mike observes as he takes a business card. “Call again in a few months and see.”
For a company called Turtle Deluxe, which sells turtle meat, it seems curious that the forecast would be so uncertain. But the reason is found in U.S. District Court filings in Baltimore: Turtle Deluxe is under federal criminal investigation.
The company’s owner, whose full name is Michael Vincent Johnson, is suspected of buying poached out-of-state snapping turtles from New York trappers, and the feds are trying to make a criminal case out of it. Agents entered Turtle Deluxe’s doors on Jan. 15, armed with a warrant describing why, and carted off voluminous business records.
Johnson has not been charged as a result of the raid. A reporter’s second visit to Turtle Deluxe on Jan. 29, though, made clear that he is under a lot of pressure. Johnson is something of a politician, having lost the Democratic primary in the 2006 Kent County Commissioners race, despite winning more than 1,000 votes–16 percent of the total–in a five-way race, so there must be moments when he is charming. This isn’t one of them.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Johnson commands a reporter. He emerges from behind a storage trailer next to the parking lot, molten anger pulsing through his spry, compact frame. For a split second, there’s hope that the gentle politician hiding under Johnson’s gruff exterior will emerge. A second plea to discuss Turtle Deluxe softens him enough to say, “Have a nice day,” but then another round of venom quickly spits out from behind his graying goatee. “Get the fuck out of here!” he repeats.
There’s no need to risk a third invitation to scram, though the prospect of Johnson resorting to violence seems remote. He looks to be in enough trouble already.
Mike Johnson’s troubles started when a fellow named Kenneth Howard, who lives near the Alabama swamps in western New York, talked too much. They got worse when Mike Johnson did, too.
Believe it or not, there are laws against what Howard and Johnson are alleged to have done. Common snapping turtles have survived some 200 million years, but, common as they are, New York and other states have moved to protect them. Though Howard and Johnson have not been charged with a crime, the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant contends they knew what they were doing was illegal.
Here’s the law, in a nutshell: The New York State Assembly in 2006 clamped down on trapping live common snapping turtles. While it is OK, for personal use and consumption, to take up to five turtles a day and no more than 30 per 10-week season from July to September, it is not OK to trap them; instead, they must be shot dead with a gun or a bow and arrow. That means live snappers trapped in New York are contraband, and if they are transported across state lines, the federal Lacey Act–which prohibits interstate transport of contraband items–can come into play.
Authorities in New York wasted no time getting down to enforcement of the new law. In January 2007, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) investigator Daniel Sullivan “initiated contact with Howard in his covert capacity,” according to the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant, “portraying himself as a trapper of turtles looking for a buyer.” Howard, being helpful, told Sullivan all he knew on the subject.
Howard “transports about two hundred turtles to the ‘turtle factory’ located in Millington, Maryland three or four times per year,” the warrant explains. He “knows several other guys in New York who trap Common Snapping Turtles and he drives their turtles down to Maryland with his own. He keeps half of the money paid for the turtles he transports for the others.” As for the legality of this activity, the warrant continues, Howard “stated that he knew there was a season for Common Snapping Turtles in New York State and that all turtles were protected.”
Sullivan was off and running. He hit the internet, found that Turtle Deluxe “offered to buy turtles from the general public,” and on Jan. 30, 2007, called and left a message there, saying “he was from Western New York and had turtles he wished to sell.” Three days later, Mike Johnson called back and told Sullivan “he would buy every turtle he could get his hands on.”
According to the warrant, Johnson went on to say that “he has two suppliers in New York State” and “the turtles he bought were mainly processed for their meat and sold to domestic and foreign buyers. Some were sold live to foreign buyers. He stated that prices fluctuated, but he usually paid between $1.00 and $1.50 per pound.” Johnson said he “buys from so many states that he couldn’t keep track of the laws,” so “he buys turtles based on what was legal where he lived (Maryland).”
