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.

The “Scarface” Treatment: Missing Baltimore man believed killed and dismembered in large-scale pot conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 10, 2010

Michael Paul Knight, 50, was last seen around 8 P.M. on Dec. 16, 2009, when he left his Woodlawn home driving a green 1991 Honda Accord after telling his family “he was going out to meet someone,” according to a Baltimore County Police missing persons flier. “Police and his family are concerned for his well-being, and do not know of any remarkable medical issues with Mr. Knight,” the flier continues.

If investigators are right about Knight’s fate, he was beaten, tied up, and murdered, and his body was then dismembered “with a power-type saw” and disposed of, according to Detective Carroll Bollinger of the Baltimore County Police homicide unit, who believes the alleged crime is related to a cross-country marijuana trafficking organization.

Bollinger’s suspicions about Knight’s case are contained in an affidavit for a search-and-seizure warrant filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 9. The warrant was used in mid-November to collect evidence from a Rosedale apartment—especially its bathroom, which is believed to be the scene of the dismemberment—and a vehicle where he had allegedly been beaten prior to the murder. Knight’s body “has not been recovered,” Bollinger’s affidavit states, and the warrant was needed to help develop leads about its whereabouts.

At precisely whose hands Knight was murdered remains unclear, though Bollinger’s affidavit names two people—Jean Therese Brown and Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton Jr.—as present when Knight was beaten in a vehicle and taken to the apartment where he is believed to have met his death. Smith is no longer around to help solve the crime, because he “was murdered on April 26, 2010, in Tijuana, Mexico,” the affidavit states. Brown, meanwhile, recently pleaded guilty in federal court to bulk-cash smuggling and is due to be sentenced in February.

Bollinger’s affidavit says the alleged details about how Knight died were obtained from Brown and “others closely associated with the events.” Those others remain unnamed “due to the violent nature of the individuals involved in this investigation and the magnitude of the drug operation.”

Who killed Knight—or even if he was killed—and where his body might be remain undetermined, but Bollinger’s affidavit draws a clear picture of why he may have been killed. He was “holding as much as a million dollars” for Brown and Smith—money that “was being held for an upcoming drug transaction”—and “possibly as much as $250,000, was missing.” The missing money, the affidavit suggests, may have cost Knight his life.

Brown and Smith were participating in “a large scale marijuana smuggling and distribution operation,” the affidavit states, “which included the states of California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Florida,” and used a “trucking company to transport the marijuana and money across the country.” Knight’s prior dealings with Brown include a Dec. 25, 2008, trip to deliver cash to Jamaica for Brown, Bollinger’s affidavit says. Knight and two others—including Brown’s co-defendant in the bulk-cash smuggling case, Debbie Ann Shipp—were stopped as they entered Jamaica that Christmas day, and $565,035 in U.S. currency was found on them.

City Paper’s attempts to contact Knight’s sister, who is named in the affidavit as the person who reported him missing last year, were unsuccessful.

Clocked: Baltimore port timekeepers convicted of fraud over no-show work

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 6, 2010

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A federal jury in Baltimore returned a guilty verdict on Sept. 30 against three union port workers, finding that they conspired to defraud their employer, the stevedoring company Ports America Baltimore, Inc., by submitting payroll information that caused them to get paid for time when they weren’t on the job. The jury found that federal prosecutors proved that International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 953 members William Richard Zichos Jr., Dale Martin Kowalewski, and Joseph Ross Bell intentionally engaged in a mail-fraud conspiracy that, from 2004 to 2008, netted them nearly $42,000 in wages and benefits for work they did not perform.

The convictions are likely to send a strong message to waterfront workers that the practice, which was described during the trial as longstanding and commonplace, is illegal and can be successfully prosecuted.

“The evidence showed that the defendants used their positions as timekeepers to falsify their attendance reports and receive salary payments for lengthy periods of time when they were not at work, including many occasions when they were on vacation overseas,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement issued after the verdict.

“We thought—and still think—there wasn’t any intent to defraud Ports America out of anything,” Zichos’ attorney Steven Wrobel said after the verdict. “Ports America is not a victim, but the jury didn’t see it that way.” Ports America, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. The attorneys for Kowalewski and Bell did not return messages seeking comment. Messages left at the Local 953 office and for ILA President Richard Hughes Jr., who testified at the trial, also were not returned.

