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.

Bad Seeds: Baltimore police misconduct profiled in lawsuits portrays a department beset by costly allegations of illegal violence and dishonesty

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 30, 2014

After Baltimore police officer Vincent Cosom apparently sucker-punched Kollin Truss at Greenmount and North avenues in June, it took about three months before a video of the incident hit the internet, prompting the matter to go viral in a maelstrom of media coverage and official handwringing.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts reacted quickly, holding a press conference on Sept. 16 at police headquarters. Speaking before a battery of television cameras and backed by a phalanx of white-shirted high-level police the day after Truss filed suit against Cosom, he said, “much like the public, I was shocked, I’m outraged, I’m disgusted by what I saw by an employee of the Baltimore Police Department.”

Batts, who has had his post for two years now, also acknowledged the incident was part of a broader police-misconduct problem that he’s been trying to tackle, saying that “these issues didn’t take place or were not built in the last two years,” and that “it’s going to take more than the last two years to correct them, but they will be corrected.”

Deputy police commissioner Jerry Rodriguez also took to the podium, asserting that “what defines the Baltimore police department is not just one incident” and that there are “many challenges that these officers face on a daily basis, in large numbers . . . in a very professional and heroic way.”

Batts suggested a way forward: “We rebound by doing the job correctly, professionally, constitutionally,” he said. For those who don’t work that way, he had foreboding words: “If there’s bad apples within the organization, we move them out. We get rid of them.”

In many cases, though, the damage is already done, and taxpayers have had to pay. A parade of settlements involving legal claims of police misconduct have come before the Baltimore Board of Estimates this year, including: $49,000 to Charles Faulkner, who claimed he was beaten while in handcuffs during his arrest; $63,000 to Ashley Overbey, on whom police used a stun gun in her apartment; $40,000 to Alex C. Dickson, who was injured in a fight with police trying to enter his apartment; $62,000 to Bolaji Obe and Akinola Adesanya, who said an officer assaulted them in a parking garage; $26,500 to Leah Forde, who’d claimed she’d been falsely arrested and assaulted by an officer; and $75,000 to John Bonkowski, who said officers pulled him out of his car and assaulted him after he’d left a parking garage without paying. The amounts approved for settlement payments from the public coffers do not, of course, include the litigation costs already incurred by having to mount defenses to the claims.

The lawsuits keep coming. The same day Truss sued Cosom, Abduljaami Salaam filed one in federal court against several officers and Batts, claiming he was brutally attacked in July 2013 after witnessing the officers assaulting another man nearby. Salaam describes driving by the prior assault while it was in progress and then parking his car in his nearby driveway, when the officers approached and dragged him out of his car, beat him, hogtied him, and then continued to beat and kick him before falsely arresting him on eluding-police charges that were later dropped. Earlier, on Sept. 5, Jermaine Lyons sued three officers, claiming they cavity-searched him in full public view in May 2013 after they stopped him as he was bicycling and asked him if he had any he drugs—a question he answered in the negative.

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is taking concrete steps to heal the damage to community trust that past bad conduct has wrought, including pursuing an effort to have police wear body cameras that record their actions and following the constructive criticism provided by an external audit of its internal-affairs function that investigates misconduct. Batts’ efforts have included the appointment of Lt. Col. Melvin Russell as chief of community partnerships, a new initiative designed to build bridges between BPD, communities, and their institutions, such as churches, in order to enhance public trust in the department.

Last year at an event at Enoch Pratt Central Library, Russell said Batts is trying “to go after the bad seeds in the department and pull them by the root and get’em out of the agency,” according to a transcript of the event. Batts, Russell added, “doesn’t accept it and he’s doin’ his best to root it out of his department.”

The department’s recent bad publicity includes a lengthy Baltimore Sun investigative story, published on Sept. 28, about more than 100 settled lawsuits involving claims of police brutality and other civil-rights violations. The story says that taxpayers have paid more than $11 million in settlements and litigation costs since January 2011.