Sullivan arranged a shipment, and on Oct. 2, 2007, he drove from New York to Millington with 835 pounds of live snappers and 20 painted turtles to be sold to Johnson, who met him when he arrived. While the turtles were being unloaded, Sullivan flat-out told Johnson what they were doing was illegal. “The season never opened in New York this year,” the warrant has Sullivan saying, adding that “it was illegal to trap live turtles” there now.
Johnson’s response isn’t memorialized in the warrant, but the details of the transaction are. He gave Sullivan a receipt for the turtles and a check for $1,212.20 and told him “to go to the Peoples Bank down the street, where he could cash the check and leave no paper trail.”
The following summer,on June 24, 2008, Sullivan called Johnson about bringing down another load of New York snappers. This time, Johnson was wary. He didn’t want any illegal turtles brought down, he said, but he “needed his turtles live and preferred them caught in traps,” according to the warrant.
Johnson admitted knowing that the New York laws had changed. He told Sullivan that, now that he knew that Sullivan knew the turtles were illegal, how was Johnson supposed to know Sullivan “did not work for the Federal Government?” There was “no way he would buy” Sullivan’s turtles now, and Sullivan “should not have made the mistake of telling him that the turtles were illegal” because now he “could not buy them.” Johnson said “it would be insane for him to knowingly violate the Lacey Act.”
Enter Randy Cottrell, special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, based in Amherst, N.Y.
Cottrell’s investigations typically make use of the Lacey Act, but they tend to involve creatures more exotic than snappers. In one, for instance, a couple was nabbed for bringing endangered African leopards to New York from an Ohio seller. But Cottrell has busted people for reptilian trafficking, too, such as a guy bringing two endangered species–a spotted turtle and two eastern massasauga rattlesnakes–to New York from Canada.
But the ubiquitous common snapping turtle? Well, why not, now that it’s contraband?
According to the warrant, Cottrell had been involved in Sullivan’s Turtle Deluxe investigation from the beginning, working with Sullivan and others from the DEC. Now, though, he’d do the field work like Sullivan did, going undercover as a trapper trying to sell New York common snappers.
Cottrell set up a shipment to Turtle Deluxe, and arrived in Millington on Oct. 20, 2008, with 80 live turtles. Cottrell helped Johnson and another employee unload them to be sorted and weighed. Johnson gave Cottrell a check for $1,045.50 and told him to go cash it at the Peoples Bank down the road, just like he’d told Sullivan a year earlier.
Having invested nearly two years, Cottrell and Sullivan were now ready to take it to the next level–executing a search and seizure warrant. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar signed it in Baltimore on Jan. 14, and the next day, Cottrell and his crew went down to Millington and began taking away Turtle Deluxe documents. In all, they seized 22 items, including nine boxes of records, notebooks, an address book, a phone list, checkbooks and stubs, receipts, business cards, and the contents of a laptop computer.
No one from the various agencies involved in the ongoing investigation would comment about the raid, the warrant, or anything about the case. Neither would Matt Esworthy of Baltimore, the lawyer Johnson recently retained to represent him as the investigation continues. Attempts to reach Kenneth Howard were not successful, though court records in New York indicate he went bankrupt last year after his self-employment income suddenly crashed.
There’s an old saying: “Behold the turtle, he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That’s also when the butcher cuts off the turtle’s head, so the saying is flawed. But it still makes a good point: The turtle’s progress can also be its undoing.
The same may be said of Johnson and Howard. Their livelihoods stood to gain as they stuck their necks out to get turtle meat to market, and now it remains to be seen whether the axe will fall–and whether they’ll still be able to make turtle-meat money at all.
The Turtle Deluxe raid is part of a global phenomenon, affirms James Gibbs, after he is given the details by City Paper. The State University of New York biology professor is an international expert on turtles of all kinds, but has a keen interest in common snapping turtles in New York–which he says are abundant now, but due to growing global demand for turtle meat, could see their numbers plummet quickly.
“The global market is expanding,” Gibbs explains, “and now it is beginning to affect us, because one can make a pretty good living today in the United States selling live snapping turtles to the Asian market. States that have banned trapping, like Maine and New York, are trying to get a jump on something that could really decimate our stock. In Asia over the last two or three years, they have depleted their own turtle populations and have been looking elsewhere around the world to meet the demand, so prices have been rising. These are forces that are beyond our control here, so shutting down commercial trapping is a pre-meditated attempt to forestall the plummeting of our own stock’s numbers.”
