Hysteria: In Maryland and Across the Country, the Federal Designer-Drug Crackdown Takes Prisoners, Cash, and a Legal Backlash

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 13, 2013

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Dev Bahadur Hamal worked behind the counter of the Tobacco Stop in Bel Air, one of those ubiquitous shops that sell legal smokables and accessories for illegal ones, like bongs, hookahs, rolling papers, pot grinders, and glass pipes.

On Sept. 22, 2011, a customer stepped up to the counter and asked whether the Tobacco Stop sold “Hysteria.” Hamal nodded and sold him a 1-gram packet of the stuff, labeled “potpourri” that is “not for human consumption,” for $21.20. The customer held his hand to his mouth while pinching together his thumb and index finger, and asked if “you smoke this stuff.” Hamal said, “Yes.” Pointing out that his pipe wasn’t working properly, the customer asked for rolling papers, and Hamal said the stuff was “very strong,” urging caution if smoking it that way.

Hamal’s helpfulness has been memorialized in numerous federal court documents in the years since, causing no end of trouble.

The customer, it turned out, was an undercover officer working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Hysteria, subsequent testing confirmed, was a kind of illegal designer drug popularly known as “K2” or “Spice,” said to mimic the effects of pot. Hamal had unwittingly spawned a cross-country probe into an alleged illegal Spice supply line to Maryland from California.

Now, though, after the headlines about the arrests, seizures, and successful prosecutions resulting from Operation Log Jam and Project Synergy, one thing should be abundantly clear: It’s a risky proposition to sell anything exotic that’s construed as a legal high.

 

Nine months after Hamal’s Hysteria sale to the undercover officer and nearly 2,700 miles away, on June 12, 2012, Ratchanee McAuley was at M&C Wholesale. The business occupied three suites in a one-story, block-long commercial building in Laguna Niguel, Calif., in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Around noon, the 40-year-old from Arizona and four others unloaded a Rapid Express truck delivering packages to M&C. Then McAuley took her small white dog for a walk.

As the day wore on, pallets of white canvas bags about the size of sandbags were moved around M&C’s suites, and more deliveries arrived, including boxes filled with black foil packaging. The business made and received lots of deliveries – its FedEx bill for a four-month period that year was over $100,000. Just after 6 p.m., McAuley put her dog in a silver Land Rover, drove to a house in nearby San Juan Capistrano, checked the mail, and walked toward the front door.

These glimpses of McAuley and M&C come courtesy of David Metzler, a Howard County cop assigned as a task-force officer to DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squad 59. He went to Laguna Niguel and observed them himself, then meticulously described what he saw in numerous sworn court documents. He also swore out the details of Hamal’s Hysteria sale-and much more, involving others at M&C and at another Baltimore smoke shop, the Dragon’s Den on Fleet Street in Fells Point.

At the Dragon’s Den in the fall and winter of 2011, Carlo D’Addario of Timonium had sold bath salts to people from Virginia, and federal authorities there indicted him for it in early 2012. D’Addario’s co-defendant, Holly Renae Sprouse of Craigsville, Va., near Shenandoah National Park, helped build evidence against him, and both would later plead guilty and receive relatively short sentences-a year in prison for D’Addario, and 20 months for Sprouse.

Shortly after D’Addario’s indictment, under the supervision of Metzler’s crew, orders for Spice were placed from the Dragon’s Den to M&C, where the Tobacco Stop had gotten its Hysteria.

By June 2012, after serving search warrants for email accounts and making the controlled buys orchestrated at the Dragon’s Den, Metzler’s team had good reason to suspect M&C supplied Spice products, branded with names such as “Hysteria,” “Brain Freeze,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and “Black Sabbath,” to the Tobacco Stop, the Dragon’s Den, and other such shops in Indiana, