Black-Booked: The Black Guerrilla Family prison gang sought legitimacy, but got indictments

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 5, 2009

“I’m a responsible adult,” 41-year-old Avon Freeman says to Baltimore U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar. The gold on his teeth glimmers as he speaks, his weak chin holding up a soul patch. He’s a two-time drug felon facing a new federal drug indictment, brought by a grand jury in April as part of the two conspiracy cases conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Maryland involving the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22). Now it’s July 27, and Freeman, standing tall in his maroon prison jumpsuit, believes himself to be a safe bet for release. He’s being detained, pending an as-yet unscheduled trial, at downtown Baltimore’s Supermax prison facility, where he says he fears for his safety.

The particulars of Freeman’s fears are not made public, though Bredar, defense attorney Joseph Gigliotti, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Clinton Fuchs have discussed them already during an off-the-record bench conference. Danger signs from prison first cropped up in the case immediately after it was filed, though, when Fuchs’ colleague on the case, James Wallner, told a judge on Apr. 21 that the BGF had allegedly offered $10,000 for a “hit placed out on several correctional officers” and “all others involved in this investigation, and that would include prosecutors” (“BGF Offers $10,000 for Hits, Prosecutor Says,” The News Hole, April 23).

In open court, though, Gigliotti has said only that Freeman feels “endangered” by “conditions” at the Supermax, that “several of his co-defendants” also are housed there, and that “at a minimum,” Bredar should “put him in a halfway house, or at home with his sister under electronic monitoring.” The judge disagrees, but Freeman–against Judge Bredar’s adamant warning that it’s a “bad idea” and that “any statement you make could be used against you”–still wants to speak.

“I did have a job–I was working,” Freeman says of his days before his BGF arrest, and says of his family and friends, about 20 of whom are watching from the benches of the courtroom gallery, “I got the kids here, responsible adults here.” He declares he’s “not a flight risk” and says he “always come[s] to court when I’m told.” He stresses, “I am a responsible adult.”

Freeman’s doing what many people in his shoes do. He may be accused of being caught on wiretaps arranging drug transactions and of being witnessed by investigators participating in one. The prosecutor may say a raid of Freeman’s home turned up scales and $2,000 in alleged drug cash. But Freeman is still claiming to be a hard-working family man, a legitimate citizen, as safe and reliable as the next guy.

The details of the more than two dozen defendants indicted in the BGF case, filed against a Maryland offshoot of BGF’s national organization, suggest Freeman is not the only one among them who craves legitimacy. Information from court records, public documents, and the defendants’ court appearances over the past three months make some appear as “responsible adults” leading productive lives–or at least, like Freeman, as wanting to be seen that way.

Bredar sides with the government on the question of letting Freeman out of the Supermax. “There’s a high probability of conviction” based on the evidence against Freeman, Bredar says, adding that, given Freeman’s well-established criminal past, he poses a danger to society. So back Freeman goes to face his BGF fears. “I love you all,” he calls out to his 20-or-so family members and friends in the gallery, as U.S. marshals escort him out of the courtroom. “Love you, too,” some call back.

Take, for instance, Deitra Davenport. For 20 years, until her April arrest, the 37-year-old single mom worked as an administrator for a downtown Baltimore association management firm. Or 42-year-old Tyrone Dow, who with his brother has been running a car detailing shop on Lovegrove Street, behind Mount Vernon’s Belvedere Hotel, ostensibly for nearly as long. Mortgage broker and reported law student Tomeka Harris, 33, boasts of having toy drives and safe-sex events at her Belair Road bar, Club 410. Baltimore City wastewater technician Calvin Renard Robinson, 53 years old and a long-ago ex-con, owns a clothing boutique next to Hollins Market. Even 30-year-old Rainbow Lee Williams, a recently released murderer, managed to get a job working as a mentor for at-risk public-school youngsters.

The trappings of legitimacy are most elaborate, though, with Eric Marcell Brown, the lead defendant in the BGF prison-gang indictment. By the time the DEA started tapping his illegal prison cell phones in February, the 40-year-old inmate and author, who was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for drug dealing, had teamed up with his wife, Davenport, to start a non-profit, Harambee Jamaa, which aims to promote peace and community betterment. His The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities came out last year and, until the BGF indictments shut down the publishing operation, it was distributed to inmates and available to the public online from Dee Dat Publishing, a company formed by Brown and Davenport. Court documents indicate that at least 700 to 900 copies sold, at $15 or $20 a pop. The book has numerous co-authors, including Rainbow Williams.

According to the BGF case record, though, they’re all shams. Davenport, for instance, helps smuggle contraband into prison, prosecutors say, and serves as a “conduit of information” to support Brown’s violent, drug-dealing, extortion, and smuggling racket. The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa, the government’s version continues, are fronts for Brown’s ill-gotten BGF gains, which, thanks to complicit correctional employees, are derived from operating both in prisons and on the outside. As a result, the government contends, Brown appears to have had access to cigars, good liquor and Champagne, and high-end meals in his prison cell.

The alleged scheme has Dow supplying drugs to 46-year-old Kevin Glasscho, the lead defendant in the BGF drug-dealing indictment and the only one of the co-defendants who is named in both indictments. Freeman and Robinson, meanwhile, are accused of selling Glasscho’s drugs. Williams, the school mentor, is said to oversee the BGF’s street-level dealings for Brown, including violence. Harris is described as Brown’s girlfriend (even while her murder-convict husband, inmate Vernon Harris, is said by investigators to be helping Brown, too); among other things, she helps with the BGF finances. Most of the rest were inmates already, or accused drug dealers, smugglers, and armed robbers, except for the three corrections employees and one former employee who are accused as corrupt enablers, betraying public trust to help out in Brown and Glasscho’s criminal world. Only one, 59-year-old Roosevelt Drummond, accused of robbery and drug-dealing, remains at large.

Looking legit allows underworld players to insinuate themselves into the shadow economy, where the black market, lawful enterprise, and politics come together. Sometimes, though, people look legit simply because they are legit, even though they’re criminally charged. If that’s the case with any of the BGF co-defendants, they’re going to have their chance to prove it, just as the prosecutors will have theirs to prove otherwise. An adjudicated version of what happened with the BGF–be it at trial or in guilty pleas–eventually will substantiate who among them, if any, are “responsible adult[s].”

Glimpses of Brown’sleadership style are documented in the criminal evidence against him, including a conference call last Nov. 18 between Brown and two other inmates, “Comrade Doc” and Thomas Bailey, each on the line from different prisons.

“Listen, man, we [are] on the verge of big things,” Brown said, and Bailey assured him that “whatever you need me to do, man, I’m there.” “This positive movement that we are embarking upon now . . . is moving at a rapid pace,” Brown continued, and is “happening on almost every location.” He exhorted Bailey with a slogan, “Revolution is the only solution, brother,” and promised to send copies of his book, explaining how to use it as a classroom study guide.

The Black Book is a self-described “changing life styles living policy book” intended to help inmates, ex-cons, and their families navigate life successfully (“The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27). Its ideological basis is rooted in the 1960s radical politics of BGF founder George Jackson, the inmate revolutionary in California who, until his death in 1971, pitched the same self-sufficient economic and social separatism that The Black Book preaches. Throughout, despite rhetorical calls for defiance against perceived oppression and injustice, it promotes what appears to be lawful behavior–with the notable exception of domestic abuse, given its instructions that the husband of a disobedient wife should “beat her lightly.”

The BGF is not mentioned by name in The Black Book, which instead refers to “The Family” (or “Jamaa,” the Swahili equivalent), explaining that it is not a “gang” but an “organization.” The back cover features printed kudos from local educators, including two-time Democratic candidate for Baltimore mayor Andrey Bundley, now a high-ranking Baltimore City public-schools official in charge of alternative-education programs. His blurb praises Brown for “not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs” and for trying “to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom, and equality.”

Tyrone Powers, director of the Anne Arundel Community College’s Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute, and a former FBI agent, offers back-cover praise for The Black Book, describing it as an “extraordinary volume” and calling Brown and his co-authors “extraordinary insightful men and leaders.”

Powers says in a phone interview that he knows Brown “by going into the prison system as part of an effort to deal with three or four different gangs.” Powers is “totally unapologetic” about endorsing The Black Book.

“The gang problem is increasing,” Powers explains, “and we need to have direct contact with the people involved, or who have been involved. We need to be bringing the gang members together and tell them there’s no win in that, except for prison or the cemetery. Gang members can be influential in anti-gang efforts, and we have got to utilize them. Are we calling them saints? No, we are not. My objective is to reduce the violence, and I don’t think sterile academic programs work as well as engaging some of our young people, like Eric, as part of a program.”

In early May, nearly a month after Brown was indicted, Bundley explained his ties to the inmate to The Baltimore Sun. “I’ve seen [rival gangs] come together in one room and work on the lessons in The Black Book to get themselves together,” he was quoted as saying. “I know Eric Brown was a major player inside the prison doing that work. The quote on the back of the book is only about the work that I witnessed: no more, no less.”

The DEA’s original basisfor tying Brown to BGF violence came from a confidential informant called “CS1” in court documents. A BGF member who’s seeking a reduced sentence, CS1 starting late last year gave a series of “debriefings” that lasted into early 2009. The investigators say in court records that CS1’s information has a track record of reliability, and the story checked out well enough to convince a grand jury to indict and a handful of judges to sign warrants as the case has progressed.

“BGF is extremely violent both inside and outside prison,” investigators recounted CS1 saying, “and is responsible for numerous crimes of violence and related crimes, including robbery, extortion, and murder for hire.” But “historically BGF has not been well-organized outside of prison,” CS1 asserted, and now the BGF “is attempting to change this within Baltimore, Maryland by becoming more organized and effective on the streets.” Brown “is coordinating and organizing BGF’s activities on the streets of Baltimore” and The Black Book “is a ploy by Brown to make BGF in Maryland appear to be a legitimate organization and not involved in criminal activity,” CS1 said, even though “Brown is a drug trafficker” and the BGF “funds its operations primarily by selling drugs.”

If CS1 is correct, then Brown is not as he was perceived by his supporters. Could it be that yet another purported peacemaker is actually prompting violence? It happened in Los Angeles last year, when a so-called “former” gangmember who headed a publicly funded non-profit called No Guns pleaded guilty to gun-running for the Mexican Mafia prison gang. It may have happened in Chicago last year, when two workers for the anti-violence group Ceasefire, which uses ex-gangmembers as street mediators, were charged in a 31-defendant gang prosecution.

Brown, with his book and his non-profit organization, wasn’t up and running at nearly the same scale as No Guns and Ceasefire, and there’s no evidence he was grant-funded. He was only just beginning to set up his self-financed positive vibe from inside his prison cell. But his is the same street-credibility pitch as in Los Angeles and Chicago: redeemed gangsters make effective gang-interventionists because the target audience will respect them more. Clearly, the approach has its risks, and Brown may end up being another example of that.

“It’s a dilemma,” Powers says of the question of how to prevent additional crimes from being committed by gang leaders who claim redemption and profess to work for reductions in gang-related violence and crime. “It has to be closely monitored.” As for Brown’s indictment, the lessons remain to be seen: “I don’t know if I can make it make sense,” Powers says.

