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.

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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dismemberment Plan: Gruesome murder case highlights violence in the pot trade

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 25, 2012


Peter Blake shouldn’t have been in the United States on the evening of Dec. 16, 2009, much less at an apartment on Daybrook Circle, near White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County. Blake, now 54, had been deported back to Jamaica, his homeland, in 2004, after serving a lengthy federal prison sentence for 1990 drugs-and-firearms convictions in Texas. Yet, by his own admission in court documents, Blake was there at the apartment, where he participated in a brutal contract murder and dismemberment (“The Scarface Treatment,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010; “Reefer Madness,” Mobtown Beat, March 9, 2011).

The victim, 50-year-old Michael Paul Knight, was a bulk-cash transporter for a massive Baltimore-based marijuana-dealing enterprise and had been entrusted with $1 million in the business’ proceeds, but more than $200,000 of that money had gone missing. He was killed after failing to explain the missing money, despite being beaten until one of his eyes came out of its socket and being threatened with a gun. Ultimately, Blake helped hold Knight face down in the apartment’s bathtub, and Blake and another man stabbed him until he died, according to Blake’s guilty plea. Over the next three days, Blake and two others sawed up Knight’s body and discarded the pieces in two or more dumpsters around the Baltimore region. Blake’s plea says the top conspirator in the killing, Jean Therese Brown, paid $100,000 to have Knight killed and have his body disposed of.

Blake, during his 1990 trial in Texas, was alleged by prosecutors to have admitted to “killing 10 people, two of which were police officers in Jamaica” in the past, though on the stand he denied making this admission, according to court documents. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction based on the prosecutors’ inclusion of the multiple-murder suggestions raised before the jury, but the appeals court ruled that Blake had impeached his credibility in so many other ways while testifying that the prosecutors’ fast-and-loose conduct on this score was a wash.

The charges against Blake in the Maryland case—one count of “conspiracy to commit murder and kidnapping in aid of racketeering” and one count of “aggravated re-entry of a deported alien”—were filed in February, and he pleaded guilty to them in April, before U.S. District Judge William Quarles, Jr. The maximum sentence for the murder-conspiracy count is 10 years in prison. The others alleged to have been involved in Knight’s murder—Brown, Hubert “Doc” Downer, Dean “Journey” Myrie, and Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton, Jr.—are in much more serious trouble.

Brown, Downer, and Myrie face mandatory life sentences for murder in aid of racketeering if convicted of Knight’s killing. They are fortunate not to be facing the death penalty, which, until early July, when the U.S. Department of Justice declined to pursue capital punishment in this case, had been a real possibility.

Smith, meanwhile, was murdered in Tijuana, Mexico, in April 2010. He allegedly was shot in the head by Leo Alvarez Tostado-Gastellium, one of three defendants in a separate pot-distribution indictment filed in April in U.S. District Court in Maryland. That indictment, which does not include a murder count, also charges two other men—Julio Carlos Meza-Mendez and Gabrial Campa-Mayen—with participating in the Baltimore-based pot conspiracy involving Brown, Smith, and others, which prosecutors have dubbed “the Brown Organization.” After Smith’s murder, the indictment says, Brown called Meza-Mendez to confirm Smith’s murder.

Myrie had been a fugitive until early July, when he was picked up in New York City as a result of an America’s Most Wanted segment that aired recently. At his first appearance at Baltimore’s federal courthouse on July 17, the tall, barrel-chested Myrie, who has a close-cropped beard and a shaved head, appeared unmoved as U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm explained his rights.

Numerous others have been charged in federal court for their part in the Brown Organization, which court records say grossed $1-$2 million per month, selling weed for $1,000 per pound. The other codefendants in the main conspiracy case are Tamara Henry, Robert Henry, Dmytro “the Russian” Holovko, Jason Carnegie, and Anthony Hendrickson. Two other men—Mowayne McKay and Shamar Dixon—were arrested at their Ellicott City residence in March 2011, charged separately, and pleaded guilty in July and August 2011.

The scope of the Brown Organization’s alleged pot-distribution scheme was enormous and long-lasting and was orchestrated from Baltimore and Miami, Fla. The indictment says it started by 2000, at the latest, and continued until Oct. 2011, and other court documents state that it moved as much as 1,000 pounds of pot at a time, once or twice a month. Brown owned and operated trucking companies, including one called Full Range Trucking, to move the shipments of marijuana from Arizona and California to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, and make shipments of cash payments back to Arizona and California. Another Brown trucking company, called Coast to Coast Express LLC, was based in an office at 6400 Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville, according to its business records.

Brown “concealed” some of the profits in Baltimore, court records say, and some of the money was carried to her native Jamaica by couriers, including Knight. Once the money was in Jamaica, authorities say, some of it was converted to real estate held by Brown, Smith, and their relatives.

When Brown was charged in the pot-conspiracy indictment in Feb. 2011, she pleaded guilty to bulk-cash smuggling and received a 37-month prison sentence. Her codefendant in that case, Debbie Ann Shipp, also pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced.

Prior to her indictment in the pot conspiracy, Brown cooperated with authorities investigating the case against her and her codefendants—though her attorneys, Gary Proctor and Thomas Crowe, have moved to have her statements suppressed. According to their filings, “Ms. Brown has given extraordinarily detailed statements to law enforcement officers implicating Messrs. Downer and Holovko, among others, which include, but are not limited to, three audio-video statements with a combined running time slightly in excess of seven hours.” Proctor and Crowe argue that two interviews of Brown, conducted by Baltimore County police detectives in Oct. and Nov. 2010, were involuntary, even though they were given with the permission of her attorney at the time, Sebastian Cotrone of Florida, who was not present when the interviews took place.

The shocking violence that Blake has admitted to not only implicates the others accused in Knight’s murder, it also serves as a reminder that the pot trade, though often thought to be a more peaceful enterprise than dealing cocaine, heroin, or other harder drugs, can prove tragically lethal.

