Room Service: Morgan student charged after heroin “pellets” found in Marriott Waterfront Hotel

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 25, 2009


To hear his attorney tell it, Edward Aboagye is an immigrant success story. The slight, bespectacled 27-year-old Morgan State University senior, majoring in finance and accounting, came to the United States from Ghana nine years ago, and married in 2005. The Laurel couple became the parents of twins in January. He’s a resident alien with a green card who owns a lawfully obtained handgun and a car-dealing business in Pigtown. He has no prior record of criminal behavior.

But according to U.S. Attorney Albert David Copperthite, Aboagye is believed to be part of a heroin-smuggling conspiracy that used a courier to swallow five “pellets” of the drug, which were delivered on March 14 “by natural processes” to co-conspirators at a Marriott Waterfront Hotel room (pictured) rented by Aboagye.

In all, the hotel housekeeping crew found a half-kilogram of heroin worth about $45,000 in Aboagye’s room safe and $6,200 in cash behind the counter in the bathroom. Another $4,900 was recovered from a jacket and a purse. A later search of Aboagye’s Pigtown business address turned up more heroin, some marijuana, a .40-caliber pistol registered to Aboagye, and 28 bullets in two magazines.

In open court on March 19, Aboagye’s attorney, Ivan Bates, tells U.S. District Court judge Paul Grimm that his client is not someone who should be locked up pending trial on federal drug-conspiracy charges.

“He’s a family man that is trying to be a student,” Bates says, adding that aspects of the government’s case require a “leap and a stretch” to be believable.

“He leads two lives,” the prosecutor contends. One “with his wife and children in Laurel–and they don’t know what he’s doing in Baltimore.”

Noting that the government’s contentions are as yet “untested,” and that the defense maintains that Aboagye was at the hotel “to sell a man a car”–not to engage in a drug transaction–Judge Grimm allows Aboagye to be on monitored home detention with $50,000 in unsecured bond put up by his wife.

“There are a number of factual matters that [Aboagye] intends to challenge at trial,” the judge notes.

Another Ghanian living in Elizabeth, N.J., Mohammed Marga, also was charged in the conspiracy with Aboagye. Both, according to the charging papers, were interviewed by law enforcers after their arrests, as was a woman–20-year-old Stanina Akonnor–who was initially detained with them, but later released without charges.

Whereas Aboagye denied knowledge of the recovered heroin and money, and claimed he was at the hotel to conduct a car sale, Marga told investigators that he met with Aboagye at the hotel room, where Aboagye told him to call a man named Malik to arrange a heroin sale. On March 13, Marga says, Aboagye drove him to meet and set up the transaction with Malik, who Marga described as a stocky, dreadlocked black male, about 5 feet 9 inches, driving a black Range Rover.

Once the two were arrested the next day, though, the alleged drug deal never went through. Malik was displeased, as was evident from a voicemail he left on Marga’s phone. The voicemail, the charging papers contend, “showed that Malik was upset that they did not show up to deliver the heroin and did not call him to let him know what was going on. Additionally, Malik said that he was not going to deal with them anymore.”

Aboagye’s Baltimore car business, Asco Global Company LLC, is based at 824 Washington Blvd. Its incorporation papers describe it as a “wholesale automobile/vehicle dealer” also engaged in the “import and export of general goods.” At 3:13 a.m. on Jan. 22, Aboagye was clocked by police in Howard County going 85 miles per hour in a 1991 Acura with Pennsylvania plates, heading south on I-95. He is scheduled for a March 25 trial on the resulting speeding ticket.

The Marriott Waterfront’s director of sales and marketing, Rob McCulloch, tells City Paper the hotel does “not have any official comment” on the incident. When asked if large amounts of heroin had been found at the hotel before, McCulloch says, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Straight Outta Accra: West Africa looms large in Baltimore heroin-trafficking cases

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 23, 2012


Last April, thousands of miles from Baltimore in the West African country of Ghana, a man known as “Wagba” got on the phone and mediated a Baltimore heroin-dealing dispute.

Nana Boateng, who supplied Baltimore dealers with heroin shipped under Wagba’s direction by couriers traveling to the United States on commercial flights leaving West Africa, was in a heated argument with another Ghanaian, Krist Koranteng, who also supplied Baltimore heroin dealers with courier-carried heroin from West Africa.

The two were threatening one another, with Koranteng saying he’d arrange for men to come from Ghana to kill Boateng if he didn’t pay up for short-changing Koranteng’s friend, Moses Appram, on a 200-gram heroin deal. Boateng, in response, vowed to come to Ghana and kill Koranteng himself.

Since Boateng’s phones were wiretapped as part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation, his conversations with Wagba were recorded for posterity. As a result of the probe, Boateng, Koranteng, Appram, and three others were indicted last year in Maryland federal court for participating in a heroin conspiracy. All of them pleaded guilty except Appram, whose three-day trial in Baltimore’s federal courthouse ended on May 2 with a jury conviction. Koranteng testified as a government cooperator, and Wagba’s name, as well as the recorded, translated, and transcribed phone conversations he had with Boateng, came up often during the trial.

Ultimately, no one was killed or attacked as a result of the dispute, and Koranteng testified that he ended up taking the loss on Appram’s ill-fated deal with Boateng. But Wagba’s dealings with Boateng did not end there. In late May 2011, according to court documents, Wagba coordinated a courier shipment of heroin to Boateng, who waited for six hours at Washington Dulles International Airport as the courier, who was caught by law enforcers as she arrived with 3.3 kilograms of heroin in her luggage, was detained and questioned by authorities. At the agents’ direction, the courier called Wagba, who told her “someone would get back to her. Shortly thereafter, a call from Boateng was received” on the courier’s phone, the court documents state.

That a phantom, faraway figure like Wagba could play such an intimate role in Baltimore’s heroin trade, both by managing a street-level flap like Appram’s flimflamming at the hands of Boateng and by orchestrating a subsequent intercepted delivery, speaks volumes about how closely tied Baltimore’s heroin trade is to West Africa, even though the two are thousands of miles apart. And that Koranteng, who was in Ghana as he argued over the phone with Boateng, suggested he could send Ghanaian killers to do his dirty work in Baltimore further emphasizes how small a world the global heroin trade sometimes can be.