For dramatic loss of legitimate appearances, Tomeka Harris may take the cake among the BGF co-defendants. She’s been on the ropes since late last year, when in December she caught federal bank-fraud and identity-theft charges in Maryland, in a case involving Green Dot prepaid debit cards that turned up later as the currency for the BGF’s prison-based economy. But from then until her April arrest in the BGF case, Harris had been out on conditional release–and making a good impression in public.

Media attention had been focused on Club 410, at 4509 Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore near Herring Run Park, because the police, having noted that violence was on the rise in its immediate vicinity, were trying to shut it down. At a March 26 hearing on the matter, Harris fought back, and The Sun‘s crime columnist, Peter Hermann, wrote that she “handled the case pretty well, calling into question some police accounts of the violence.” Herman described her as a “law student representing the owners,” and Sun reporter Justin Fenton, in his coverage, called her “the operator and manager” of the club. Not in the stories was the fact that she’s out on release, pending trial in a federal financial-fraud case in Baltimore.

Club 410’s liquor-board file lists as its licensees not Harris, but city employee Andrea Huff and public-schools employee Scott Brooks. Harris is referred to as its “owner” only in a March 3 police report, in which she “advised that she and her husband are the current owners of Club 410” and that “she has no dealings with the previous owners for several years.” Making matters murkier is the fact that “Andrea Huff,” whose name is on the liquor license is Harris’ alias in her BGF indictment. No wonder Sun writers were confused–Harris seems to have wanted it that way.

Harris made another public appearance before the BGF indictment came down in April. This time, it was in connection with John Zorzit, a local developer whose Nick’s Amusements, Inc., supplies “for amusement only” gaming devices to bars, taverns, restaurants, and other cash-oriented retail businesses around the region. The feds weren’t buying Zorzit’s non-gambling cover, though, and, based on a pattern of evidence that suggests he’s running a betting racket, in late January they filed a forfeiture suit and sought to seize as many of Zorzit’s assets as they could find. In the process, they raided his office on Harford Road, and there in the files were documents pertaining to Tomeka Harris and Club 410. Turns out, a Zorzit-controlled company owns Club 410, and ongoing lawsuits indicate Harris and Zorzit have had a falling out (“The 410 Factor,” Mobtown Beat, April 22).

Meanwhile, Harris still found the time to be Eric Brown’s girlfriend, according to the BGF court documents, in addition to helping the BGF smuggle, communicate, and arrange its finances. While her husband, alleged BGF member Vernon Harris (who has not been indicted in the BGF conspiracies), was in jail for murder, Tomeka Harris is said by investigators to have conducted “financial transactions involving ‘Green Dot’ cards on behalf of BGF members.” Court documents also say “one of her other business ventures was establishing bogus corporations for close associates so that they could obtain loans from banks in order to purchase high-priced items such as vehicles.”

Despite the vortex of drama that has been Harris’ life of late, she seems calm and collected at her first appearance in the BGF case on April 16. Her straight, highlighted hair hangs down the back of her black hoodie, heading south toward the tattoos peeking out from her low-hanging black hiphuggers; she’s wearing furry boots. She’s unflappable when a parole officer wonders about her claims of being a mortgage broker, when the conditions of her release in the fraud case don’t allow it.

But on June 4, a court hearing is called to try to untangle the various issues involved in Harris’ two federal indictments, and she comes undone. Her wig is gone, as are the boots and street clothes. She’s wringing her hands and holding her forehead as she talks with her lawyer, looking both exhausted and agitated. Finally, as the judge orders her detained pending trial, Harris starts crying.

The historic Belvedere Hotel has had its troubles over the years since is past glories, but it remains a highly visible symbol, like the Washington Monument, of the grandeur of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Its presence in the BGF picture is a statement as to how far a prison gang’s reach may extend.

Club 410’s liquor board file contains records of 2007 drug raids carried out at Club 410 and Room 1111 at the Belvedere Hotel in Mount Vernon. The records state that evidence taken from Club 410 (a scale, razor blades, and a strainer, all with residue of suspected heroin) match evidence taken from the secure, controlled-access Belvedere Hotel condominium (a handgun, heroin residue, face masks, a heat sealer). That evidence was traced to a suspect, Michael Holman, with ties to both the Belvedere Hotel room and Club 410. Though it is unclear what, if any, ties the raids have to BGF’s currently indicted dealings, they call to mind instances in the BGF case where the Belvedere Hotel appears.

BGF court documents say Tyrone Dow, drug supplier for Kevin Glasscho’s BGF drug dealing conspiracy, “is the owner of Belvedere Detailers,” which is “located at 1014 Lovegrove Street” in Baltimore. A late-July visit there reveals that it is still operating, and that the property is right next to the rear entrance of the Belvedere Hotel parking garage.

In June 2008, Dow and his brother were highlighted in a Baltimore Examiner business article about the fortunes of Baltimore-area “garage-based premium car-wash services” during an economic downturn. Credited for Belvedere Detailers’ ongoing success is “client loyalty for the business,” which the article says Dow and his brother have operated “out of the same brick garage for more than 15 years.”

Public records of car-detailing shops operating at the Lovegrove Street location, though, don’t list Belvedere Detailers, despite the Examiner article’s claim that it’s been there for so long. In fact, no company by that name exists in Maryland’s corporate records. Instead, Mount Vernon Auto Spa LLC, headed by Hadith Demetrius Smith, has been operating there. Smith, court records show, was found guilty in Baltimore County of drug dealing in 2007, a conviction that brought additional time on a federal-drug dealing conviction from 2000, which itself violated a 1993 federal drug-dealing conviction in Washington, D.C.

City Paper‘s attempts to establish clear ties, if any exist, between Belvedere Detailers and Mount Vernon Car Wash, were unsuccessful. But the BGF investigators maintain in court records that Dow’s detailing shop at that location is tied to the prison gang’s narcotics dealings.

The Belvedere Hotel also figured in BGF investigators’ wiretap of a conversation between two BGF co-defendants, Glasscho and Darien Scipio, about a drug deal they were arranging to hold there on March 24, according to court documents.

“Yeah you gotta come down to the Belvedere Hotel, homey,” Glasscho told Scipio, who said, “Alright, I’m gonna call you when I’m close.” Just before they met there, though, Scipio called back and told Glasscho to “get the fuck away from there” because “it’s on the [police] scanner” that “the peoples is on you,” referring to law enforcers. The alleged drug deal was quickly aborted.

Glasscho, who has a 1981 murder conviction and drug-dealing and firearms convictions from the early 1990s, is accused of being the leader of a drug-trafficking operation that smuggled drugs into prison for the BGF. As the only BGF co-defendant named in both indictments, he alone bridges both the drug-dealing and the prison-gang conspiracies that the government alleges. The contention that Glasscho was a Belvedere Hotel habitu while dealing drugs for the BGF suggests that, until the indictments came down, the prison gang was becoming quite comfortable in mainstream Baltimore life.

CS1, when laying out the BGF leadership structure for DEA investigators in late 2008 and early 2009, gave special treatment to Rainbow Williams and Gregory Fitzgerald. Williams is “an extremely violent BGF member” who has “committed multiple murders” and “numerous assaults/stabbings while in prison,” CS1 contended, while Fitzgerald “has killed people in the past” and carried out “multiple stabbings on behalf of BGF while in prison.” CS1 wouldn’t actually say they were “Death Angels,” the alleged name for BGF hitmen whose identities “only certain people know,” pointing out as well that the BGF sometimes “will employ others to act as hitmen who may or may not be ‘Death Angels.'” Nonetheless, CS1 said Williams and Fitzgerald “are loyal to and take orders from” Eric Brown.

Fitzgerald was not indicted in the BGF case, and though recently released from prison on prior charges, he has since been arrested in a separate federal drug-dealing case. Williams’ fortunes, though, had been rising since he was released from prison last fall after serving out time for a murder conviction.

When Williams was named in the BGF prison-gang conspiracy, he had a job. As his lawyer, Gerald Ruter, explained in court on April 21, Williams was working for the nonprofit Partners in Progress Resource Center, a four-day-a-week gig for $1,200 a month he’d had since he left prison. Partners in Progress works with the city’s public-schools system at the Achievement Academy at Harbor City, located on Harford Road. Ruter told the judge he’d learned from Partners in Progress’ executive director, Bridget Alston-Smith (a major financial backer of Bundley’s political campaigns), that Williams “works on the campus itself as a mentor to individuals who have behavioral difficulties and is hands-on with all of the students.”

The contrast between Williams’ post-prison job, working with at-risk kids, and his alleged dealings as a top BGF leader is striking. In early April, for instance, he’s caught on the wiretap talking with Lance Walker, an alleged BGF member whose recent 40-year sentence on federal drug-dealing charges was compounded in July by a life sentence on state murder charges. Williams confides in Walker, telling him that rumors that Williams ordered the Apr. 1 stabbing murder of an inmate are putting him in danger with higher-ups in the BGF. The next day, Williams is again on the phone with an inmate, discussing how Williams is suspected of passing along Eric Brown’s order to hurt another inmate named “Coco.” Court documents also have Williams aiding in BGF’s smuggling operation and mediating beefs among BGF rivals.

And yet, Williams, with his job, was starting to appear legitimate. When law enforcers searched his apartment in April, Williams’ dedication to Brown’s cause was in evidence. Gang literature, “a large amount of mail to and from inmates,” photos of inmates and associates, and a “handwritten copy of the BGF constitution” were found, according to court documents. But they also found 38 rounds of .357 ammo. Now, Williams is back in jail, awaiting trial.

If proven right, either at trial or by guilty pleas, the accusations against the BGF in Maryland would mean not only that Brown’s legitimate-looking “movement” is a criminal sham. It would mean that the prison gang, while insinuating itself so effectively within the sprawling correctional system as to make a mockery of prison walls, was also able to embed itself in ordinary Baltimore life. If not for the indictments, should they be proved true, one can only imagine how long it could have lasted.

Calvin Robinson might have gone undetected. But the city waste-water worker, who owns real estate next to the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District station house and next to the city’s historic Hollins Market, where his In and Out Boutique clothing store continues to operate, instead was heard on the BGF wiretap talking with Glasscho about suspected drug deals. And he was observed conducting them. And when his house was raided, two guns turned up.

Robinson at least made a good show at legitimacy during court appearances in the BGF case, unlike Freeman’s performance before Judge Bredar. His lawyer played up Robinson’s city job, and even had his supervisor, Dorothy Harris, on hand in the courtroom to attest to his reliability at work. He looked poised and professional, with his clean-shaven head, trimmed mustache, and designer glasses. But just like Freeman, Robinson, who has drug convictions from the early 1990s, lost his plea to be released and was detained pending trial.