Gibbs is no stranger to turtle meat himself, and doesn’t oppose the capturing, butchering, and eating of turtles. Its appeal in the United States is largely limited to cultural outposts in the South and Midwest, he says, where old-timers still like to run their traps. It’s back-breaking work, bringing big snappers home for butchering, Gibbs observes, but “it’s pretty good meat, once you get past the leeches and the algae and whatnot that grow on them.” Careful about the PCBs, though, because the meat of turtles from some contaminated areas have “levels off the charts,” he adds.
There are still big cities where restaurants serve turtle dishes–the best known, perhaps, being New Orleans, where Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s both have turtle soup on their menus, and Philadelphia, where Bookbinder’s has its “famous snapper soup.” Baltimore’s Maryland Club, a private social club, is renowned for terrapin stew, but that’s a different kind of turtle–and a whole other City Paper story (“Shell Game,” Eats and Drinks, Sept. 17, 1997).
Restaurants’ needs, along with those of swamp chefs and other turtle-eating enthusiasts, don’t add up to much pressure on snapping turtle populations currently, Gibbs goes on. But if demand climbs–as has been happening with the growing Asian market for U.S. snappers–the results could be devastating.
Gibbs says snappers, like many turtles, don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 years, and can live another 30 past that. Each year, 95 percent or more of those adults must survive for the population to stay at viable levels, otherwise it will plummet because of very high juvenile mortality. The youngsters’ long odds of reaching adulthood have gotten longer with the proliferation of mid-sized predators, like raccoons and foxes, brought on by the declining numbers of their own predators.
The New York population of common snapping turtles is “huge” right now, Gibbs says, “but they are not reproducing well at all, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.” Turtles, he explains, need loose soils in sunny areas to have successful hatches, and the reforestation of New England over the last several decades has shaded much good turtle-nesting habitat. Thus, large-scale trapping of live adults–including egg-bearing females–could add up to a very real threat to survival.
If Johnson and Howard were up to what Cottrell and Sullivan are out to prove, and were good for say, 600 to 800 adult New York snappers being trapped for butchering at Turtle Deluxe each year, then, according to Gibbs, they probably haven’t done much damage to the snappers’ overall well-being. Even if there are only six or eight trappers operating at that level in New York, Gibbs continues, it still wouldn’t be a problem. But “if there are 200 or 300 trappers–and there may be that many, I just don’t know–there’s a problem,” though he adds that “it’s not likely to have gotten to that level or someone would have noticed.”
Harlon Pearce,proprietor of the Louisiana seafood processor and supplier Harlon’s LA Fish, knows Mike Johnson and Turtle Deluxe. “There aren’t too many turtle processing plants around–there’s him, and then there’s some in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa that I’m aware of,” Pearce explains. “There’s only a smattering of people around the country doing it, and he’s a pretty large processor. He does do a lot of turtles. And based on his pricing, he’s for sure shipping a lot of those turtles overseas.”
Pearce, who’s a member of the Louisiana state government’s Seafood Standards of Identity Task Force and the advisory board of the Louisiana State University Department of Food Science, has a pretty good grasp of the global turtle picture, too. “The Asian market,” he says, “has helped the [common snapping turtle] industry get a lot stronger very quickly over the last couple of years.” He’s no fan of Johnson and Turtle Deluxe, though. In 2004, he sued them in Kent County court over money he’d given Johnson in advance for turtles that Pearce says he never got. He lost–“that kangaroo court they got down there backed him, if you can believe it,” he says–and moved on. Now he’s intrigued by the news that Johnson may have Lacey Act problems.
“If Turtle Deluxe is taken down by the Lacey Act,” Pearce predicts, “it will affect the U.S. supply of snapping turtles, and it’ll make more demand in Asia because there will be less turtles to satisfy that market.” Snappers are common–“there certainly is not a problem of overfishing,” he contends–but the meat “is not an easy commodity to handle because the laws are just varied in states across the country.” The loss of one processing plant like Turtle Deluxe, he says, can make a big difference until new avenues for bringing the turtles to market open up lawfully.