But when looked at from a broader perspective, the heroin trade involving West Africa can seem immense, complex, and highly geopolitical, since the region is considered by the United Nations, the United States and other countries, and an array of nongovernmental organizations to be currently one of the world’s foremost transshipment points for narcotics from Asia and Latin America.

The reason for this, DEA special agent Todd Edwards explained on the stand at Appram’s trial, is that it is “difficult” for producers to ship directly to the United States from the source countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia, Colombia, and Mexico—because “everyone knows” they are source countries, so law-enforcement scrutiny will be greater. Heroin producers, therefore, prefer to “go to other countries to have the heroin shipped to the U.S.,” Edwards continued, “and Africa is one of those places, and Ghana and Nigeria are two of the major ones.”

Thus, criminals in West Africa not only get lucrative narco-business serving the transportation needs of the world’s heroin producers; they may also become strategically important to the producer’s larger strategic agendas. And increasingly, the United States is presenting evidence that those agendas have turned West Africa into a key locale for terrorists’ drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities.

In 2009, the same year the DEA opened an office in Accra, Ghana, three al Qaeda-linked men from Mali were arrested in Ghana and charged by U.S. authorities with drug trafficking in aid of terrorism—the first use of a new federal law passed in 2006. West African drug trafficking is also implicated in two other terror-financing cases filed recently in New York, one involving the Taliban and the other Hezbollah, a militant Muslim group and political party based in Lebanon that the United States and a handful of other Western and Middle Eastern countries regard as a terrorist group.

The Taliban case, filed in February 2011, accuses seven men, two of them U.S. citizens, of conspiring to help the Afghan religious movement’s heroin- and cocaine-trafficking enterprises and to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that the Taliban would use to protect its heroin-processing facilities in Afghanistan from attacks by U.S. forces. The lead co-conspirator, Maroun Saade, is described in the indictment as a “narcotics trafficker operating in West Africa” who agreed to transport “multi-ton shipments of Taliban-owned heroin” to Ghana, where “portions of those shipments would be sent by commercial airplane to the United States to be sold for the financial benefit of the Taliban.” Saade and the others allegedly believed they were dealing with the Taliban, but in fact they were dealing with confidential sources working on behalf of the DEA.

The other case is a civil forfeiture suit in which the U.S. government seeks to take ownership of the assets of businesses and banks involved in an alleged half-billion-dollar drug-money-laundering scheme to aid Hezbollah.

The central drug-trafficking figure accused in the Hezbollah case is Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese man who is currently a fugitive from U.S. justice in a Virginia federal case charging him with bringing 85,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States and laundering more than $850 million in Mexican drug-cartel money. Saade, from the Taliban case, also figures in this case, allegedly helping to move laundered cash derived from used-car sales in West Africa to Lebanon.

Though no prosecution brought so far in Maryland has drawn connections between Baltimore heroin dealers and West Africans tied to terrorism, the Hezbollah forfeiture case in New York includes two Maryland car dealers—one in Columbia, the other in Burtonsville, a small Montgomery County town of about 10,000 people, near Laurel—whose assets are being targeted for forfeiture because of evidence they helped launder Hezbollah drug money by accepting millions of dollars in wire transfers to buy cars and ship them to West Africa, where they were sold for cash bound for Lebanon.

In essence, the 65-page Hezbollah complaint describes an alleged scheme in which drug-derived cash was temporarily converted into cars. This would eliminate the risks of detection and headaches of shipping bulk cash back across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. Once the cars arrive there, though, they can quickly be converted back to cash—with a profit margin, given the higher prices the cars fetch in West Africa.

Both Appram and Koranteng were in the cars-to-West-Africa business, according to evidence in Appram’s trial. So were other co-conspirators who testified at Appram’s trial, as well as defendants in several other Maryland cases involving heroin from West Africa. In each instance, there is nothing to suggest the car-shipping enterprises were anything but legitimate. The coincidence is striking, however—especially in light of the fact that Appram and Koranteng are both residents of Burtonsville, where one of the car dealers with alleged Hezbollah ties is located.


Though heroin comes almost entirely from poppies grown in Asia and South America, as special agent Edwards explained during Appram’s trial, criminal trade routes of varying geography and sophistication convey it across the world. Judging by the Appram case, and numerous other recent cases in federal court here and in Virginia, law enforcers are mounting a sustained, multi-front assault on the West African route to Baltimore, especially through Ghana and Nigeria.

Commercial-air travelers entering the United States from West Africa as paid heroin couriers are a key element of the supply chain, court records show. With practice, so-called “internal smugglers” ingest “pellets”—finger-sized, egg-shaped packages of heroin—in seemingly impossible numbers. Adding to the flow are couriers who pack heroin not in their stomachs, but in their luggage, clothing, or wigs.

How much of this heroin smuggled from West Africa is bound for Baltimore’s streets is hard to say, but judging from the pace and scope of recent prosecutions, it’s significant. Here’s a chronological sampling:

Edward Aboagye, a Baltimore-based Ghanaian car dealer who exported vehicles to West Africa while enrolled as a student at Morgan State University, was charged in a heroin conspiracy, along with two others, after a half-kilogram of heroin in pellets was found in the safe of his hotel room at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in downtown Baltimore on March 14, 2009. He pleaded guilty and testified against one of his co-conspirators, who was found guilty by a jury.

Two weeks later, Frank Aidoo, a Ghana-born Dutch citizen, was caught at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) with 100 heroin pellets in his stomach; his business, according to court records, was buying clothing abroad to resell in Ghana. He pleaded guilty, but recently won an appeal of his sentence.

In January 2010, Suleiman Zakaria arrived at BWI on a flight that originated in Ghana, and three kilograms of heroin were found within the lining of his luggage. He was convicted at a jury trial after mounting a defense that included facts about his business: shipping used cars purchased in the United States to resell in Ghana.

In April 2011 in Virginia, eight people were indicted for a heroin-importation conspiracy that supplied Baltimore, along with other areas, with heroin that was brought by couriers from West Africa to the United States. Nearly all of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

In July 2011, Baltimore City Police officer Daniel Redd was among five indicted in a heroin conspiracy supplied from West Africa. One of the co-conspirators in the case, Abdul Zakaria, aka Tamim Mamah, is Suleiman Zakaria’s brother. He testified as a government cooperator at Appram’s trial, where, in explaining his work history, he said he “was buying cars and shipping them to Africa.” All five defendants in the Redd case have pleaded guilty.

