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.

Hot Contract: City bribery scandal tied to influential father and son

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 26, 2005

Mark Sapperstein owns 113 W. Hamburg St., an 8,000-square-foot commercial building in Sharp-Leadenhall. The South Baltimore property, though devoid of signs, houses Allstate Boiler Service, a company owned by Gilbert Sapperstein, Mark’s 73-year-old father.

On Jan. 7, Allstate Boiler’s bookkeeper and office manager, Ida Marie Beran, pled guilty in a bribery case involving the company’s contract with the city to provide boiler services for municipal agencies. Also pleading guilty was Cecil Thrower, a city Department of Public Works employee since 1984 who worked at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Essex.

The case ties an established name in Baltimore’s business and political class—that of the Sapperstein family—to an ongoing criminal investigation.

In the statement of facts filed in the case, which was brought by the Office of the State Prosecutor, Beran and Thrower admitted that they conspired together to inflate invoices under Allstate Boiler’s contract with the city. While Thrower received somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 for his part in the scheme, Beran received nothing—though her employer received “well over” $120,000 in excess payments as a result of the fraudulent bills, according to case documents.

The court record further explains that the conspiracy began in approximately 1998, at which point “Mr. Thrower was approached by the business owner who employed Ms. Beran [who] suggested to Mr. Thrower, ‘From time to time you could do something for us and perhaps we could do something [for] you.’ . . . [O]n more than one occasion, while acting at the instruction of and in concert with her employer, Ms. Beran prepared the envelopes containing cash for Thrower and provided them to other employees for delivery to Thrower.”

The case documents make no mention of Allstate Boiler or the Back River plant. Department of Public Works spokesman Robert Murrow, however, confirmed for City Paper that the city contract defrauded in the scheme has been held by Allstate for “like 20 years” to provide boiler work for any city agency that needs such services, and that the inflated bills were for work at Back River.

Allstate, which has been in business since 1965, also holds the boiler contract for the Baltimore City Public School System, according to city schools spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt, though she says the contract is “set to expire in February.”

State prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh confirms that, “absolutely, this is a continuing investigation,” though he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the investigation continues to focus on Allstate Boiler or the Sappersteins. Rohrbaugh’s reticence aside, the record makes clear that Allstate, not Beran, benefited from the longstanding bribery scheme.

Mark Sapperstein acknowledged to City Paper that Allstate Boiler Service is located at his property, but he declined comment about the company or the bribery scandal. Gilbert Sapperstein did not return calls for comment left at Allstate, and contact information for Beran could not be found. Thrower’s phone at his West Baltimore residence has been disconnected.

Mark Sapperstein is a major player in local real-estate circles. He’s a partner in Silo Point, a $200 million proposal to convert a derelict grain elevator in Locust Point into a residential-retail development. On Jan. 13, the Baltimore Development Corp. awarded development rights to a city-owned parcel at Calvert and Lombard streets to Mark Sapperstein and his partners, who planned to turn it into a $71 million apartment complex called Cityscape. In 2002, he and his partners constructed a $13.5 million parking garage at Calvert and Lombard. Last spring, Sapperstein purchased 200 acres on North Point in eastern Baltimore County, where he plans to build luxury single-family homes on the Bauer Farm tract, where British troops in the War of 1812 marched en route to face Baltimore militias.

Gilbert and Mark Sapperstein, through their respective companies, have been active as donors to campaigns of elected officials. Since the fall of 1999, the two, along with Mark Sapperstein’s wife and several Sapperstein companies, gave at least $33,270 to the campaign committees of various elected officials.

Of the total, $9,650 went to Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), $8,000 went to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith (D), and $4,250 went to Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R). Nearly all of the rest went to legislators representing Baltimore City and Baltimore County. At the federal level, Gilbert Sapperstein donated $250 each to U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-2nd District) and the Republican National Committee. Mark Sapperstein gave $1,000 to U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and $500 each to Ruppersberger, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), and Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor (R-7th District). Mark Sapperstein’s wife also gave $500 to Cantor.

Gilbert Sapperstein, according to several sources familiar with the workings of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, is known as a go-to guy for prospective liquor licensees looking to break into the bar business. As a secured creditor for bars that fail, he assumes control of properties and liquor licenses and thus can procure opportunities for new entrepreneurs. According to liquor board documents, for example, Sapperstein was a secured creditor in a March 2003 license transfer for Mary’s Place in West Baltimore. Often, sources say, bar owners who are indebted to Sapperstein, who has been in the poker-machine business for years, agree to keep his poker machines in their establishments.

Both Sappersteins have had run-ins with the law for gambling-related charges. Gilbert, whose Star Coin Machine Co. is housed at 113 W. Hamburg with Allstate Boiler, faced 107 gambling-related charges in state courts in the 1980s and ’90s relating to Star Coin’s poker machines, though prosecutors declined to prosecute nearly all of them. In two cases, he received probation before judgment and was fined $1,475. Mark Sapperstein was charged with four gambling-related counts in 1989, though prosecutors chose not to pursue the cases. State records indicate that Mark Sapperstein’s poker-machine company, Mark’s Vending, has been inactive for more than a decade.

In 1984, Gilbert Sapperstein faced 18 housing-code violations for properties he owned in the city, receiving probation before judgment for 16 of them while prosecutors declined to pursue the remaining two charges. In 2003, Gilbert Sapperstein was charged with 10 housing-code violations in connection with a rowhouse he owned at 3203 Fleet St., receiving probation before judgment and $170 in fines. He sold the property shortly afterward.

Last April, Gilbert Sapperstein sold one of his properties in the Hollins Market neighborhood—the former Tom Thumb/Gypsy’s Café property, which in 2000 collapsed amid ill-conceived renovations. Two of his other properties in the same Southwest Baltimore neighborhood on Carrollton Avenue—one of which housed the Club Medusa, a hipsters’ after-hours social club, in the 1990s—are for sale. In July, he sold a property at 1600 W. Baltimore St., which houses a tavern called Good Times.

Currently for sale in the 800 block of West Cross Street is the property that housed Foul Ball Bar and Grille, which is owned by 2001 Eastern Ave. LLC, one of Gilbert Sapperstein’s companies. The Fells Point address the company is named after houses the Colonial Inn (owned by the same company). In Baltimore County, Gilbert Sapperstein owns 9727 Pulaski Highway, a large restaurant currently under renovation, and 2123-25 Sparrows Point Road, a strip club and bar.

The list of Sapperstein properties—many of them with liquor licenses attached—could go on and on.

In the 1990s, Mark and Gilbert Sapperstein were named, along with dozens of other parties, in a civil Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit brought by Donald D. Stone, a self-described surfer dude who alleged that the Sappersteins, their business partners and lawyers, and the law-enforcement bureaucracy in Maryland and Florida conspired to keep him from shedding light on their allegedly corrupt schemes. The case, which was filed separately in federal courts in Maryland and Florida, went nowhere. That outcome has not kept Stone from posting potentially libelous statements about the Sappersteins and others on the internet—though, so far, Stone says he has not been sued.

Part of Stone’s investigation into the Sappersteins focused on an Anne Arundel County deal for cell-phone towers that led to a lawsuit against Mark Sapperstein and his business partners by George and Mary Jane Chamberlain, who moved from Annapolis to New Hampshire before filing the complaint in 1999. The lawsuit, which has since been settled, alleged that Mark Sapperstein and two partners, both of whom also sat on the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Commission, stole the couple’s idea for dominating the communications-tower industry. The terms of the settlement are confidential, though the amount paid to the Chamberlains—$40,000—later leaked out. The lawsuit was filed shortly after Mark Sapperstein sold his communications-tower companies to a Florida company for $8 million in 1998.

Investigators are keeping mum about where they might be headed as they scour the books. Only time will tell whether the Sappersteins are in the clear or headed for more trouble as the case progresses.

 

Fouled Nests: The bust of a local poker club uncovers all sorts of messy connections

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 23, 2005

When Baltimore City Police Sgt. Craig Gentile’s vice enforcement unit arrested 95 people for illegal gambling at the Owls Nest poker club in South Baltimore near M&T Bank Stadium on the evening of Nov. 2, it opened up a can of worms. Gentile, a veteran vice cop who routinely busts strip joints and nightspots, wouldn’t discuss the raid or the ongoing investigation of the Owls Nest for this article. But the public record, law-enforcement sources who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity, and interviews with people close to the action at the Owls Nest and in the local poker world show that it is more than just a refurbished warehouse hosting charity gambling.

At its core, the Owls Nest is an illegal poker den with political, criminal, and law-enforcement ties.

The situation at the Owls Nest revolves first and foremost around the relationship between its principals—Joseph Anthony Cary, 50, and Gerald Curtis Dickens, 65—and Frank Darby Moran Sr., 76, a man dubbed by some as “the king of Arbutus.”

Cary and Dickens worked for Moran’s Arbutus-based charity gambling outfit, the Orioles Nest, before they split from him about a year ago and started the competing Owls Nest. Both private clubs are chapters of national fraternal organizations, similar to Elks or Moose lodges; the Owls have been around since 1904. Both the Owls and Orioles (nothing to do with the baseball team) have seen a renaissance in recent years. Chapters open their doors and people become members, often in order to gamble, ostensibly to raise money for charitable causes.

Despite Cary and Dickens’ split from Moran, ties remain. Cary’s Statewide Amusement vending company’s web site (www.statewideamusements.com) lists its address as 5404 East Drive in downtown Arbutus—a commercial property owned by Moran. It’s also the address of record for the Orioles Nest, which has operated at several locations since at least 2003.

Right around front, in the same strip of small businesses that houses the Orioles Nest, are the 12th Legislative District office of state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, Del. Steven Deboy, and Del. James Malone, all Democrats.

Deboy is a retired Baltimore County cop who now works as a warrant investigator for the Howard County Police Department, while Malone is a lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department.

Next door to the district office is Sport Cuts, a barbershop and clothing store owned by Andre Fozard, a federally convicted ecstasy dealer, former bail bondsman, and former strip-club co-owner on the Block in downtown Baltimore.

Delegates Malone and Deboy both say they do not know Fozard, but admit they were aware that the Orioles Nest was based out of the same small commercial building where their district office is located. Deboy denies being a member of the Orioles Nest.

“This is actually bizarre,” he says of the contention, made by City Paper’s sources, that he belonged to the private club, and suggests that anyone who says that he was a member may be engaging in “politics of destruction.” Malone, however, says “to be very, very honest, I don’t know whether I’m a member or not,” adding that he’d been to one Orioles Nest event, years ago. “I’d be very surprised if I was a member,” he says, adding, “I don’t gamble, period.”

Baltimore County Councilman Sam Moxley (D-1st District) was also named by City Paper’s sources as being an Orioles Nest member.

“No, not that I know of,” he responds. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been at any of their events, though I talked to [Frank] Moran about the situation [with the club]. He wanted to know about the gambling laws in the county.”

According to a law-enforcement source who has seen the Orioles Nest membership list, Fozard was a member of the organization. Several sources say Thomas Wayne Damron, a drug convict with a violent record, was too. So was Naylor Harrison, a convicted drug dealer who reportedly runs an asphalt paving business, according to Orioles Nest manager William Sachse and a law-enforcement source, though they say he was suspended for misbehaving in the club.