Of the 25 BGF defendants, five were granted conditional release. All of them women, they include three former prison guards, Davenport, suspected drug dealer Lakia Hatchett, and Cassandra Adams, who is Glasscho’s girlfriend and alleged accomplice. All were deemed sufficiently “responsible adults” to avoid being jailed before trial, so long as they continue to meet strict conditions. They, unlike the rest of their co-defendants, were found neither to be a threat to public safety nor a risk of flight, should they await trial outside of prison walls. Given the sprawling conspiracies, one can imagine why Freeman’s in fear at the Supermax–and why the released women should be breathing a sigh of relief.

Costly Charges: Drug prosecutions suffer after detective is accused of embezzlement

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 11, 2009

On Aug. 3, Ira Jimmy Martin was arrested for armed drug dealing in Baltimore City. “Lots of cash [was] recovered in this case,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns says. But on Sept. 24, court records show, prosecutors dropped all six charges against 33-year-old Martin. The reason, according to Burns: The case rested on the honesty of veteran Baltimore Police Det. Mark James Lunsford.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task-force officer, Lunsford was revealed in federal court as being accused by the FBI of embezzlement and lying (“Baltimore Cop Charged by Feds with Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept. 24 ) on the same day Martin was let off the hook.

Burns explains in an Oct. 7 e-mail that it “turns out that the drugs [in Martin’s case] were handled at all points by Lunsford only, and so we lost this one. There is no way we could get the drugs in [as evidence in court] due to the taint of the officer.”

Lunsford-related cases dropped by city prosecutors since the FBI’s accusations include drug charges against Ivan James, Teon White, and Demetrius Waters. Burns predicts the total tally is likely to be few in number, since much of Lunsford’s work was for federal investigations.

Federal prosecutions impacted by Lunsford’s charges include two cases previously covered by City Paper.

Querida Lewis and Inga Bacote (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14) have pleaded guilty to a cross-country marijuana-trafficking conspiracy, but have not yet been sentenced. Their attorneys won court approval to postpone sentencing so they can better determine Lunsford’s role, which ties in through Lunsford’s affidavits in another, related case against Gilbert Watkins. Watkins pleaded guilty early this year to a cocaine conspiracy and received a 135-month prison sentence. Lunsford was “clearly involved” in the Lewis-Bacote case, says Lewis’ lawyer, Catherine Flynn, who says she now will take the “opportunity to re-review the discovery in the case, now that the information about Mark Lunsford has been disclosed.”

Firearm-and-narcotics charges against Wade Coats and his co-conspirators (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17), whose alleged dealings occurred, in part, in a Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel room, were based upon a statement of charges sworn out by Lunsford.  In a motion for disclosure of exculpatory evidence filed in the case by attorney Marc Zayon, who represents co-defendant Jose Cavazos, Lunsford is said to have a stolen a watch from the hotel room. Court records show Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner’s response to the motion, due on Nov. 5, has not yet been filed as of press time.

[The Coats/Cavazos trial later became the subject of Corner Cartel, City Paper, Feb. 23, 2011.]

“We are reviewing all federal cases in which [Lunsford] had a role to determine if it impacts the evidence,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says. “Abuse of a position of public trust is one of our highest priorities, and this case is of significant concern because Det. Lunsford was working with a federal task force on important cases.”

The details of the charges against Lunsford are found in a 16-page affidavit by FBI Special Agent Brian Fitzell. The document lays out a time line, starting in June and ending with the filing of the sealed complaint on Sept. 22, during which Lunsford arranged to have an informant paid government funds in exchange for helping in investigations, and then allegedly split the proceeds with the informant, who reported the kickback scheme to the FBI. In fact, the FBI affidavit explains, the informant provided no help in the cases for which Lunsford arranged for funds to be paid.  In addition, the informant told the FBI of instances when Lunsford allegedly stole valuables from suspects, including watches, clothing, and video games.

Conversations between Lunsford and the informant–referred to in Fitzell’s affidavit as “CHS,” short for “confidential human source”–were recorded by the FBI, and some of the exchanges were included in the affidavit. Regarding $10,000 in funds that the two had split, the CHS asked, “Me and you are the only ones that know we split that 10 grand, right?” “Oh, yeah, nobody knows,” Lunsford replied according to the affidavit, “don’t nobody know nothin’ about that money . . . but me and you.” In another conversation, Lunsford told the CHS that he’d stolen video games from the house of someone interviewed recently by law enforcers.

“I ain’t goin’ into a [expletive] house,” Lunsford said, “if I ain’t gettin’ something out of that bitch.”

On Sept. 23, the day after the sealed complaint was filed against Lunsford, FBI agents conducted a morning raid on his home at 1246 Canterbury Drive in Sykesville (“Stash Found at Home of City Cop Charged With Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept 30). According to court documents, they seized a host of items, including a money-counting machine, $48,300 in cash, a digital scale, testosterone gel packets, 29 pieces of expensive jewelry and watches, $1,000 money wrappers, a “zipped plastic bag containing green leafy substance,” and a “box of property taken from Darrell Francis.” According to court records, Lunsford wrote the complaint against Francis that resulted in the defendant’s 2008 guilty plea and a resulting 19-month prison sentence, in a federal drug-conspiracy case that spanned from Baltimore to Atlanta and Texas.

Rosenstein would not comment specifically on the fruits of the raid on Lunsford’s home, but says, generally, that his office “often pursues additional leads that are generated when search-and-seizure warrants go with arrests.”

Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, asked to comment on Lunsford’s case, says that the department won’t put up with corrupt conduct on the part of its officers. “Commissioner [Frederick] Bealefeld has made it very clear that we hold people accountable,” Guglielmi says. “Any behavior which undermines the integrity of this agency and the hard work of our police officers simply will not be tolerated by this administration.”

Lunsford’s attorney, Paul Polansky, declined to comment. In early October, Lunsford was quoted by WJZ-TV saying that “there is a legitimate explanation” for his alleged conduct “that does not involve illegal activity, and hopefully the truth will come out in court.”

Court documents in the case against Lunsford suggest the charges against him are based, in large part, on Ira Jimmy Martin’s arrest. Fitzell’s FBI affidavit discusses an individual described as “Suspect-3,” who was arrested on Aug. 3–the same day Lunsford arrested Martin. During a recorded meeting between Lunsford and the CHS, the affidavit explains, Lunsford said he “hoped to seize all of Suspect-3’s assets when he arrested him” and credit the CHS with providing the information leading to Suspect-3’s arrest.

“If I get him when he comes back from New York, you know,” Lunsford’s was recorded as saying of Suspect-3, “it’s 30 grand or 40 grand to [expletive] buy the kilo, you know, or maybe a lot more than that but anything he’s got in that [expletive]. I’m jammin’ this [expletive] toad up, man. [Expletive] it. ‘Cause that counts as money. That counts as you [expletive] givin’ me [expletive] and they got these [expletive] assets; therefore, I can get money off of that.”

The day after Suspect-3’s arrest, another conversation between Lunsford and the CHS was recorded. “I did that house,” Lunsford allegedly said. “Didn’t come up with nothin’ too good, man. I got ah . . . maybe like 10 grand, 11 grand, so I’m gonna try to put you in for that.” The next day, Fitzell’s affidavit says, Lunsford told the CHS that he was putting in “for a 20 percent payment from the $17,490 cash seizure made on the Suspect-3 case,” so the CHS could get paid.

Later, when Lunsford put in paperwork for the payment, Fitzell’s affidavit says that Lunsford falsely stated on the form that, “‘without the valuable intelligence provided by the [CHS] . . . [Suspect-3] could not have been arrested.’ As Lunsford well knew at the time he submitted the claim for an award to the DEA, the CHS had provided no intelligence to him concerning Suspect-3.” The CHS later received a $3,498 check from the DEA “for his supposed assistance on the Suspect-3 case,” Fitzell’s affidavit says.

City Paper could not confirm that Suspect-3 was Ira Jimmy Martin because the court file of the case against Martin is “not subject to be inspected,” according to the Baltimore City Circuit Court clerk’s office. Though online information for the case had been available on Oct. 27, when City Paper printed it out, on Nov. 4–the day after a scheduled hearing on the matter–it no longer was.

Attempts to reach Martin through his father, also named Ira Martin, were unsuccessful as of press time. His attorney, Stanley Needleman, did not return calls asking for comment about the allegations against Lunsford and whether they relate to Martin.

Balling The ‘Jack: Ex-con aims to reopen Hammerjacks as Heaven

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 30, 2008

“The law is very clear that the licensee can’t be a convicted felon,” explains Douglas Paige, spokesman for the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners. He’s fielding questions about a newly filed application to transfer a liquor license from the closed Red Lyon Tavern in Canton to the old Hammerjacks nightclub property, downtown at 316 Guilford Ave. The plan is to open a large club called Heaven, but a convicted felon who is not the proposed licensee is listed in the application as its full-time operator. Felons are barred from holding liquor licenses, Paige says, but full-time operators of liquor-licensed businesses can have a felony background, as long as they’re not on the liquor license.

Having paid the $400 filing fee and filled out the necessary paperwork, he says, “the applicants are entitled to a hearing.” Valentine’s Day is the scheduled date of the hearing in the Pressman Board Room in City Hall, Paige says, and the three-member Liquor Board then will decide what to do about the proposed transfer.

“The board would have grave concerns about this, I’m sure,” he predicts. “They will have to look over this application closely to see how this is going to be operated.”

The application lists Leroy M. Brown, 50, and Joanne Giorgilli, 63, as the would-be owners of Heaven’s liquor license, and the full-time operator of Heaven would be Joanne Giorgilli’s 41-year-old son, John Americo Giorgilli.

Known to many as “Johnny G,” Giorgilli’s career as a nightlife impresario includes Club 101 in Towson, which closed in the mid-1990s amid controversy, and the China Room, a downtown club that operated at Uncle Lee’s Szechuan Restaurant and closed down in the early 2000s. He is currently under indictment in Baltimore County for first- and second-degree assault and false imprisonment, and since the mid-1990s he’s racked up charges and convictions for drugs and violence and served at least one stint in jail. The state’s online court-case database lists 85 cases dating back to 1993 in which Giorgilli was a criminal defendant.

On Jan. 25, Liquor Board Chairman Stephan Fogleman told City Paper that “the Liquor Board, in addition to making sure that licensees aren’t felons, wants to make sure the actual operators aren’t felons, too. . . . There are numerous ways we can look at applications such as this, and we will do just that at the hearing.”

One issue raised by information in the Heaven liquor-license application is the source of funds for starting up the club. The application shows that Brown has no money in it, but, since the Giorgillis live in Baltimore County, he satisfies board requirements that a resident city taxpayer be on the license. Joanne Giorgilli, a 29-year employee of Maryland School for the Blind, is listed as 100 percent owner, with the money for the club coming from her Bank of America savings account. Not mentioned in the application is the fact that Joanne Giorgilli is listed as co-debtor in her husband’s 2005 filing for bankruptcy protection. Two others listed in the license application–John Goertler and Ron Jones–are named as each having $200,000 available to pay for remodeling, should the club need financial assistance.

“If the question is, do I have that kind of money, the answer is yes,” says Goertler, one of John Giorgilli’s former partners in the China Room. “If the question is, have I committed fully to [putting $200,000 into Heaven], the answer is, not at this time. I’m thinking about it.”