“The organizations that distribute marijuana often engage in the same kind of violence that we see in any drug gang,” says Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. “Maybe the users aren’t as dangerous,” he adds, “but sometimes the dealers are.”

Direct Connections: Evidence mounts that foreign sources, including the Los Zetas cartel, deal directly with Baltimore traffickers

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 3, 2010


“The goal of any drug dealer is to cut out as many middle men as possible in order to increase profits.”

That statement was made by Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein a year ago, when he unveiled Operation Xcellerator, a U.S. Justice Department initiative aimed at laying low the long reach of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. “I do believe,” he said at the time, “there are Baltimore drug dealers who do this by having connections with drug distributors outside of the U.S.” He vowed to “continue to trace the drugs back to the source, work our way to the top, and ultimately indict the major players.”

Since then, law enforcers here have successfully ferreted out some international ties to Baltimore’s entrenched drug economy. Though Rosenstein’s office points to only one Xcellerator case in Baltimore–a conspiracy with ties to Hollywood and Baltimore City Hall (“Mexican Connection,” Mobtown Beat, March 4, 2009)–City Paper has found three recent examples of evidence filed in U.S. District Court that indicate direct ties between Baltimore and foreign sources of supply, including the fearsome Los Zetas cartel (whose symbol is pictured above) in Mexico.

The Los Zetas connection arose on Feb. 17, when a superseding indictment was filed in a conspiracy case involving 44-year-old Jamaica-born Baltimorean Wade Coats (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17, 2009). Coats and his co-defendants–43-year-old Ronald Brown of Baltimore and 42-year-old Jose Cavazos of Midlothian, Texas–were snared by law enforcers last April, when Coats and Cavazos used a room at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel to conduct an alleged high-dollar cocaine and heroin deal. The superseding indictment names a fourth defendant, 38-year-old Baltimorean James Bostic, whose presence in the case added evidence of dealings with Los Zetas.

Prior to the superseding indictment, the government’s case seemed tenuous, since the Baltimore police detective who swore out the initial complaints in the case–Mark James Lunsford–has since been charged federally with lying and embezzlement (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009).

Investigators learned of Bostic’s alleged acts involving Los Zetas in December, according to court documents, when a confidential source said that Bostic “would be making a large cash payment to a representative of the Los Zetas Mexican Drug Cartel for previously obtained cocaine and marijuana on December 29, 2009 at the Marriott Residence Inn in White Marsh.”

After receiving the information, the documents say, investigators “pre-wired a room for audio and visual recording” at the hotel. Bostic arrived at the appointed time, allegedly carrying a suitcase containing $590,000, which he gave to cartel representatives at the meeting. The documents say he complained to them about “the poor quality of the marijuana he had received and asked when he could expect his next shipment of cocaine.” Cartel representatives then allegedly counted the money, placed it in heat-sealed bags, and hid it in a Ford Explorer. According to the documents, as the cartel representatives were leaving the state the next day, “a vehicle stop was conducted of the Ford Explorer,” and the same amount of money Bostic had turned over was recovered.

The investigation continued on Feb. 2, according to the documents, when the confidential source told law enforcers “that a multi-kilogram drug transaction” involving Bostic and a cartel representative was about to occur at the same White Marsh Marriott. The investigators again pre-wired the room. Bostic and a cartel representative met and “the representative produced a suitcase.” Bostic opened it, “began counting kilograms of cocaine,” then left with the suitcase. After a short foot chase in the hotel’s parking lot, Bostic was arrested and “recovered from his person was a large hunting style knife and a large sum of U.S. currency.” The suitcase, which Bostic had dropped when the chase began, contained approximately 12 kilograms of cocaine.

The court documents do not say what became of the Los Zetas representatives who met with Bostic. According to the Justice Department’s 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment, Los Zetas is “the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel” and some of its members are former Mexican Special Forces soldiers who “maintain expertise in the use of heavy weaponry, specialized military tactics, sophisticated communications equipment, intelligence collection, and counter surveillance techniques.” More recently, according a 2009 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) press release, Los Zetas has “evolved into not only a security force but a drug trafficking organization in their own right,” merging with the Gulf Cartel to become a powerful entity known as “The Company.”

None of the attorneys representing defendants in the Coats case would comment for this article, since it involves an ongoing matter.

Another recent federal drug case involving Baltimore and Mexico nabbed Santiago Vargas-Ponce, who was charged Feb. 17. The case against him, like the one against Bostic, was built on information provided by a confidential source, followed by recorded surveillance. That source, according to court documents, was “in negotiations” in January with “a Mexican drug-trafficker . . . to deliver a large quantity of cocaine to Baltimore.”

Vargas-Ponce, the court documents say, arrived in Baltimore on Feb. 15 with a drug-laden vehicle, met with the confidential source, and arranged to do the drug deal the next day. After the source picked Vargas-Ponce up at a hotel and “gathered tools to extract the cocaine from the vehicle,” the two headed to “a secured garage located in Owings Mills,” which investigators had equipped with a hidden camera. Once the source dropped Vargas-Ponce off at the garage and left the area to go get money, agents watched Vargas-Ponce “disassemble the vehicle” and “extract a large object from the engine compartment.” The agents then arrested Vargas-Ponce and proceeded to discover another object in the engine compartment. In all, the two objects held approximately six kilograms of cocaine, the court documents say. Vargas-Ponce’s attorney from the federal public-defender’s office, who was appointed on Feb. 24, did not wish to comment for this story.

The third recent case is a Nov. 2009 DEA search warrant for two Baltimore storage lockers leased by a Baltimore man named Paul Sessomes. The warrant relates DEA intelligence-gathering by its offices in New York and Bogota, Colombia, dating to 2008, and names recently convicted drug-dealer Thomas Corey Crosby, who in turn was tied to (but not charged in) a 2007 federal case involving convicted drug conspirators who used Fat Cats Variety store in Southwest Baltimore (“All the Emperor’s Men,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008).