Fozard, Damron, and Harrison, law-enforcement sources say, have also been frequent habitués of the Owls Nest, which hired retired and off-duty cops from local jurisdictions as security for its tournaments. According to the police report of the Owls Nest raid, Barry Lee Boone, a retired Howard County cop, was armed and working for the tournament’s organizers that night, taking money from players.

Attempts to contact Fozard and Damron for comment were unsuccessful, but Harrison was reached. He denied ever being a member of either the Orioles or Owls, adding, “I stopped going to those places a long time ago.”

Though Moran, Cary, and Dickens could not be reached to interview them for this article, Orioles Nest manager William Sachse could. In a telephone interview, he explains that Cary and Moran go way back, through Cary’s vending-machine business, Statewide Amusements, which other associates of Cary, including John Leroy Long Jr., confirm.

“Joe Cary was pretty much raised and taken care of by Frank Moran,” Sachse says. “He taught Joe everything he needed to know in the vending business.”

The two also worked together running Moran’s club, the Orioles Nest, in a business park on Vero Road in Arbutus, a stone’s throw from the city line. Once inside the innocuous business-suite door, patrons paid a nominal fee—sometimes $20, sometimes $50, sometimes more, depending on the night’s event—to gamble, with the proceeds ostensibly going to various charities. But in late 2004, the club’s management experienced a falling out.

Sachse says Moran suspected that Orioles Nest money was being “misappropriated” by Cary and Dickens, and a “very ugly breakup” ensued. Sachse says Moran brought in Kimberly Acton, Sachse’s fiancé, late last year to clean up the Orioles Nest operations. After a couple of months, Sachse continues, Acton “got tired of the drama” of running the place, and he took over for her about eight months ago.

After the split, Sachse says, the “drama” continued, but he didn’t elaborate. A law-enforcement source familiar with the situation did. When Cary and Dickens left the Orioles Nest, the source says, they took a lot of the club’s assets with them.

“That night in November [2004], when the establishment closed, Joe Cary backed a truck up and cleaned the place out,” the source alleges. “He took TVs, poker chips, poker tables, food, soap dispensers, cigarette machines—everything except the pool table.” Cary and Dickens, the source continues, didn’t go far to start their own charity-gambling club—they set up in the next suite over.

Cary and Dickens “hung a cardboard sign up with the owls nest on it,” the source continues, adding that Moran purchased new amenities and kept his club open. “They were running side by side, wide open. [Cary and Dickens] were there through Christmas, maybe into January, while they were refurbishing the Worscester Street warehouse”—the location that was raided by Gentile and his squad on Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, the source says, Moran tried to roust Cary and Dickens from their location next door to his by starting his own Owls Nest chapter.

“There’s something with these fraternal organizations that two with the same name have to be at least six or eight miles apart,” the law-enforcement source says. “[Moran] was hell-bent on getting his own Owls Club established, because then [Cary and Dickens’] club couldn’t stay.”

While state records do not show Moran incorporating another Owls Club, a sign on a rear door to his East Drive property in Arbutus read, as of press time: “Owls Nest 4535—Private Club. The awning of Cary and Dickens’ establishment in South Baltimore announces it as, “Owls Club 4525.” (The door reads, “Owls Nest 4525.”)

After Moran’s falling out with Cary and Dickens, the source says, Baltimore County police paid a visit to the Orioles Nest: “The police said the Orioles Nest had all the proper paperwork and everything, but [that] it cannot play Texas hold-’em. They told Sachse and Kim [Acton], ‘This is it. It’s over.’”

Sachse confirmed the police visit to City Paper. Baltimore County Police Department spokesman Bill Toohey couldn’t confirm the visit but explains the county police practice involving charity poker events: “The gambling unit goes there, proactively, and reminds the operators of the county law—you can only hold [poker tournaments and other charitable gambling events] once a year, you can’t give cash as prizes—only merchandise of less than $1,000 in value—and everybody who plays has to be a [club] member.”

Shortly after the county police laid down the law to the Orioles Nest, both clubs’ promotional materials show that they relocated to Baltimore City.

According to a flier obtained by City Paper, Owls Nest 4525—Cary and Dickens’ outfit—opened in Baltimore City on Jan. 22, 2005, at 1800 Worscester St., sandwiched between the Russell Street overpass and the railroad tracks near M&T Bank Stadium.

“During the time I was with the Orioles Club, I had the pleasure of meeting many of you and invite you to come visit our new facility,” reads the flier, which bore a signature line for “Jerry,” secretary/treasurer of the Owls Nest. It politely adds that “we encourage you to continue to support the Orioles Club, as it is a fine organization.”

After Cary and Dickens split from Moran’s Orioles and started the Owls Nest, “we didn’t want our organization to be associated in any way with the Owls,” Sachse says, citing Moran’s bitterness over Cary’s disloyalty and the Owls’ indiscretion in holding widely publicized games on a regular basis.

“I mean,” Sachse adds incredulously, “they were advertising in the Sunpapers!”

The police report of the Owls Nest raid mentions an Oct. 18 advertisement in The Sun, which revealed that the Owls Nest was holding a nine-night tournament, and that winners would get seats at the World Poker Challenge tables on Nov. 13 at a Foxwoods, Conn., casino, airfare included.

Which is not to say the Orioles Nest didn’t continue hosting games of chance, ostensibly for charity. In April, Moran’s Orioles Nest distributed a flier, also obtained by City Paper: “We are proud to announce our grand re-opening at our new location . . . less than a mile from our old location.” The event’s date was April 14, and the address—where the club is still operating—was 2930 Washington Boulevard, Suite A, in Southwest Baltimore “next to the Warehouse bar and grill.”

The flier offered a “re-union promotion,” thanking members “for their patience and loyalty” by “giving away $50 in free chips with your first $100 buy-in to be used in any of our games. To the first sixty members to come to the window.”

The flier doesn’t mention any charities, though Sachse makes a point of saying that it would be “unethical if we don’t have a specific beneficiary” for the club’s fundraisers. “You need to deem one charity for that event, so to speak,” he explains, adding that “you don’t tell the charity what kind of event it was. Just give checks.”

By the time the Orioles Nest reopened in Morrell Park in April, the Owls Nest had a calendar of events reflecting twice-a-week poker tournaments. For April 29, the club’s calendar announced “A Special Tournament for Pi Kappa Phi,” a fraternity at UMBC.

According to a flier for the tournament, the event’s beneficiary was Push America, an organization “to serve persons with disabilities.” The cost to participants, the flier reads, was $55, plus $10 for “re-buys”—more chips if players run out. It adds: “All are invited.”

The charitable result of the fraternity tournament was $150, as reflected by a copy of an April 29 check made out by the Owls Nest to Pi Kappa Phi obtained by City Paper. If only three people paid to play, the $150 donation would have been recouped by the event.

In an effort to determine how many people paid to play, City Paper contacted the fraternity’s treasurer at the time, Chris Manger, and its vice “archon,” Greg Quigley. Both asked if they could call back. Neither did, and neither returned repeated subsequent messages.

Since the Baltimore Police Department busted the Owls Nest Nov. 2, the Orioles Nest has continued to host fundraising events. Baltimore City Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-10th District) tells City Paper that he’s not happy about it.

“After the Owls Nest gets busted, this Orioles Nest is still in operation!” Reisinger exclaims. “I called the police on that.” \

Sachse, though, tells City Paper that the Orioles Nest has stopped holding poker tournaments. Furthermore, he contends, the Orioles Nest has been run well and properly on the charity front since Cary and Dickens left.

“I’ll show you exactly where the money goes,” he says, offering to show City Paper the organization’s checkbook. “At the end of each quarter, monies are given out.” When asked if he would demonstrate how the Orioles Nest’s charitable giving has changed from when Cary and Dickens ran the show, Sachse balks: “I mean, if we get audited, that would be a skeleton in [our] closet. I’ll ask Frank [Moran] and get back to you.” He never did, and subsequent calls went unanswered as of press time.

There are other skeletons in the Orioles Nest’s closet, though. Sachse, the man who was brought in to bring order and propriety back to the Orioles Nest, was jailed in the early 1990s for a Howard County drug-distribution conviction, court records show.

Joseph Cary’s skeletons have been coming out of the closet in recent days, as well. First, the Owls Nest got busted Nov. 2, and Gentile says he expects to file criminal charges against Cary soon. Then on Nov. 14, the Comptroller of Maryland’s office announced that it has filed a $953,515.58 tax lien in the Anne Arundel County courts against Statewide Amusements, Cary, and his wife, Deborah Cary (the couple being the officers of Statewide).

“Sticker shock,” is how state comptroller spokesman Kevin Kane characterizes the amount. “There is no appealing this,” he adds.

Comprising the total are $412,507.58 in unpaid taxes, $180,530.55 in interest, and $360,477.45 in penalties. Kane says it is “a case of intentional fraud” in which Statewide underrepresented its gross sales, uncovered by an audit that started in February of this year and examined the period between February 1999, when the company was formed, and November 2004.

Cary is no stranger to financial stress, though. In 2001, he sought and received Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection from creditors including the state of Maryland, a California company that makes monitors for vending machines, the city of Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, and the University of Maryland Medical System.

He’s also no stranger to the criminal courts. Court records show Cary has had criminal charges filed against him at least once in nearly every year since 1978.

Many of the charges have involved alleged violent disputes with his wife (she sometimes, but not always, refused to testify against him during the trials), and he also has faced charges of, among other things, arson, assault, malicious destruction of property, battery, escape from confinement, breaking and entering, resisting arrest, drug possession, and gambling.

He often avoided convictions when prosecutors declined to bring cases to trial, but there are a few guilty findings—for battery, assault, resisting arrest, malicious destruction of property, and failure to appear at court, for instance. Cary also took probation before judgment in many cases, including an arson charge.

Criminal charges against Dickens are not reflected in a court-record search, but he, too, filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He gained protection from the Internal Revenue Service, the state of Maryland, Prince George’s County, various banks, and an accountant.

Based on their records, Cary and Dickens aren’t exactly the model proprietors of a charitable enterprise that specializes in raising funds through gambling events. Cary, however, manages his money well enough to own a 2003 Hummer H2, a 2001 Chevy Corvette convertible, a large RV, and a 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, among other vehicles, all registered in his, his business’, or his family’s names. It’s an impressive automotive fleet for someone who recently emerged from bankruptcy.

Nonetheless, the charitable company Cary and Dickens started—Fraternal Order of Owls 4525 Inc., incorporated two weeks before it was busted, according to the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation—appears to be a proper charity. That is, if the documentation provided to the Baltimore City Zoning Board in April, when the Owls Nest applied for a variance to put its club in a manufacturing district, is reliable.

(The Owls Nest was given its variance in July, though, according to city housing department records, it received no permits for the $50,000 in renovations stated in the zoning application.)

A signed letter purporting to be from Diane Meader, the supreme secretary of the Home Nest, Order of Owls, located in the “Owl Building, Hartford, Conn.,” includes an undated enclosure to the IRS “to certify that Nest #4525 a duly constituted body of the Fraternal Order Of Owls operating under the lodge system.”

