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

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Gerald Lamont Jones of Randallstown is a “self-made entreprenuer [sic] who clearly understands hard work, commitment, and discipline,” according to his bodybuilding website, joethebodybuilder.com (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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 9, 2011

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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

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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.

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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old and In the Game: “Wire”-inspiring gangsters face new prison time

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2012

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When they went to prison in separate early 1990s drug cases in Baltimore, Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell had been convicted as bit players in larger schemes. Such was the case, too, when their identities were used—though not their real stories—to create characters in HBO’s The Wire: Savino Bratton (pictured, from Season 5) and Anton “Stinkum” Artis, two of the five prominent enforcers in Avon Barksdale’s crew.

Today, 55-year-old Braxton and 60-year-old Powell are again in drug trouble, and their federal cases reveal how the gangster lifestyle can keep an obdurate hold on those whose only game in life has been “the game”—and they underscore the serial prison terms that lifestyle can exact on players.

But first, an acknowledgement about the use of real people’s names from Wire co-creator David Simon: “We mangled up real Baltimore surnames and real Baltimore given names and real Baltimore street names” to create Wire characters, he says in an email.

“Why?” Simon continues. “To give reality a chance to exist on its own, while at the same time creating a collective sense of the real Baltimore that we were depicting. Having all the correct surnames and street names floating about—but in the wrong order, and clearly disconnected from the correct narrative street history of Baltimore—tethered us loosely to the real, but at the same time allowed the actual survivors of that history some fair and legitimate distance.”

“We also,” Simon adds, “thought it would make people who knew the game from either side—street or stationhouse—smile a bit. An inside joke for those with ears to listen.”

Thus, “Savino Bratton,” the Wire character, has a story that does not jibe with that of real-life Savino Braxton. Simon, as a Baltimore Sun reporter covering the 1990 heroin conspiracy of Linwood Rudolph “Rudi” Williams, described Braxton as “a sizable westside dealer in his own right who sold narcotics to the Williams group.” Bratton, meanwhile, is an enforcer for Avon Barksdale’s crew who drives snitching strip-club frontman Wendell “Orlando” Blocker and undercover detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs to a shooting ambush that leaves Orlando dead and Greggs critically wounded.

The Wire’s “Stinkum,” also a key Barksdale enforcer, ends up as gangster-robbing Omar Little’s second revenge victim. His role in the narrative seems much larger than that of real-life Walter Lee Powell, who served as an errand-runner and bill-collector for his real-life bosses, Baltimore drug dealers Walter Louis Ingram and Patricia Carmichael.

Braxton’s initial undoing began in 1990, when phone-tapping cops heard him say “I got to see you” over the phone to Rudi Williams, then one of Baltimore’s biggest law-enforcement targets in the narcotics trade. They proceeded to build sufficient evidence to raid Braxton’s home, where they found a little over 27 grams of heroin and other drug-dealing evidence.

Three years after Braxton’s 2006 release from prison, he was on law-enforcers’ radar again, thanks to a cooperator’s tip, and a raid on his Frankford apartment turned up 35 grams of heroin in his car; and in his apartment, another kilogram, more than $4,000 cash, and a variety of drug-dealing appurtenances, prompting new charges (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009).

Braxton is fighting the charges—though he took a break from doing so in early 2010, when he left the Volunteers of America facility on East Monument Street, where he’d been ordered to reside on a pre-trial release, to go to a medical appointment, and failed to return. For more than two years he was a fugitive, a status that ended ignobly on Aug. 17, at BWI Airport, when he tried to board a flight with a fake driver’s license and was caught.

Since then, Braxton has filed with the court a series of legal motions, handwritten in floral script, including one asking that his appointed attorney, Archangelo Tuminelli, be replaced—a request that was denied during a Dec. 12 motions hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who cleared the courtroom to resolve the attorney-client dispute. The case, which is scheduled for trial in February, is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorney John Purcell, who is seeking an enhanced penalty of a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years based on Braxton’s prior federal conviction, though Bennett signaled during last week’s hearing that Purcell may want to back off that hard-edged stance.

Braxton told Bennet during the hearing that he’s anxious to obtain video evidence from a Kentucky Fried Chicken video camera near the location of his arrest that would show officers lied in sworn documents presented as evidence against him. Bennett reminded Braxton, though, that “you prejudiced yourself by absconding” for more than two years and that “the cameras may or may not be there” anymore.

Unlike Braxton’s case, the current one against “Stinkum” Powell is already over; Powell pleaded guilty and on Nov. 30 received a 121-month sentence. Its details, which overlap with other FBI heroin cases populated by the likes of big-name federal defendants such as Steven Blackwell, Christian Gettis, and Roy Lee Clay Jr., stretch from Baltimore to Philadelphia, New York, Miami, and Africa. Powell ran some of his illicit business out of Quantico Carwash on Reisterstown Road, according to court documents, and some of his dealings were intercepted over a phone issued by his employer, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit based in Windsor Mill.

Meanwhile, one of Powell’s former bosses from back in the day—Walter Louis Ingram, now 61, whose earlier criminal career Simon wrote about extensively for The Sun—is also facing federal charges filed in 2010 (“Old Folks’ Boogie,” Mobtown Beat, July 22, 2010). He’s accused in a heroin conspiracy involving eight others, and all but Ingram and one other defendant have pleaded guilty—despite jailhouse attempts to dissuade them from doing so by using improperly obtained evidence in the case (“In the Wrong Hands,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2011). The lead conspirator, Kevin Hently, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, so Ingram, if convicted, can expect the same or more, given his long list of priors.

The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Sept. 10, 2009

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Fans of The Wire know Savino Bratton as the character played by Christopher Clanton, the Baltimore actor who was stabbed last year at an Overlea party. Clanton’s character in Season One was a dreadlocked soldier in the Barksdale organization who helped set up the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs and stripclub manager Orlando Blocker. In Season Five, after doing time in prison, Savino Bratton (pictured) returns as a soldier for the Stanfield organization.

But what fans of The Wire might not know is that Savino Braxton—whose name is one letter removed from that of The Wire character—is a real-life Baltimore heroin dealer. In 1990, Savino Braxton was convicted as part of a massive heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams, and earned his release in 2008. His freedom was recently cut short, though, when on Sept. 2 he was arrested again on new federal heroin charges.

The Wire producer David Simon, asked in an e-mail whether the fictional Savino Bratton’s name is based on the real-life Savino Braxton, says only this: “The Wire is a fictional story. I have no comment otherwise.”

So what was Braxton up to on Sept. 2 that landed him with new federal charges? According to the complaint [see below], agents got a search warrant for Braxton’s apartment at 5312 Goodnow Road in Frankford. While preparing for the raid, they watched Braxton leave his residence, get in a purple Honda Accord, and drive off. They arrested him a short time later and found 35 grams of heroin in the car’s center console. The agents then returned to Braxton’s apartment to find another kilogram of heroin, a variety of drug-dealing paraphernalia (cutting agents, gel caps, a scale, etc.), and lots of cash “bundled in thousand dollar stacks.”