The November search warrant turned up $535,200 in cash stuffed in a large dufflebag, and mortgage documents in Sessomes’ name. The items were retrieved from a Public Storage locker near Security Square Mall. The affidavit supporting the warrant describes how Sessomes used a cell-phone to discuss “the delivery of drug proceeds” with targets of a DEA heroin-trafficking-and-money-laundering investigation conducted by DEA New York and DEA Bogota. “In fact,” the affidavit states, “during September 2008, Paul Sessomes was observed by the agents meeting with Diego Neira and Maria Espitia-Garcia, known money launderers for the Bogot?, Colombia based Espitia heroin organization under investigation, in Baltimore.”

Public records show that Sessomes has a used-auto dealership, Westport Auto, and owns real estate in the area, including a house in Columbia and a condominium at 414 Water St. in downtown Baltimore. State court records show that Westport Auto has been a defendant in four Baltimore City forfeiture cases brought by Rudolph Drayton of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office since 2005. Co-defendants in each of the cases were charged or convicted drug dealers.

Sessomes’ attorney, James Gitomer, says he doesn’t “have anything to say about” the search warrant, but points out that Sessomes has not been charged with a crime and that “there has never been a claim made for that money” seized from the storage locker leased by his client, suggesting that it might not belong to Sessomes.

The three recent instances of alleged direct Baltimore ties to foreign drug-world suppliers suggest that Rosenstein’s office, even after prosecuting the Sinaloa-tied Xcellerator case, is still finding that some Mobtown dealers are indeed able to cut out the middle-men in the global drug game and go straight to source.

Walter Ingram pleads guilty while crying foul in federal heroin case in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014

In 2010, when Walter Louis Ingram was 59 years old, he was charged in a Baltimore-based heroin conspiracy, three years after his release from federal prison for a 1992 cocaine-conspiracy conviction. Since the new charges were filed, the Baltimore gangster – famous in the 1980s and early 1990s for beating murder raps and other serious charges here and in New York City – has been fighting them from his jail cell.

His efforts, which have spanned more than three years and as many defense attorneys, came to an end Oct. 2, when he pleaded guilty before U.S. District judge J. Frederick Motz and received a six-year prison sentence – less than expected in CP‘s prior coverage of the case.

Given the long time it’s taken the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office to convince Ingram to admit his guilt, it’s worth noting that Ingram’s plea agreement gives him credit for “apparent prompt recognition and affirmative acceptance of personal responsibility for his criminal conduct,” the document states, and for his “timely notification of his intention to plead guilty.”

Three years is a long time for the feds to put a case to bed, and Ingram’s posture during the lengthy proceedings has been, to put it kindly, intransigent. Given this background, the agreement’s liberal use of the terms “prompt recognition” and “timely notification” seem almost sarcastic. The plea agreement also includes a waiver of appeal rights for both Ingram and the government should the sentence actually imposed be 72 months – which is precisely what Motz gave him.

Even in pleading guilty, though, Ingram sounds like a fighter. City Paper today received a jail letter from him, which states that “after careful thought and consideration, I accepted the government’s recent plea offer very reluctantly,” noting that, in his view, the case against him “had begun to reveal a [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] cover-up of illegal cell phone tracking and a systematic disregard for the Federal Rules of [Criminal] Procedure, Rule 41,” which dictates conduct involving searches and seizures.

Ingram writes that, based on “the very limited disclosure of discovery material in my case,” he believes that electronic-surveillance orders used in his and other federal probes in Maryland have been unlawfully obtained from state judges, rather than federal judges, based on applications by federal agents “not acting with and under the direction of a state law-enforcement officer” – a no-no, he asserts, under his reading of Maryland and federal laws.

“This erroneous practice,” Ingram continues, “has been systematically perpetuated for several years under seal” – meaning, sealed from public view under judges’ orders – and “there are many other cases involving the same illegally used procedure.” He adds that “this type of conduct undermines the integrity of the federal judicial process” because “federal agents are using illegally obtained information for federal prosecutions and covering up how the information was obtained.”

The pattern of such alleged abuse, Ingram claims, continues in the case of Richard Anthony “Richie Rich” Wilford, who was a co-defendant of Ingram’s in the 1992 conspiracy case and is also currently being prosecuted in a federal drug conspiracy – though Wilford’s case so far remains unresolved.

When Ingram gets out of prison this time, he’ll be pushing 70 – maybe a good age to retire from the streets and instead go to work for a criminal-defense firm. After all, his storied past – including his legendary association with Kenneth Antonio Jackson, the politically connected strip-club owner, longshoreman, and filmmaker who was Ingram’s co-defendant in a famous 1991 New York murder acquittal orchestrated by super-lawyer Robert Simels, who’s currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation – is now ancient history.

New York Boys: A Queens Gangster and His Attorney Visit Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2003


Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, notorious for his ruthless endeavors in the 1980s as leader of a $10-million-a-year drug organization that fueled a crack epidemic in public-housing high rises in Jamaica, Queens, came to Baltimore federal court June 2 for sentencing on firearms charges. McGriff, an ex-con, was arrested in Miami on Dec. 28 for possessing firearms, in violation of federal law, during repeated visits to a Glen Burnie shooting range.

McGriff (pictured, from Wikipedia) is a movie producer now, with a new straight-to-DVD gangster movie out, Crime Partners, based on a Donald Goines novel and featuring Hollywood stars Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. And he was recently revealed as the behind-the-scenes money and muscle of Grammy Award-winning hip-hop record label Murder Inc.

U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Motz, who is presiding over McGriff’s Baltimore gun case, has seen his share of high-profile defendants over the decades, but a Big Apple movie-and-music mogul in a Baltimore courtroom is a very rare bird.