Jones declined to be interviewed, but sources who spoke to him about it say he, like Goertler, is considering the Heaven proposal. Jones, a former Baltimore City police officer whose interests over the years include for-amusement-only gambling devices, dry cleaning, used cars, bars, and strip clubs. (“Mob Rules,” Oct. 6, 2004).

The Hammerjacks property is owned by 316 Guilford Avenue LLC, controlled by Richard W. Naing, and is on the footprint of a proposed skyscraper. Lonnie Fisher, project manager for RWN Development Group, says “we do not care to make any comment on the liquor application at this time.” The license application states Heaven has a three-year lease on the building for $15,000 per month.

John Giorgilli would not answer questions about Heaven during a phone interview on Jan. 28 unless, he said, City Paper gave him “final proof and approval of whatever is written” about the deal. When asked if he had a financial stake in the proposed club, his response was, “No, not at this time.”

Brown says the plan for Heaven is for it to be like Hammerjacks was–a place for large crowds to gather for a good time. “It’s going to be just basically like it was before,” he explains, “for enjoyment, for partying.” Brown refuses to say whether he has a monetary stake in the club, stating only that “I’m going to be a part of it. As for John Giorgilli, Brown says, “we’re friends, business friends.”

For 12 years, Brown’s job has been, as he explains it, to “assist, teach, and counsel mildly mentally challenged adults” for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Woodlawn-based nonprofit that promotes ways other than incarceration and institutionalization to help troubled people. Brown says he’s never before been on a liquor license and is not entirely familiar with what the requirements are.

“As a juvenile, there was some stuff,” Brown says of his own criminal record. “But I thought that was expunged.” When reminded that public records indicate that a man with his name and birthday was convicted of breaking and entering, in 1986, and of theft, twice, in 1993–long after Brown passed his juvenile years–he exclaims, “You have a computer there and you can look that up?” He asks for the web address, says, “I’m going to look that up,” and abruptly ends the phone call.

Subsequent attempts to reach Brown for this article were unsuccessful. Whether his record of criminal convictions came up in the Liquor Board’s required review of his background was unclear as of press time, as was the question of whether Brown’s theft-related background, which includes a history of incarceration, bars him from being on a liquor license.

“Leroy Brown, I didn’t know he didn’t have a clean record, and that pisses me off,” Giorgilli says. As for his own background, Girogilli owns up to having one felony conviction–“and that’s under appeal,” he says, “so that doesn’t even really count, according to my lawyer. I served jail time, I paid restitution, I paid my debt to society, and it’s under appeal.”

Giorgilli refused to discuss or confirm details of his criminal charges and declined to have an attorney explain any possible discrepancies in the online court records, which show he was guilty of second-degree assault and false imprisonment in 1997, drug possession and telephone misuse in 1998, a traffic violation with $14,000 in court costs and fines in 2000, and theft and passing a bad check in 2005. A pending sentence-modification motion was filed in the drug case in 2005. His arraignment on the open assault charges was held on Jan. 7, though no court date had been set as of Jan. 28.

Melvin Kodenski, a veteran lawyer for clients appearing before the Liquor Board, is the attorney for both parties in the license transfer for Heaven. At a Jan. 24 hearing, Kodenski appeared before the board with Craig Stanton, the current owner of the Red Lyon liquor license that owners are hoping to move to Heaven. The Red Lyon shut its doors last July, Kodenski told the board. Since inactive licenses die for good after 180 days of disuse, unless a 180-day “hardship extension” is granted, Kodenski asked the board to extend the license’s life for another six months.

“This is the license that’s up for transfer to John Giorgilli for the old Hammerjacks,” Kodenski said. “So while the board’s mulling that, we’re asking you to give [Stanton] an extension.”

The board agreed, pushing back the deadline for transferring the license to July 9. Thus, if Stanton’s Red Lyon license does not go to Giorgilli, as proposed, Stanton still has time to find another buyer.

In the Liquor Board’s conference room the day after the Red Lyon’s extension, board spokesman Paige is reminded that the circumstances surrounding Giorgilli’s application for Heaven are similar to a case uncovered by City Paper 12 years ago. That situation involved a large club called the Royal Café slated for the old Sons of Italy Building on West Fayette Street downtown. In that case (“The High Life,” Jan. 3, 1996), Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, owner of the Eldorado Gentleman’s Club and a felon and former lieutenant in “Little Melvin” Williams’ drug organization, appeared to be the co-owner (with his mother, Rosalie Jackson) of the proposed club, but a high-school guidance counselor named Mary Collins applied for the license. Though the Liquor Board approved the Sons of Italy license, the club never opened and Jackson eventually sold the building to the University of Maryland.

Why, Paige is asked, is there a prohibition on felons being on liquor licenses when felons are permitted to own and operate liquor-licensed businesses? Isn’t the point to keep felons from owning and running nightclubs, whether they are on the license or not?

“That’s a matter for the legislature,” Paige responds. “The law is the law. We just administer it.”

Robed and Ready: Sitting judges get elected the easy way

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2002

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of job security in elected office, incumbent politicians spend much time and energy crafting strategies for winning elections. Here’s a nearly foolproof scenario: Run on a well-financed slate of incumbents filing in both parties’ primaries, all but guaranteeing slots on the general-election ballot should a challenger emerge. That’s what Baltimore’s sitting Circuit Court judges do, and it’s worked for a generation now. Voters haven’t sent a new judge to the bench since 1982, when they chose Kenneth Lavon Johnson, now retired.

This time, barring an unforeseen challenge mounted before the July 1 filing deadline, five of the court’s 30 judges are running together in an uncontested race. Four of the candidates–Shirley Watts, John Glynn, Lynn Stewart, and John Miller–were appointed to the Circuit Court by the Gov. Parris Glendening within the last 16 months. The fifth, Clifton Gordy, has held his seat since 1985. Judges serve 15-year terms after running in the first election after their initial appointments.

As of last November’s campaign-finance report (the latest available), the Baltimore City Sitting Judges Committee had spent about $60,000 of roughly $105,000 it has raised for this election. The judges themselves aren’t involved in the committee’s activities, says campaign chairperson H. Mark Stichel, a private attorney. But the committee engages in the standard electoral fare, with a couple of twists: Almost all of its money comes from lawyers who appear before the bench, and the judges themselves don’t usually hit the campaign trail.

It’s a “difficult issue,” Stichel acknowledges of the money ties between the bar and the bench, but he maintains that contributing to the committee rather than directly to a particular judge “creates a buffer” that lessens the obvious conflict. Better yet, says James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, would be some form of public financing for judicial elections.

The current system “impugns the independence of the court and gives the appearance that a verdict can be bought,” Browning says. Public financing would relieve the judges committee from having to raise funds from lawyers, he says, and “would go a long way toward shoring up public confidence” in the way money enters judges races. The change would have to be approved by the state legislature, and there are currently no such proposals pending, Browning says.

The judicial code of conduct limits what judges can say in public, so stumping for office is a dull affair. “It’s really hard to say anything that’s meaningful,” Stichel says. “There’s not much a judge can promise” to do if elected. The judges, he adds, “are not used to campaigning” and are “not comfortable doing it.”

Stichel–noting that he is speaking strictly for himself–says he believes judges shouldn’t be directly elected at all. For example, judges could be appointed to lifetime terms, subject to legislative approval; come up for gubernatorial reappointment at the end of set terms; or subjected to retention elections, in which voters would choose only whether a sitting judge should stay on the bench. But given the current system, the judges have to have someone–in this case, Stichel and committee treasurer Frederick Koontz–to “do the fund-raising and help the judges get over the process of having to run for election,” Stichel says.

Most lawyers and law firms listed in the committee’s campaign-finance report donated from $100 to $500, with a few giving $1,000. “It’s pretty much just lawyers giving,” Stichel says, with the rest coming from people with “pre-existing relationships” with a judge–“personal friends and relatives.” The two biggest contributors to this year’s campaign are Finn Casperson, a New Jersey corporate executive with strong ties to Johns Hopkins University, who gave $4,000, and La-Van Hawkins, a politically active fast-food magnate with significant interests in urban areas, including Baltimore ($3,000).

On the spending side, the committee holds fund-raisers, buys campaign advertising, and sprinkles a selection of politicians and pet causes with contributions. It’s your standard Baltimore campaign effort, right down to using the proper printer: Bromwell Press, a company owned by retiring Baltimore County state Sen. Thomas Bromwell’s cousin.

Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the judges’ approach to elections, though, is the practice of cross-filing–running in both parties’ primaries. “The theory is that the judges are not supposed to be partisan,” Stichel explains, so they participate in both elections rather than choose one party or the other. There also is a practical element to the strategy, he says: “It’s an insurance policy to get all of the sitting judges to the general election.” If they lose in one party’s primary, they can still win the other’s and make the November ballot.

While the sitting judges usually ease quietly to re-election, an element of public critique occasionally creeps into the process. In 1998, city prosecutor Page Croyder entered the race at the last minute and lambasted the judges’ slate, saying not all of the nine jurists running together deserved another term on the bench. Croyder lost, extending a now-20-year drought for challengers seeking to oust Baltimore judges at the polls. But Stichel says that historically the periodic challenges have helped create a more racially diverse judiciary.

“There’s no question about it, judicial elections are good” for diversifying the bench, says Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and 1998 candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court and the son and brother of African-American attorneys who became judges by challenging the incumbents. (Murphy does note that minority appointments have been stepped up on recent years, adding, “Glendening has been busy.”) Hence the outcry that has kept judicial elections intact through periodic efforts to change the system, the most significant in recent years coming in 1996, when a legislative commission proposed abandoning them.

“If they talk about taking politics out of the judicial process,” Murphy says, “they can kiss my ass.”

The Heat’s Off: Trial in fatal blaze raises questions about city fire probes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 29, 2002

In the middle of a cold night in February 2001, a fire broke out in an apartment in Cylburn, a neighborhood near Pimlico. The dwelling was well known to Northern District police. It’s where Leonie Barnes lived and fought regularly with her longtime lover, Donald Morton, drawing officers time and again.

Arrests for assault – including a stabbing three years ago in which Barnes accidentally drove a butcher knife into Morton – had become a ritual at the apartment.

So when firefighters found Donald Morton engulfed in fatal flames on Barnes’ kitchen floor, another fire in the bedroom, and a half-empty bottle of nail-polish remover with matches nearby, it didn’t take them long to conclude that it was no accident. It looked like arson, it looked like murder, and they had their suspect at the scene – Leonie Barnes, unharmed except for minor smoke inhalation and a chill from leaving the apartment wearing only her underwear.

On May 13, after nearly 16 months in jail and a seven-day trial, Barnes was found not guilty on all counts.

The jury concluded that Barnes may not have purposefully doused Morton with nail-polish remover and set him aflame in a fit of rage, as the state asserted. Prosecutor Cheryl Jacobs, in an e-mailed response to written questions about the case, says she still believes Barnes “meant to set Don Morton on fire, not her apartment.”

“The jurors,” retorts public defender Jeff Gilleran, who represented Barnes, “were intelligent and hardworking, and they obviously believe justice was served. . . .