Pearce is of the opinion that states like New York and Maine, which have shut down commercial snapper trapping, are engaging in “a lot of knee-jerk reactions based on environmentalists saying we are decimating our resources. I’m not privy to the science of those states, but, no, you don’t have a problem with turtle numbers. There are plenty out there, and these laws are just overreactions. Plus, there are a lot of farm turtles, too.”
Nonetheless, “you got to obey the law, or try and change it,” Pearce continues, “or you’re an idiot and you deserve what you get.”
But it’s still sad, he adds, that people lose their livelihoods over the passage of such laws. “Like that old turtle trapper out there,” he says. “It’s been legal his whole life, and then suddenly it isn’t and he’s supposedly some kind of criminal. I don’t think we should take away jobs like that.”
Tom Frisch of Ohio, a 79-year-old retired snapping turtle trapper, got out of commercial trapping in the 1980s. “Now I just do it for my own, or when someone calls wanting to get a turtle out of their pond. And I’m the Johnny Appleseed of snapping turtles,” he adds, because he also raises them for release in the wild. And though he still processes turtles for people on occasion, “I won’t butcher females anymore. It’s just not good practice.”
Frisch has a sense that, despite the ever-restrictive regulatory environment surrounding commercial snapping-turtle trappers, some have been able not only to keep working, but to make a good living at it. He says he knows a snapper trapper still in business, though he won’t give his name, who’s been going gangbusters compared to what Frisch used to do in his day.
“In Ohio, back when I was doing it, you could trap for a month, maybe take a ton of turtles,” Frisch recalls. “But this guy goes to New York State, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, and after four days there he comes back with a ton of turtles in his truck, and that’s maybe 200 turtles. New York has really been a good trapping area for the last few years. And then he goes up to Maine, and comes back with the biggest turtles you’ve ever seen. He does a lot of traveling, going down into Kentucky, too. But he does not trap anymore until after the turtles have laid their eggs. In other words, he’s a conservationist, too.”
Gibbs, the biology professor in New York, hears about Frisch’s story of the prolific trapper and remains nonplussed. “You’re talking about some guy from out of state with a big truck that he fills up, then trundles on down to some factory somewhere,” he says. “That’s not trivial, dealing in actual tons of turtles and doing it illegally, and if you had a lot of people doing this, it would be a terrible problem. That’s why the enforcement end of the new no-trapping rules is so important, to keep that from happening.”
Ron Fithian is one of Kent County’s three commissioners who beat out Mike Johnson in the 1996 election, and he heard about the Turtle Deluxe raid shortly after it happened. “All we ever heard,” he recalls, “is that a bunch of law enforcement officers showed up at his place, but we never heard anything more about it, so we figured nothing came of it.”
Fithian has been in the seafood business on the Eastern Shore for 27 years, he says, and he’s also the town manager of Rock Hall. He used to sell rockfish to Johnson, “but then he sort of got out of it,” Fithian recalls, “and the next thing I knew, he was in the turtle business in Millington. And there are not that many people that are in the turtle business around here, because there was never much money in it. You’d get maybe a quarter, thirty-five cents a pound, and that was the price forever, no fluctuations for years. Just not worth the effort, at that price.”
But all that changed, Fithian said, when Johnson “discovered a market overseas, and I heard he started paying upward of $1.50 per pound for live snapping turtles. That was just unheard of.”
Now that Fithian knows Johnson is caught up in a Lacey Act turtle investigation out of New York, all he has to say is, “I always have looked upon him as a law-abiding citizen. He’s been somewhat of an activist at times in the community, and he always wants you to think he’s Mr. Environmentalist. I do know him, and I know him well. But there isn’t much I can say, other than this isn’t the type of thing he’s wanting to be known as.”
And perhaps Johnson won’t be known that way, depending on how the Turtle Deluxe investigation wraps up.