The case against the three men, whose timekeeping duties involve logging hours worked by themselves and by others who help load and unload ships, stemmed from an August 2008 raid on their office, Building 1200A at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, which is known as the “timekeepers’ shack.” The target of that raid was not the timekeepers, but Milton Tillman Jr., an ILA Local 333 member who is also a politically connected bailbondsman and real estate investor (“Collateral Catch,” Mobtown Beat, March 31).

Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton “Moe” Tillman III, were charged early this year in a wide-ranging indictment for tax evasion, illegal insurance-writing, and, in respect to Tillman Jr., mail fraud for getting paid for no-show work at the docks. As the Tillman investigation progressed, the timekeepers were interviewed by law enforcers and brought before the grand jury, and as a result ended up charged themselves.

In an Oct. 4 phone interview, Rosenstein acknowledged the connection between the Tillman investigation and the timekeepers’ case, saying the latter were pursued, in part, because “sometimes you’re not looking for fraud, but you come across it and can’t ignore it.” He also said the case was important because the timekeepers’ fraud scheme raised questions about “the integrity of the entire process” of payroll on the docks.

While never explicitly permitted, drawing pay for work not performed—known along the waterfront as “covering” —has been seen as a victimless practice, according to Baltimore longshoreman John Blom, a member of ILA Local 333, who was interviewed shortly before the timekeepers’ verdict was returned.

“Everybody [who works at the port] has been covered at one point or another in their working careers,” Blom says. “It happens all the time, and [Ports America] knows that. Formally, it has never been that covering is allowed, and I don’t condone it either. But I can’t see how Ports America was harmed—under [union contracts] it is obligated to hire ‘X’ number of workers to get the job, so they just would have to hire somebody else instead. The only person who should be complaining is the guy who didn’t” get called up to replace an absent worker.

Blom claims that last year’s indictment of the timekeepers, even before their conviction, prompted a change in behavior on the waterfront. “Covering doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to,” he says.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Martin Clarke and Stephen Schenning, who are also prosecuting the Tillmans, handled the case against the timekeepers. During final arguments, Clarke told the jurors that “the evidence is overwhelming” that the defendants submitted fraudulent paperwork to get paid for unperformed work. He recounted the voluminous exhibits in the case, proving that the defendants had been paid for working when in fact they were elsewhere: Zichos and Kowalewski had taken vacations abroad, for instance, while Bell had been out getting and recovering from surgery.

“And so,” Clarke continued, “we’re at the next stage—they’re caught. And having been caught, they really can’t mount a defense that they didn’t do it.” Rather, “they circled the wagons” and, during the trial, attempted to create a factual basis that they had a “good-faith belief that it was all right” to engage in covering.

In fact, Clarke argued, the defendants “had their own little union within a union,” engaged in a “well-known corrupt practice” of covering—and “they paid who they wanted to pay, to keep them in the club” of no-show timekeepers.

The government’s case involved testimony from two other Local 953 timekeepers who had engaged in covering too. Both—Michael Schaeffer, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for taking the witness stand, and George McKenzie Jr. —told jurors that the practice was wrong, and they knew it was wrong when they did it.

Bell’s attorney, William Butler, attempted to persuade jurors that his client had nothing to hide and was only doing what port workers had done for a long time—that he “merely complied with past practices.” He said Ports America and other stevedoring companies knowingly tolerate covering because all they want to do is “get the job done, mission accomplished,” and this ages-old practice serves that end. Nonetheless, the federal government stepped in, so the timekeepers ended up “charged criminally for activities that have been going on for many, many, many years.”

John Bourgeois, Kowalewski’s attorney, demonstrated a deep sense of outrage over the charges during closing arguments, stressing that the defendants’ conduct harmed no one, that Ports America never protested the well-known practice until the law enforcers started to build a criminal case, and that the amounts involved were “a pittance.” Bourgeois kept repeating “$41,656 among three men over five years,” adding that Kowalewski’s take amounted to 17 days of work, or about four days a year. “Would these men throw away their livelihood, their honor, for four days a year?”

Evidently, the jury’s answer to that question was, “Yes.”