“It was a tragedy what happened to Donald Morton,” Gilleran continues. “But in my opinion, the fire and police investigators in this case assumed this was an arson before they even entered the building, and then proceeded to ignore overwhelming evidence that the fire was accidental and never should have been classified” as purposefully set.

Videotapes of the trial demonstrate how Gilleran undermined the state’s case: by faulting an investigator’s methods in deeming the fire an arson, by revealing the fire and police departments’ uncoordinated handling of the follow-up probe, and by establishing a plausible accident scenario to create reasonable doubts in jurors’ minds. In the process, the defense raised questions about the quality of fatal-fire investigations in the city – revisiting issues that have nettled the department before.

Though never mentioned at trial, the ghost of the 1995 Clipper Mill fire – a much larger blaze in which a firefighter died – haunted the Barnes case. Communication breakdowns between fire investigators and police – documented in the Oct. 2, 1996, City Paper cover story “Firestorm” – plagued the Clipper Mill probe, in which no one was charged despite apparently strong evidence of arson. In the Barnes case, the defense showed similar departmental dysfunction, and argued that it led to unfounded charges of arson and murder.

“I’m amazed this thing ever went to trial,” says Bernard Schwartz, a private fire investigator who served as the defense’s chief expert witness, in an interview a few days after Barnes’ acquittal. Schwartz, whom the state’s attorney’s office has used as an expert witness in the past, says the case indicates that attempts to improve Baltimore City fire investigations in the wake of Clipper Mill haven’t taken root.

The main culprit of the investigative bungling in the Barnes case, the defense team argued at trial, was Fire Investigation Bureau Capt. Donald Wilson.

The bureau’s investigators have the sole authority in Baltimore City to deem fires incendiary, and they do so by determining the origin and cause of the blaze. Testimony showed that Wilson made the arson call within 20 to 40 minutes after arriving at the scene. His one-page report of the fire showed how he ruled out nonhuman causes – no electrical outlets or appliances or heat-producing devices near the point of origin. Then, he writes, “it appears that an accelerant … was poured on the victim and the mattress and an open flame was used for the ignition source. After the victim was on fire, he ran into the kitchen, causing the fire to spread.”

Gilleran’s alternative explanation for the fire was simple and, to jurors, more convincing: Barnes and Morton are sitting at the foot of her bed, watching the television. “They were drinking,” the attorney told the jury. “They were smoking, she was doing her nails, the bottle spilled, he had a lit match or a cigarette, and he caught on fire.”

Wilson, who did not receive departmental clearance to be interviewed for this article, worked for about 35 years as a firefighter. At trial, he explained that he became a fire investigator a year before the fire at Barnes’ apartment because he had been injured on the job and took a reassignment to the Fire Investigation Bureau, where he spent the first six months in field training. The Barnes case was his first fatal-fire investigation.

Testimony showed Wilson failed to collect key information before making the arson call. He didn’t interview the two witnesses, Barnes and her 19-year-old son, Jermaine. He didn’t notice key elements of the fire scene, in particular the presence of cigarette butts. He didn’t find out that Morton was smoking when the fire started, and had been drinking. And he didn’t learn that Leonie Barnes is uncoordinated and accident-prone due to a stroke that has affected the left side of her body, permanently contracting the muscles in her left hand – a condition that, in conjunction with alcohol, may have contributed to an accidental spill of nail-polish remover.

“Captain Wilson didn’t do his job,” Gilleran told the jury.

Wilson did, however, make the following, vaguely attributed comment in his field notes of the fire: “The statement was made that the son had said that his mother, using fingernail polish remover, had lit the victim on fire.”

At trial, Gilleran would use this statement to suggest that Wilson relied on “roadside gossip” to reach his arson conclusion.

Ultimately, a year after the fire, prosecutor Jacobs disclosed to the defense that Wilson, in a meeting with the prosecution team, had “momentarily expressed concern that the setting of the fire could have been accidental,” according to court documents.

Wilson was not alone in allowing for the possibility of an accidental cause – five of the state’s expert witnesses, under cross-examination, expressed the same opinion. And there was testimony that no one involved in the probe – neither Wilson, nor police arson and homicide investigators – checked the results of tests for the presence of accelerants on materials gathered at the fire scene. They were negative.

“It seemed to me that half of the state’s witnesses were learning new information for the first time when they were on the stand,” Gilleran opined to the jury. “Nobody followed up. Nobody cared. [The Fire Investigation Bureau] handed it off to police arson, who handed it off to homicide. It was nobody’s job.”

Out of Storage: Lifestyles of the lowly bankrupt bureaucrats

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 7, 2019

When the Feds came down on the Baltimore-based Rice Organization in 2005, the politically connected violent drug-dealing enterprise had been operating largely with impunity for about a decade. As the facts unfolded in drips and drabs with successive court filings in the hotly contested RICO case that ensued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, and real-life parallels to themes in the then-running HBO series The Wire became apparent, I took notes.

There was George Butler, already a star on the streets for his appearances in the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD. There was actress Jada Pinkett Smith, co-owning an East Baltimore property with Rice Organization co-conspirator Chet Pajardo. There was the backstory on the multiple stabbing that had occurred during Kevin Liles’ birthday bash at Hammerjacks nightclub in 2002. There was Robert Simels, the bigshot NYC attorney who kept showing up in connection with players I was writing about, and who ended up going to prison himself, for witness-tampering in connection with a Guyanese death-squad drug-dealer he was defending. There was Eric Clash, cooperating with the government and living to tell about it. The story just kept on giving, and kept on connecting to other matters I was pursuing.

So when I picked up some old investigative records of mine from storage earlier today, the name “Raeshio Rice” popped up off the page. Back in the day, I’d poured over bankruptcy filings that I’d connected, through various other public records, to Rice Organization players. People go bankrupt for any number of reasons, but sometimes when a crime figure suddenly loses income as the law enforcers close in, people close to them may start to suffer sudden financial hardship.

Brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32 when the indictment came down in 2005, were the leaders of the outfit, and Raeshio’s name appeared in connection with his mother’s 2004 bankruptcy case. Her listed occupation was “program coordinator” for “the City of Baltimore” since 1994, earning less than $50,000 annually. Her 1999 Bentley Arnage had already been repossessed early in 2004, but she still had payments to make on the 1998 Mercedes Benz E320 station wagon that was titled in Raeshio Rice’s name.

Another 2004 bankruptcy case tied via public records to the Rice Organization featured a woman who’d worked for 29 years as a case worker for the Maryland Department of Social Services, earning a little over $35,000 a year. Among her assets: times shares in Massanutten Resort in Virginia and St. Martin Island in the Caribbean.

A Bentley and vacations at the Friendly Island – not bad for a couple of low-level civil servants.

Star-Crossed: Property co-owned by Jada Pinkett Smith tied to alleged Baltimore drug conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 16, 2005

A Feb. 2 indictment of 13 men who federal prosecutors say are involved in a violent Baltimore drug conspiracy called the “Rice Organization” seeks forfeiture of co-conspirators’ assets—including an East Baltimore property that state records show is co-owned by actress Jada Pinkett Smith. The property, 1538 N. Caroline St., is a three-story corner building on a 1,440-square-foot lot in the heart of Oliver, a neighborhood long ravaged by the illegal-drug economy. The indictment does not mention what role the property played in the alleged conspiracy, only that the government would seek “all of the right, title and interest of Chet Pajardo, the defendant, in the real property and appurtenances” there.

The $22,000 purchase of the house by Pinkett Smith (listed as “Jada K. Pinkett” in the property records; her middle name is Keran) and Chet Pajardo, a 36-year-old Owings Mills man named as a defendant in the case, was recorded with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation on Nov. 17, 1994. At the time, Pinkett Smith was 23, had already appeared in her feature-film debut, Menace II Society, and was on theater screens co-starring with Keenan Ivory Wayans in A Low Down Dirty Shame. Less than three years later, in 1997, she married fellow actor Will Smith in a ceremony at the Cloisters in Baltimore County.

Ken Hertz, senior partner of the Beverly Hills, Calif., law firm Goldring, Hertz, and Lichtenstein, who represents Pinkett Smith, told City Paper on Feb. 10 that the actress, who grew up in Baltimore and was living here in 1994, met Pajardo about 10 years ago, when Pajardo was working for United Parcel Service. “He was an acquaintance,” Hertz says, explaining that Pinkett Smith split the down payment with Pajardo and has been paying her share of the monthly mortgage payments ever since. She’s had no contact with Pajardo in many years, Hertz contends, and she’d forgotten she owned the building because her accountant made the monthly payments.

Despite the neighborhood’s plight—two blocks away in 2003, for example, all seven members of the Dawson family were burned to death in their home by one of the drug dealers they’d been trying to run off—Hertz says Pinkett Smith’s was “not a dumb investment, because it was so little money.” The Sun reported on Feb. 12 that Hertz also said it was “very important to note that we’ve been assured that she is not a target of the investigation.” (City Paper first reported on its web site that Pajardo and Pinkett Smith co-own the Caroline Street property on Feb 10.)

Pajardo’s defense attorney in the federal conspiracy case, James Gitomer, told City Paper that “I don’t speak to reporters about my clients” when asked if he would be willing to answer some questions about Pajardo.

Members of the Rice Organization, according to the federal indictment, are charged with murders in connection with a drug-trafficking conspiracy that yielded at least $27 million since 1995. Prosecutors allege the group has brought at least 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to the streets of Baltimore. Chet Pajardo faces one conspiracy count, though the details of his alleged crimes are not given.

One Rice member appears in the locally produced Stop Fucking Snitching DVD that drew widespread attention late last fall as an unusual example of witness intimidation doubling as entertainment. Another of those indicted as an ostensible part of the Rice Organization, Anthony B. Leonard, co-owned the former Antique Row restaurant Downtown Southern Blues, which was housed in a North Howard Street property owned by the family of Kenneth Antonio Jackson. Jackson is a strip-club owner and an ex-con who, in the 1980s, became famous as a top lieutenant for the heroin-trafficking organization of Melvin Williams, a major figure in Baltimore’s drug underworld of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Pajardo has a noteworthy connection to city politics. On Sept. 8, 2003, he gave $200 to the re-election campaign of city Comptroller Joan Pratt (D) at a fund raiser catered by Downtown Southern Blues; the event brought in a total of $11,500. Four days later, on Sept. 12, 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary. Pratt also donated to Williams’ upstart campaign, giving $1,500 of the $22,500 it raised. Pratt did not respond to requests for comment by press time; attempts to reach Williams were unsuccessful.

During a Feb. 9 visit to the Caroline Street property co-owned by Pajardo and Pinkett Smith, the building was boarded up but had a fresh coat of paint on the entrance. It appeared structurally sound and well-maintained, though its property-tax assessment dropped from $14,100 to $3,000 this year, according to state records. A pay phone was attached to its outside wall. When a photographer visited the building the next day, a woman driving by in a car shouted out, “Is that Jada’s place?” On another Feb. 10 visit, an unidentified man was seen locking up and leaving the property.

Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals records indicate that Everton Allen applied in April 2003 to use a portion of the building as a grocery store, though housing records indicate that the property has been vacant since 2000. A phone number could not be found for Allen at the Randallstown address given in his application.

The previous zoning application for the Caroline Street property was filed in 1996 by Brian E. Macklin, who wanted to open a convenience store at the site. A Polaroid of the building contained in the zoning file shows a Pepsi-Cola sign hanging over the entrance that reads andy’s grocery. A copy of Macklin’s application was sent by the zoning board to “C&J Inc., c/o Chet Pajardo,” and the file notes that in 1993 Pajardo and Jay Anderson pulled an occupancy permit for the address. Court records indicate that Macklin’s current address is on Kentbury Court in the Lyonswood subdivision of Owings Mills, the same small cul-de-sac as another Pajardo property that is under federal forfeiture as part of the Rice Organization indictment. The listed phone number for Macklin’s home-improvement company, Sorgen LLC, is disconnected, and no other contact information for him could be found.

An internet search of the Caroline Street address turns up the name of a business, Peaceful Image Inc., located there. Its corporate charter was forfeited for failure to file tax returns for 1998, according to state records, and it was incorporated by Pajardo on Aug. 15, 1995, “to engage in the business of retailing, wholesaling, manufacturing, and distributing clothing and accessories.” The founding board members were Pajardo, Leon Dickerson, and Michelle Narrington. A year earlier, on Aug. 3, 1994, these three and another individual, Condessa Tucker, registered Peaceful Image as a trade name, and stated its business as “silkscreen, embroidery, T-shirts, and hats.” The company’s principal office was in a building Pajardo owned between 1992 and 2000, on the 1000 block of West 43rd Street in Medfield.

Leon R. Dickerson was identified on the Peaceful Image trade-name application as Leon Dickerson III. An obituary for Leon R. Dickerson III was published in The Sun on Dec. 21, 2001, after he was killed in a stabbing. He was 31 years old and described as a social worker and basketball coach who worked with students struggling with learning disabilities and emotional challenges. According to Baltimore County Police records, Dickerson, who was married, was killed in a lovers’ triangle when the estranged husband of his girlfriend entered her Cockeysville apartment and stabbed both of them; only Dickerson died from his wounds. Dickerson’s parents are neighbors of Pajardo and Macklin in the Owings Mills subdivision of Lyonswood.

When Pajardo and Pinkett Smith purchased the Caroline Street property in 1994, the address given for property-tax mailings was in the 2300 block of North Monroe Street in West Baltimore. The owner, then and now, is listed as Wahseeola C. Pajardo. City Paper’s attempts to reach her at her listed phone number were unsuccessful.

 

Sweet Deal: Reptilian Records’ Chris X pleads guilty, gets probation on drug charges

By Van Smith

Published on March 23, 2011 in City Paper

On March 15, 44-year-old Christopher Neu, better known as “Chris X,” owner of Reptilian Records in Baltimore, started five years of probation during which he could face up to 60 years of incarceration if he is found to be in violation.

As Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill explained from the bench that day, after Neu pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, “I’m going to strike the convictions and enter probation before judgment” on all three counts, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

The outcome was hammered out during a bench conference between the judge, Neu’s attorney Andrew Cooper, and Baltimore City Assistant State’s Attorney Staci Pipkin. If Neu is convicted of new crimes or violates the terms of his probation during the next five years, Fletcher-Hill said he can “enter the convictions without any further proceedings” and Neu will face “the possibility of 60 years” in prison.

Neu, who was busted last summer as a result of a narcotics investigation, said in a post-hearing phone interview that “I feel damn good not to be in jail, and you can quote me on that.”

Cooper, also reached by phone after the hearing, explains that Pipkin’s plea-deal offers for Neu had come in a succession of proposals carrying ever-lighter sentences. At first, she offered 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended; then she dangled the prospect of suspending all but one year. In the end, Cooper says, probation before judgment “was a good result for everyone involved,” but was “a big benefit” for Neu.

Cooper predicts that Neu, who has no prior criminal record, is unlikely to violate the terms of his probation. He also points out that two other people charged in the investigation received probation before judgment despite the fact that one of them, whose past included prior run-ins with the law, had a gun seized when the police arrested him. Cooper also says he believes that the police conducted an illegal search when they came for Neu. Had the prosecutor continued to press the charges, Cooper contends, the case may have fallen apart before trial with a ruling that the seized drugs could not be used as evidence.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokesperson Mark Cheshire, in an e-mail, says that “the defense claim that this case involved an illegal search is baseless and played absolutely no role in the outcome.” Cheshire also took issue with Cooper’s assertion that Pipkin offered anything short of “prison time for the defendant. The presiding judge sentenced him to five years of probation, which is [the judge’s] prerogative and a decision we respect.”

Reptilian Records has long received coverage from City Paper, including awards in the annual Best of Baltimore issue in 1996 (“Best Open/Closed Store Sign”), 2001 (“Best Punk Rock Bastion”), 2004 (“Best Record Label”), and 2007 (“Best Relocation”). The store had operated on South Broadway in Fells Point for 17 years until 2007, when it relocated to North Howard Street, next to Ottobar, and then shuttered in 2009 (“Vinyl Destination,” Music, Jan. 14, 2009), opting for online-only sales. In addition to noting Chris X’s book-publishing foray (Q&A, June 22, 2005), CP marked two of Reptilian’s anniversaries with coverage: in 2003 (“Noise to the World,” No Cover, Nov. 26, 2003) and in 2010, when it was described as “Baltimore’s cornerstone underground heavy music outlet and record label” (“Chris X,” Music, Nov. 24, 2010). In the latter piece, Neu’s legal name was given incorrectly as Christopher Xavier Donovan; confusion over Neu’s identity delayed CP’s ability to obtain records of his legal troubles.

Neu was arrested on the night of July 30 last year, after Baltimore City police arrived at his closed record store at 2545 N. Howard St. They came there after having served a search-and-seizure warrant at 4903 Harford Road in Waltherson, where they arrested two men—38-year-old Michael Deming and 37-year-old Daniel Mersheck—and seized about 7 ounces of cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana, 27 oxycodone pills, a loaded 9mm handgun, and other contraband.

Deming, court records state, told the police “that he and his friend, later identified as Christopher Neu, ‘went halfs’ on a brick of cocaine” and “that a significant amount of cocaine was located” at Neu’s Howard Street business. As a result of this information, “two uniform officers were sent” there “to secure the location pending an investigation.”

After the uniformed officers arrived at Reptilian Records, court records state, a search turned up a pharmacopeia of mind-altering substances. In all, about 13 ounces of cocaine (street value: $16,740), more than 21 ounces of marijuana (street value: $3,635), 14 grams of psilocybin mushrooms, and hundreds of pills—mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone, but also Valium, Oxycontin, methadone, and muscle relaxers—were seized, along with other contraband.

“Neu advised he had borrowed more than $12,000 from a friend to purchase the amount of cocaine which he had possession of,” the court records state, noting that Neu “was cooperative throughout the entire investigation.”

Neu is also cooperative with CP, openly discussing his charges and the context in which he was caught. He is anxious to explain that he’d entered the coke-dealing arena only recently, in an attempt to dig himself out of debt, and that he had obtained the pills by purchasing monthly prescriptions from elderly public-housing residents who had come to rely on his cash payments to supplement their meager household incomes.

“I sold weed for years,” Neu says—something that this writer, as a patron of Reptilian Records and acquaintance of Chris X’s, had known, having purchased small quantities of marijuana at the store more than 10 years ago while working as a freelance journalist and bartender. “But I always said I’d never sell coke,” Neu explains, adding, “I broke my own rule and that’s basically why I fell. I never would have done that had I not been so desperate” financially, due to unpaid mortgage and property-tax payments. “Now I’m more in the hole than I was before,” he says, and “my first concern is paying [family and friends] all back for helping with my bail and my lawyer.”

Neu’s Howard Street property is currently listed for sale, he explains, which “is the only reason it hasn’t been foreclosed on.” He has been selling off belongings, and says he still has “plenty of stuff to sell,” including comics, posters, records, and other collectibles.

As for the pills, Neu says, “The truth is, I got them from older people who live in public housing, who got by by selling me their prescriptions. But I’m not running around selling this stuff—that’s why [the pills] were stockpiled. I was kind of loaded up on them, because I only sold them to a few people I trusted who had drug problems, so they wouldn’t run out and buy heroin off the streets. It was a way for them to stop putting needles in their arms.”

Regarding the police search, Neu says the officers “lied to get in the door. They said they had an anonymous tip of a woman screaming” inside his business. Cooper adds that, when the case was first brought in Baltimore City District Court last summer, “The officers admitted this in discussions outside the courtroom, that they made up the reason to go in to begin with. They needed a warrant, but instead they used a ruse to get into his place of business.”

Furthermore, Cooper says, having already found the drugs, the police secured Neu’s consent to a search. To be lawful, such consent must be given beforehand and voluntarily, but Cooper and Neu say it was tendered after-the-fact and under duress. “They told me,” Neu recalls, “that if I didn’t sign the consent, they’d get a warrant and tear the place apart.”

“It was a horrible search,” Cooper concludes. In the end, though, Cooper did not have to argue these legal points before a judge, since Neu agreed to probation in return for a guilty plea without a trial.

The experience prompts Neu to offer cautionary words for others who may be tempted to try to turn a quick buck in the drug game: “Hey kids,” he says, “don’t do what I did. Pay your taxes and keep your noses clean.”

The Doctor Is In: Schmoke Inches Toward His “Medicalization” Approach to Drug Reform

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 13, 1994

With two recent political and legislative breakthroughs for Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore is becoming a model city for drug reform. In March, a $2.3 million federally funded Substance Abuse Treatment and Education Program (STEP), or “drug court,” began diverting nonviolent drug criminals from prisons to treatment programs. And on April 5, the Maryland State legislature passed a bill exempting Baltimore City from certain drug-paraphernalia laws and approving funding for a needle-exchange program called the AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. In a reversal of his earlier stance, Governor William Donald Schaefer supported the bill and is expected to sign it. The success of these two initiatives is a major priority for Schmoke, who is out to prove that what he calls a “medicalization” approach is the best solution for our multiple woes of drugs, crime, and AIDS.

The drug court and the rest of Schmoke’s immediate drug-reform measures appear to enjoy wide support here in Baltimore City. The City Council is almost unanimously behind the mayor’s initiatives. Baltimore’s public-health and drug-treatment providers, who stand to gain funding and stature from the initiatives, also generally approve of them. The new police commissioner, Tom Frazier, says needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment will make his job easier. And of course Baltimore’s heroin and cocaine addicts – who make up about six percent of the population, according to Bureau of the Census figures – are all for it.

In fact, one gets the impression that the mayor’s local drug-reform agenda has been falling into place with relative ease. People tend to see needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment as almost clinical prescriptions for treating the symptoms of the drug crisis.

It is Schmoke’s national long-term drug policy, with its overtones of decriminalization, that has attracted strong and vocal opposition.

