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.

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

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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

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“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

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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 AllPop.com 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.