Just after Christmas 2011, two men, Nana Bartels-Riverson and Awal Mohammad, were arrested on I-95 in Howard County after nearly a kilogram of heroin was found in the car they were driving. When interviewed by DEA agents, Mohammad explained that the heroin had come from Ghana via courier, and that they were taking it to Baltimore to sell to a dealer. Their case is still in court.

On Dec. 29, 2011, a wiretap investigation by DEA investigators targeting three alleged drug traffickers suspected of having couriers smuggle heroin into Maryland from Africa—Eddie Patrick, Kenneth Ukoh, and Chrisanti Ignass, who, court documents state, conducted heroin transactions at the InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore—culminated with an African courier in a Maryland hotel room, expelling what eventually turned out to be 80 heroin-filled condoms from his gastrointestinal tract. Their case is still in court.

In March, a Nigerian woman, Ngozi Helen Omokoh, and two Maryland men—David Shenard Merritte of Baltimore and Larry Deen Hutchinson of Prince George’s County—were charged after all three were found in a Maryland hotel room where Omokoh had delivered 725 grams of heroin pellets. Their case is still in court.

On May 3, after a 15-month wiretap investigation, the DEA arrested Joseph Osiomwan, a 51-year-old car dealer who lives in idyllic Monkton, near the posh Manor Tavern five-star restaurant, and owns Woodland Motors, a used-car dealership on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore City. He was arrested as he left an alleged stash house in Northeast Baltimore, and when the agents searched him, they found what they described in court documents as three “fingers” or “eggs” of heroin, commonly used for “heroin to be smuggled into the United States via an internal body carrier.”

One of the common themes running through the stories of the defendants in many of these West African-tied heroin cases in Maryland is that many of them are not solely drug dealers, but also pursue legitimate-looking enterprises—especially buying cars in the United States for resale in West Africa.

How illegitimate such enterprises allegedly can be is illustrated in the Taliban and Hezbollah cases filed in New York. In the absence of any such accusations involving West Africa’s heroin trade in Maryland, though, all the public can know is that people like Wagba in Ghana coordinate shipments of heroin to Baltimore and mediate street beefs—or perhaps settle them—from afar, and that the heroin couriers will continue to come, supplying Baltimore’s streets with heroin.

Special Treatment: Tracy Love’s killing snuffs out a snitch-filled Baltimore life

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 2013


When 29-year-old Tracy Robin Love (pictured) bit the bullets in West Baltimore shortly after midnight on Nov. 9, he was nearly two years out of federal prison. How he got there—and the reason he was freed so much earlier than some of his co-defendants—says volumes about the carnage crime causes in a city whose street culture condones assassinating those who cooperate with law enforcers.

Between 2002 and 2006, the “Special” drug organization worked the area just east of where Loch Raven Road approaches Greenmount Avenue, taking in about $25,000 a day selling cocaine and heroin and protecting their enterprise with violence. As the law came down on the crew, which was headed by Melvin Gilbert, suspected snitches were shot dead in hails of bullets—including John Dowery, who, after surviving the shots he took in a 2005 hit attempt, was murdered on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 at the Kozy Korner bar on Bartlett Avenue, smack in the middle of Special territory.

Dowery had testified previously against Love and his younger half-brother, Tamall Parker, two top Special lieutenants who were on trial in state court for murdering James Wise in 2004 after Wise and an accomplice robbed their drug crew.

The Baltimore City jury didn’t convict Love and Parker—but in 2009 the two became snitches themselves, cooperating with authorities. Love testified before a federal jury against their Special co-defendants, fingering them for murder, shootings, and drug dealing.

For cooperating, Love and Parker earned an eventual return to the streets, with Love regaining his freedom in December 2011 and Parker set to follow in November 2016. Those they testified against—Gilbert and the other Special co-defendants who went to trial, James Dinkins and Darron Goods—escaped the government’s desire to put them to death but instead were sentenced to life in prison. (Gilbert, meanwhile, surfaced on wiretaps in the 2009 Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the Black Guerrilla Family [BGF] prison gang, which recorded his cellphone conversations with BGF leader Eric Brown about corrupt correctional officer Alicia Simmons.)

Back in April 2007, photographs of Love and Parker appeared in The Atlantic magazine’s lengthy, award-winning article by Jeremy Kahn, “The Story of a Snitch.” The piece went deep into Dowery’s tragic experience, detailing how his interactions with Love and Parker ended with bloody retribution for snitching on them, and drove a national discussion prompted initially by the 2004 release of a Baltimore street-culture documentary, Stop Fucking Snitching, which advocated deadly violence to silence witnesses.

Love’s silence, like Dowery’s before him, now is permanent. Shortly after midnight on Nov. 9, detectives found him in a car on North Athol Avenue, where it separates the new Uplands housing development and Edmondson West-Side High School. He’d taken numerous shots to the head. A survivor, unidentified by police other than to confirm his name is “Allen,” took bullets in the belly.

Prior to this, Love in September had been arrested by Baltimore police and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and escape. He had been scheduled to appear in federal court on Nov. 14 so a judge could review whether his charged conduct amounted to a violation of his supervised release.

U.S. probation officer Toni Duncan, though, on Oct. 22 had advised the court that Love “was found Not Guilty” of the charges, according to court records, and requested that “the pending alleged violations of supervised release be withdrawn.”

That’s the tail end of what had been an intriguing and dramatic series of events.

Love’s arrest occurred on Sept. 19 at the Madison Park North Apartments on North and Park avenues in West Baltimore, and the circumstances were described in court documents written by police officer Peter Johncox.

Johncox and two other officers were in a patrol car near the apartment complex at about 7 p.m., and “observed a large group of persons standing in the open area between the apartment buildings,” Johncox wrote. Among them, “the officers observed a light skinned black male wearing a gray jogging suit and gray hat who the officers know as Tracy Love Jr.,” and Johncox added, “Mr. Love does not live in the apartment complex.”

When Love spied the other two officers coming, he ran—around a corner and right into Johncox, who arrested him and put him in handcuffs, telling him “he was under arrest for trespassing,” Johncox wrote. Then Johncox “noticed a clear plastic bag containing various multi-colored topped vials containing white rock substance, suspected cocaine,” and when he “reached down to pick up” the drugs, Love “pulled away” and “ran.”