Watching McGriff’s back in court was Manhattan lawyer Robert Simels, a veteran of nearly a quarter-century of famed defendants–from Italian mobsters and drug lords from the ‘hood, to international bankers and Russian gasoline bootleggers. Among his clients have been a few well-known Baltimoreans with New York connections. Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected former lieutenant of Melvin “Little Melvin” Williams‘ heroin hierarchy of the 1980s, has used Simels to fight everything from tax-evasion charges to city liquor-board infractions. Simels represented William “Little Will” Franklin–a drug trafficker who in 1987 was indicted with Phillip A. “Phil Boy” Murray, owner of O’Dell’s nightclub on North Avenue, on drug charges–when he faced new drug-dealing charges in the late ’90s. Antonio “Big Black” Howell, former head of the East Baltimore gang the Nickel Boys, also turned to Simels when the feds closed in on his outfit.

McGriff, on the other hand, is a New Yorker with Baltimore connections–and the little that is publicly known about those connections suggests that Simels is going to have his hands full defending McGriff.

McGriff–who is known to use two other names, “Ricky Coleman” and “Lee Tuten”–pleaded guilty in April to gun charges stemming from his repeated use of firearms at Select-Fire shooting range next to the Glen Burnie Mall off of Ritchie Highway between January 1999 and June 2001.

Federal convicts like McGriff, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term after his exploits in the Queens, N.Y., high rises, aren’t legally allowed to possess firearms or ammunition, yet a certificate from Select-Fire contained in court files reflects that, in August 2000, McGriff completed a “tactical handgun training course” with a “L.E. [law enforcement] Firearms Instructor” whose signature is illegible. The New York federal prosecutor, Tracy Lee Dalton, who was deputized in Baltimore to handle the case after McGriff’s December arrest in Miami, also asserts in a May 28 sentencing memorandum that “on a number of occasions the defendant utilized machine guns” at Select-Fire.

A recent City Paper visit to Select-Fire elicited a shocked reaction from owner Wayne Nowicki. “Where did you get this?” he asked when presented with a copy of McGriff’s training certificate from his establishment. When told it was from the federal courthouse, he exclaimed, “Got my balls up my asshole,” and asked the reporter to leave his shop.

Select-Fire is one of two Baltimore-area locations where prosecutor Dayton places McGriff. The other is a residence in the Red Run Apartments complex in Owings Mills, where two men from New York were gunned down in the parking lot on Aug. 20, 2001. Inside the apartment investigators found McGriff’s fingerprints as well as the Select-Fire certificate, “numerous items related to [Crime Partners],” a stolen handgun, about $30,000 in cash, and “a large quantity” of cocaine and heroin.

The official line on the Red Run double murder, which remains unsolved, is simply that it appears to be drug-related. Four months earlier, one of the Red Run victims, Karon Russell Clarrett, had been nabbed on Interstate 95 in Robeson County, N.C., with 2.3 kilograms of cocaine.

Federal authorities in New York have linked McGriff to violence in recent years, though he hasn’t been charged with any related crimes. “In one instance, McGriff directed co-conspirators to kill a drug associate who, agents believe, McGriff suspected of cooperating with the government,” according to an Internal Revenue Service affidavit, quoted in the May 17 Sun, filed May 12 in a New York federal forfeiture suit filed against McGriff’s assets. “In another instance, McGriff was involved with the shooting of another rap artist named 50 Cent.” The performer in question, 50 Cent, has been at the vortex of hip-hop-world violence: He’s been shot on two occasions and has made a name in part on his resulting street credibility.

At McGriff’s June 2 hearing, Judge Motz handed him a 37-month sentence, to be served consecutively with whatever term he receives for another gun charge pending in New York.

“There is absolutely no excuse for you to be anywhere near a firearm,” Motz admonished McGriff, concluding that the only reason for the defendant’s gunplay at Select-Fire was “to keep your skills up, and that says it all. Felons have no reason to keep their [gun] skills up.”

Before the hearing, Simels bantered with the press.

“It shouldn’t even be in violation of federal laws [for a felon] to be at a firing range,” he insisted. When he went before Motz, however, Simels changed his tune, pleading with the judge for a lighter sentence, acknowledging, “It was wrong for [McGriff] to go.”

“This is a lot of attention for a little case,” Simels remarked to the courthouse press corps. But the widespread attention to McGriff’s misdeeds in Baltimore is due to his newly publicized stature as a player in the rap world.

Since last December, when the New York Daily News first reported that a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn was zeroing in on McGriff and Crime Partners, McGriff’s role in Murder, Inc. has taken shape in the press in drips and drabs. The probe, begun in 2000, is prying into alleged financial ties between the drug world and the rap industry.

The federal forfeiture suit filed on May 12 in New York against McGriff’s movie company, Picture Perfect, alleges that since 1999 McGriff has been laundering drug money, including profits from his Baltimore operations, through the Crime Partners project. Murder Inc. promoted the movie while Def Jam Records produced the film’s soundtrack, according to the suit.

Other entertainment-industry players crop up in the complaint, including Raven Knite Productions of Los Angeles, which is said in the suit to be Crime Partners’ agent. The company’s roots are in producing 1990s music videos, including ones for Marion “Suge” Knight’s Death Row Records. It currently gets decent work on the Hollywood periphery. In 2001, for instance, Raven Knite snagged a production credit for Queens-based Transcontinental Records’ jump into the movie world, Long Shot, a movie that describes as “a teen comedy with cameos from Britney Spears, Lance from *NSync, KC [of the Sunshine Band], and Kenny Rogers.”