The Home Nest, Order of Owls letterhead in the zoning file gives no street address or phone number for the organization, and the Hartford Public Library couldn’t unearth any information about the “Owl Building” or the “Home Nest, Order of Owls” in Hartford or Connecticut. City Paper could not locate a Diane Meader in Connecticut. According to GuideStar.org, a nonprofit information service, there is no charitable enterprise operating in Connecticut using that name. Nor does GuideStar turn up Cary and Dickens’ Fraternal Order of Owls 4525—although it does show Moran’s Orioles Nest.

The Owls Nest in Baltimore does make charitable donations, though. The zoning file includes copies of numerous checks cut to various entities for charitable purposes, including Pi Kappa Phi ($150), the Church of the Redemption in Locust Point ($150), the Linda Whelan Fund ($150), Toni Aguilar ($500), Seniors Helping Seniors ($250), the American Breast Cancer Foundation ($150), the Boys Home Society of Baltimore ($150), Carol Reyes ($100), Maryland Food Bank ($150), the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Widows and Orphans Fund ($200), the Baltimore Child Abuse Center ($200), and the Associated Black Charities ($200).

The amount donated totals $2,350 and was given between February and July of this year. By way of comparison, on the night of the Nov. 2 raid, a Wednesday, more than $25,000 was seized from the Owls Nest tournament then in progress, including more than $6,600 from Cary’s pants pocket.

These numbers make another letter in the zoning file that much more interesting. It’s from Edward Reisinger, and it states that the city councilman supports the zoning variance for the Owls Nest, pointing out that “all money raised is donated to local charities.”

Reisinger says he supported the zoning change for the Owls Nest and wrote the letter based on the word of the building’s owner, Gilda Johnson, “who’s a respected member of the community,” he says. “I wish I could take that [letter] back, but it’s too late now.”

Johnson says she was convinced the Owls Nest was a charitable enterprise: “There was nothing that would have allowed me to think otherwise. It was done strictly by the books.”

The Nov. 2 vice-squad raid on the Owl’s Nest was historic. According to The Sun, it was the largest gambling bust since the Prohibition era, although prosecutors dropped their charges against nearly everyone arrested Nov. 10 (charges are still pending against 15 accused event organizers).

The prosecutors said the wrong law was used in citing them, and that if so many cases were brought to court they would unnecessarily clog up the docket. While especially large, however, the Owls Nest bust was not unique—even in the past year.

On Feb. 25, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Restaurant on Holabird Avenue in Southeast Baltimore was busted for a Texas hold-’em tournament (“Game Sharks,” City Paper, March 9), and Peter’s Pour House on Mercer Street near Camden Yards was raided this past spring. Eugene Lovito of Fund Raisers Unlimited was charged with gambling in the Peter’s case, but the charges were shelved by the prosecutor.

Nor was the Owls Nest raid the most recent gambling bust. A week later, on Nov. 10, Gentile’s vice squad nabbed another game, at the Aces High Club on the second floor above the B.J. Mattheiss Insurance Agency at 6716 Harford Road. (Bruce Mattheiss, the building’s owner, did not respond to a call for comment.)

Arrested there on gambling charges, according to court documents, were Baltimore City police officer Vicki Mengel, allegedly hired to provide security, and Brad Lukens, who also was cited at the Owls Nest raid. (Charges against Lukens relating to the Owls Nest were dropped; Mengel and Lukens are scheduled to be tried on charges relating to the Aces High in January 2006.)

Law-enforcement sources say another Owls Nest player from the night of the Nov. 2 raid tipped Gentile off to the Aces High game, setting it up for the bust.

In April, Anne Arundel County got into the poker-raid action. Police there hit a place called Tykie’s Lodge, a Texas hold-’em hot spot housed in an emergency-services contractor’s building right next to the Maryland State Police post in Glen Burnie.

Among those arrested was an 18-year Howard County Police Department veteran, Michael Thorn, who’s accused by Anne Arundel County authorities of helping to organize the game. According to Thorn’s attorney, Clarke Ahlers, the game wasn’t for money, but was an instructional event intended to teach people how to play and deal poker. The case is set for trial next March.

In Baltimore City, even nonprofits are barred from holding poker tournaments for charity. (Laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in Baltimore County, for example, charities are permitted to hold one gambling event a year, including card games.) As Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, wrote in a Nov. 5, 2004, letter to liquor licensees, “although specific types of organizations may conduct gambling after obtaining a permit from the Baltimore City Police Department, there are no permits issued for a poker tournament.”

Copies of Irby’s letter were found at the Owls Nest when it was raided, according to law-enforcement sources. Brian Clark, the owner of online poker forum MD-Poker.com, says simply that “poker is illegal in Maryland.”

Clark says he has become an expert on poker laws and thinks charity poker tournaments are giving his game a bad name. “These places that are getting busted, they were asking for it,” he says. “I don’t allow them to advertise on my site. They may give a small portion to charity, but they’re holding games multiple times a week. They’re not doing anything to help our cause, only hurt it. Most of my members were warned beforehand—watch out for places like this.”

Clark’s cause is to legalize poker in Maryland, but “in small baby steps,” he explains. “People should be allowed to have their own friendly poker games with no raking,” he says, referring to the practice of game organizers taking money off the top from players. Ultimately, he’d like to see Maryland copy the Golden State. “In California, where there are legal poker halls, the state reaps a ton of revenue from them, and the state recognizes it for what it is—a game of skill, not a game of chance, like slots or roulette.”

Clark says he is “trying to start a lobbying group” to influence lawmakers in Annapolis on the subject. “We’ve been in the planning stages for about a year now.”

On Nov. 4, immediately after The Sun first covered the Owls Nest raid, Clark posted on MD-Poker.com’s home page a statement to his members: “To put it simple the Owl’s Club got busted because they are idiots.” He added that the club’s organizers “were running a near full time poker room” and “keeping the profits” for themselves. “They advertised and promoted an already illegal game, they rented a business facility to hold the game, they served alcohol without a license. . . . It is their own fault they got busted and this should not scare the average member who enjoys a good low stakes game with 10 or so friends.”

Not all local players agree with Clark that the Owls Nest was a disreputable place.

“I don’t see why they’re outlawing it,” says Joseph Cary associate John Leroy Long Jr., who says he’s been friends with the Owls Nest principal “for many years.”

While law-enforcement sources say Long has been Cary’s driver and has worked for him in other ways over the years, Long, a 56-year-old Southwest Baltimore resident, is adamant: “I never worked for him. I never drove for him.” But he sure enjoyed the Owls Nest. “I played there every day that I could. It’s a shame they closed it down. It was a nice, clean, respectable place, and they weren’t hurting nobody, and they’re honest.”

(Long was sentenced to 34 months in federal prison in 1994 for a cocaine-distribution conviction.)

Toni Aguilar, who received a $500 donation from the Owls Nest to help with her medical expenses while she cared for her terminally ill son earlier this year, says she’s known Owls principal Gerald Dickens since she used to play in and work at poker games in Prince George’s County firehouses, until they were outlawed in 1997. She says Baltimore and Maryland are hurting themselves by keeping poker illegal. Aguilar was among those cited during the Nov. 2 raid (charges against her were dropped).

“The time is ripe to take the lead in regulating it, so it’s legal,” she says. “It’s so hypocritical. The state has keno, the lottery—all games of chance, not skill like poker—and they take money from people who can least afford it. With poker, I know some very prominent lawyers and people in politics who play the games. Any night of the week, you can find a house game, so why not make it legal?”

As for the Owls Nest, Aguilar says that “they set it up very nice. It was a nice atmosphere, and they went out of their way to decorate it with lamps hanging over the tables, neon signs, pictures of poker chips from casinos around the world hanging on the wall, a pool table, a dart board, chess games, video machines with word puzzles and challenge games on them. There were video slot machines in the back, but it was rare to see somebody back there.”

Aguilar’s comments echo those of Sun columnists Dan Rodricks and Michael Olesker, who both wrote about the Owls Nest raid. “With problems as serious as . . . addiction and violence,” Rodricks contended in a Nov. 6 piece, “maybe we could tolerate a little poker and keep the cops on the important stuff.” Olesker chimed in Nov. 11: “Beautiful. The crack dealers stand on nearby street corners, and the cops bust up a poker game. The homicide count climbs, and we turn card players into criminals. Could we have a little perspective please?”

What Aguilar, Rodricks, and Olesker may not appreciate, however, is that clubs like the Owls and Orioles nests, where cops and criminals and perhaps even politicians appear to flock together, are among the reasons why anti-gambling laws are on the books—to prohibit potential corrupting influences on public officials and law enforcement.

The alternative, perhaps, is the Owls motto, found on the mysterious letterhead from the Home Nest in Connecticut: “There’s so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, it hardly behooves any of us, to speak ill of the rest of us.” In other words, leave well enough alone.

Gentile, the city vice cop, appears unwilling to do so. And that’s his job. Given what he’s tapped into with the recent raids, his job’s not over yet.

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.”

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.

 

The Ghost Hand: Maryland Law Enforcers Aim to Take the Pot by Secretly Sitting at the Online Gambling Table

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By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 24, 2010

On Dec. 21, 2006, someone in Maryland opened an account with bodog.com, an online gaming site whose customers bet on sports and horse-racing and play poker and casino games on their computers. The same day, that same someone placed two online bets on football games with Bodog. Over the course of 2007, after more wagering, the online gambler requested and received two payout checks from Bodog: one for $1,500 and another for $700.

Mundane as they may seem, the Maryland gambler’s wagers and payouts have had major repercussions in the online-gambling world. That’s because, starting in 2008, the details of that person’s online betting activities were included in meticulous affidavits supporting warrants to seize the contents of bank accounts said to be tied to illegal gambling. The Maryland gambler was actually a special agent working undercover for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Division.

Under U.S. law, facilitating transactions tied to online gambling is illegal. Yet, due to the immense popularity among Americans of wagering over the internet, the overseas companies that provide this kind of entertainment continue to seek ways to do business with U.S. customers. In order to pay out winnings to gamblers in this country, they have to hire U.S. companies willing to operate as payment processors–middle-men who take foreign casino companies’ money and disburse it to players when they want to cash out their online gambling accounts. These payment processors are taking a risk that U.S. law enforcement will detect the transactions and seize the money while it’s sitting in the payment processors’ accounts–which is exactly what federal investigators in Maryland, and elsewhere, have been doing–but due to the lucrative nature of the business, both the payment processors and the online-casino companies have been willing to take that gamble.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, the U.S. government has developed a heightened interest in augmenting its ability to track the ways and means of global money-moving. Though the motivation is to protect the world from terrorists by interrupting their finances, this trend also means that financial crimes of all kinds–including the movement of online gambling money into the United States–face a greater risk of detection. In the world of internet wagering, whenever money is sitting in a U.S. bank account, it is exposed to possible seizure by the authorities. And, as investigators’ successes mount, it’s clear they are getting better at it.