Truth or Consequences: Cop credibility undermines two federal cases built on Baltimore Police traffic stops

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 15, 2010

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett tossed out evidence in a gun case Dec. 6 because, as he wrote in his opinion, the testimony of the Baltimore police officers who arrested the defendant “simply strains credulity.” In September, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz did the same in a heroin case.

In both instances, the evidence was obtained as a result of traffic stops for minor infractions, and was at issue during motions hearings at which the arresting officers testified. In both cases, the officers’ credibility did not survive scrutiny, raising questions about the efficacy of the police practice of using minor traffic violations as a pretext for going after major crimes.

The most recent case charged Travis Gaines with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gaines was arrested in January near Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street by three members of the Central District Operations Unit: Jimmy Shetterly, Frank Schneider, and Manuel Moro, according to Bennett’s written opinion. Two of them were allegedly assaulted by Gaines after one of them patted him down and found a gun in his waistband. The problem, Bennett wrote, was the officers’ reason for pulling over the car in which Gaines was a passenger: that they saw a crack in its windshield.

“This Court does not believe it was possible for the police officers to see the crack in the windshield,” Bennett wrote, so “the gun must be suppressed as the fruit of the illegal stop”—despite Gaines’ alleged assault of the officers, since it occurred after the unlawful search. The “gun was discovered before the assault, and the fact that Mr. Gaines engaged in allegedly unlawful behavior after the discovery of the gun does not expunge the government’s unlawful conduct in making an illegal traffic stop” (emphasis in the original).

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says his office is “reviewing the case and there is a strong probability that we will appeal” Bennett’s ruling. In the second case—against Stephen Chester, who was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin—Rosenstein’s office did not appeal Motz’s ruling to throw out the government’s evidence, but instead opted to dismiss the charges against Chester.

Motz did not issue a written opinion in Chester’s case. But the courtroom drama exposing the false testimony of the police who took the stand during the motions hearing is reflected in the transcript.

During the Aug. 31 hearing, two Baltimore Police detectives—Timothy Stach and Jamal Harris—testified that they and other officers pulled over Chester’s car on April 16, 2009, in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, because they saw he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt; and that they flashed their unmarked police vehicles’ lights as they conducted the traffic stop so that the defendant would know they were police. Yet, on cross examination, defense attorney Chris Nieto of the Office of the Federal Public Defender played video footage of the stop, which convinced Motz that the detectives’ version of events was false.

“I think that the video speaks for itself,” Motz said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Celeste at the end of the hearing, as he granted the defense motion. It’s “a scenario where there’s certainly a reasonable inference that Mr. Chester thought he was being robbed. And that sort of makes . . . your case fall apart.”

It is “rare” for evidence to be thrown out in federal cases, Rosenstein says, because “these cases are carefully reviewed” by his office before they are charged. Prosecutors first sift through the police reports and then they “meet with the police officers face-to-face and interview them about the facts,” a process that “screens out potential problems.” But it is still “possible that new evidence might come up, and that’s what happened in the Chester case.”

“The video,” Rosenstein adds, “shows that [the police detectives’] testimony is incorrect.” While he declined to comment specifically about any repercussions from the Chester case, he says “whenever there are concerns about officers’ credibility, we discuss it with departmental officials.”

Baltimore Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi says “we obviously take extremely seriously” any instance when police credibility on the witness stand is found lacking, and such cases are “normally referred to internal investigations” to probe whether or not disciplinary proceedings are in order. Because Bennett’s ruling in the Gaines case happened only recently, Guglielmi was not in a position to discuss the status or existence of such a probe. By press time, he had not produced any information about any repercussions for the officers who testified in the Chester case.

As for the practice of pulling people over for traffic violations in pursuit of larger crimes, Rosenstein says “as a police tactic, it is useful. A lot of times, all it results in is a traffic citation. But in other cases, the result is a major arrest for drugs or guns. It is part of [a police officer’s] job to stop people for traffic violations,” he adds, and the tactic “is accepted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court as good police work.”

But the defense attorneys for Gaines and Chester say it comes with a price—the confidence and trust regular, law-abiding citizens place in their law enforcers.

“For every suspect traffic stop that results in the recovery of contraband,” Nieto says, “there are countless more involving law-abiding citizens whose rights are violated when they are pulled over, removed from their cars, and searched for no reason.” Those instances don’t receive public attention because “the people involved are never charged with a crime.” Yet, Nieto continues, “These citizens are the same people that sit on our city juries, who hear Baltimore City officers testify, and are asked to believe every word they say. It surprises me that prosecutors and the police department don’t understand that it is this type of bullying that contributes to our city’s juries being so skeptical and distrusting of Baltimore City police.”