Johncox ran after Love, telling him to stop, but Love kept going—even as Johncox “drew his taser and fired” it at Love, but “the probes did not make contact,” so Love “continued the foot chase.”

When Johncox “was finally able to catch up to Mr. Love and drive stunned him in the torso” (“drive stun” means to hold the taser against the body, without projectiles), Love “fell to the ground where he started kicking his legs and flailing,” so Johncox “drive stunned Mr. Love again in the torso” and “was successful in taking him into custody.”

The drama did not end there, though. “Mr. Love was screaming and yelling and a large group of people began crowding around,” Johncox wrote, and as Love was escorted to a police wagon and taken away, his “yelling incited more of a crowd.”

Love was taken to the Central District, according to Johncox’s report, “where he was debriefed by homicide detectives.”

Three days later, Love made $25,000 bail and was released pending trial, when he was exonerated. Despite the drug evidence described by Johncox, Love did not face drug charges.

An unnamed source—the person asked not to be named “due to the caliber of the dudes” in the picture of Love’s life—says the mother of both Love and Parker is Mayreda Henderson, who court records confirm has shared an address with Parker in Essex, where the police say Love lived. Attempts to reach Henderson, including by leaving detailed messages on cellphones believed to be hers and a relative of hers, to ask her for comment on Love’s recent arrest and violent death were unsuccessful.

The mother of Love and Parker has been an important part of their public lives, though, as she was part of their alibi the night James Wise was killed—according to The Atlantic article, they claimed they were at their mother’s hair salon in West Baltimore, across the city from where Wise was murdered. Henderson, court records show, as recently as last year was doing business as Mayreda’s Hair and Nail Salon. It was located at 736 W. North Ave.—an address at the Madison Park North Apartments, where Love was arrested. The 45-year-old is also a federal drug convict herself, having been released in 1999 after a prison sentence for her part in a massive 1980s conspiracy headed by Tommy Lee Canty Jr.

By the time Love testified in federal court against his Special co-defendants on May 26, 2009, his and Parker’s culpability for the Wise murder was clear, exposing the falsity of their alibi. Yet, perhaps to avoid implicating his mother, while on the stand, Love would not admit it had been concocted.

“No,” Love said, according to the court transcript, when Dinkins’ attorney asked him, “You didn’t have your mother say, ‘Oh, the time Mr. Wise got killed, he was at the hair salon with me?’” When pressed, Love said, “not as I recall, no,” adding “that was a long time ago.”

During his testimony, Love also tried to limit his role in Wise’s murder, saying that he only pointed the direction Wise had run so his brother could go do the deed. This scenario, though, conflicts with the version told in The Atlantic article—that right after Wise was shot dead, “I got that motherfucker, six times in the chest,” Dowery heard Love yell down the street for all to hear, including his Special crew. “Next time, one of y’all gonna do it. I’m tired of doing this shit.”

Either way, now that someone else has done it to Love, he’ll never have to do it again.

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.


On the Rocks: Baltimore businessmen in federal crosshairs for massive cocaine conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 18, 2013


Gerald Lamont Jones of Randallstown is a “self-made entreprenuer [sic] who clearly understands hard work, commitment, and discipline,” according to his bodybuilding website, (pictured). But if federal authorities are correct in the allegations they’ve recently disclosed about Jones, who owns Gold’s Gym in Owings Mills, the Pimlico Motors chain of auto dealerships, and JBL Construction, among other companies, then his entrepreneurial success has a secret ingredient: large-scale cocaine trafficking.

Jones has not been publicly charged with any crimes and has no prior criminal record in Maryland. But on Oct. 28, just days before Jones took second place at the International Drug Free Athletics bodybuilding championships in Ontario, one of his employees, George Sylvester Frink Jr., was charged in Maryland U.S. District Court with possessing 15 kilograms of cocaine while in the parking lot of the nerve center of Jones’ business affairs, a small Pikesville office building at 8 Church Lane.

In the ensuing weeks, more details emerged in Frink’s case, including court documents implicating Jones. A search-and-seizure warrant affidavit signed Oct. 25 by DEA special agent Robert Blanchard and docketed in the court record on Nov. 12 says that a California drug organization’s cocaine shipments to Jones and others came in 24 shipments of between 50 and 60 kilograms of cocaine, 10 shipments of between 50 and 120 kilos, a 150-kilo shipment, and a 200-kilo shipment. That means that, if Blanchard’s affidavit is to be believed, Jones and others—the affidavit suggests the bulk of it was bound for Jones—received between 2,050 and 2,990 kilograms of cocaine, eye-popping amounts whose wholesale value comes to about $60 million to $90 million.

The probe is being conducted by DEA and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. Part of Blanchard’s 21-page affidavit—which supported an application for a warrant to raid two properties associated with Frink, including 8 Church Lane—describes alleged patterns of money laundering in records of Jones’ personal and business banking accounts, which showed 380 cash deposits totaling more than $2.6 million between 2008 and 2012.

Attempts to reach Jones by phone and email were unsuccessful, as were efforts to determine whether he is represented by a criminal defense attorney. Jones’ civil attorney, Diane Leigh Davison, who manages legal aspects of many of his business dealings, wrote in an email to City Paper that “I have no comment as I know nothing about any of these allegations.”

Blanchard’s affidavit dubs Jones’ alleged California suppliers the “Lopez-Brascom DTO,” short for drug-trafficking organization, and notes its members were indicted in California in 2010. City Paper covered the case (“Bringing It Back Home,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011), since it involved Baltimore-bound cocaine and three defendants—Ricky James Brascom, Charles Dwight Ransom Jr., and Darrin Ebron—who originally hailed from Baltimore.

In that case, which involved shipments of 400 kilograms of cocaine and more than $4 million in cash during a six-week period, DEA wiretaps recorded conversations between Brascom and his alleged girlfriend, the actress and singer Drew Sidora Jordan, while Ebron—a star-tied fashion designer and deejay who performed at Eddie Murphy and Tracey Edmonds’ 2008 wedding on the island of Bora Bora—claimed his wiretapped conversations were not about drugs but about music-industry work he was doing for Brascom and Ransom’s company, Behind Da Scenes Entertainment, which produced the rapper Paypa.