IRS criminal investigators in Maryland “opened a formal investigation of Bodog in 2006,” court records state, after having “conducted interviews regarding Bodog.com, Calvin Ayre, and Bodog’s operations in approximately 2003.” Ayre, a Canadian who’s been living in exile for several years now, is the founder of Bodog, which is based in Antigua and has operations in Costa Rica.

Bodog, a 15-year-old company which claims to be the world’s pre-eminent online gambling site and whose operations span the globe, is not the first to be targeted by American law enforcement’s crackdown on internet gambling. That honor goes to Jay Cohen, who in 1998 was indicted in New York along with numerous other defendants for violating the federal Wire Wager Act in running the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange. Cohen fought the charges, saying federal laws prohibiting wire transfers of gambling proceeds do not apply to the internet. He lost and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Since then, the feds have continued to focus on an industry that, in effect, presents opportunities for people to gamble anywhere and anytime, despite the laws of any particular country or state.

“If you’re in Antigua running a casino, that’s fine,” says Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. “But if you’re actually operating a casino in someone’s bedroom in Montgomery County over the internet, that’s illegal.” Thus, any proceeds that can be traced to gambling activity that takes place in Maryland–whether it’s actual betting over the internet, or just the arrival of checks in the mailboxes of Maryland gamblers cashing out their online-gambling accounts–could end up seized by Maryland authorities.

Since early 2008, according to federal court records, the ongoing federal investigation of online gambling based in Maryland–which, in addition to the IRS, also involves members of a Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) task force–has brought at least $29,206,594.62 in alleged gambling proceeds into federal coffers. The latest warrant in the investigation was signed by U.S. magistrate judge Paul Grimm in early February, and it targeted the contents of a Mercantile Bank account in Tampa, Fla. The account, held in the name of a company called Direct Channel LLC, yielded $860,335.90 on March 5. Direct Channel, like the other companies included in the Maryland internet-gambling seizures, allegedly provided payment-processing services in the U.S. for gambling web sites based in other countries. Though the Maryland investigation initially appeared to focus on payment processors for Bodog, such as Direct Channel, it has since broadened to include funds held by companies serving another gambling site, goldencasino.com, which is also based in Antigua.

Any U.S. bank account used by a payment processor working with online casinos could be targeted by investigators, potentially wiping out millions of dollars when a seizure warrant arrives at the bank. But due to the magnitude of online gambling in the United States–half of the $16 billion per year that internet gambling is estimated to generate is believed to originate in the United States–the risk may be worth it. Though federal investigators in Maryland and elsewhere, including New York, Missouri, and Florida, go for the money, there’s so much in play at any given moment that what they seize is only a small portion of money flow.

So far, after several years of effort, Maryland law enforcers have seized nearly $30 million in suspected online-gambling proceeds. That’s equal to less than one half of one percent of the $8 billion that U.S. online gamblers are estimated to spend each year. But it’s a start. And as the effort builds and grows more sophisticated and nimble with experience, the potential is as vast as the American online-gambling economy itself.

“There are very big numbers in internet gambling,” say Rosenstein, acknowledging the sizeable cut the government could get through seizing and forfeiting assets, which are funneled into law-enforcement budgets to support the efforts of the agencies that seized them. Asked if seizures, in the long run, could undermine gambling web sites’ ability to pay out to U.S. customers, he says: “That’s a possibility, and it’s certainly a risk for customers. And it’s a pretty effective deterrent, since customers have no remedy if the gambling operator fails to pay. They won’t be able to go into court and enforce that. It’s an illegal contract.”

Seizing and forfeiting criminally derived assets, including those from online gambling, has been made a priority by Rosenstein’s office. Last year, he hired the nation’s top asset-forfeiture prosecutor–Stefan Cassella, who literally wrote the book on the subject, a 950-page tome entitled Asset Forfeiture Law in the United States–to lead the effort. Among Cassella’s achievements is the largest forfeiture in U.S. history: $1.2 billion from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1990s. Given the size of the online-gambling industry’s assets, Cassella may have an opportunity to break his own record while working in Maryland.

Law-enforcement efforts to interrupt internet-gambling money flowing in and out of the United States were ramped up after the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was signed by President George W. Bush in October that year. Before that law was passed, the federal Wire Act, which dates back to 1961, already prohibited the transfer of gambling proceeds via wire communications. That law had been used to go after internet gambling prior to the UIGEA’s passage. But unlike the Wire Act, the UIGEA specifically outlaws internet-gambling transactions and requires financial operators, such as banks and payment processors, to determine which transactions are tied to online gambling and report them to regulators.

The banking industry, concerned that UIGEA requirements would be difficult to enforce and would force bankers to become anti-gambling police, persuaded the Obama administration to postpone the law, scheduled for implementation in December 2009, for six months. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), meanwhile, is currently trying to usher through legislation that would repeal the UIGEA and instead set up a regulate-and-tax scheme for the industry, arguing that online gambling is a liberty–and a potentially large source of public revenues–that the government should not prohibit.

But Rosenstein contends that going after the illegal profits gained from the U.S. market for internet gambling is a matter of fairness. “What Americans find particularly galling,” he says, “is when something is criminalized, honest people don’t engage in the activity, but criminals do, so they get excess profits because their only competition is from other criminals.”

Those seeking to legitimize aspects of online gambling, though, have other thoughts on the matter. Last year, in trying to persuade a federal judge to release funds seized from a payment processor allegedly tied to online gambling, lawyers for the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), a Washington, D.C.-based interest group, argued that online poker is a game of skill, not of chance, and thus is not illegal gambling. They also contended that the UIGEA establishes criminal culpability for “persons who operate illegal gambling sites, rather than those who process payment transactions,” and that restricted transactions under the UIGEA do not include funds going to a gambler because a gambler is “not engaged in the business of betting or wagering.”

The lawyers for the PPA (whose motto is “Poker is not a crime: Join the fight.”) did not prevail. But their efforts–and the well-heeled existence of the PPA, which has its own lobbying arm, PokerPAC, and whose board is chaired by former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York)–indicates that powerful forces in American society don’t like the online-gambling crackdown. Recent public-opinion polling, though, indicates the prohibition of online gambling is popular; two-thirds of those responding to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released on March 11 say they do not favor legalizing it.

Though online gambling is legal in many parts of the globe, enjoyed by many Americans, and accepted in many cultures–to the point that online-gambling companies’ stocks often are publicly traded in other nations–its continued prohibition in the United States may be explained by the longtime association of the gambling industry with unseemly characters making obscene profits.

Recent cases against internet gambling operations, for instance, give a sense of the profit potential the business presents and sometimes allege organized-crime ties. In New York in October 2009, the operators of Panama-based betonline.com were charged with illegal online gambling; authorities claimed the group made $587 million in 28 months and was linked to the Gambino and Genovese crime families. In a 2006 Missouri case against the longtime gambling figures who ran Costa Rica-based betonsports.com, the indictment states that the company’s promotional materials boasted “100,000 active players, who placed 33 million wagers, worth over $1.6 billion” in 2003, before the company went public on the London stock exchange. In February, Missouri authorities indicted the operators of Costa Rica-based Elite Sports, which ran the web sites best24b.com and best24b.net, and among the defendants were members of the Kansas City’s storied Cammisano crime family.

In addition, federal authorities in New York have charged two men–Anurag Dikshit in 2008 (Dikshit NY info) and Douglas Rennick in 2009 (Rennick indictment)–with illegally running online-gambling ventures. Dikshit, who was born in India and is one of the youngest billionaires in the world thanks to the success of his online-gambling business, is co-founder of the Gibraltar company that operated partypoker.com; charges against him include the forfeiture of $300 million in gambling revenues. Rennick, a Canadian, ran a series of payment-processing companies that allegedly served the internet-gambling industry, and the government is seeking to forfeit more than a half billion dollars of the proceeds from his financial dealings.

Another alleged payment processor was charged in Florida in February, when a bank alerted federal authorities that customers were trying to cash large checks they said were the payouts from online-gambling winnings. Michael Olaf Schuett, a German man living in Naples, Fla., had set up hundreds of companies and had dozens of bank accounts that were allegedly used to operate the scheme since 2007. The complaint against him (Schuett FL complaint) says that he transferred online-gambling payments to about 23,000 people, mostly in the United States, and that the total amount of money involved was $70 million.

In what may have been the first federal gambling case involving the internet in Maryland, IRS investigators and Montgomery County police teamed up to bust a ring that, in 2003 and 2004, handled action from Maryland customers on behalf of a Dominican company called World Wide Wagering, which runs the web site wager.dm. The conspiracy case, which ended with the convictions of seven men from Montgomery County, Baltimore, and Florida, followed the money flow to and from bettors and the defendants. The case included the cashing of more than $150,000 worth of checks at University Liquors in Hyattsville.

Just as IRS agents in Maryland were cracking the World Wide Wagering case, they started looking into Bodog. But it wasn’t until December 2006, shortly after the UIGEA was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, that the Bodog investigation got serious–it began with an investigator logging onto the web site, posing as a customer, and starting to gamble.

Once the investigator started receiving payout checks in 2007, the money trail could be tracked. In the meantime, the investigation gained a cooperating witness from inside the internet-gambling industry, who corroborated facts about Bodog’s operations, including the contention that “Bodog takes in from $250,000 to millions per day on sports bookmaking alone,” court records show. An informant also helped out by corroborating facts based on experience using Bodog’s site to gamble in Florida. The informant was able to explain the betting process to investigators; additional information was gleaned from investigators working online-gambling probes in other jurisdictions.

By 2008, sufficient cause had been established by Maryland IRS investigators to seize funds from the bank accounts of three payment-processing companies suspected of handling funds for Bodog: JBL Services and Transactions Solutions in Georgia (JBL forfeiture), and a California company called ZAFTIG Instantly Processed Payments Corp., operating as ZipPayments.com.

On Jan. 18, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner signed a search-and-seizure warrant application for bank accounts in the name of JBL Services and Transactions Solutions; $14,200,195.73 was seized. On June 28, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Susan Gauvey signed another warrant application for ZipPayments.com bank accounts, which yielded another $9,869,283.05. By July 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland had filed forfeiture actions against both pots of money. The legal actions were based on lengthy affidavits written by IRS criminal investigator Randall Carrow.

In September 2008, the case against ZipPayments.com’s money suddenly heated up. A claim for nearly $10 million was filed by ZipPayments.com and Edward Courdy, a California man who sought to have the money returned, saying it was lawfully his. Within days of filing his claim, Courdy was charged with money laundering, as was Michael Garone, a Georgia man connected to JBL Services and Transaction Solutions (“Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2008). In February 2009, as a result of a forfeiture settlement negotiated by Courdy’s attorney, Stanley Greenberg, and assistant U.S. attorney Richard Kay, the government returned $200,000 of the ZipPayments.com money to Courdy, and kept the rest.

Today, the status of the criminal cases against Courdy and Garone is unclear. Some time in the fall of 2009, a little over a year after they were filed, the online records of the cases against them disappeared from the federal court-records database system, known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Since Maryland’s federal courts handle only electronically filed documents, PACER is the only repository of its records. The disappearance from PACER of Maryland criminal case numbers 08-454 (against Courdy) and 08-455 (against Garone), creates the illusion that they were never filed at all–though City Paper still has copies of the documents charging them, which bear Rosenstein’s signature. Despite City Paper‘s requests for explanation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland has remained mum about what happened.