The ongoing public outrage has not occurred in a vacuum. The Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spawned not only unrest in that city, but a national outcry over law-enforcement culture and its perceived insensitivity to communities’ desires to assure safety without intrusive, fearsome, dishonest, and brutal police tactics. A survey of recent police-misconduct litigation involving BPD suggests that, in Baltimore, such concerns may not be unfounded.

Makia Smith

In March 2012, Makia Smith was stopped in traffic when she noticed four BPD officers—Nathan Church, William Pilkerton Jr., Nathan Ulmer, and Kenneth Campbell—beating a man, and began using her cellphone to take pictures of the spectacle. One of the officers, Nathan Church, noticed what Smith was doing, and proceeded to grab and destroy the telephone by stomping on it before pulling Smith out of her car and beating her. The other three officers then joined in on the assault before arresting Smith, while threatening to transport her 2-year-old daughter, who was in car’s back seat, to the Department of Social Services. Charges that Smith assaulted Church and obstructed traffic with her car were later dropped. Smith received medical treatment for injuries to her face, neck, and body.

U.S. District Court judge Marvin Garbis in March ruled that Smith’s claims against BPD and Batts could go forward, despite their efforts to have them dismissed, and so the case is proceeding to two trials: first as to the individual officers, then as to BPD and Batts.

Church tried to have Smith’s lawsuit stayed because he’d sought bankruptcy protection shortly after it was filed, but Garbis denied the request, noting, “it appears that Defendant Church made false statements, under oath, to the United States Bankruptcy Court, regarding the pendency of the instant lawsuit.” More recently, former Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer, now with Whiteford, Taylor, and Preston, and helping represent Church and the other officers, on Sept. 15 filed a letter to Garbis, asking the judge to allow the officers to file motions for summary judgment on the grounds that “Church had probable cause to arrest Ms. Smith,” since she’d “refused lawful orders” to move her car and produce her driver’s license.

One of the officers who joined in the beating of Smith, Ulmer, was named as a defendant in Salaam’s newly filed lawsuit, which, like Smith’s, alleges that “the Officers tormented Mr. Salaam by telling him that his son,” a 3-year-old who was present in the vehicle when Ulmer and the other officers allegedly beat him while he was restrained, “would be sent to Social Services.”

An important element of Smith’s case has been Church’s seizing and smashing the phone she was using to record the officers. The “factual allegations as to the March 8, 2012 incident, combined with the allegation regarding numerous other incidents,” Garbis wrote, “plausibly establish the inference that BCPD had an official policy or custom of preventing citizens from being able to record police officers performing their official duties in public.”

Shortly before Garbis’ ruling was docketed on March 25, BPD announced a new policy allowing citizens to record police conducting their business, as long as the recordings don’t interfere with police business, an announcement that came on the heels of the city agreeing to a $250,000 settlement of a lawsuit brought by a Howard County man who said BPD officers seized his phone and deleted video of them making an arrest at the 2010 Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. The new policy tightens up an earlier one that the U.S. Department of Justice said did not go far enough to protect citizens’ rights.

Troy Williams

Troy Williams says he is cousins with Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the BPD’s chief of community partnerships, a connection that would seem to give him an edge after, as he claims in a lawsuit filed in April, a BPD officer struck him unconscious with a police radio in July 2011 as Williams walked out of a church where he’d gone to attend a friend’s funeral, and police then filed false drug-possession charges against him. The attack, Williams claims, was part of a conspiracy to retaliate against him for filing an earlier police-brutality complaint. Whether or not Williams’ family tie helps his cause remains to be seen, as the court proceedings are at an early stage, with the officers claiming that their alleged conduct was not a conspiracy and fell within the scope of their duties, even if unauthorized.