At the time, City Paper determined that Behind Da Scenes was actually Jones’ company and that Jones had given two pieces of Baltimore real estate to Ransom in 2007. When reached for comment, Davison said Jones had “has no involvement in or awareness of” the allegations in the “unfortunate” California indictment and explained that “the real estate transactions have no relation to the recent allegations,” adding that Jones “has always tried to assist and mentor family and friends in business, and tried to do the same for his former college fraternity brother, Charles Ransom.”

While Ebron—convicted and currently in prison, set to be released in 2017—and Brascom—with a 2019 release date—met the same fate, Ransom escaped from a South Carolina jail shortly after the indictment and remained on the lam until his arrest in California in March. He pleaded guilty in September and is scheduled to be sentenced in January. The indicted head of the DTO Heriberto Lopez remains a fugitive, according to Blanchard’s affidavit.

The investigation into Frink and Jones began in October and November 2010—just as the California indictment was handed down—when a “cooperating defendant” that Blanchard’s affidavit calls “CS1” told DEA agents that he or she “routinely got kilograms of cocaine” from a man named Paul Alexander at “On the Rocks” bar on Liberty Road in Randallstown, and that Frink, who owned the place and was Alexander’s cocaine partner, would be present at the meetings. According to business records, Frink’s bar was actually On the Roxx, located in the Randallstown Plaza Shopping Center.

CS1’s information paled in comparison to that provided by CS2, a “cooperating source” interviewed by DEA agents in February 2011, according to Blanchard’s affidavit. The Lopez-Brascom DTO brought hundreds of kilos per month from California to Maryland, CS2 explained, and in 2008, shortly after CS2 introduced Ransom to Lopez, Jones flew to California to meet with them. Ransom told CS2 that Jones was his “partner in the cocaine distribution business.”

When the scheme got up and running in 2008, the affidavit continues, Jones allegedly received 10 shipments of 50 to 120 kilograms of cocaine hidden in secret compartments in cars that Jones and Ransom had provided to Brascom and Lopez. The coke-laden cars would then be placed on “tractor-trailer auto-carriers that were destined for Baltimore,” the affidavit states, and once the coke was sold, the cars’ secret compartments would be filled with cash for shipment back to Brascom and Lopez in California. Then the cross-country circuit would begin again.

But in May 2009, the affidavit continues, after law enforcers stopped a Honda Ridgeline being transported from California to Pimlico Motors’ Liberty Road location and seized cocaine, the DTO switched up, opting instead to ship the coke hidden amidst legitimate cargo carried by tractor-trailers.

Other than information provided by the two cooperators, much of Blanchard’s affidavit is filled with observations gleaned from surveillance, which circumstantially links Jones to criminal conduct—if the agents’ conclusions based on what they saw were accurate.

They noted, for instance, that on July 2 Jones moved items from one vehicle to a minivan in the parking lot of 8 Church Lane, and concluded that “Jones was moving bundles of cash into the minivan, preparing it for transportation out of state to purchase more kilograms of cocaine,” since “Jones and his coconspirators in the drug business have a long history of moving drugs and money in this fashion.”

While Jones has not been charged, Frink is facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Kay, speaking at a Nov. 21 court hearing. Frink had initially been ordered detained pending trial, but at the hearing he won supervised release after his attorney, Kenneth Ravenell, pointed out that what the government had called Frink’s lies—about his employment at Gold’s Gym, for instance, and where he resided—were, in fact, true.

“You were given information that was not accurate,” Ravenell told U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Gesner at the hearing, “by a less than stellar investigation.”

Jones must be hoping the same is true of the affidavit calling him a high-volume cocaine trafficker.

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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 25, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reefer Madness: One woman’s terrifying pot-smuggling saga

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 9, 2011


Jean Therese Brown’s undoing began on Christmas Day 2008, when she arranged for about a half-million dollars in cash to be flown by couriers from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Jamaica. Since then, court documents show, the 41-year-old received a 37-month federal prison sentence for bulk-cash smuggling and was hit with new drug-conspiracy charges that tie her to Mexican suppliers, and two people close to her have been murdered.

One of the murder victims, Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton Jr., was the father of Brown’s child and was killed in Tijuana, Mexico, in April 2010, according to court documents. The other, Michael Paul Knight, who was one of the couriers Brown used to carry cash to Jamaica, was beaten and slain over missing drug money and then dismembered with a power saw in an apartment near White Marsh Mall in December 2009 (“The Scarface Treatment,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010). Knight’s body, which Brown told investigators was disposed of in trash bags over a two-day period, has never been found.

That’s a lot of heartache and carnage over moving pot, which is what Brown is accused of doing.

The drug-trafficking scheme, court documents state, involved using a trucking company to distribute marijuana in California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Florida. Under the new indictment—unsealed on Feb. 24 after it was first filed on Feb. 1, the same day Brown was sentenced in the cash-smuggling case, to which she pleaded guilty—Brown and four others are accused of moving more than 1,000 kilograms of pot since 2000.

The docket in the drug-conspiracy case indicates that none of the defendants has an attorney. Brown’s lawyer in the cash-smuggling case, Sebastian Cotrone of Florida, says he did not know Brown had been charged again. “I wish I could be of more help to you,” Cotrone says, “but I haven’t heard from her since her sentencing, and she has not hired me” to represent her in connection with the new indictment. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Peter Nothstein, declined to comment.

What is known about Brown’s criminal activities, both alleged and admitted, comes strictly from court documents, and there is virtually no available information about her background—except that she also is known as Jean Therese Lawrence and was first arrested in Florida, where she has a court record in Miami under that name.

The cash-smuggling indictment against Brown and her co-defendant, Debbie Ann Shipp, who was arrested in New York and awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in December, was filed last summer. It revealed that large sums of undeclared cash were transported to Jamaica under Brown’s direction by Shipp and two others, including Knight (who was identified in the indictment only by his initials, “MPK”).

In November, a search warrant issued to Baltimore County investigators hoping to solve Knight’s disappearance provided the first public glimpses of the breadth of the investigation, giving details of the two murders, the cooperation provided to law enforcers by Brown and other unnamed co-conspirators, and the alleged pot-smuggling operation’s ties to the bulk-cash smuggling case against Brown and Shipp.