Courdy’s lawyer, Greenberg, has consistently declined City Paper‘s request for comment about his client’s troubles in Maryland. Efforts to contact Garone, and to identify his lawyer in the Maryland case, have been unsuccessful.

After the money seizures and criminal charges involving Courdy and Garone were filed, the online gambling investigation in Maryland appears to have shifted from the IRS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement–and the level of secrecy surrounding the investigation increased. Though numerous search-and-seizure warrants have been filed for the contents of bank accounts and an e-mail account associated with payment processors since last summer, nearly all of them were granted under seal, so probable cause for the seizures has not been revealed to the public.

Despite the secret nature of many of the seizure filings, certain information about them is available. Three ICE task force members in Maryland–Maryland State Police trooper Robert J. Mignona, ICE special agent M. Lisa Ward, and Anne Arundel County Police detective Richard S. Gunn–and one ICE special agent in Louisiana, Augusta B. Ferenec, filed the warrant applications. The companies whose bank accounts have been seized–HMD, Forshay Enterprises , and Electracash in California; Atrium Financial Group (AFG) in Delaware; and Direct Channel in Florida–are in the payment-processing business. The amounts seized so far from these companies’ bank accounts add up to $5,137,115.84. And, in the case of Electracash–a business that has past associations with Courdy–warrants have been issued not only to seize the contents of bank accounts, but of an e-mail account the company has with Intermedia, a New York City communications company. (The Electracash e-mail warrant, unlike the bank-account seizures, so far has yielded nothing, court records show.)

One of the unsealed search-warrant affidavits–the one filed early this year against Direct Channel’s bank account in Florida–was written by Ward, but draws directly from the IRS affidavit in the Courdy and Garone seizures, and thus sheds no new light on the investigation’s details. The other unsealed warrant, against Atrium Financial Group and written by Ferenec, shows that ICE’s financial-investigations group in New Orleans, La., along with the Louisiana State Police, are in on the Maryland probe (“GoldenCasino.com’s Payment Processor Targeted in Latest OnLine Gambling Seizures in Maryland,” The News Hole, Oct. 28, 2009).

The Louisiana end of the Maryland investigation began on July 14, 2008, when Louisiana State Police officers opened a gambling account with goldencasino.com. They did not immediately succeed, because the bank they were using to deposit $100 into the gambling account apparently blocked the transaction. On the second try, though, they succeeded. They then requested a payout.

The first payout check bounced, but the second one, from AFG, cleared, and the investigators, using information they gleaned from their transactions, used their investigative powers to start on up the money trail. They discovered funds moving between Canadian companies’ bank accounts in Canada and Cyprus and on to AFG bank accounts in the United States, which then issued checks to U.S. residents, including in Maryland. The transactions they tracked involved millions of dollars zipping across the globe.

“Because of enhanced monitoring of financial transactions since Sept. 11, we have a much better handle on the movement of funds,” Rosenstein says about the ability of investigators to dig into the online-gambling industry. In fact, the affidavits of investigators Carrow and Ferenec indicate that initiating a successful seizure of funds from payment processors doesn’t require particularly sophisticated investigative techniques. The trick, it seems, is trying to pinpoint where the money will be at any given moment, hoping to gain court orders to freeze it, and seize it before it shifts yet again.

Rosenstein points out another challenge investigators face in trying to seize online gambling funds: While it’s relatively easy to go after funds in U.S. accounts, going after offshore accounts–where the big money is, since that’s where the online gaming companies operate–is tricky.

“It’s similar to the challenges we face with child pornography, which is often stored overseas and transported to the United States over the internet,” Rosenstein says. “The degree of international cooperation with regard to child pornography is far greater than with offshore gambling, though. But we can readily intercept the money flowing through financial institutions that we have jurisdiction over.”

Rosenstein says online gambling can be prosecuted anywhere that customers are located, and that the public should expect to see more enforcement efforts taking place in more jurisdictions. He says that criminal activity is increasingly becoming more internet-based, and that investigative agencies are becoming more focused on financial crimes. They’re also becoming more sophisticated when it comes to following the money.

“Anything that illegally generates large amounts of money is a concern on many levels,” Rosenstein says. “People engaged in such conduct may be committing other crimes. They may not be paying taxes, and they may be investing in other illegal activities.”

Jewelry Dealer Boasted of Drug-Dealer Ties

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2014

Today, Eugene Petasky is a humbled man, serving a 41-month prison sentence at West Virginia’s Morgantown Federal Correctional Institution after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last fall to laundering drug money through his jewelry business, Metro Brokers, for nearly a quarter of a century. But on Nov. 8, 2006, when still a free man, Petasky spoke with apparent pride of his drug-world connections, sharing the details with an undercover cooperator in a sting operation that resulted in his indictment weeks later.

The account of Petasky’s litany of drug-world ties is contained in documents included in a civil forfeiture case, entered into the federal court record on April 7, in which the government is seeking to keep two firearms and ammunition seized from Metro Brokers during a November 2006 raid. To back up its forfeiture pleading, the government included a search-warrant affidavit written by Sharnell N. Thomas, a special agent with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. The affidavit includes a paragraph describing Petasky’s conversation with the cooperator.

“Petasky discussed being associated with several drug traffickers,” Thomas wrote, including “Darryl Henderson, also known as ‘Bam,’ [who] would kill anyone that hurt Petasky.”

Thomas wrote that Petasky stated that he “paid Bam’s legal fees” and that “Bam was an associate of Greg Parker, a well known drug trafficker” in Baltimore. According to the affadavit, he also discussed another “well known” Baltimore drug dealer named “Ya Ya Brockington” and recalled selling “a large chain with a pool table encrusted with diamonds and rubies” to “an individual named ‘Wimpy,'” and “discussed the possibility that Wimpy was killed by another well known drug trafficker . . . Rudy Williams.”

While Thomas’ affidavit describes several of the drug-world figures cited by Petasky as “well known,” only one—Rudy Williams —may qualify as truly famous. The savage criminal career of Linwood “Rudy” Williams was the subject of a lengthy 1992 article in the Baltimore Sun by David Simon, who compared Williams to William Shakespeare’s dramatic and bloody portrayal of King Richard III. Simon’s piece includes an account of “Curtis ‘Wimpy’ Manns, who took Williams into his own drug organization, then ended his career as a corpse in Baltimore County, with partner and friend Williams as the prime suspect.”

In all likelihood, the “Wimpy” Petaski referred to was Manns. Williams, meanwhile, is serving his life sentence at the high-security United State Penitentiary—Canaan, near Scranton, Pa. Details of the other drug dealers Petasky mentioned—Darryl Henderson, Greg Parker, and Ya Ya Brockington—remain inscrutable as of press time.

Given the number of years that have passed since Williams and Manns were on the scene, Petasky’s 2006 boasts may have been more reminiscent of times past than of his contemporary stature on Baltimore’s mean streets. But that a man with Petasky’s trappings—records show he was a donor to Maryland politicians, drove luxury vehicles, had a diversified investment portfolio, and owned a nice home on Woodvalley Drive near Stevenson in Baltimore County—would claim such ties, even in vaunted rhetoric, speaks volumes of the drug culture’s reach into respectable circles.

Petasky’s past—he was previously convicted by a jury in 1990 in connection with a similar money-laundering scheme involving Metro Brokers and an attorney, Neil Steinhorn, who was also convicted—meant that he was prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition. As part of Petasky’s plea deal, though, prosecutors dismissed the firearms charges, along with numerous other counts of financial crimes. He pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count of money laundering, and agreed to forfeit $336,000 to the government as ill-gotten gains. Petasky is scheduled to be released from prison on Jan. 1, 2013.

A Dog In the Fight: Baltimore’s Enforcement of Animal-Cruelty Laws is Getting Some Bite

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 17, 2015

Photo: aspca.org

Last March, the door of a vacant house at 6203 York Road in Baltimore was forced open by police to reveal a scene of prolonged horror. The broad contours of what happened were pieced together by authorities after someone reported that a live animal was trapped inside the house in Cedarcroft, a nice neighborhood on the city’s northern boundary.

Baltimore City animal enforcement officer (AEO) Megan Zeiler looked through a window in the house and saw a dead dog. She called the police for help, and when they entered, they found the home “covered in animal waste,” while the “extremely emaciated” dead dog’s “face appeared to have been eaten by another animal,” court records explain. While Zeiler examined the dog, named Rudy, a “live emaciated cat” named Lola “came down the steps” of the house, “covered in dried blood, presumably from consuming dead animal.” Zeiler “found a dead cat” on the third floor that “also appeared to have been eaten.”

Zeiler talked with a neighbor, who explained he had not seen the home’s owner since January. Thus, it appeared that Rudy, Lola, and the other cat had been locked in the house, left to their own devices, for about two months. Only Lola made it out alive, apparently by eating the others. The dead cat’s cause of death is “unknown because most of the body was missing,” court records state, while Rudy “suffered terribly with evidence of severe neglect and lack of veterinary care,” along with “extended malnutrition/starvation.”

After a bit of detective work, someone was held to account: the vacant home’s owner, 33-year-old Patrick Kenji Ito. Charged on July 17 with 31 counts of various forms of animal cruelty, he was arrested a week later and released pending trial on his own recognizance. At his Oct. 7 court appearance, prosecutors declined to press all charges but one count of aggravated animal cruelty. Ito pleaded not guilty and was given two years of supervised probation before judgment and ordered to pay $264 in restitution to the nonprofit Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), where Lola was treated.

Ito, the chef and co-owner of Hampden’s McCabe’s Restaurant, has not yet paid restitution to BARCS. (BARCS has filed a court lien against him for the amount owed, which they do whenever defendants fail to pay the ordered restitution).

In a Facebook message responding to City Paper’s inquiries, Ito explains that the York Road house had gone into foreclosure and he had moved out, and “there clearly had been quite a few people in and out of the property” after that, and then “out of nowhere I got arrested for animal cruelty charges.” The dead dog, he claims, “was not my dog” though the authorities “thought it was. I just took the offer of probation so there was no possibility of me doing jail time for these ridiculous charges.” He adds that “this has been quite an ordeal and I just really don’t want to be pictured as this animal killer after all this.” In a follow-up phone conversation, Ito adds that “my dog Rudy is still alive.”

The case against Ito is one of 28 criminal matters City Paper reviewed in order to get a grasp of how people in Baltimore are getting caught and penalized for abusing animals. Detailed in sworn statements contained in the court files, they run the gamut from a man who left a dog locked in a hot car, to a woman who threw a kitten against a wall, to dogfighting.

The 28 cases show that animal abuse is a big tent of bad conduct by all sorts of regular citizens, not just violent drug dealers driven by greed and bloodlust to hold high-dollar dogfighting events, as in a massive dogfighting indictment filed in December. They also show that law enforcers are going after all manner of animal abuse, and taking the crimes seriously.