Nieto’s colleague in the public defender’s office, Joseph Evans, who represented Gaines, adds, “The larger point is that people are beginning to realize that this is very counterproductive. It generates disrespect for the law and law enforcement and creates a lot of antagonism in African-American communities in particular against law enforcement. And this is actually a shame.”

Cashed Out: Video-poker executive-cum-developer John Vontran forced to liquidate

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 1, 2010

John Vontran, whose video-poker-machine company Amusement Vending Inc. forfeited more than $50,000 in illegal gambling proceeds to the federal government early this year, consented on Oct. 25 to Chapter 7 liquidation of assets after a U.S. bankruptcy trustee accused him and his wife, Kelly Vontran, of “gross mismanagement” and providing “inaccurate and incomplete information” to creditors. The couple initially filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last December.

How this change will affect the prospects for his ambitious redevelopment of Dundalk’s Yorkway parcel—a formerly crime-ridden apartment complex that has been cleared for 66 new homes, a project widely anticipated and promoted by local and state politicians—remains unclear. Work was busily underway during a recent visit, with nine homes completed (including the model unit, which houses the project’s sales office) and sold signs marking numerous lots where construction had not yet begun. Vontran’s company acquired the site in 2008 for nearly $1.64 million from Baltimore County, which bought it for nearly $21 million two years earlier.

When news of the Vontrans’ bankruptcy first emerged last winter, John Vontran stressed that his personal financial straits were “completely separate” from the Yorkway project. His initial bankruptcy filing lists the company that owns the parcel, Yorkway LLC, as a creditor.

Vontran did not return multiple messages left at his cell phone number, which was provided by Baltimore County spokesperson Angela Heffner after City Paper asked her for information about Yorkway’s progress so far. Heffner later said she spoke to Vontran, but “was unable to get a completion date” or “any information” about the project’s current status. When asked if she knew whether Vontran intended to return City Paper’s calls, she said, “I don’t think so.”

The motion to convert the Vontrans’ bankruptcy to Chapter 7 was filed in September, and focuses on Vontran’s conflicting statements, made during creditors meetings held in January and July, regarding three companies: Amusement Vending, JKBK Inc., and Yorkway Properties LLC.

Amusement Vending, trading as Amusement Novelty Sales, is the company that forfeited cash early this year, part of which had been seized during a 2007 federal raid of its offices at 6806 Eastern Ave., according to court documents. As part of a November 2009 agreement with the federal government, which Vontran signed, $51,295 was forfeited as illegal gambling proceeds in connection with the company’s business of holding “casino night” fundraisers for nonprofit organizations. In a 2005 City Paper article (“Game Sharks,” Mobtown Beat, March 9, 2005) that covered a police bust of one of those events, Vontran explained that his company “doesn’t touch the money” that’s raised, but only “rent[s] out the tables” used for gambling.

The bankruptcy trustee’s filing paints a picture of Vontran as a flustered, story-changing debtor when asked to explain Amusement Vending during the two creditors meetings. It concludes that Vontran either “effectively transferred ownership” of the company “to his brother-in-law,” Kirk Kacala, “for no consideration, or his testimony does not provide a complete and accurate picture of the transactions as they took place.” Vontran’s stated reasons for putting the business in his brother-in-law’s hands, the filing states, were that “he ‘wanted to change his hat’ and that he ‘rolled out of bed and looked up at the sky’ and ‘for personal reasons,’” according to the trustee’s filing.

The other two businesses that the trustee’s filing states the Vontrans mismanaged—JKBK and Yorkway Properties, the latter a separate company from Yorkway LLC—are related, though Vontran shed little light on what it is the two businesses do. JKBK is described as an “operating business, which Mr. Vontran was actively managing and from which he was receiving regular compensation.” The filing asserts that the Vontrans transferred JKBK’s assets to Yorkway Properties—a company in which they have a 25 percent stake— “for no consideration.” As for Yorkway Properties, the filing continues, “Mr. Vontran TWICE [capitalization in the original] indicated that he did not know who the owners of Yorkway Properties, LLC were,” then “testified that he did, in fact, know” who they were, but “declined to disclose them”—though he later acknowledged that they are his brother, his brother-in-law, and his mother. Vontran went on to say he formed Yorkway Properties for “no special reason” and would not say what business it conducts. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with it,” he testified, indicating that it “has never generated any income since its formation and does not have any assets.”