The new indictment unsealed in February shed little light on the nitty gritty of Brown’s alleged conspiracy, other than to name the defendants, say how long it operated, and state the quantity of marijuana involved. Brown’s co-defendants are Hubert “Doc” Downer (also known as Michael Reid), Tamara Henry, Robert Henry, and Dmytro Holovko, whose nickname is “the Russian.”

Most recently, though, on March 1, federal prosecutors moved for a court-ordered forfeiture decree against one of the trucks allegedly used in the operation, and that document unveiled new details—including the assertion that Brown was the leader of the enterprise, and that it dealt directly with Mexican suppliers.

The forfeiture states that Brown’s outfit “used trucks to transport marijuana from Arizona to Baltimore and transported the cash proceeds of the marijuana sales from Baltimore back to Arizona where it was used to pay her Mexican suppliers and to purchase additional marijuana.”

Based on information provided by confidential sources, the forfeiture describes Holovko as one of Brown’s truckers and gives details about numerous trips in which Holovko hauled drugs and cash back and forth between Arizona and Baltimore. One of the sources, the forfeiture recounts, “stated he and Holovko would drive to a predetermined destination on Liberty Road in Baltimore,” where “they would offload the marijuana into one of Brown’s vehicles.” The source “stated that on one occasion he loaded approximately 38 boxes of Marijuana, with each box weighing approximately 20 to 25 pounds.”

City Paper was able to locate phone numbers for Holovko and a trucking company that New Jersey business records indicate is associated with him, but no one had answered either phone as of press time.

The forfeiture filing adds to mounting indications that Baltimore traffickers have direct links to Mexican cartel suppliers. The use of trucks and other large vehicles to move massive quantities of drugs and cash back and forth between Baltimore and the Mexican border, as is alleged in Brown’s case, was recently detailed in a federal drug trial (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23) featuring a cartel witness who greatly enhanced the already-established picture of Baltimore’s ties to Mexican suppliers (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010). The danger of such dealings is suggested by the murders of Smith and Knight.

The truck that is subject to the forfeiture filing was seized when Holovko was arrested in New Jersey in mid-February, at around the same time Tamara Henry and Robert Henry were arrested in Florida. Downer faces a separate Maryland indictment, filed in December, accusing him of illegally reentering the United States after having been deported due to a prior aggravated-felony conviction. The dockets in his cases suggest he has yet to be arrested.

Too Rich: Alleged cocaine trafficking mastermind Richie Rich isn’t going down without a fight

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2013


Baltimore is rife with neighborhoods ravaged as fronts in the drug war, but the area around 30th and St. Paul streets, in Charles Village, isn’t one of them. This is a “college town” neighborhood near the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, frequented by many who study or work at Hopkins, not by drug dealers.

Yet, on Oct. 8, 2010, the area around 30th and St. Paul streets suddenly became ground zero in the intelligence-gathering efforts of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to take down one of Baltimore’s major cocaine suppliers.

“We were pretty excited,” DEA special agent Mark Lester says, referring to the moment he and his colleague, special agent Todd Edwards, realized that Richard Anthony Wilford, who goes by the nickname “Richie Rich,” had walked into their investigation of another drug dealer, Lawrence Lee Hayes Jr., who they’d been pursuing for two months. Literally walked, because the agents watched as Wilford and Hayes spent an hour walking up and down the block around 30th and St. Paul, Lester says while testifying during a Jan. 25 hearing in the resulting case.

“Edwards knew that Mr. Wilford had been arrested before,” Lester explains, and that it was “widely known that he was suspected of being a large-scale drug dealer.”

As the investigation progressed, sussing out the details of the cross-country scheme—the coke would come from California and cash would be sent back—it uncovered the telltale elements of a classic shadow-economy scheme: legitimate-looking businesses, cars, and other assets put in the names of other parties, including ties to a Baltimore City court commissioner and a man working at City Hall.

Hayes allegedly stood at the top of a supply chain that, when it was brought down in the spring of 2011, put in the government’s hands a massive haul of cocaine—nearly 150 kilograms, 136 kilos of it in a tractor-trailer driven by Robert Nyakana, a Ugandan who made the DEA’s “Most Wanted” list while a fugitive, until he was later arrested—and about $3.5 million in cash (including $1.6 million taken from a house in Randallstown), $600,000 in jewelry, 23 vehicles, six pieces of real estate in Georgia, and some expensive electronics. Wilford, Hayes, and four others were indicted in federal court, and five other co-conspirators faced indictments in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Wilford went on the run, hiding in Los Angeles until August 2011, when he was spotted by agents, who raided his home there and recovered $68,000 in cash. Then he laid low in Baltimore, at a house near Pimlico Race Course, where, when he was finally arrested on Sept. 16, 2011, agents found $190,000 in cash. So even as a fleet-footed fugitive, running from the U.S. marshals months after the coke scheme had been dismantled, Wilford still had access to substantial means.

Today, in the federal case, all but Wilford have pleaded guilty. He’s retained an expensive, well-regarded attorney, William Purpura—the same one Wilford has used in his criminal cases for years—to battle the government with a vengeance. Wilford says not only that serious errors were contained in affidavits in the case, but that Lester, Edwards, and their fellow law enforcers conducted illegal electronic surveillance in pursuing him and his co-conspirators by monitoring cellphone “pings”—the communication signals that bounce between phones and cell towers—and global positioning systems (GPS) devices attached to vehicles.

But if not for this warrantless electronic surveillance—which had been common practice until January 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered warrants for “slap-on” GPS devices, and August 2010, when the D.C. Circuit’s appellate court handed down a similar ruling—Wilford contends that Lester and Edwards would not have known to be in Charles Village that October day to watch him meeting with Hayes. If Wilford’s arguments prevail, the government’s case against him would suffer, or even be dismissed, as key evidence could no longer be presented to a trial jury.

Purpura and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sippel offered testimony and argued their respective takes on these questions for much of the day on Jan. 25, before U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, who has scheduled more arguments for March 8. During the hearing, Purpura points out that “we guessed, and guessed correctly” that slap-on GPS devices were used in the investigation—a detail that the government had not volunteered and then “gave it up in drips and drabs.” Whichever way Hollander rules—and she indicated she was leaning in the government’s favor, despite a law enforcer’s affidavit in the case that was “replete with mistakes,” she said—the resulting decision will likely go to Richmond to be reviewed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wilford, at a few inches shy of 6 feet and with neither much fat nor muscle on his frame, is not an imposing man. In the courtroom for the Jan. 25 arguments, he appears relaxed as he waves and mouths conversations with friends and family there to support him. Despite the prison jumpsuit, he looks very much a mild-mannered, legitimate businessman, with a sharp look in his eye. But the man’s not going down without a fight, and if he wins, not only will he likely go free, but drug cops are going to have to push a lot more paper getting warrants before they go pinging suspects’ cellphones—just like they have to do now, thanks to the Supreme Court, before slapping GPS units on suspects’ cars.