As recently as April 2013, the city’s animal-abuse enforcement effort was lambasted in a report of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission (MAAAC), which City Hall tried to suppress. The report found “many law enforcement officials in Baltimore continue to treat animal abuse as a minor property crime,” yet predicted that “2013 promises to be a better year.”

If 2013 brought improvements on the abuse-fighting front, 2014 appears to have brought even more. City Paper asked to interview police and prosecutors about their efforts to combat animal abuse, and Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, said only “we work very closely with Animal Control to investigate and prosecute animal cruelty cases when they are merited,” though her office did provide defendants’ names and court-case numbers for some of its 2014 prosecutions.

A request to interview Sharon Miller, director of Baltimore City’s Office of Animal Control, about her encounters with animal abuse in the field, and how enforcement has changed or improved over time, was met with a prepared statement.

Each year, Animal Control’s statement says, it receives “approximately 5,000 calls [that] are classified as Animal In Danger,” such as “dogs inhumanely chained in rear yard, injured animals, animals that appear malnourished, etc.” The “office responds and investigates each call” and also “works closely with” police and prosecutors “in investigating suspected cases of neglect and abuse,” a “collaborative relationship” that “has led to an aggressive investigative approach which has resulted in an increase in felony arrests and prosecutions.” That last point is backed up by the number of animal-abuse arrests processed at Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center (BCBIC), which went from 17 in 2013 to 24 in 2014.

BARCS’ Executive Director Jennifer Brause says “animal abuse is taken more seriously now,” with “more enforcement, deeper investigations, and more prosecutions, and it makes you feel good because something is being done about it.” Greater enforcement spawns more citizen reports of abuse, she adds, because “now they know something is going to be done about it.”

Not among those 2014 arrests, though, were the 22 people indicted for a massive dogfighting conspiracy in December 2014—a case that is perhaps the best gauge of how seriously Baltimore law enforcers now take animal abuse.

Hundreds of dogs and huge hauls of dogfighting paraphernalia, along with guns, drugs, and cash, have been recovered as a result of the dogfighting investigation. The case is overseen not by line prosecutors, but by the elite Major Investigations Unit (MIU) of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, an outfit best known for prosecuting gangs and handling complex wiretap investigations.

As then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein pointed out when he announced the indictment, “there is a strong connection between those individuals who would subject animals to horrific treatment and abuse and those engaged in the drug trade and acts of violence.” The indictment, he continued, “hopefully will protect innocent and vulnerable animals from further abuse and reduce violent criminal activity.”

The cases City Paper reviewed also show this connection, but not always. Ito, for instance, has not otherwise faced criminal charges in Maryland, and neither have many of the other defendants. The 28 cases, though, have at least one thing in common: victims. All told, 74 dogs and five cats suffered, whether or not the perpetrator suffered consequences.

Those defendants deemed guilty, says retired city animal-abuse investigator Eric Banks, “should be kept from ever owning another animal, another pet,” he says, adding, “if you’ll abuse a dog, a pet, you’ll abuse a child. It’s the same mindset.” While the law doesn’t allow this, the effort to seek justice on abused pets’ behalf shows the city does indeed have a dog in the anti-abuse fight, and it has some teeth.

Tavon Sol was 8 years old in 1999 when since-retired Baltimore Sun features writer Carl Schoettler profiled him and his father, Tyrone Sol, in a boxing story. Tavon, “looking like a chunky spaceman in his protective headgear and midriff guard, whacks away at his dad with more enthusiasm than skill,” Schoettler wrote. “But he’s learning.”

The son apparently learned more than boxing from his dad. Fast-forward to 2011, when both were charged for guns and drugs. Eventually, prosecutors declined to pursue most of the charges, but Tavon Sol pleaded guilty to drug possession and was put on six months of probation, while 56-year-old Tyrone Sol, an already-convicted drug dealer and burglar, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was given a two-month sentence in October 2013.

A month after his father was sentenced, Tavon Sol rolled up to his home at 545 N. Fulton Ave. to find the police raiding the place. After advising him of his rights, the officers took his statement: “he had three guns and marijuana in his basement bedroom” and “all the pit bulls at the location was [sic] owned by him,” whether “dead or alive.”

In the house, in addition to guns, drugs, cash, and “various dog fighting paraphernalia,” were seven pit bulls in the basement, three pit bulls “chained to the rear fence line outside,” and a “deceased pit bull in a cage on the rear deck outside the kitchen door.”

Come Jan. 19, the only remaining charges remaining against Sol involved the guns and drugs, as prosecutors dropped the 12 animal-cruelty and dogfighting-related charges against him. Those, it turns out, were rolled into the MIU’s dogfighting-conspiracy case.

The indictment describes in greater detail the fruits of the November 2013 raid on Sol’s house: In addition to the 11 dogs, there were “materials, devices, and instruments used to facilitate the breeding, training, and fighting of dogs (e.g., a treadmill, conditioning harnesses, breaking sticks, wound treatment, dietary supplements, etc.),” and “one of the pitbull puppies was deceased due to starvation.”

Thus, Sol is no longer on the hook for just the animal-abuse crimes apparent in the November 2013 raid on his house, but of the crimes of the whole 22-member conspiracy, which is alleged to have spanned from April 2013 to when it was indicted in December. The grand jury claims he’s part of what the indictment calls “a closely-knit clandestine community” that used “disturbing conditioning methods designed to make dogs more aggressive, vicious, and lethal.” This was done to “increase the chances of prevailing in dogfights—and to maximize the corresponding profits from gambling on matches,” where “the total purse” can be “$100,000 and higher, with individual cash bets of $25,000,” or “even greater at larger events.”

Of the 22 defendants, eight have prior convictions for violence, five for handguns, two for sex offenses, and one for murder. Earlier in 2014, some of Sol’s co-defendants, including the father-and-son team of William Murray Jr. and William Murray III and Tyrone Wolfe, already had already appeared in court documents for suspicions of dogfighting, as had a man, William Paige, who’s mentioned though not charged in the MIU indictment.

As Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers were preparing to raid Murray III’s home at 2801 Oswego Ave. in Park Heights in April 2014, the 27-year-old emerged from the house, got into a white Ford Crown Victoria, and drove off. The officers stopped and arrested him for not having a valid driver’s license. Thus, Murray III wasn’t present for the raid on his house, but his girlfriend, Victoria Burnham, and an infant were.

The raid turned up drugs, a gun, and “5 pit bull type dogs within cages” in the basement. One of the dogs “was severely injured” and the other four “were injured with scarring and swelling,” while one was wearing a “weighted collar.” Among the wide array of dogfighting paraphernalia found were a “weight pulling harness,” a “weight pulling sled,” a “scale used for weigh in for dog fight,” and “conditioning videos.”

The police then went to the Murrays’ used-car dealership, around the corner at 4026 Reisterstown Road, where 48-year-old Murray Jr. was there to let them in. More dogfighting paraphernalia was recovered, including veterinary-care medicine, dietary supplements, and “various animal fighting documents.”

Burnham and Murray III were arrested and charged for drug- and dogfighting-related offenses, and Murray Jr., who was entrusted with the infant, was not arrested. The case against Burnham dwindled to a minor pot charge. Murray III’s case continued until Jan. 15, when prosecutors declined to pursue the charges, which by then had been rolled into MIU’s dogfighting indictment.

Then, on Jan. 12, Murray Jr. and his wife, Barbara Murray, were also indicted in Baltimore County in a separate dogfighting conspiracy, which also includes animal-cruelty counts for failing to provide “proper drink” to several horses. Murray Jr., who owns the Southwest Baltimore arabber stables on Carlton Street that were raided on Jan. 13 over concerns about the care provided to the horses there, also faces numerous firearms-related counts in the Baltimore County conspiracy, including for possessing guns when he’s prohibited from doing so given his prior felony record.

Wolfe, meanwhile, made a blip on the anti-dogfighting enforcers’ radar on June 18, 2014, when animal-control director Miller and BPD officers came to his house at 3922 W. Garrison Ave. with a warrant to check on “the health and welfare and licensing” of animals there. Once inside, they found 41-year-old Wolfe, Ebony Goins, and three children.

“We smoke weed, and that’s it,” Wolfe told the officers, adding “there is an old gun in the basement.” Also in the basement, Miller observed, were “a make shift box with carpet on the floor which had blood stains,” while three pit bulls were in the backyard, one of which had “bite wounds/scarring” and another had “a long split of the tongue.” A “weight pulling harness” and a “treadmill” were also found, “an indication of conditioning a dog for a fight.”

The charges against Wolfe, who was previously convicted of assault with intent to murder and handgun violations, remain pending in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Paige can count himself lucky not to be charged in MIU’s case, since his name appears in the indictment, along with the circumstances found at the 58-year-old’s house in January 2014. That’s when, similar to what happened to Wolfe, Baltimore authorities came knocking at his Sandtown-Winchester house at 1118 N. Carrollton Ave. with a warrant to check on the welfare of animals there.

In addition to guns and drugs, six pit bulls were found in the backyard, “housed in 50 gallon plastic drum barrels” and “chained with heavy chains” in frigid, 14-degree weather. Several bore scars “on the face, chest, and legs,” suggesting they “have been fought.” In October 2014, the Sandtown-Winchester resident was sentenced to three years in prison for having fight-trained dogs and five years for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in light of his 1985 attempted-murder conviction. Thus, Paige’s penalties had already been meted out before the indictment came down.

While the dogfighting scene appears to be populated with nefarious characters with shady backgrounds and criminal proclivities, numerous people with clean or nearly pristine criminal backgrounds have been snared for animal abuse in Baltimore. At times, their culpability was established after they engaged Baltimore’s animal-welfare apparatus upon their pet’s sickness or death.

Take 47-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident Tonya McCoy. In January 2014, she surrendered the body of her dead brown-and-white pit bull to BARCS. An employee there was “concerned about the condition” of the dog, and so contacted an AEO, who inspected the dog and found it “emaciated and dehydrated.”

When interviewed, McCoy explained that the dog “became sick two weeks ago,” and took it to the vet, but “the line was too long and the dog died before making it to the shelter, about 30-40 minutes earlier.” But the dog “was cold to the touch,” its left side “had begun to flatten” as if it “had been on its side for an extended period, . . . yellow liquid was draining from the dog’s nose and mouth,” and its body temperature “did not register on the thermometer.”

A necropsy concluded the dog “suffered from serious neglect” and “lack of proper nutrition” for “weeks/months.” It had an inflamed abdominal wall, a “very painful condition” that would have rendered it “visibly sick and in pain.” McCoy was found guilty of one count of animal cruelty, for which she received one year of unsupervised probation before judgment.

Andrea Eaton, a 48-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident, adopted a dog named Sput Lee from BARCS in January 2013, but it was in poor condition when her brother brought the dog back to BARCS in February 2014. Eaton admitted she “never found out why the dog was losing weight and did nothing more until the time of surrender” by her brother. Under BARCS care, the dog regained weight, adding 13 pounds in six days. Eaton was given 18 months of supervised probation and ordered to pay $496.55 in restitution to BARCS, which she has not yet paid.