Williams’ suit asserts that Brian Flynn, the officer who allegedly attacked him, did so because he’d filed an internal-affairs complaint about a month earlier, after seeing another unnamed officer beat a man in a jail cell where Williams had been briefly locked up without charges. Williams claims that the unnamed officer, like Flynn, served under Russell at the time, and that Williams later told Russell about the brutality complaint he’d filed. Flynn only realized he was dealing with his superior’s cousin, the lawsuit explains, after he’d struck Williams unconscious, when another officer arrived on the scene and informed him.

At that point, the lawsuit states, in “an effort to save face,” Flynn asked Williams “where it was” without saying what “it” was, and then “threw Mr. Williams in the backseat” of a cruiser and drove him to the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency room. There, Williams’s scalp was “closed with surgical staples,” and Flynn allegedly told the emergency-room staff “to note in Mr. Williams’ file that Mr. Williams is addicted to heroin, which is a pattern, practice, and/or policy and custom . . . utilized by police officers after they have brutally attacked so-called suspects.” The lawsuit adds that “Mr. Williams is not a heroin addict and Defendant Flynn had no reason to believe that Mr. Williams was a heroin addict.” After Williams’ release from the emergency room, another officer, Dane Hicks, booked him on drug-possession charges that were later dropped, since “there was never any controlled dangerous substance recovered,” the lawsuit states.

Williams’ lawsuit includes allegations that the city is loath to hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. It is “not news to anyone in” BPD or the mayor’s office, the lawsuit states, “that officers are free to make false arrests and manipulate evidence without fear of meaningful punishment or reprimand because their supervisors control their punishments, and there is a pattern, practice, and/or policy and custom” of “not punishing officers’ misconduct or providing meaningful reprimand, many times involving backdoor deals.”


Daniel Rockwell

Rockwell, who court documents describe as “mentally challenged,” fled to the roof of his house when officers arrived there to serve an arrest warrant on him in February 2011, and, as he moved to reenter the house as directed, police officer Clyde Rawlins used a stun gun on him, and Rockwell fell off the roof of his house, resulting in fractured vertebrae. After Rockwell landed on the ground, officers rolled him over onto his stomach and handcuffed him with his arms behind his back.

Rockwell was a minor at the time of the incident. His lawyers’ efforts to obtain police documentation about the incident, which would provide them with the officers’ names and official accounts of what happened so that a lawsuit could be filed, were stymied by BPD, and initially the department took the position that no such records existed. Eventually, Rockwell sued over the issue and won in February 2013, when a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ordered BPD to turn over its records of the incident. Rockwell and his mother, Demetria Holden, filed suit shortly thereafter.

Rockwell’s lawsuit is now in federal court, and in March U.S. District judge Richard Bennett ruled that it survived efforts by BPD and Rawlins to have it dismissed. The case against Rawlins, alleging assault and battery and gross negligence, will be litigated first, followed by claims that BPD engaged in a civil-rights conspiracy by withholding documentation of the incident.

Working on Rockwell’s behalf is Robert Klotz, a police-procedures expert who used to run the Washington, D.C., police department’s special operations division. Klotz is quoted in court filings as saying that the way Rawlins allegedly used the stun gun against Rockwell “would be a violation of the national police standards” and that “no reasonabl[y] trained officer could believe this action would be proper.”

The legal battle over Rockwell’s claims has been pitched. Recently, Rawlins’ attorneys moved to bar Rockwell’s statements from proceedings in the case, since he has been deemed in criminal courts to be incompetent to stand trial. “Rockwell conveniently claims that he is incompetent when it suits his purposes to avoid criminal prosecution,” the filing states, “but then inexplicably becomes competent when it serves his purpose of extracting money from the City of Baltimore.” In addition, the filing claims “Rawlins feared that Rockwell was reaching for a gun,” and “deployed his taser against Rockwell in self-defense.”