The Vontrans’ “failure and refusal” to “respond to questioning” and their “provision of inaccurate and incomplete information” to creditors, the filing argues, establish cause to convert the bankruptcy to Chapter 7 liquidation. On Oct. 25, the Vontrans consented to the conversion. Another creditors meeting is scheduled for Dec. 22, and the last day for parties to object to the Vontrans’ discharge as debtors is set for April 1, 2011.

In the meantime, in March an adversary case was filed in the Vontrans’ bankruptcy. It was brought by Frank Scarfield, a longtime Baltimore-area real estate developer and investor, who alleges Vontran engaged in fraud and false pretenses in setting up the financing to purchase from Baltimore County the Yorkway property that is now actively being developed. That case is scheduled for trial next June.

Among Scarfield’s dealings with Vontran was the sale of the old Seagram’s distillery to a Vontran company called VO LLC. The distillery property is adjacent to the Yorkway development, and Vontran has stated that he intends to develop it next. However, VO went bankrupt itself in January—halting at the last minute a planned auction of the distillery property—and in October the distillery property suffered a fire.

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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of Reckoning: Ex-Mortgage Broker Sentenced for Bank Fraud and Gang-Related Prison Smuggling

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 22, 2010

To hear Tomeka Harris and her attorney tell it, Harris was a model citizen who suddenly and briefly turned to a life of crime. But that foray into the dark side, however fleeting, will have lasting repercussions for Harris, 34, who on Dec. 17 was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Quarles Jr. to serve four years in prison and to pay more than half a million dollars in restitution for her crimes, which resulted in Harris pleading guilty in two separate criminal conspiracies. One involved encoding stolen credit-card numbers onto new cards used fraudulently to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods, and the other concerned her aid in smuggling contraband for the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang.

Wearing pants and a tunic, both khaki, and her hair straight, Harris’ appearance and demeanor at her sentencing was in striking contrast to her first appearance on the prison-smuggling charges, in April 2009, when she and two dozen others were indicted in a federal case targeting the BGF for drugs and violence. Then, Harris appeared not to have a care in the world about her predicament, clad in furry boots with her highlighted hair hanging down to low-slung pants revealing tattoos on her lower back. The confidence she exuded was derived perhaps from her success in life thus far: She owned Club 410, a popular and controversial Northeast Baltimore hangout considered a magnet for drugs and crume, and was a licensed mortgage and insurance broker who had no criminal convictions in her background. At her sentencing, though, having been incarcerated since, Harris looked worried and anxious as Quarles considered her penalty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamera Fine, who prosecuted the bank-fraud conspiracy, told Quarles that Harris held a “management position” in the scheme, having “people she recruited” use stolen credit-card numbers provided by Harris. One of her co-defendants in the case, John Forrester, received a 39-month prison sentence, which Fine argued should be “the floor” for Harris, who was “far more involved” than Forrester. Another co-defendant, Michael Hayes, absconded and committed new crimes while the case was still pending, Fine explained, and so received an enhanced sentence, but his initial penalty of 87 months’ incarceration reflected his leadership position in the conspiracy. Thus, Fine concluded, Harris should receive a prison term somewhere between those meted out to Forrester and Hayes.

Fine added that Quarles should take into account several factors considering Harris’ sentence. First is the “seriousness of the offense,” in which Harris “became more and more involved” over time and “sent people out to use” fraudulent credit cards in a “fairly widespread” fashion, resulting in more than $521,000 in bank losses. The second factor, which Fine argued “merits a significant penalty,” is deterrence, since “there are more and more schemes of this sort in the community,” drawing in otherwise law-abiding people who are in financial straits and turning them into criminals. Lastly, Fine said Quarles should consider the fact that Harris “very quickly after her arrest accepted full responsibility” for her actions. Thus, Fine concluded that a sentence of five years or 48 months would be “appropriate”—and would give Harris “an opportunity to rejoin the community” as a “law-abiding citizen as quickly as possible.”