The case of 33-year-old Torrelee Lane, who called the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MDSPCA) in June 2014 to say “her dog had been hit by a car about two months ago” and was “chewing at the foot,” shows the lengths to which animal-welfare investigators sometimes have to go.

After prompting from MDSPCA, Lane arrived there hours later with the dog, identified as “T.K.,” whose foot was wrapped up with a towel, electrical tape, and a plastic bag. Amputation was required, because  T.K.’s “entire foot and part of the bone was missing,” and that the dog had “severed” bones.

Lane had mentioned she had other dogs, so an extensive probe ensued, overcoming Lane’s efforts to thwart it. Ultimately, authorities came to her home with a warrant and found three pit bulls, including a “thin and unresponsive” puppy that had parvovirus, a highly contagious and life-threatening disease. All three were euthanized. Lane was put on one year of supervised probation, and had to pay $57.50 in court costs.

In other cases, people called authorities to have their unwanted, sick dogs picked up, and AEOs responded to discover neglected animals. One of them, 40-year-old Ellwood Park resident Gregory Williams, told an AEO his Rottweiler, who was “extremely emaciated,” had “eaten a rat” and “had been in the same condition for about a month.” Turned out, the dog had a condition requiring a special diet, and gained seven pounds with proper care. Williams got one year of supervised probation for animal cruelty and was ordered to pay $294 in restitution to BARCS, which he has yet to pay.

Another man, 44-year-old West Baltimore resident Louis Raymond Jefferson, called to have Animal Control pick up his Rottweiler, Bo, and the responding AEOs found “a very thin” dog “lying on a urine soaked sheet” in 28-degree weather. Jefferson said Bo “had been sick for about a month” without “any veterinary care.” BARCS found Bo to be “in horrible condition, emaciated, dirty, unable to walk, with pressure sores, and extremely swollen/enlarged joints,” and after the dog was euthanized, it was determined that Bo was “an old dog with numerous problems such as failing organs and parasitism.” Jefferson got six months of unsupervised probation.

One of the dogs seized in the December bust of a Baltimore-based dogfighting ring (WBAL)

Calls from tipsters spawned many of the 2014 animal-abuse cases City Paper reviewed, and responding AEOs turned up some heart-breaking cases of abuse.

A tip about two underweight dogs “left out in the cold” brought AEOs to 934 N. Rosedale St. in West Baltimore in January 2014. They found a pit bull on a short chain lying on a blanket outside of an “igloo dog house” in 4-degree weather, and a white dog “dead on arrival and frozen to the bottom of the doghouse.” A 48-year-old woman, Bridget Jones, “came to the door” and claimed ownership of the dogs. She got a 90-day sentence (with 86 days suspended) and probation for one year, and was ordered to pay $150 in restitution to BARCS, which she hasn’t yet paid. Since the animal-cruelty charges were filed, Jones has been found guilty of theft and, in yet another case, charged with first-degree assault and use of deadly weapon with intent to injure.

In February 2014, BPD officers and AEOs went to 2818 Ellicott Drive in West Baltimore, responding to “an anonymous call that a dog had been abandoned in the rear yard,” which is exactly what they found. Neighbors confirmed that it had been “left outside, tied to a pole in the cold” for “over a month,” and the police noted it “had severe scars on his legs and nose.”a year of supervised probation and ordered to pay $500 in restitution to BARCS, which she has not yet paid.

“The owner of the home,” 50-year-old Carolyn Simmons, walked up to the scene, bearing “the strong pungent odor of marijuana on her person.” When told of her impending arrest on animal-cruelty charges and the apparent smell of pot, Simmons announced, “I got some bud in my bra underneath my breast on the left side.” Simmons was given a year of supervised probation and ordered to pay $500 in restitution to BARCS, which she has not yet paid.

In July 2014, AEOs and BPD officers were directed to an apartment in the 3800 block of Rogers Avenue by a tip about a “deceased dog,” and came upon a disturbing scene. In the garage was a live dog that was “being stung by bees which were on a hive near the dog,” which was “tied to a crate without water or food.” Also in the garage was a dead pit bull “still tied to a electric [sic] outlet on the wall” and “already in an accelerated state of decay.” Charges were brought against a man named Maurice White, but prosecutors dropped the case on Jan. 13.

In November 2014, someone called in a complaint for “four dogs being kept in a 4×6 area in the rear of” 4451 Eldone Road, and AEOs arrived to find three dogs “confined in a fenced in area on the patio.” Dante Blake was there, and the 42-year-old explained that the two female dogs “were kept in crates to keep them from fighting” and that they’d fought two weeks earlier, adding that “he felt he could properly treat the injuries” himself “because of his career in the medical field.” All three were “visibly malnourished,” and one of them had “many wounds on her face,” another “had open wounds on her front legs and swollen muzzle,” and the third had “scarring on his legs and a wound on his chin.” Blake got one year of supervised probation and was ordered to pay $57.50 in court costs.

Two cases involving cats resulted from tips—including one that “a cat had been thrown against a wall and was possibly dead” in the Curtis Bay home of 38-year-old Elizabeth Gauthier. When an AEO arrived on July 8, 2014, Gauthier explained her kitten died when it “stopped breathing,” and that “her boyfriend had buried it somewhere outside,” though she didn’t know where. Animal Control director Miller got on the phone with Gauthier, who then admitted she had thrown “the kitten against the wall because the kitten scratched her,” and its body was in a plastic bag in the basement. A necropsy determined a concussion and brain trauma caused the kitten’s death. Gauthier got three years of supervised probation, and was ordered to pay $165 in court costs.

Similarly, in June 2014 someone reported that “a cat had been thrown from a window” at 4322 Reisterstown Road in Park Heights. Responding AEOs met with Philip Hanna, who explained that he’d heard his brother, 50-year-old Steven Hanna, earlier that day exclaim, “throw that mother fucker out the window.” A witness, Montre Jordan, confirmed what had happened and said the cat “almost died,” though it was found on the deck below “in shock but not significantly injured.” Steven Hanna got a 90-day suspended sentence and six months of probation.

A tipster’s call to police—and steps taken prior to their arrival—may have saved a dog’s life on June 30, 2014. Baltimore real-estate investor Thomas Karle Jr. called in the situation: a dog locked “inside a black GMC Denali with the windows up for over three hours” across from Baltimore City Hall. While waiting for the police to arrive, Karle and others noticed the dog “was in serious distress and on the verge of passing out,” so Karle “forcibly pulled the window of the car down and extracted the dog,” who “could barely move and was heavily panting,” so Karle and others “washed him down in water and gave him water to drink.”

When the police arrived, “the dog seemed to be in stable condition,” but “there was no sign of water or food” in the Denali. Its owner, 22-year-old Danael Tesfaye, “then came out to see what was going on,” and said “he did not know you couldn’t leave a dog in the car and admitted he owned the dog for two days.”

The dog went to BARCS, and Tesfaye, who has no prior criminal record, was arrested on four counts of cruelty. He was freed the same day on $50,000 bail. In September, he received six months of unsupervised probation and a $250 fine, and had to pay $57.50 in courts costs. When he failed to pay the fine, a warrant was issued and he was again arrested on Dec. 8, then released on his own recognizance.

Perhaps the most compelling animal-abuse case City Paper reviewed was one involving a 13-year-old boy who arrived on July 18 at BPD’s Southwest District station and announced that his mom and stepdad were trying to kill his pit bull. It joins together themes that the MAAAC report pointed out: the correlation of animal abuse with other kinds of violence and abuse.

The boy explained that he’d had an argument with his mother, 34-year-old Lynette Reed, who’d ordered his stepfather, 28-year-old Kevin Harris, to “take that bitch in the woods and kill it,” after which the boy had watched Harris walking his pit bull toward the woods along the 2700 block of Frederick Avenue, announcing that “I’m going to hang him from a tree and kill him!”

The police looked for the dog, but couldn’t find it, so they went to the boy’s home and encountered a “very hostile” Reed, who said of her son: “Get that bitch away from my house! That bitch isn’t coming inside my house! He’s not going to be shit just like his daddy wasn’t shit!”

When officers advised Reed that the youngster could not legally be refused access to the home, Reed threatened him. “If he comes back in here,” she said, “I’m locking him in the basement! He’s not getting any food or water unless I want him to have it. And when I’m ready for him to have something, he’ll only get bread and water. And he’s not getting a bed, he’ll sleep on the basement floor! I’ll show him what it feels like to be on lock down!”

The police tried to explain to Reed the procedures for handling her desire to no longer have her son live in her house, and she yelled back at them: “If you don’t take him, I got something for that! I’m unplugging his box!” Reed proceeded to unplug her son’s home-detention monitor, “in an attempt to violate his probation and get him arrested.”

The boy then asked his mother, “What did you do with my dog?” She yelled back, “I took the bitch in the woods and left him there!” and “I told you if you didn’t get it out of my house, I was gonna kill him!” The police, “not feeling comfortable leaving” the boy with her, sought “proper placement” for him. They then received a citizen’s call that a pit bull was tied to a tree nearby. Upon arriving, they found it “out in the sun” and “tied to a tree using a rope, a cord, and a metal chain” with “no food or water.”

Reed, who like Harris has prior convictions for assault and theft, was arrested on five cruelty counts, but in August prosecutors declined to pursue the charges. A warrant was issued for Harris, who was arrested on Feb. 9 and held without bail pending trial, scheduled for March 10.

Another harrowing domestic scene played out in April, prompting animal-abuse charges, when 32-year-old Andrea Ashe called the police to say she believed her estranged boyfriend, Darryle Langley, had “broken into their home” in Northeast Baltimore and “was still inside.” He “had access to a firearm,” she explained, adding that she was “unsure if he had one with him.” She had “separated from Langley due to being afraid of him,” but “he still had some property inside of the residence.”

When the police entered the house, they found no one there except for “a dark grey Pit Bull standing at the bottom of the steps” in the basement “with its “tail between its legs.” When they approached, the dog “ran to the far corner of the basement, as if to be afraid.” Urine and feces were “scattered around the basement floor,” and there was a “dog crate that appeared rusty with jagged edges” and empty bowls for food and water.

The police tried to talk to Ashe about the dog, but she “seemed to be uninterested” and “would not answer” any questions. So they spoke directly: “Ma’am, that dog in your basement needs your immediate attention. You need to give him food, water, and take him with you when you leave.” Ashe “did not respond,” but “merely walked inside” the house.

Two days later, an officer returned, knocked on the screen door, and “heard the Pit Bull come up the steps from the basement and begin to scratch at the door with its paw while it wimpered [sic].” The officer entered, “believing the dog was in great pain and suffering.” Everything in the basement was it had been during the previous visit, and the dog was in bad shape. The officer “could see its rib cage” and it had “little to no energy,” so Animal Control “responded and took custody” of it.

Ashe and Langley both were charged with animal cruelty, but prosecutors declined to pursue their cases. About 10 days after Langley was arrested on the charges, he was accused of second-degree assault in the city, and later pleaded guilty, receiving a three-year suspended sentence with 18 months of probation.