Mark Harrell 

Though his case was dismissed in April, the racial-discrimination suit brought by Mark Harrell and a woman, Roslyn Wiggins, revealed what U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake described as “unacceptable behavior by members of the Baltimore City Police Department, including a warrantless home search.” In essence, Harrell and Wiggins may have received a better result in court had they sued not over allegations of discrimination, but over violations of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The suit was filed against BPD officers Joseph Donato, Valentine Nagovich Jr., Iris Martin, and William Rivera. Nagovich and Donato each wrote police reports when, in September 2010, they arrested Harrell for loitering and impeding traffic. Nagovich simply stated Harrell was arrested after he was ordered to stop loitering, and after about 45 minutes, he still was—while also arguing with and cursing at the officers. Donato’s report added that Harrell “appeared to throw a dark object into the door” of a house, and, after Harrell’s arrest, Donato “used force to enter the front door” of the house, damaging the door, despite having no warrant to do so.

In her ruling, Blake wrote that the version of events related by Harrell and Wiggins “adds troubling details regarding police behavior,” including that Donato “completely destroyed” the door to the house and that, when asked what he was arresting Harrell for, Donato said, “I’ll think of something.” A few days later, Harrell was again arrested, and this time when Donato was asked what the charges were, he allegedly responded: “Let’s take it up a notch, how about conspiracy?” Harrell was placed in a police cruiser, at which point he was allegedly shown what appeared to be heroin and asked, “Oh, what do we got here?” After 17 hours in lockup, Harrell was released without charges.

Donato’s been in trouble before, drawing lawsuits for a drug raid based on an allegedly perjured warrant and for allegedly assaulting a man whose cellphone he seized because the man was using the phone to record the police beating two men in handcuffs. Blake’s ruling in the case brought by Harrell and Wiggins states that “since the events alleged in this case, Donato and Rivera have been removed from active duty as a result of disciplinary actions, although they remain employed by the Baltimore City Police Department.”


Thomas Robert Foster Jr.

In a case that shows the potential value of installing surveillance cameras around one’s home, Thomas Robert Foster Jr. and his father and sister sued several BPD officers for false arrest, a falsified sworn statement of probable cause, and an illegal search of their home. The accused officers—Thomas E. Wilson, Keith Gladstone, Carmine Vignola, and Gregory Fisher—have not answered the lawsuit, which was filed last December, but a motions battle that resulted in the city being dismissed as a defendant has revealed key facts and circumstances.

On May 24, 2012, Foster exited his home, an act that was recorded by his surveillance cameras. Moments later, he was arrested by Wilson and Fisher, and Wilson allegedly punched Foster in the face while he was handcuffed. Wilson’s sworn statement to justify Foster’s arrest says he was carrying a black bag containing drugs when he left his house. What the camera recorded, though, was Foster walking out of his house “without a black bag or any similar item in his hands,” according to court documents.

Immediately after arresting Foster, Wilson and Fisher entered Foster’s home without a warrant, and were soon joined by Gladstone and Vignola—all of which was captured on video. Wilson then sought a warrant to search the house, and in doing so swore, once again, that Foster was carrying a black bag with drugs in it. Still, Foster was indicted and held in jail for 197 days before prosecutors declined to pursue the charges.

Foster’s lawsuit points out that Wilson has a track record of “making false representations to a Court,” having drawn a rebuke from a federal judge in a 2003 for telling “knowing lies” in testimony and an affidavits in a criminal case, yet BPD “allowed him to remain in his position as a drug enforcement officer.”


Marlow Humbert

After spending 14 months in jail before rape charges against him were dropped in July 2009, during which time he was dubbed the “Charles Village Rapist” in the media, Humbert in March convinced a federal judge that his malicious-prosecution claims against three BPD officers—Christopher Jones, Dominick Griffin, and Caprice Smith—should proceed. DNA tests excluded Humbert as a suspect within a month of his arrest, yet, despite the victim’s apparent uncertainty in identifying Humbert as the man who raped her, the case continued as Humber languished in jail.