Harris’ attorney, Allen Orenberg, then rose to tell Quarles that “we don’t agree, obviously, with the government’s recommendations,” and contended that Harris had “more or less a minor role” in the bank-fraud scheme—though he said “we appreciate Ms. Fine’s remarks” about Harris’ rapid acceptance of responsibility. Quarles retorted that Harris “was fairly active and she did employ sophisticated means” in carrying out her part of the conspiracy, but Orenberg argued Harris spent only “six months” participating in it. “She is going to be punished,” Orenberg pointed out, saying she has already spent almost two years in prison. “We’re asking that she has the opportunity to go home in the near future,” he said, requesting that Quarles take into account “her total background.”

That background, Orenberg continued, includes “somewhat of a troubled childhood,” though Harris graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and attended Morgan State University, where she didn’t complete the coursework required for a degree. In 2000, he continued, she became a mortgage broker and also earned a license to sell insurance. Her career came screeching to a halt in late 2008, when she was charged in the bank-fraud case after making “a series of bad choices,” Orenberg said.

Quarles interjected at this point, saying Harris made “a rather lengthy series” of bad choices, resulting “in two criminal cases” against her in federal court. But Orenberg contended she was active in the conspiracy for “less than a year” and that she “fell into the abyss,” but had made “very good choices before that,” and that during her incarceration she’s been “preparing for the future”—though he acknowledges that she likely won’t be in the financial services industry in the future. (“I think that’s pretty clear,” Quarles commented.) Orenberg added that there’s a “job waiting for her at a salon” when she’s done serving time, and he pointed to a group of people present in the courtroom who “support their loved one.” Orenberg assured Quarles that Harris won’t be a repeat offender—to which Quarles said, “That was a prediction you would have made more confidently two or three years ago. It’s hard to predict future lawfulness.”

“It is obvious that my client is a resourceful person” who has “pluck and resolve . . . to better herself,” Orenberg declared, saying she is “accountable for a very large sum of money” and she can “satisfy those requirements” by “returning to the workforce.”

Harris rose to speak on her own behalf, and Quarles asked her, “What went wrong?” He received his answer in a bench conference with Harris rather than publicly. As they spoke in confidence, Harris started to cry and Quarles gave her a box of Kleenex. Then Harris resumed her remarks in open court, saying, “Morally I’m a good person that just made a mistake” that “hurt my family, my friends, other people.” She contended she’s done “200 good things” for every bad thing “the government says I’ve done,” and said she’s a “god-fearing” person whose short period of criminality “already cost me two years of my life” and “my career.”

Harris told Quarles that, while incarcerated, she has “learned how to stay clear of trouble” and points out that “I’m the only person in my case with no criminal history”—though Quarles matter-of-factly added that, while not convicted of anything, she was charged twice in the past, once for obstructing and hindering and once for passing a bad check, so “it’s not entirely accurate” to say her record is clear. Weeping, Harris asked Quarles to “show mercy” and “forgive me” by allowing her to rejoin her family and friends for the upcoming holidays, and promised that “I will be the one that you will be able to say, ‘I made the right call’” by going light on her.

“Ms. Harris, please stand,” Quarles said, after she finished making her statement. He called her a “rather exceptional 34-year-old person” whose “admitted conduct” included “participation in a sophisticated scheme to defraud financial institutions” involving the use of more than 1,000 stolen cards and efforts to smuggle contraband into Maryland prisons. While Harris has “explained some of the dynamics of that” conduct, Quarles continued, and asserted that it “is a departure” from her law-abiding past that is “perhaps not fully reflective of her character,” Quarles ordered her to spend a total of four years in prison—with credit for time served since April 2009—and to pay restitution of $521,312.67. “Good luck, ma’am,” Quarles concluded.

The Big Hurt: Inmate claims gang-tied correctional officer ordered “hit”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 4, 2010

“Beware the Ides of March,” Julius Caesar was warned before he was stabbed to death on March 15. But Michael Smith, an inmate in the Maryland correctional system, had no such warning on March 15, 2007, when he was stabbed and beaten on a prison bus in Baltimore. Two weeks later, he was attacked again. And on June 2, 2007, it happened a third time.

Smith contends he knows why the three attacks occurred: A correctional officer he identifies by last name only, “Crew,” who he dubs a Bloods gang member, has it out for him.