“In or about 2001,” the IRS forfeiture suit alleges, a package to Raven Knite was intercepted by authorities after it had caught the attention of drug-sniffing dogs. The package was from one of Crime Partners’ co-producers, Jon Ragin of New York, a man with a criminal history in the drug business who currently is facing credit-card fraud charges in connection with the Murder Inc. investigation. Inside was $5,000 in cash, wrapped in scented baby wipes–a tactic, the complaint alleges, that is frequently used by narcotics traffickers “to disguise the tell-tale scent of their narcotics proceeds.”

Attempts to reach Raven Knite for comment were unsuccessful. The company’s listed Los Angeles telephone number has been disconnected.

With the federal investigation of McGriff and Murder Inc. heading into courtrooms, Simels is handling spin control as the feds’ version of events seeps out of the court files and into press coverage. Simels has said repeatedly that while McGriff has an ugly past in the drug business, his present moneymaking endeavors in the entertainment industry are entirely legitimate.

And profitable, by all appearances. After McGriff’s Dec. 28 arrest in Miami on the Baltimore gun charges, a magistrate judge concluded that McGriff should be kept in detention because he presented a flight risk, in part because his billfold is fat. In addition to the small amounts of ecstasy and heroin found in McGriff’s wallet when he was arrested in a Miami hotel, the judge proclaimed that McGriff “has extensive financial resources.” Presumably, then, he can afford Simels’ pricey legal services–unlike some of Simels’ past clients, like Good Fellas mobster Henry Hill and New York Jets football player Ken O’Brien, both of whom Simels sued for failure to pay their bills.

New York Attorney Robert Simels, Serving a 14-Year Prison Sentence, Co-Owns Baltimore Condo with Kenny “Bird” Jackson’s Mother

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2010


Robert Simels, the New York criminal-defense lawyer who for decades represented some of Baltimore’s most notorious drug-world defendants, won’t be using his Water Street condominium in downtown Baltimore anytime soon. In early January, he began serving a 14-year prison sentence for intimidating witnesses on behalf of one of his clients, Shaheed “Roger” Khan, a former Marylander convicted in New York of running a massive Guyana-based cocaine conspiracy.

Simels purchased Unit 1201 at 414 Water St. with Rosalie Jackson in 2008 for $362,300, according to land records. Rosalie Jackson is the mother and business partner of Kenny “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected ex-con who owns the Eldorado Lounge strip club on East Lombard Street.

Over the years, Kenny “Bird” Jackson made use of Simels’ prodigious skills as a criminal-defense attorney, including for a New York case in 1991, when Jackson was acquitted of the 1984 murder of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez after Gonzalez’ relatives testified against the government at trial. Today, in addition to running the Eldorado, Kenny Jackson is the producer/director of The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, a series of docu-dramas that claim to tell the real-life stories behind HBO’s The Wire.

Other notable drug-world clients of Simels who appeared in Maryland courts over the years include:

Eric Clash of the politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which also involved restaurateur Anthony Leonard of Downtown Southern Blues, a tenant of Kenny Jackson’s; Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, a legendary Queens, N.Y., gangster who faced gun charges here; and former fugitive Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008), an associate of accused kingpin Maurice Phillips, who is currently facing the death penalty in a lengthy drug-conspiracy trial in Philadelphia. (See also our stories on Green’s arrest [“Return Flight,” Motown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008] and his guilty plea [“Shawn Green Pleads Guilty,” The News Hole, Dec. 11, 2009] made in Dec. 2009.)

Big Target: Feds in New York Dub Indicted Defense Attorney Simels a “Danger,” Aim to See His Fees in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 12, 2009


On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Justice Department took two shots at Robert M. Simels (pictured, from, the self-described “Rolls Royce” of criminal-defense attorneys.

In New York, where Simels is charged with witness intimidation in connection with his defense of former Marylander Shaheed “Roger” Khan (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who is accused of running a violent Guyanese cocaine conspiracy, prosecutors called Simels a “palpable danger” to public safety and convinced a judge to keep Simels’ bond, which is secured with his $2.5 million Westchester, N.Y., home, at $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, in a Baltimore case that appears unrelated to Khan, another Justice Department attorney asked a judge to order Simels to cough up detailed information to a grand jury about how he’s getting paid to represent accused drug trafficker and money launderer Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008).

Just another day in the decades-long war between Justice and Simels.

In the mid-1980s, shortly after Simels had entered private practice on the heels of a career as a young federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s U.S. attorney, tried and failed to get information about Simels’ fee arrangements with clients. But today in Maryland, according to local attorneys, the law is clear that grand juries are entitled to look at attorneys’ fee arrangements, though they rarely do so.

“It’s rare but not unheard of,” says former federal prosecutor and longtime defense attorney David Irwin, when asked about how frequently the grand jury goes after attorneys’ fees. He predicts that “the government is going to win the motion and Simels is at best filing a delaying action.”

Simels is famous in New York for representing high-profile clients such as Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (“New York Boys,” Mobtown Beat, June 4, 2003) and Henry Hill, whose gangster stories have entered popular culture. But Simels’ Baltimore clientele over the years, such as Green, tend not to be household names–though they are accused of being high up in the game and are often well-connected. Two of them–Eric Clash of the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 2, 2005) and Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995), who owns the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club–have known ties to Baltimore politics.

The motion filed against Simels in the Shawn Green case, by assistant U.S. attorney Kwame Manley, is stunning for its disclosures about a secret grand-jury investigation. Green was captured after nearly two years on the run, and at his first court appearance in December 2008, Simels was at his side. In light of what the Justice Department reveals in Manley’s motion, the grand jury is interested in whether or not Simels was getting paid to represent Green during his lengthy stretch on the lam.

What’s known about Green so far is based largely on court records in Baltimore and in connection with a sprawling federal prosecution in Philadelphia against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO), in which Green is not a defendant. Real-estate lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother, Yolanda Crawley, pleaded guilty last year to their parts in Green’s allegedly illicit assets and activities, with interests spanning the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey.