In their effort to establish probable cause to arrest Humbert for the rape, according to the judge’s ruling in the case, officers may have purposefully misconstrued the strength of the victim’s photo-identification of Humbert, and then, at Humbert’s arraignment, they apparently ignored the victim’s statements that she “had even more doubt” that they had the right suspect after seeing Humbert in person.

The defendants contend that the victim’s identification of Humbert was, in fact, positive, and so they continued to prosecute the case, despite the DNA exclusion. The charges were dropped, court documents state, due to the victim “becoming discouraged with the justice system due to numerous postponements,” so “she no longer wanted to participate in the case.”

A one-week trial is scheduled to begin in the federal courthouse in Baltimore next April, but a key question is still undecided: will the victim, who has since moved to Flint, Michigan, be required to testify in person or via live transmission from another location? Court documents say “she reports to fear for her safety” in Baltimore, yet the defense attorneys point out that Flint “is more dangerous than Baltimore” and is “the second most dangerous city in the country.”


Jerome Dale

The way Jerome Dale puts it, in January 2011 he was chased by two men through the streets of Baltimore at night during a snowstorm, escaped his pursuers by catching a passing MTA bus, and then got off the bus to seek protection from police officers at a 7-Eleven—but the officers he was asking for help proceeded to arrest him when the victim of an earlier rape arrived, with the men who had been pursuing Dale, and identified him as the rapist, though one of the officers noted that the identification was weak. As a result, Dale—who in 1979 was awarded the Young American Medal for Bravery by President Ronald Reagan for rescuing two small children from a house fire—spent seven months in jail until DNA exonerated him and the charges were dropped.

Dale’s complaint alleges that BPD officers “knew that they did not have probable cause to” arrest Dale since a “note written by one of Mr. Dale’s arresting officers” stated that “they didn’t believe that Mr. Dale committed the reported rape.” Yet, as they proceeded with the case, they “hindered the testing and production” of his “exonerating DNA evidence,” the complaint continues, “as a means of prolonging the revelation that they had, in fact, arrested and charged another innocent man.” The lawsuit makes references to Humbert’s case, arguing that Dale’s alleged experience is part of a trend, in which “false arrests are made in reported rape cases and, subsequently, the testing and production of exonerating DNA evidence is hindered” while the accused “are left to languish indefinitely in pre-trial incarceration.”

A key part of Dale’s claim is that the police ceased investigating the victim’s reported rape once they’d arrested Dale base on the victim’s identification, and “did not make any attempt to confirm Mr. Dale’s alibis, despite his vehement statements that at least four different people could attest to his whereabouts on the evening” it occurred. This, the lawsuit alleges, goes against federal, state, and city law-enforcement guidance that an “investigation will not be concluded or otherwise cease based solely on a potential eyewitness identification,” but “will continue until all physical evidence has been collected and examined, all witness identified, and all reasonable leads explored.”


Guy Jackson 

After allegedly being forced by two men with guns to drive a stolen vehicle to a West Baltimore intersection, where the men got out and started shooting at someone, Guy Jackson was shot by police while he sat in the car in April 2013. It’s what happened afterward, though, when Jackson was being treated at Maryland Shock Trauma that, according to a federal judge’s July ruling, is a triable claim of unreasonable search and seizure.

BPD homicide detective Julian Min—whose prior police conduct contributed to the city settling a lawsuit over a young man’s false attempted-murder charges—arrived at Shock Trauma about six days later and allegedly told the doctors treating Jackson that he was taking him to the medical facility at the Baltimore City Jail. The doctors advised him not to, but Min escorted Jackson out of the hospital anyway, and instead interrogated him at police headquarters before putting him out on the streets. Jackson was thus left outside near President Street, his jaw wired shut and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach, wearing only a hospital gown.

Jackson, along with the one other man who survived the barrage of police bullets, remains charged with attempted murder, along with handgun and stolen-vehicle counts. But his attorneys maintain he is charged for a crime that prosecutors know he didn’t commit.