To say it’s “widely known” that Wilford is “suspected of being a large-scale drug trafficker,” as Lester put it, is a bit of an understatement. Wilford’s nickname has figured in some of the more storied chapters in the modern annals of Baltimore drug dealing.

Wilford’s first federal drug case, brought in 1992 when he was 19, was a conspiracy that included two men who were then twice Wilford’s age—legendary Baltimore gangsters Walter Louis Ingram and Walter Lee Powell, who are now in their 60s and, like Wilford, in trouble again with the feds (“Old and in the Game,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 19, 2012). Wilford’s cocaine conviction in that case got him five years in federal prison, and after his release, in 2001 he caught another federal stint—two years for possession with intent to distribute heroin.

Then, while still on supervised release for his 2001 conviction, Wilford in 2008 emerged in the vortex of law-enforcement intrigue surrounding a corrupt Baltimore cop named Mark Lunsford (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009); Querida Lewis, a cross-country drug dealer (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14, 2009) with ties to three-time Baltimore felon Milton Tillman Jr. (“Citizen of the Year,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008), a politically connected bailbondsman, longshoreman, and real-estate developer; and a bevy of other Baltimore drug dealers, among them Gilbert Watkins, Donta Dotson, and Dante Chavez.

Wilford’s ties to all of this came into focus in court documents, many of them sworn out by Lunsford, a former DEA task-force officer who pleaded guilty to theft and lying and who was released from federal prison in March 2012. The documents describe Wilford and his partner, Mark Anthony Hawkins, as large-scale marijuana and cocaine suppliers.

Ultimately, neither Wilford nor Hawkins got in much trouble. Wilford pleaded guilty in Baltimore County court and received probation before judgment, while the feds seized $39,045 of his money, returning $5,000 of it pursuant to a settlement agreement. During the motions battle in the case, which was built based on wiretaps, Purpura argued that Lunsford’s involvement in the probe undermined its integrity and that agents had failed to constrain their eavesdropping to relevant conversations by recording exchanges about Wilford being a “daddy to be” and “shooting over to Shorty’s [for a] cookout.” Hawkins, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to time served.

The others weren’t so fortunate: Lewis, Dotson, Watkins, and Chavez all remain in federal prison for their convictions.

Thus, when October 2010 rolled around and Lester and Edwards discovered Wilford walking around Charles Village with Hayes, the two DEA agents were understandably “excited”—a target of longstanding significance was suddenly in their sights. Wilford’s criminal past and flashy present—an informant told investigators he drove a $150,000 Mercedes and, indeed, several months earlier he’d been clocked at 111 mph in a Mercedes on the Washington Beltway—made him worthy prey if he was, in fact, still in the drug game.

The details of the Wilford investigation, revealed in a myriad of court documents, bring into focus the shadowy elements of the criminal enterprise, including not only the legitimate-looking business endeavors of the conspirators, but their ties to local government as well. The businesses, including Blow It Off Power Washing, R.A.W. Enterprises, B’Mores Dumping, M&M Construction, and Eight K Contracting, were varied, and some of the investigation’s targets had legitimate jobs, including one who worked for a private special-education school, the Chimes School, and another who was on the Baltimore City Hall payroll.

The picture, in all its high-resolution glory, emerged not from wiretaps—none were obtained in the case—but largely thanks to high-tech surveillance aids that provided Lester, Edwards, and their law-enforcement colleagues with nearly real-time location data about the whereabouts of their targets’ vehicles and cellphones. If someone was on the move, law enforcers could watch on computer screens and react quickly, hitting the streets to gain valuable insights leading to hard intelligence about their targets’ habits, associates, and affiliations, wherever they may lead.

During the Jan. 25 hearing, Lester explained that four slap-on GPS trackers were affixed to a total of 12 different vehicles during the investigation, which also obtained “pinging orders” from judges for at least 23 phones, allowing the agents to quickly receive GPS coordinates for those phones via emails from their service providers. If a tracked vehicle or phone moved, the agents would quickly know, and could decide whether to go out and do some good old-fashioned eyeball surveillance.

Wilford’s attorney, Purpura, had a last-minute witness to put on at the Jan. 25 hearing: Joshua Brown of GLS Litigation Services, who demonstrated with mapping software how revealing the government’s GPS-derived data can be about a person’s movements and patterns in life. City Paper visited GLS’ offices at Clipper Mill a few days later, so Brown and his partner, Gabriel Saunders, could give a guided tour of what is shown by the 30,000-or-so latitude/longitude points the government has on Wilford’s phones and vehicles over a nearly 11-month period starting in late October 2010.

“It helps you find important places,” says Brown, pointing out Wilford’s mother-in-law’s home in Los Angeles, his shopping routines when in Los Angeles, his regular routes to and from his luxury home near Elkton in Cecil County, and a trip Wilford took to the Catskills at one point. “Places of interest might also emerge when you have monitored phones intersecting with cars that were monitored—you can use both to determine whether people are together, or whether people are in a car together.”

“We take the data the government has,” says Saunders, “and make it understandable to people.” He ponders the implications as technology advances: “It won’t be long before there’s software that analyzes this, and starts to predict where you will be,” and before facial recognition capabilities can be applied to images caught on public closed-circuit television camera—so that so-called “aids to surveillance” become simply surveillance, done remotely.

While scanning the mapped data on a computer monitor, it is clear that Wilford—or at least his car—went to Baltimore’s jail complex for about two hours on Nov. 19, 2010, and that in late January and early February 2011, both his car and his phone were at the industrial waterfront in Canton, possibly to fill dump trucks with sand from the stockpiles there. On March 9, 2011, multiple cars and phones were at Perring Plaza at the same time—likely a meeting of the conspirators. At various times, the monitoring placed phones and cars in Little Italy, near Mo’s Crab and Pasta Factory and the nightclub Milan, and investigators learned that Wilford and his associates hung out at a barbershop on the 3700 block of Wabash Avenue. Throughout the period of phone- and car-tracking, the conspirators maintained a nearly constant presence in the Union Square neighborhood, in West Baltimore, in a block near Lombard and Calhoun streets that’s known for open-air drug dealing.