Yet the Justice Department, according to the motion to compel Simels to open up his books, thinks Green kept up the conspiracy while on the run, after his co-conspirators were arrested. It expects to file more charges. The grand jury, the motion continues, “is continuing its investigation of Green and other individuals,” and “the Government believes that during Green’s nearly two-year period as a fugitive, he continued to launder proceeds of illegal activity through known co-conspirators in this case.”

The specific information sought by the grand jury from Simels concerns “attorney fees and retainers received for the representation of Green, the amount of funds received, the identity of the individuals who provided such funds, and the dates and manner in which such funds were provided (i.e., cash, check, wire, etc.).”

Last March, with Green still a fugitive, Simels told City Paper in a telephone interview that he was not Green’s attorney. The question was raised because court records show that Simels had been sent mail from U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in connection with the federal forfeiture of Green’s Reservoir Hill apartment building and recording studio.

Simels did not respond to messages left at his office for this article. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The government’s strong language came in reaction to a Feb. 2 bond-modification request by Simels’ attorney, Gerard Shargel, who sought to remove the secured money bond as a condition of Simels’ release pending trial. In it, Shargel points out that the bond set on Sept. 10 “was not based on any judicial finding that Mr. Simels poses a risk of flight or a danger to the community,” and thus asserts that the prosecutors cannot show that Simels poses such risks.

The prosecutors, Steven D’Alessandro and Morris Fodeman, went ahead and called Simels dangerous anyhow, while arguing that they are not required to prove that he is. In doing so, they restated the allegations–that Simels sought to bribe and threaten witnesses, including with violence–and note that Simels is wealthy, that the evidence against him is strong, and that his behavior was conducted in his role as an attorney.

“The Court can have little confidence,” the prosecutors continued, that Simels will not further obstruct justice “now that Simels, as opposed simply to a client, would benefit” from such crimes. Thus, they concluded, “there exists a palpable danger were the defendant released without significant pre-trial conditions,” such as the high bail set when he was first arrested.

The New York round went to the government when the judge agreed last Friday to keep Simels’ bond set high. Green’s judge in Baltimore, J. Frederick Motz, set a Feb. 23 deadline for Simels to submit his opposition to Manley’s attempt to open up his books on the Shawn Green account.

Union Busted: Ex-cons, and some current ones, find a home in troubled Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2010


Ask Michael Thames if he’s a member of the Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and the 42-year-old quickly pulls his Port of Baltimore photo-identification card out of his pants pocket. He’s been working for nine years on crews that load and unload ships calling on Baltimore, he says, and his brother and two uncles do too, as did his father until retiring recently. All, he says, are members of Local 333.

Thames is holding his Baltimore Orioles cap and sunglasses in his hand, sporting a black faux-leather jacket with lots of zippered pockets. A grill of gold caps his front teeth, flashing as he speaks. He has close-cropped hair and a slight mustache.

Yes, Thames says, he’s aware there’s a Local 333 election coming up on Dec. 3, and that Riker “Rocky” McKenzie is running for Local 333’s president.

McKenzie has already been president of the union once, having won the position in January 2009. But he was replaced in August by an acting president after the ILA’s national leaders in New York determined that a heroin-dealing conviction from the 1970s rendered him ineligible for the position, since felons are barred from serving as union officers. The day after the decision, McKenzie appealed. While he did not contest the conviction during a June hearing on the matter, in his appeal he contended he received probation before judgment in the heroin case rather than a guilty finding. Pending the outcome of his appeal, he’s allowed to be nominated as the local’s president. He has only one opponent: longtime Local 333 member John Blom.

And yes, Thames says, he knows McKenzie’s bid for president included a Nov. 15 fundraiser at the Eldorado, a strip club in East Baltimore co-owned by Kenneth Antonio “Kenny Bird” Jackson, an iconic Baltimore underworld figure—and a fellow member of Local 333.

Jackson hasn’t been part of an active prosecution since a generation ago (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1996), but his criminal history includes several notable convictions—manslaughter, narcotics, and gun possession—and he beat two murder raps, one in 1974 and the other in 1991. In between, he was twice pulled over in his car on the New Jersey Turnpike with large sums of cash during the late 1980s. The first time it was $91,000; the next it was nearly $700,000.

Over time, Jackson’s life quieted on the law-enforcement front. In a 2009 interview about a film he produced, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired (“Last Word,” Feature, Apr. 29, 2009), Jackson told City Paper he’d undergone “a transition from one lifestyle to another,” shelving his gangster ways and retreating peacefully to the simple life of running a family-owned strip club.

But Jackson is still a lightning rod for criminal and political intrigue. In the mid-2000s, a federal prosecution of a politically connected violent drug gang, the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), targeted a man who helped run the criminal enterprise while also operating a restaurant in a Jackson-owned building on Howard Street’s Antique Row. And Jackson’s mother—who co-owns the Eldorado with him—still co-owns a downtown Baltimore condominium (The News Hole, Feb. 22) with Jackson’s former criminal-defense attorney, Robert Simels of New York (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who’s now serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation.

It’s hard to imagine a man of Jackson’s stature doing wage-paying labor as a stevedore. And, in fact, he may not have, according to multiple Local 333 members who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, for fear of retribution. Instead, they say it’s common knowledge on the docks that another man, Anthony James Carroll, worked in Jackson’s place—a not uncommon practice known as “covering” (“Clocked,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 6). To shore up this contention, they share details about a woman who almost married Carroll, thinking he was Jackson, until the ruse came tumbling down after Carroll’s arrest when driving a stolen car in 2007.

“I don’t know,” Thames says when asked about Carroll standing in as Jackson at the port. “I just know [Carroll] worked down there [as a stevedore] before.”

Jackson did not respond to a detailed e-mail and could not be reached by phone. Attempts to reach Carroll, who court records indicate is now in South Carolina, were unsuccessful. The phone number he gave officials when he signed probation papers in October for a recent theft conviction is no longer active.