About a week after the assault charges were filed, Frederick County law enforcers accused Langley of heroin distribution, and after pleading guilty he received a 20-year suspended sentence with two years of probation. That case violated his supervised release on a federal felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm conviction, so he was sent back to federal prison for seven months, and is scheduled for release in July

While routine animal-abuse cases involving neglected or abused dogs and cats, however disturbing, rarely make headlines, dogfighting, the rock star of animal-abuse crimes, is all but assured media coverage. Aside from MIU’s big case announced in December, consider the case against Johnnie Taylor of Howard Park.

It started in April 2012 as a routine drug probe prompted by suspicions that Taylor’s house “was being used to sell marijuana.” After watching apparent drug transactions, the police arrested two men, including Taylor, who told police that he lived alone at the house, but “he had several dogs inside his house and he was aspiring” to be a pet-shop owner.

As the police later arrived at Taylor’s house to raid it, his girlfriend, Tara Davis, “was standing outside” and told the officers of the dogs. “All but one” of them “were confined to a crate,” she said, and the “loose dog” was a “king corso” named “Midnight,” an “extremely aggressive” dog that “was a direct danger to anyone entering the dwelling.” So the police had Davis “enter the dwelling first,” put Midnight on a leash, and “take the dog directly to her vehicle.” They then went inside.

What they found was a bunch of pot, bullets, and “eight pit-bull dogs scattered throughout the house contained in separate cages,” living in a manner “unsuitable for any living creature.” The dogs were “kept in small cages” and were “standing in their own fecal” matter and “did not have any food or water.” Five of them “were kept in the unlit basement,” and two of them “had clear signs they had been bitten on the face and legs.” Also found was dog-training equipment, dietary supplements, and veterinary supplies, along with “a manual titled ‘Conditioning a Dog for a Fight.’”

The case prompted much media coverage, and Taylor took to YouTube after his arrest to try the case in the court of public opinion. “A lot of people probably seen me recently in the news for this dogfight ring,” he declares on the 11-minute video, “so I figure I get my own camera crew out here and tell the city and the world what’s really going on with Johnnie Taylor.

“Well, let me start off by saying I’ve never fought dogs ever in my life,” he says. “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always rescued animals,” and “my house is like an animal sanctuary.” He claims “people know I’m trying to open up a pet store, so why would the police say that I’m fighting dogs” when “all my dogs were healthy and friendly?” He asks viewers, “have you ever heard of a friendly fighting dog?”

Taylor will soon get a chance to defend himself in court, because a pretrial dispute was recently returned from the appellate courts in the prosecution’s favor, and a trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 23.

In 2014, though, one dogfighting case went unnoticed. It demonstrates how this form of abuse can be a spectator sport on the open streets of Baltimore.

On the afternoon of April 13, the police went to an alley near Homewood Avenue and East 20th Street, just north of Green Mount Cemetery, “for a dog fight in progress,” and when they arrived, they heard “citizens start to yell, ‘Yo the police are coming.’” There were “approximately 20 citizens in the alley, who were spectating this event, but they began to scatter” when the police showed up.

Two men, 36-year-old Edward Dancy and 44-year-old George Jordan Jr., were separating the fighting dogs, a “brown and white pit bull terrier” and a “white bull terrier,” who were “still growling, barking, and displaying their teeth toward each other.”

Dancy, ignoring officers’ calls for him to stop, pulled the pit bull down the street, but was soon detained and hesitantly did as told, to secure the dog by chaining it to a fence. Jordan did the same, chaining the bull terrier to a light pole.

“We wasn’t fighting the dogs, his dog jumped the fence,” Dancy said initially, but then changed his story, claiming “that’s not really what happened officer. We were walking the dogs” and they got too “close to each other and started fighting.”

Both dogs had injuries, but the bull terrier’s were worse: “punctures and lacerations” to the “face, ears, front legs, rear right leg, and neck.” The pit bull had “bite wounds” on its “face, nose, and front leg.” A responding AEO declared that the scene appeared to be more than what Dancy described, since their injuries “are consistent with that of dog fighting.” The police concluded that the two men “were intentionally and maliciously fighting these dogs” with “blatant disregard for public safety” and “the lives of these animals.”

Dancy and Jordan both were charged with animal cruelty and dogfighting. Jordan, who has a 2005 drug-dealing conviction, pleaded guilty and received an 18-month suspended sentence and one year of unsupervised probation. Prosecutors declined to pursue the charges against Dancy, who has faced numerous minor charges over the years, but has never been convicted.

Banks, the retired city investigator who would like to see convicted abusers banned from owning pets, holds dogfighters in particular disdain. “People that fight dogs are displaying antisocial behavior, and they’re dangerous,” he says, adding that “they should be publicized on a website, like the sex-offender registry.”

The zeal is borne of what Banks saw during his days in the anti-abuse business. Now a security professional who has provided services to celebrities in town to film movies, Banks, a fit man with a yen for gold chains, doesn’t come across as prone to emotional displays.

Yet, when his memory is jogged about what he saw in Baltimore’s basements and backyards, his emotions run high.

Banks recalls entering the basement of house where “there was a dogfighting ring, broken down, and a bloody carpet, and they had vitamins and steroids and treadmills. They were breeding dogs for fighting.”

What really got to Banks, though, was “a bait dog in a cage, and this dog was tore up. Part of his jaw was missing, his tail was gone, his ear was bitten off. He’d fought before, his time was over, and they just used him as a bait dog,” to get fighting dogs riled up.

“The thing about it was,” Banks continues, “this was the friendliest dog you’d ever want to be around. But he was so ugly, so abused. I cried.”

The Game Remains The Same: Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale’s new charges ring familiar

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

Over the last half-decade or so, City Paper has done in-depth reporting about how Baltimore’s drug game is tied to heroin arriving from Africa, gangsters who double as gang interventionists, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang’s broad reach in prisons and the streets, and legendary old felons getting charged anew. Now, with federal drug-and-gun charges unsealed Nov. 26 against Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, one man embodies all four themes.

The case involves Barksdale’s alleged dealings with co-defendant Suraj Tairu, a man with a 1990s New York conviction for helping to import heroin from Africa, and involves heroin contained in an “egg-shaped object”—a type of heroin packaging that is commonly swallowed and later excreted by so-called “internal smugglers” from Africa who bring them to the U.S. on commercial airline flights. Initially, only Tairu was charged in the case, on Sept. 12, and court documents state that he was supplying heroin to “a long-time, high ranking member of the BGF”—who, once the indictment was unsealed, was revealed to be Barksdale.

Barksdale grew up hustling in West Baltimore’s since-demolished Lexington Terrace projects in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the end of that decade he had become a local criminal legend whose violent exploits were depicted in a 2009 docu-drama project spearheaded by Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, a stevedore and strip club manager with his own outsize past in Baltimore’s drug game. The project, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, claimed Barksdale was the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a key character on the HBO series The Wire—a claim The Wire’s co-creator David Simon rejects. Two other old school Baltimore gangsters whose identities were used to create Wire characters—Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell, whose names were applied to characters who were enforcers for Avon Barksdale, Savino Bratton, and Anton “Stinkum” Artis—have also faced federal drug charges in recent years and are now in federal prison.

The Baltimore Sun’s reporting on Barksdale’s latest arrest revealed that he’d been working as a gang interventionist for Safe Streets, a publicly funded project managed by local nonprofits that seek to employ ex-felons to diffuse street violence before it happens. The Sun’s coverage quoted Safe Streets’ Delaino Johnson, director of the outfit’s branch in Mondawmin, as saying Barksdale “had a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area.”

In a wide-ranging City Paper interview in 2009 for a feature about Unwired, Barksdale described how, at that time, he worked “informally” with his nephew, Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets worker, to help stem violence among the younger generation.

“I try to keep some of them from traveling the same path I’ve traveled,” Barksdale said, noting that, “when I show up, it keeps some stuff from happening.”

Hiring ex-felons as street-violence mitigators has long been proposed and carried out, with mixed results. Radio talk-show host Marc Steiner in 2008, for instance, urged “cities, states, philanthropies, and businesses” to “spend millions” to “hire, train, and supervise hundreds of ex-felons to work in the streets with youth and families.” That year in Chicago, two anti-violence workers for the program after which Safe Streets was modeled, CeaseFire, were indicted and later pleaded guilty to drug dealing, and one of them, according to prosecutors, “promoted controlled violence among gang members in an effort to avoid subsequent and random retaliatory murders.” Also in 2008, the executive director of an anti-gang nonprofit in Los Angeles, No Guns, admitted to gun-running charges and another gang-interventionist pleaded no contest to drugs and firearms charges.

Subsequently, Safe Streets emerged in prior federal BGF cases in Maryland in 2009 and 2010. “Operation Safe Streets located in the McElderry Park and Madison East neighborhoods is controlled by the BGF, specifically Anthony Brown, aka ‘Gerimo,’” court documents in those cases state, adding that “BGF members released from prison can obtain employment from Operation Safe Streets.” Another Baltimore anti-violence nonprofit that previously had received Safe Streets funding, Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), employed two men who were convicted in that round of BGF cases: youth counselor Todd Andrew Duncan, who prosecutors described as the BGF’s “city-wide commander” at the time, and outreach worker Ronald “Piper” Scott.

Still, Baltimore’s Safe Streets program is credited with having stopped much bloodshed. A 2012 Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the program concluded that its workers mediated 276 incidents between July 2007 and December 2010, 88 percent of which “involved individuals with a history of violence” and three-quarters of which “involved gang members.”

Barksdale’s name emerged in the 2010 round of BGF indictments, which were investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was described in court documents as “an active BGF member” and a “B. Barksdale” was thanked in the acknowledgements section of The Black Book, a 122-page, soft-bound self-help guide published by BGF leader Eric Brown that authorities portrayed as a gang-recruitment tool whose sales helped finance the BGF.

“Hell, no!” Barksdale told City Paper at the time, when reached by phone at the number listed in the court documents and asked if he was an active BGF member. “I ain’t no motherfuckin’ member,” he says. “When I was in prison, I mean, yeah—but that was 20 years ago. I’m a filmmaker. I’m pushing 50, man. I’m too old for that. That’s for teenagers.”

In the current case, the heroin-possession charge against Barksdale and Tairu arises from their alleged interactions on June 22—when Barksdale allegedly tried to hoodwink Tairu after a police stop for a seatbelt violation resulted in the seizure of 1 ounce of heroin in the egg-shaped package. The stop occurred shortly after the two met at a Rite Aid parking lot off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, court documents say, though Barksdale was not arrested. About a half-hour later, Barksdale called Tairu to explain what had happened and told Tairu that the police “took both of them.”

“Based upon that conversation,” a federal agent wrote in court papers, “I surmised that” Barksdale “had actually been in possession of two ‘eggs’ of heroin and that the second ‘egg’ was still” in Barksdale’s possession, but that he “misled Tairu into believing that both ‘eggs’ were seized.”

On Nov. 27, Barksdale pleaded not guilty to the charges, which are being prosecuted by assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, who handled the complex series of cases filed against the BGF in 2009 and 2010. Barksdale’s court-appointed attorney, Nicholas Vitek, declined to comment. The case was initially assigned to U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who scheduled a three-to-five-day trial starting Feb. 24, but on Dec. 6, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge George Levi Russell III.