By now, everybody knows that Schmoke advocates some form of drug decriminalization. To a lot of people, that strategy sounds so radical on the surface that they aren’t very interested in the details. For example, Lieutenant Leander Nevin, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, says the bottom line is that Schmoke “wants to legalize drugs and give away free needles,” and asks sarcastically, “It’s socialism, right?”

To Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, the details of decriminalization are insignificant compared to the impact of even talking about it. He sees a direct correlation between rising drug use in high schools and the whole debate over decriminalization, which Schmoke has persistently publicized for six years now.

“I think this whole discussion is more hurtful than helpful,” Gimbel says. “I have to deal with the kids today who believe in legalization only because the mayor or the rap group Cypress Hill said so. For the last ten years we have seen major decreases [in drug use] and changes of attitude. Now all of the sudden these kids are changing the way they looking at [legalization]. I have to deal with that, and I blame it on the legalization debate.”

Barring some undetected tectonic shift in public opinion over the last six years, Nevin and Gimbel are right in line with most Marylanders’ opinions of legalization. In 1988, The Evening Sun contracted a public-opinion research firm to survey a random sample of Marylanders over 18 years old to ask them whether they support drug legalization. The results were basically the same for Baltimore as for the whole state: less than 20 percent were for legalization, and more than 70 percent were opposed to it.

In spite of this opposition, Schmoke has high hopes for his long-term, national strategy, which he clearly does not want associated with the term legalization.

“My approach is not legalization, that is, the sale of drugs in the private market,” he told an audience of doctors and nurses at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in March. Rather, he proposes lifting a corner of the current blanket prohibition on illegal drugs by drawing addicts into the public-health system, where they could be maintained, if necessary, using drugs made available through a government market.

“The government, not private traffickers, would control the price, distribution, purity, and access to particular substances, which we already do with prescription drugs,” Schmoke told the audience. “This, mind you, would take most of the profit out of street-level drug trafficking, and it is the profits that drive crime. Addicts would be treated and, if necessary, maintained under medical auspices. In my view, street crime would go down, children would find it harder, not easier, to get their hands on drugs, and law-enforcement officials would concentrate on the highest echelons of drug-trafficking enterprises.”

Schmoke’s zeal for reform is coupled with a hardened distaste for drug prohibition.

“Drug prohibition is a policy that has now turned millions of addicts into criminals, spawned a huge international drug-trafficking enterprise, and brought unrelenting violence to many of our urban neighborhoods,” Schmoke said. “It was a flawed strategy when it began, and it is still a flawed strategy now.”

Legalization or not, the mayor’s approach is roundly dismissed by people who think any fiddling with drug prohibition would, as a sociobiologist might say, damage the antidrug “chromosomes” that have been grafted into society’s DNA sequence over the last few generations. One such person is Dr. Lee P. Brown, the director of President Clinton’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. In a statement on drug legalization last December, after U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that legalization would reduce crime, Brown commented that “[a]ny change in the current policy of prohibiting drug use would seriously impair antidrug education efforts, drug-free community programs, drug-free workplace programs, and the overall national effort to reduce the level of drug use and its consequences.”

Local opposition to Schmoke’s call to change national drug laws is every bit as pointed as the Washington establishment’s. Gimbel protests that decriminalization “is a real intellectual pipe dream, and it scares me because the mayor is very articulate in selling this program.” City Councilman Martin O’Malley, of the Third District, thinks it “just amounts to so much more intellectual bullshit.” Joyce Malepka, founder of the Silver Spring antidrug lobbying group called Maryland Voters for a Responsible Drug Policy, says, “There is no intellectual argument about legalizing drugs because anyone who is that short-sighted isn’t really experienced, and if that is the case, then there is certainly no business talking about it.”

One objection that Schmoke’s medicalization opponents make is that a prescription-based drug-treatment system for addicts would be ripe for abuse. Steve Dnitrian, vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, in New York City, argues that legal drugs are already abused and a wider array of them would lead to greater use and abuse.

“Take a look at the drugs that are already regulated medically, such as Valium,” Dnitrian says, by way of illustration. “Are they abused? Heavily. Medicalization would be the same thing. You would just be adding a couple of more flavors to the vast array of products we have right now to alter reality. If you make available a product that is not readily available, it is going to get used. Even people who favor decriminalization acknowledge that drug use would go up dramatically.”

Still, Schmoke has so far managed to buck the antidecriminalization establishment and remain in office. How has he done it?

One explanation is that his drug-reform strategy is multi-faceted and comprehensive, so many who oppose him on decriminalization or needle exchange agree with many of his other drug-reform ideas. For instance, his crusade for drug treatment on demand and the creation of drug courts is lauded from all corners, including by Malepka and Gimbel, President Clinton, and the antidrug advertising venture Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Schmoke hasn’t got this far by smart policymaking alone, however. Part of it was political drive: he is on the line with this medicalization talk, so he has been campaigning hard to prove his is right; if he can’t, he risks losing legitimacy with the public. Frank DeFillipo, a political columnist for The Evening Sun, says, “Schmoke has a lot to defend. He is going to have to go out and defend that issue in the mayoral race, and there are compelling arguments against what he is advocating.”

On the mayor’s side are a significant number of individual legislators, doctors, lawyers, judges, and religious leaders – powerful people with connections to organizations that can effect change. Schmoke feels that the average voter may also be coming around to agree that we need a new strategy against drugs, crime, and AIDS, and that medicalization should be given a sporting chance. Depending on how he plays this issue during the upcoming mayoral campaign, Schmoke may bet his future in political office on that perceived trend. He has been making every effort to swing the Zeitgeist around. Given the poll-pending strength of his supporters, he just might be able to do it.

“My sense is that the majority of Baltimoreans may disagree with my conclusion about the need for medicalization and decriminalization,” Schmoke acknowledges, “but that they agree that I should raise this issue and am glad that I didn’t change my mind. And the overwhelming majority of people believe that the current approach is not working, but they are not sure which way we should go.”

Schmoke hopes to make medicalization an asset at the polls by plugging the effectiveness of the needle-exchange program and the drug court, although he is not sure the results will be in by election time. To bolster his position, he says he will stump medicalization as effective in its own right but even better when combined with community development and community policing initiatives.

“All those things add up to positive impacts,” Schmoke says, “and that is what I’m hoping will happen in the communities.”

Schmoke is confident that all of his attention to detail will pay off politically, because he is well prepared to discuss and defend his proposals. In short, he has a plan, so the burden of proof is on the opposition to propose a better one.

“I think that if somebody is going to raise it as an issue in the election and be critical of my positions,” Schmoke challenges, “then they are going to have to have an alternative, a substantive alternative that will be attractive to the citizenry.”

Mary Pat Clarke, Schmoke’s challenger in next year’s mayoral race, does not plan on making medicalization an issue in the election.

“It is not a local issue,” Clarke points out. “It can’t be solved locally. The real issue is the here and the now and the livability of Baltimore City. If it is an issue in the mayoral race, it will be so only because [Schmoke] makes it one.” The bottom line to Clarke is that medicalization “is not something that we can do [on a local level], it is only something that we can talk about,” and too much talk means too little action. “You can’t use these discussions as an excuse to abandon the treatment programs that exist today,” Clarke argues.

She has particular misgivings about Schmoke’s new STEP, or drug court, program, which has already enrolled more than a dozen addicts and plans to divert 600 nonviolent drug criminals to treatment in its first year. Although she supports the initiative, Clarke fears that the city’s troubled drug-treatment system is ill equipped to handle the new program.

“To talk about a drug court without a rehabilitated and refunded treatment system,” Clarke asserts, “is just to create another level of logjam, frustrations, and problems. Expanded and improved treatment is an imperative before we create a drug court and an entire new system that would fall to pieces without the backup required.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Stuart O. Simms, however, points out that funding for the STEP program will cover drug treatment for participants. Also, by freeing up prison space and court dockets, Simms estimates that “in one year, the cost savings of such a program will be $1.8 million.” This money can help fund an expanded treatment system.

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The STEP program is modeled after the drug court in Miami, where only about one in 10 participants have been rearrested during the year following their treatment. To better the chances of the defendants’ success in beating the monkeys off their backs, the STEP program, in addition to drug treatment, provides job training, academic services, life-skills programs, job placement, and other support. It is a one-stop shop for getting your act together. All you have to do is get arrested.

Richard Farr, a cocaine addict, says people might do just that in order to get the treatment they need.

“There are a lot of people out there now who want to get into a drug program, but they can’t,” observes Farr, “so I guess you got to get caught to get into a program. It doesn’t seem right, but it sounds like that’s what you got to do.”

State’s Attorney Simms urges addicts tempted to take this route to “contact the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems [the city’s treatment referral system] and try to see if they can get involved through the city health department. That is painstaking, that is slow, and I agree that the answer is insufficient.”

Mary Pat Clarke is more optimistic about the mayor’s AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. The $160,000 program is designed for 750 to 1,000 intravenous-drug-using participants, who will be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones on a one-for-one basis. Another $250,000 has been dedicated for approximately 100 drug-treatment slots reserved for needle-exchange participants. Schmoke expects a needle-exchange program in Baltimore to have results similar to one in New Haven, Connecticut, where needle exchange is credited with a one-third decline in the rate of new HIV infections.

“From a public-health perspective, it is rational,” says Clarke. “Like most of us, I obviously have my concerns about the message it sends, but I think that the public-health issues are imperative. I hope that it will be successful in Baltimore City.”

Baltimore City police commissioner Tom Frazier agrees that “needle exchange is a good thing both in terms of human suffering and public-health costs.”

Clarke and Frazier are joined in support of needle exchange by many experts in the medical community. The Baltimore City Medical Society and the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the city and state medical societies, respectively, are both behind the measure as a way to control the spread of AIDS without increasing drug abuse. And Dr. Michael Fingerhood, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and medical director of the Detox Inpatient Unit at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, says, “Most of the people in primary care who take care of people with HIV without a doubt are in favor of needle exchange.”

Dr. David Vlahov, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, who has been studying the natural history HIV infection among about 600 HIV-infected IV-drug users in Baltimore since 1988, is a fervent supporter of needle exchange. Vlahov points out that there are 39 needle-exchange programs operating in the United States, that there have been numerous studies of needle exchange, including studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. General Accounting Office, and that the results are favorable.

“Looking across the date from a variety of different studies,” Vlahov said as he shared the Hopkins stage with Schmoke in March, “the results have been that needle-exchange programs do not encourage people to start drug use, they do not encourage current drug users to inject more frequently, they do not encourage former users to restart drug use, and they do not encourage needle sharing. So a lot of these concerns that people have had are thwarted by the data that have come forth from these studies.”

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The Governor’s Executive Advisory Council, which advises and reports to Governor Schaefer on public-policy issues, just plain disagrees. Last spring it submitted a “Presentation in Opposition to Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs” to the Governor’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, the body responsible for helping to form and implement the governor’s drug-and-alcohol-abuse policies. The report concludes that the evidence on needle exchange is shaky, and “the real risk of doing real harm is too great.”