Thames is also aware that Local 333 member Milton Tillman Jr.—a politically influential bail-bondsman and real estate investor with two prior federal convictions for attempted bribery and tax evasion—was indicted by a federal grand jury early this year. Some of the charges against Tillman involve covering, alleging he was paid port wages for shifts he did not work. Tillman’s reputation as a drug-world figure was exploited in a federal courtroom in 2002, when since-deceased Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna, while prosecuting a case involving the 2000 shooting of Tillman’s son, called him “one of the most notorious drug dealers in Baltimore City history” (“Grave Accusations,” Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008).

Tillman and Jackson are arguably two of the most enduring names in the modern annals of Baltimore crime. And both are members of Local 333.

In addition to McKenzie, Jackson, and Tillman, Thames says he knows about the federal fraud convictions in September of three port timekeepers for covering. The case against the timekeepers, who are members of Local 953 and track dockworkers’ hours on behalf of employers, grew out of the federal investigation into Tillman’s conduct on the waterfront (“Collateral Catch,” Mobtown Beat, March 31).

Asked about the investigations and the upcoming elections, Thames says, “I don’t really have no recommendations. As far as Rocky and all them, all I know is what you know.”

The conversation with Thames occurred on Nov. 12 in a hallway outside a courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Thames, whose street name is “Gotti,” had just pleaded not guilty to an indictment accusing him of being a cocaine dealer. According to the charging papers, on Sept. 1 law enforcers descended on Thames’ Essex residence armed with a search warrant. The search turned up about five ounces of cocaine, about $5,000, two digital scales, and two blocks of mannite, often used as a cutting agent for illegal drugs.

Thames’ circumstances—along with convicted criminals Tillman and Jackson being Local 333 members and union president McKenzie’s hazy criminal charge—beg questions. Does Local 333 draw people with criminal pasts or presents? And if so, why? Thames answers as best he can, saying, “I don’t know.” Attempts at follow-up interviews were unsuccessful.


In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice in New York filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the national ILA. The government calls its target “the Waterfront Enterprise,” and says it is comprised of ILA leaders and members and associates of the Genovese and Gambino organized-crime families. Among the dozens of named defendants in the case are two Baltimoreans: Richard Hughes, the ILA’s president, who is the longtime business agent for Local 953 in Baltimore; and Horace Alston, a Local 333 member who serves as an ILA vice president in New York.

The purpose of the litigation, the federal attorneys wrote in a 2008 motion, is “to eradicate the pervasive and long-enduring Waterfront racketeering that has deprived” the ILA’s “honest membership,” the “innocent beneficiaries” of its pension and welfare funds, and businesses that use ILA labor “of rights and property for decades.”

Last week, the ILA’s problems in New York and New Jersey were put under a spotlight by the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the watchdog agency that polices port labor practices there. According to news reports, testimony revealed that an ILA shop steward makes $400,000 a year logging 168 hours of work each week, an ILA timekeeper earned about $462,000 in 2009 by getting paid for 25-hour workdays, and a cargo checker with mob ties had a no-show job. The hearings seek to reveal how irrational labor practices drive up port costs and create conditions ripe for organized crime to have a say over how billions of dollars worth of cargo is moved through New York Harbor each year.

The words “Baltimore,” “Maryland,” or “Local 333” do not appear in the federal case, which focuses on conduct alleged—or in many cases proven—to have occurred in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Nonetheless, the ongoing, slow-moving litigation casts a pall over the ILA as a whole, lending credence to the possibility that something about its institutional culture attracts, or perhaps even welcomes, criminal elements.

People like to say that Baltimore doesn’t have organized crime; instead, it has disorganized crime. There aren’t any Gambinos or Genoveses to infiltrate the ILA here in Mobtown, calling the shots about how cargo gets moved. Instead, there are run-of-the-mill, disorganized criminals. An analysis of the Local 333 membership roster bears this out.

Local 333 isn’t packed with people who have bribery, extortion, racketeering, kickback, and public corruption backgrounds. Instead, the records of many Local 333 members reflect the core criminality of Baltimore: drugs, violence, and property crime. At least a fifth of its membership consists of serious felons.

City Paper used online court records to determine that out of the 918 distinct port identification numbers issued to ILA members through Local 333, according to its roster in mid-October, 272 of them are held by presumably honest workers who have never been charged with a crime in Maryland in their adult lives. Thus, at least 29 percent of the membership is untainted by any criminal accusations at all, based on available information.

The number of completely upstanding members is likely greater, because, in the case of another 267 members, City Paperwas unable to ascertain whether or not they’ve ever had criminal charges filed against them in Maryland: Either their names were too common to match up with available information in the court records, or someone with charges or convictions on the record shared their name, but available information was insufficient to reach any definite conclusions. Of these 267, it is unknown if they’ve ever been charged with a crime, charged but not convicted, or found guilty. This group comprises another 29 percent of Local 333’s membership.

That leaves at least 379 members, or 41 percent of the membership, who are confirmed to have been accused of criminal wrongdoing in Free State courts at some point in their adult lives—though this number, too, is likely to be higher, given the 30 percent of members with undetermined backgrounds.

Of these 379 members, 219—almost a quarter of the union membership—have been convicted. By removing from the list of convicts those who were ruled guilty only of relatively minor charges—things like traffic offenses, cable-television fraud, open container, disorderly conduct, housing violations, leaving the scene of an accident, etc.—the list is whittled down to 194 members with serious criminal backgrounds, more than one-fifth of Local 333’s roster.

So far this year, 21 members of Local 333 have been convicted of serious crimes. All but one of them have prior convictions. Their 2010 convictions include: armed robbery, possession with intent to distribute drugs, drug dealing, attempted drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), firearms (three counts), sex offense, escape, theft (two counts), and assault (three counts).