What Brown and Saunders show is a remarkably detailed, nuanced portrait of Wilford’s movements not only in Baltimore but Los Angeles and elsewhere. As long as he and his co-conspirators’ cars and phones were being tracked, their lives—or at least their locations, which led to a host of possibilities for surveillance and follow-up investigation—were open books.

One of the places to which electronic surveillance led the agents was 1020 Park Ave., the Symphony Center Apartment Homes, near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This, they learned, was where Hayes laid his head, in unit number 907. They’d seen Hayes leave the apartment with a backpack, meet Wilford over near 30th and St. Paul, and exchange the backpack for a large cardboard box that Wilford would bring, and then Hayes would take the box to an apartment at Belvedere Towers, at Northern Parkway and Falls Road. When agents raided Hayes’ Symphony Center apartment in May 2011, they found and seized $318,006 in cash and seven expensive watches. And even before they raided the Belvedere Towers apartment, they did a trash dump there, after watching one of the co-conspirators throw some garbage in a dumpster, and found evidence that cocaine was being processed there after being shipped in hollowed-out computer towers.

But before all that, in late Sept. 2010, the agents looked into who was leasing the Symphony Center unit used by Hayes. Turned out, it was a man named Damon Crump, a Baltimore City district court commissioner at the Pataspco Avenue courthouse in Brooklyn, whose day-to-day duties involve setting defendants’ bails and reviewing sworn statements of charges to make sure they pass muster for probable cause.

Edwards, in an affidavit, explained that Crump, along with one of Hayes’ and Wilford’s co-conspirators, Alvin Purcell Wells, leased the apartment on Hayes’ behalf. Crump’s name also was on the BGE account for the apartment. “In addition,” Edwards wrote, Symphony Center’s management “identified Hayes as the individual they knew to be Damon Crump,” while Wells paid the rent—and had run up a couple thousand dollars in credit.

Crump, who was not charged with any crime for the role Edwards ascribes to him in the investigation, said in a Feb. 1 phone interview that “I’m a victim” for having helped Hayes, who he says he’s known since “I was 8 years old.” He explains that Hayes came to him in 2006 and said he’d been “put out from his home and needed a place to stay, so I got the apartment for him” by signing the lease.

The first year, Crump continues, Hayes was “doing fine, selling cars and doing carpentry and landscaping work,” and so “I see that everything is going well, so I’m going to back off.” Then Hayes talked “Wells into putting his name on the lease too,” and “so I am not down there [at the apartment] from the middle of 2007 on,” since the rent’s being paid and Wells—who Crump says he’s known since middle school, and whom he describes as “a legitimate businessman who had a group home”—is sharing responsibility for the lease. Then, Hayes gets arrested in the Wilford investigation and “I was just dumbfounded,” says Crump, adding that “I had no involvement—if I did, I would have been arrested—and if I’d known, I would’ve broken the lease.” As for Wells, Crump says, “he could have been a victim too”—and, indeed, prosecutors later declined to pursue the charges against Wells.

Much less detail is available about a target in the investigation who court documents say was on that payroll of Baltimore City mayor’s office in 2009 and early 2010, during the waning days of Sheila Dixon’s tenure there. His name appears in the Baltimore City Circuit Court case file against one of Wilford’s co-conspirators, Michael Smooth, who owns a dump-truck company, B’Mores Dumping, located at a Wilford-owned industrial property near Cherry Hill. The target is described in a “report of investigation” as one of several unindicted targets in the case, without any further details—except that he also earned income from a clothing store he owned in West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood, a few blocks from the near-constant cluster of locational data points turned up by the investigation’s GPS tracking efforts.

Attempts to contact the target were unsuccessful, as were efforts to learn his duties at the mayor’s office, but a visit to the clothing store’s location reveals it is no longer in operation, and its listed phone number is no longer active. As he was not charged and could not be located, City Paper is not publishing his name.

That the Wilford investigation touched on a court commissioner and a man on City Hall’s payroll is perhaps not surprising in an era of Baltimore crime-consciousness informed by intricacies of The Wire, with its thought-provoking fictional portrayals of the drug game’s far-reaching consequences. But this is real life—at least insofar as the agent’s sworn facts reflect reality—and the Wilford case stacks up as a big one by Baltimore standards.

In 2008, a 40-kilo cocaine seizure was touted by the Baltimore police as the biggest in the department’s history (“Man Gets Federal Charges for Historic 40-Kilo Coke Bust Next to Kevin Liles Drive,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 23, 2009), though two prior ones at the Port of Baltimore were bigger, but involved other law-enforcement agencies (“OK, But It’s Probably Like the Third-Biggest Drug Bust Ever. At Least,” The News Hole, March 2, 2009). One of those larger ones, in 2004, involved a little over 130 kilograms—a few kilos less than in the Wilford case.

At the very same time as the Wilford investigation, another probe handled by the DEA in California, involving Hollywood-based figures with Baltimore ties, turned up evidence that nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine were shipped to Baltimore over a six-week period, with more than $4 million in cash going back to California (“Bringing It Back Home,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011). Aside from the large amounts of California coke being exchanged for Baltimore cash, the case has another similarity to Wilford’s—some of the coke in both cases was shipped in hollowed-out desktop computer towers.

In a case involving Mexican cartel coke coming to Baltimore, trial testimony from a cartel operative provided some context for these amounts (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23, 2011). The operative, Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, told jurors that he had been one of the Gulf cartel’s Houston-based distributors, and his group handled about 300 tons of coke a month coming over the border from Mexico—that’s more than 272,000 kilograms per month. On the Baltimore end, Mendoza-Cano said he delivered 40 to 60 kilos per month for six months to one of the case’s co-conspirators.

The Wilford investigation, then, turned up big amounts by Baltimore standards—but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, it’s not a case prosecutors care to lose over the question of whether or not the agents failed to get needed warrants for their highly effective electronic-surveillance tactics—which is precisely what Wilford is trying to make happen. Whether or not Wilford wins, he can at least say he tried.