Smith contends he and Crew had been in the drug-smuggling business together, splitting among themselves part of the proceeds from bringing pot into prison, and putting the balance in the Bloods’ treasury. When Smith could no longer hold up his end of the arrangement, he tried to pull out of the partnership, he says, and as a result Crew allegedly put a “hit” out on his life. Smith also contends that prison officials withheld immediate medical care and failed repeatedly to keep him safe, despite his consistent attempts—both verbally and in writing—to call attention to the danger he faced.

Smith, who also uses the name Michael Reed, put his allegations in a federal lawsuit, with voluminous documents attached to verify his claims. He filed it on March 15, 2010, exactly three years after the initial attack, naming as defendants Crew and eight other prison officials and asking for $500,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. Lawyers with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, who are representing the defendants, have requested extensions on filing a response, which is now due in September.

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) spokesman Rick Binetti would not comment on Smith’s lawsuit, since it is pending litigation.

During a recent phone interview, Smith’s mother, Brenda Smith, initially expresses concern that publicity about her son’s lawsuit might place him in renewed danger, but she agrees to speak about it in the hopes that his experiences would spark public discussion about problems in the correctional system.

“He didn’t die,” she says, “but he almost died. I’m kind of scared for him, because he’s still in there. He still has two more years [to serve]. Everything has calmed down, and he’s in protective custody now, but even when he comes out in the street, you never know—there’s a contract out to kill him.”

City Paper asked DPSCS to provide Crew’s full name, but official confirmation was not provided by press time. However, in response to an earlier request, DPSCS has said that a correctional officer named Duwuane Crew resigned on May 22, 2007, a little over two months after Smith’s initial attack. Attempts to locate Crew for comment were unsuccessful.

Duwuane Crew was described in a deposition in another inmate’s lawsuit (“Ganging Up,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 21, 2009) as having “passed handcuff keys on to inmates,” which is precisely what Smith says Crew did in order to facilitate the first attack. DPSCS documents filed in that lawsuit—which the plaintiff, Tashma McFadden, and the defendant, Correctional Officer Antonia Allison, recently settled—show that, as early as November 2006, DPSCS had internal intelligence identifying Duwuane Crew as a Bloods gang member.

Michael Smith’s claims, if true, fit into a pattern of corruption among correctional officers in Maryland that has come into tight focus since April 2009, when a federal drug indictment of members of a prison gang, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), named four correctional employees as defendants (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009). All of them have since pleaded guilty, and a fifth was recently indicted in a BGF racketeering conspiracy (“Working Overtime,” Mobtown Beat, July 14).

Meanwhile, court records of other criminal and civil cases provide evidence that the Maryland correctional system is rife with correctional-officer corruption (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12), though DPSCS says corruption is not a systemic problem and that it is confronting the issue.

The March 15, 2007, attack on Michael Smith made the news at the time, though Smith’s lawsuit adds details that were not provided to the media. In his complaint, Smith writes that the attack occurred in the prison transport van, as he and four other inmates were being taken back to BCDC after their court appearances. Smith, who was 22 years old at the time, had just received a 20-year prison sentence, all but eight years suspended, as a plea deal for a variety of violent, drug-related conduct.

Smith writes that, while in the transport van, he “noticed Ofc. Crew speaking ‘confidentially’ with inmate Brian Medlin” and “witnessed Ofc. Crew ‘slip’ something to inmate Medlin.” Soon thereafter, “Medlin escaped his 3-point security restraint devices (i.e., handcuffs, waist-chain w[ith] padlock, and ankle-chain cuffs) and began to viciously beat me repeatedly about the head, neck and shoulder area, while stabbing me with a home-made knife.”

Court records confirm that the incident led to Medlin’s conviction, as Smith contends in his complaint. Medlin received a 30-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder.

After the attack, Smith writes, he asked prison officials to have him hospitalized, but instead he was “capriciously placed in isolation without medical treatment of any kind,” even though he was “severely injured and in real pain,” suffering from “an assortment of contusions, head trauma, deep lacerations, and stab wounds.” While in the isolation cell, Smith continues, he “actually lost consciousness,” which “was not discovered until some time later,” at which point he was “immediately rushed” to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Brenda Smith says prison officials never contacted her about the attack. “They left Michael in that cell,” she says, “and they did not call me.”