The council argues, based on what its chairman, Marshall Meyer, calls “a lot of data, research, study, and common sense,” that need-exchange programs are not safe. The list of risks include sending the wrong message about drug use, causing increased drug use and conversion to injection drugs, assisting criminal behavior, subverting drug-treatment efforts, and increasing the likelihood of “needle stick accidents.”

The council also questions whether needle exchange will work. Focusing just on needles, the report points out, overlooks the roles that other injection paraphernalia and that unsafe sex play in transmitting HIV.

“Facilitating drug use, through the provision of needles, is not likely to result in safe sexual behavior,” the report states, so it concludes that needle exchange may exacerbate the spread of sexually transmitted HIV. Finally, the council noted “that needle exchange programs are having very limited success in reaching, and even less success in keeping, the highest risk users.”

Some representatives in Baltimore’s City Council are concerned not only about mixed messages regarding condoning drug use, but also that the needle-exchange program won’t work. Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, of the Second District, feels that “the concept is okay, if addicts would turn the needles in and use clean needles, but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think addicts are responsible enough to do that.”

Councilman Nick D’Adamo, of the First District, agrees: “Needle exchange is iffy to me, because if a drug user on the corner is going to shoot up, I don’t think he’ll be looking for a clean needle. I think he is going to use whatever is there at the time.”

Tony Whiting, an IV-drug addict living in a homeless shelter run by Street Voice, an advocacy group for addicts, thinks the council members are wrong on this score.

“People will use brand-new needles if they have them,” Whiting insists. “Even the ones who don’t care want to use brand-new needles because they are easy to use, they don’t clog, and it makes the whole process a whole lot easier. Any addict would rather have a brand-new set than something used any day.”

Fellow Street Smart denizen and drug addict Richard Farr basically agrees with Whiting.

“Not everybody will go to get a clean needle every time, but the majority of them would,” he predicts. “Maybe if there was a place where they could go to get clean needles, then a lot of [needle sharing] would be eliminated. Not all of it, but a lot of it would.”

Whether addicts will use the program is not the issue for some people; the issue is the extent to which the needle exchange amounts to legalization.

“It’s a bizarre thing to do,” Joyce Malepka says. She argues that “it’s Draconian to give someone who injects heroin needles to continue that process. We see it as a giant step toward legalization.”

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Mary Pat Clarke feels that for now, Schmoke’s visions may be delusions.

“If he can help to improve and enlarge the treatment system in Baltimore City, I would support that,” Clarke says, “but the council has been looking at the current programs and is beginning to meet with [drug treatment] providers and explore the gaps. The providers are out there, underfunded and struggling to survive and handle their caseload, and it is a system in crisis. They are overloaded, they are underfunded, and the city has failed to supply an adequate system of coordination to really assist.”

At least part of the problem is the miniscule amount of funding that comes from the city itself for drug treatment: the figure hovers around $150,000 per year, or about one percent of the total drug-treatment budget for Baltimore City. Because of this meager contribution, some people believe that Schmoke is merely canting when he calls for more treatment.

“He’s been talking like this for so many years,” Michael Gimbel says, “but how much money has he put in his budget to back up his word that he really believes in treatment? Baltimore City gets millions right now from the state for drug treatment, and the city puts virtually nothing in. Yet he wants to go to Annapolis and say, ‘My top priority is needle exchange.’ Why isn’t his top priority treatment for everybody? That is hypocrisy. That is politics, so I can’t respect that.”

Politics or not, if Schmoke manages to get 10,000 new federally funded treatment slots, it will be a coup for the beleaguered Baltimore treatment community.

According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” published by the Abell Foundation, which has funded or carried out many studies about local issues for the city government, “drug treatment experts in Baltimore City suggest that the number of treatment slots needs to be increased, conservatively, by three-fold.” Since there are currently 5,300 treatment slots, Schmoke’s proposal would almost meet the target.

The mayor is seeking a meeting with Clinton Administration officials to discuss his drug-treatment proposal. In the meantime, alternative funding may be found from two other federal sources: Clinton’s crime bill, if passed by Congress, will provide more money for drug treatment, and U.S. Attorney Janet Reno has created a new block-grant program that can be used for either policing or drug treatment.

“Both of those together don’t make up ten thousand [treatment slots],” Schmoke says, “but they would allow us to almost double the number of slot that we have now.”

Despite Schmoke’s optimism, the operable word when it comes to expanded federal funding for drug treatment in Baltimore City is if. And if Schmoke doesn’t produce the proposed treatment slots, then Baltimore’s addicts will continue queuing up on the treatment waiting list and continue to rob, steal, smoke, and shoot up until they can get effective treatment for their disease. According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” on any given day there are about 730 addicts on the treatment waiting list, and only one out of 10 Baltimore substances abusers who want help can get it.

Since 1988, when Schmoke opened a national debate over drug decriminalization, he has done his fair share of talking about providing the help addicts need. Now he has started to take steps to do something about it. He is determined to prove that his medicine works, and if he stays in office another term, Baltimore is destined to be the testing ground.

Schmoke, casting himself as the good doctor, has donned the white lab coat and drawn up the syringe, and Baltimore, gravely ill from the combined effects of drugs, crime, and AIDS, is rolling up its sleeve to take the dose. But will the good doctor find a vein?

 

Cashed Out: South Mountain Creamery’s Bank Account Seized as Part of Money-Laundering Crackdown

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Apr. 18, 2012

South Mountain Creamery, the Frederick County dairy farm and food-distribution company, is a fixture of Baltimore-area farmers markets, particularly the Waverly market on Saturdays or the one on Sundays, downtown under the Jones Falls Expressway. South Mountain co-owner Randy Sowers is now in the hot seat with the feds, because in late February, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division (IRS-CID) used a federal anti-money-laundering statute to seize the contents of a PNC bank account Sowers says was the depository of cash earned by his company’s farmers-market business.

Sowers has not been charged with a crime, and says he expects to learn soon whether or not he will be. As for getting his money back—nearly $70,000, a fraction of the nearly quarter-million dollars in cash deposits the feds say Sowers laundered between May and December last year—well, based on the experiences of others in his position, he’ll likely not see it again, at least not all of it.

Baltimore County Police officer Michael Aiosa, who has been detailed as an IRS-CID task-force member since October 2010, signed the six-page affidavit used to get the seizure warrant to empty the account, of which Sowers and his daughter-in-law, Karen Sowers, are co-signatories. The affidavit says cash deposits were broken down into increments of under $10,001 each, causing PNC to not generate required “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that financial institutions must file with regulators when they receive or disburse more than $10,000 in a single cash transaction. Under 31 U.S.C. 5324, federal law prohibits such conduct, which is called “structuring.”

Sowers, who did not seek publicity about his predicament but spoke to a reporter after the search warrant in the court records came to City Paper’s attention, says he deposited the cash he’d made in the increments in which it had been earned. If the deposited amounts often ended up being a little under $10,001, he explained, that’s just the way it worked out and he no intention of breaking the law.

“We had no idea there was supposedly a law against it—we were just doing it the way we figured we were supposed to, making deposits every week,” Sowers explains. “We weren’t laundering money,” he adds. “We’re farmers, we struggle every day to pay bills. We don’t know what else to do. Now we just feel like putting [our cash] in a can somewhere.”

Sowers’ attorney, David Watt, says his client “probably shouldn’t have said anything” when contacted by City Paper, and declined to comment further, saying, “We don’t want to act like we’re trying to influence the goings-on” by talking with the press.

Historically, the anti-structuring statute has been used by prosecutors as an ancillary charge with other accusations of nefarious behavior, such as drug dealing or terrorism. And it still is. But over the last few years, prosecutors have started to use it more regularly as a standalone charge—an observation noted by defense attorneys that Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein confirms.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data center about federal court cases, reports that in fiscal year 2011 Maryland brought 14 of the nation’s 99 structuring cases, making it the top state for such prosecutions. Nationally, the numbers have been rising; the 2011 figures are up 8.8 percent from the year before and up 57.1 percent from five years ago.

Greater prosecutorial emphasis on enforcing the anti-structuring statute has resulted in a rise in money seizures, civil-forfeiture cases, and criminal charges against small businesses and the people who own them. Typical targets handle a lot of cash, and in Maryland gas stations, liquor stores, and used-car dealerships have landed in expensive trouble, losing money through seizures, criminal penalties, and legal bills.

South Mountain is not the first seasonal-produce market to find itself targeted for structuring recently. Taylor’s Produce Stand, on the Eastern Shore, was stung last year after the feds seized about $90,000 from its bank accounts. In December, pursuant to a civil-forfeiture settlement agreement after no criminal charges were filed, the stand’s owners got back about half of the seized money.

Two members of the defense bar who handle structuring cases, Gerard Martin and Steven Levin, both former Maryland assistant U.S. attorneys, say they have noticed the anti-structuring enforcement trend emerging in Maryland over the last several years.

“The emphasis is on basically seizing money, whether it is legally or illegally earned,” Levin says. “It can lead to financial ruin for business owners, and there’s a potential for abuse here by the government, where they use it basically as a means of seizing money, and I think we’ve seen that happen.”

“South Mountain Creamery!” Martin exclaims when contacted by phone. “They’re going after South Mountain Creamery! That’s an icon. That’s like going after mom and apple pie.” Then he settles in to ruminate on the general trends, saying cases typically arise because financial institutions “are required to tell the government about it” when they suspect a pattern of structured cash deposits. Then, “the government gets a search warrant and takes every nickel out of the guy’s bank account,” Martin continues, adding that “structuring is generally an indication that there is something going wrong, but the government doesn’t always find another crime,” such as drug dealing or tax evasion.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons why a liquor store or a gas station would be depositing $9,500 in cash a day,” Martin says. “Sometimes the numbers just work out that way. But it is usually not an accident that it is happening.”

Rosenstein says that anti-structuring efforts “are an increasing area of emphasis for the Justice Department, and there has been an influx of resources” to investigate and prosecute it. Thus, he says, “I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t an uptick” in prosecutions, given the additional resources.

Post-Sept. 11 changes to banking laws, Rosenstein continues, have prompted financial institutions to report suspicious financial doings more vigilantly, and as a result, investigators and prosecutors now have “a treasure trove of information” about transactions, which provides them with “potential leads for finding criminal activities.” Structuring is often a red flag for other crime since, Rosenstein says, “typically people who go through all those lengths” to make multiple cash deposits of just under $10,000, sometimes at multiple bank branches on the same day, are trying to hide something. But, he continues, “There’s a possibility that somebody did it innocently, and we are always open to that.”

 

Sowers spoke at length about being targeted for structuring. In essence, he thinks the government used an exotic legal gimmick to suck hard-earned money out of his business just as he’s facing bills for hay and other spring-time expenses farmers incur—but he admits that, if there’s a law against what he did, “well, it looks like we did break the law,” even if he didn’t mean to.

The seizure and the resulting legal limbo as he awaits the prosecutor’s charging decision has “scared us to death,” he says. And the banking headaches that resulted from an emptied account have been never-ending, including bounced checks, mucked-up automatic withdrawals, and the resulting overdraft fees.

“It makes me look bad,” Sowers says.