Anthony Anderson Sr.

After Anthony Anderson died as a result of a 2012 beating he received by BPD officers Todd Strohman, Michael Vodarick, and Gregg Boyd, his family and his estate sued the officers, the city, and BPD last October. In March, U.S. District Judge George Russell III let the city and BPD out of the case, but it’s proceeding against the officers, who, though the medical examiner ruled Anderson’s death a homicide, were not charged criminally, since their use of force against Anderson was not deemed excessive.

Anderson’s lawyers paint a partial picture of the incident in the lawsuit, not making any mention of the much-publicized facts that police had observed Anderson conducting a hand-to-hand drug deal and that, after they’d restrained him, they found drugs in his mouth. Nonetheless, Russell’s brief recitation of what happened, memorialized in his ruling, bears repeating.

Anderson “was returning home from a local corner store on September 21, 2012,” Russell wrote, “when Officer Strohman approached him from behind in a vacant lot, lifted Anderson from his knees, and threw him to the ground head and neck first. Officer Strohman handcuffed Anderson while he lay on the ground. Moments later, Officers Vodarick and Boyd approached. The three officers proceeded to kick Anderson repeatedly in his ribs, stomach, back, and chest, causing him significant injuries from which he later died.”


Yardell Henderson

In August, Yardell Henderson won a $100,000 verdict from a Baltimore City Circuit Court against BPD officers Kody Taylor and Matthew Sarver, over a 2010 incident in which they beat up Henderson, who was 16 years old and about 120 pounds at the time.

Henderson’s attorney, Cary Hansel, issued a press release after the verdict, claiming that the officers first “provoked” Henderson to run from them “by shouting racial epithets and other insults at him,” and then chased him to behind his home, where, before witnesses, he was “beaten, punched, kicked, choked and handcuffed,” and then “transported to a different location,” where “he was searched and released without charges.”

Hansel argued that the officers’ decision to move Henderson was “part of a cover up so that when supervisors responded to the minor’s new location, there would be no witnesses there to the attack,” and that the incident was “a pretext to search and interrogate” Henderson “about any crime in the area.” Henderson, though, “had no such information to provide them and the search turned up no contraband.”

Taylor and Sarver have left BPD, according to Hansel, and during the trial Taylor refused to testify about what led to his departure: “an integrity sting” that “resulted in allegations that Taylor was involved with pocketing money recovered from an undercover officer posing as an arrestee.”


Christine Abbott

After BPD officers Lee Grishkot and Todd Edick arrived at a party in Hampden in June 2012, responding to a noise complaint, they talked with Jacob Masters Jr. and asked him to put out his cigarette. When Masters refused, they threatened to use a stun gun on him, at which point Christine Abbott intervened, asking the officers and Masters to “calm down” and suggesting there was “no need” to make such threats, according to the lawsuit Abbott filed against Grishkot and Edick last November.

At that point, Abbott claims, the officers “grabbed” her and “threw her to the ground,” causing her “dress to go up over her back, revealing her underwear” and her shoulder to be “cut and bleeding.” When the officers stood her up, her “dress was ripped” and her “breasts were exposed,” yet they “refused to allow” Abbott to “pull up her dress or otherwise conceal her breasts.” They then handcuffed her and put her in a police transport van, but “did not strap or harness her in the back” of the van, which they “maniacally drove” to the police station, “thereby tossing” Abbott “around the interior of the van,” causing “further injuries.”

Abbott was charged with “assault, resisting arrest, obstructing and hindering, and disorderly conduct,” and was detained for 19 hours before being released. The charges against her were later dismissed. Grishkot and Edick have denied wrongdoing, but admit that some of Abbott’s allegations are true, including that they threatened to use a stun gun on Masters and that Grishkot threw Abbott into the van and proceeded to give her a rough ride.

 

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

image

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.

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.”