One member, who was convicted this year of escape and drug possession, already had 10 convictions dating back to the mid-’90s for such crimes as drug dealing, battery, firearms, robbery, and car theft. Another, who was convicted this year of theft, also has an open drug-possession charge and has been convicted previously of drug-dealing crimes in 2004, 1997, and 1996. On average, before getting convicted this year, this group’s number of prior guilty findings is three, and three of this year’s convicts were first found guilty of a serious crime in 1993.

In 2009, 19 members were convicted of serious crimes. Six of them were subsequently convicted of other crimes in 2010, or currently face open charges. Their 2009 convictions include: assault (three counts, including one for assaulting a correctional officer), theft (four counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and escape (two counts). All but two of them have prior convictions on their records and, on average, this group, like 2010’s, had three prior convictions. The member convicted of assaulting a prison guard has drug-dealing and firearms convictions going back to 1995, while another, convicted of three counts of theft in 2009, has drug dealing and assault convictions going back to 1996, and faces new drug-possession charges this year.

Thus, the group of Local 333 members convicted recently of serious crimes consists almost entirely of repeat offenders, and several have records that make them appear to be career criminals. Being a Local 333 member, with access to good wages working as a stevedore, does not seem to have solved the recidivism problem for them.

It is possible that many of those with serious convictions in their past have put their criminal behavior behind them, with the aid of their well-paying jobs at the port. Of the 98 members of Local 333 who had serious criminal convictions in 1995 or before, 40 have never been convicted of a crime again (though one of them was recently arrested for drug possession, which triggered an outstanding drug-dealing warrant from 22 years ago). That’s a powerful statement about the rehabilitative effects of a good job. Among the remaining old-school felons, the picture is rather dismal.

These 58 aging criminals, on average, have been convicted three additional times since 1995. Eleven of them have five or more new convictions since then, including for: theft (13 counts), drug possession (21 counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (six counts), drug dealing (three counts), assault (10 counts), robbery (two counts), firearms (two counts), deadly weapon with intent to injure, conspiracy (two counts), violating protective orders (four counts), and 16 probation violations. The other 47 members, who have one to four convictions since 1995, display a similar laundry list of bad or dangerous conduct: assault (11 counts), firearms (three counts), drug dealing (seven counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (14 counts), drug possession (20 counts), and theft (nine counts)

In addition to the 58 members who appear to be career criminals and the 38 members convicted of crimes since 2009, nearly all with prior convictions, there are 23 members of the local who currently face open charges and are awaiting trial. They are accused of such crimes as arson threat, false imprisonment, attempted kidnapping, assault (seven counts), sex offense, felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug possession (nine counts), selling counterfeit goods, burglary (three counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and violating a protective order.

While Local 333 has more than its fair share of felons, new, old, or soon-to-be-again, it also boasts a high number of productive members of society who either have never demonstrated a criminal disposition, or shed their criminal lifestyles long ago. Whether or not these good people make up the union’s majority is hard to say, but they might. And the upcoming elections offer them the chance to control the local’s destiny.

When visited at his fundraiser at Kenneth Jackson’s Eldorado strip club on Nov. 15, Riker “Rocky” McKenzie declined to discuss his candidacy for president—or anything at all, for that matter. He refused to answer questions and said he was not interested in receiving a follow-up call to try to change his mind about being interviewed.

McKenzie’s opponent, John Blom, wasn’t eager to talk either when reached by phone a few days later. He was unhappy because a rumor had been making the rounds that he’d sicced City Paper on McKenzie, which was not the case. But Blom agreed to answer questions, though he was far from pleased with the prospect that his union would be portrayed as a den of thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells.

The union’s problems, Blom says, are not due to criminal elements in its midst, but instead to “disarray” and “infighting” that are detracting from its ability to defend workers from employers’ never-ending quests for labor-contract concessions.

“I was originally planning on retiring this year,” says Blom, who has been a member of Local 333 since 1977, “but I don’t want to leave with it in such a mess as it is in right now.” He says “there’s an incredible amount of infighting involving Mr. McKenzie,” and it’s gotten so bad that “people won’t work together. It’s pretty brutal, to the point of being, as far as I’m concerned, pretty dysfunctional.” He explains that “the infighting is making us ineffective when the companies are trying to wrest concessions from the workers,” but is circumspect when it comes to the details of what’s prompting dissension in the ranks.

“It’s all kinds of stuff,” he says, “kind of in-the-family stuff, so I don’t want to go into it. But it needs to stop in order for us to be an effective organization. I’m going to take a crack at making things better. I believe I can be a unifying force. I think I’m pretty well perceived as being a fair person.”

As for the contention, based on the roster analysis, that the local appears to have been infiltrated by active criminals, Blom believes the data City Paper turned up “pretty much matches up with the population of Baltimore City. Statistically, I don’t think that’s unusual,” he says of the high proportion of ex-cons, recent convicts, and recently accused people among Local 333’s membership. “We incarcerate people at a far greater rate than any other country in the world,” he points out.

Blom, who is one of the local’s many members without a trace of criminal blemish in his background, concedes that the local may have attracted some who want to be members just so “they can tell a judge, ‘Yeah, I work there, and I’ve worked there for five years,’ even though maybe they haven’t worked a shift in five years.”

Kenneth Jackson and Milton Tillman Jr., who both have legitimate business incomes, presumably don’t have to worry about explaining where their money comes from. Asked what advantage a union stevedoring job—especially one that they may not work—provides Jackson and Tillman, Blom says, “I don’t have a clue. That’s beyond my payscale.”

Blom adds, “I don’t even know who the Jackson guy is. ” Of Tillman, he says, “I recognized by sight the guy who said he was Tillman” while working at the docks, “and all of the sudden, he disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Blom is banking on winning the Dec. 3 election for Local 333 president so he can work to make the union’s problems disappear too.