After returning from the hospital, Smith was transferred to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic, and Classification Center (MRDCC), also in Baltimore, where he writes that he “immediately made ‘any and all staff’ aware of the nature of my circumstances, specifically the threat to my safety and ‘hit’ on my life,” and asked “to be placed on protective custody.” Instead, he was kept in administrative segregation—a less safeguarded status.

On April 4, 2007, Smith was transferred to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, where he writes that he was “viciously attacked in the dormitory area by a ‘group’ of unknown individuals” within 24 hours of his arrival. He was again taken to a hospital for treatment, and again, upon his return to the prison, was placed on administrative segregation until June 1, 2007, when he was transferred to Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup. There, Smith writes that he was stabbed in his “right eye and head several times, as well as hit in the head with locks,” within a day of his arrival, and was “immediately transferred to the Jessup Correctional Institution’s hospital,” where he stayed for a week.

Ultimately, Smith—who claims, with documentation, to have filed and appealed inmate grievances at every step of the way, only to have them rejected—ended up in protective custody at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

Working Overtime: Correctional officer indicted in prison-gang RICO conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 14, 2010

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On Tuesday morning, July 6, Alicia Simmons’ rocky 10-year career as a Maryland correctional officer suddenly got rockier. That’s when she was arrested after a federal grand jury indicted her for participating, along with 14 others already charged in prior indictments, in a racketeering-and-drug-trafficking enterprise on behalf of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang.

The BGF, which federal authorities say is Maryland’s biggest, most powerful prison gang, has been hit with three federal indictments since April 2009. Simmons is the fifth corrections employee to be charged as a result of the ongoing investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Investigations Group (DEA-SIG). The other four have already pleaded guilty.

Details of what DEA-SIG has learned about Simmons’ involvement with the BGF are contained in a 25-page search-warrant affidavit. The document spells out information obtained from confidential sources, including federal defendants, inmates, and “several sources within the [Maryland] Division of Corrections,” as well as from an intercepted March 2009 telephone call between two inmates.

Among Simmons’ conduct alleged in the affidavit: smuggling cell phones, heroin, and marijuana (including about a pound and a half of pot to one of the inmate sources); receiving payment for contraband smuggling by use of Green Dot pre-paid debit cards; facilitating prison assaults; and telling inmates that a prisoner, who already was the subject of a BGF “hit on sight” order, was cooperating with law enforcement. Among the inmates the affidavit says Simmons’ assisted are several high-profile convicts, including Raymond Stern, David Rich, and Melvin Gilbert. The affidavit also includes information about Simmons being disciplined for inmate fraternization and for allowing inmate assaults to occur.

On the same day as her arrest, Simmons’ Pikesville apartment and her car were searched by federal agents. According to court documents, among the items seized were a host of inmate identification cards (including one for Ronnie Thomas, better known as “Skinny Suge,” the producer of the infamous Stop Fucking Snitching videos whose prison cell phone was seized in 2008 [“Unstopped Snitching,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008]) and letters from inmates, BGF-related documents (including copies of the gang’s constitution and code list), a copy of a City Paper article about widespread corruption among correctional officers (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12), three cell phones, a digital scale, and numerous Green Dot cards.

Two of the Green Dot cards recovered from Simmons’ apartment were in the names of former correctional officer Fonda White and inmate Jeffrey Fowlkes, who were convicted in federal court last year of running an extortion scheme that got relatives of inmates to pay for their loved ones’ safety inside of prison. “Mail in the name of Fonda White” was also seized, according to the court documents.

In a July 6 press release, law-enforcement officials played up the significance of the RICO indictment against the BGF, while emphasizing the need to curtail corruption among correctional officers. “Let this indictment remind all those who engage in drug trafficking,” said DEA special agent in charge Ava Cooper-Davis, “that it does not matter if your wear the colors of a gang or a badge of gold, if your break the law and try to destroy our communities, we will go after you.” Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) secretary Gary Maynard said the indictment serves “notice to those employees who would break the law that you will be caught.” (DPSCS spokesman Rick Binetti says Simmons is currently on administrative leave from the department.)

Simmons appeared at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore July 8, wearing an orange jumpsuit with the letters HCDC on the back. During the brief hearing, she consented to detention pending trial. Her attorney, M. Scotland Morris, declined to comment on the charges.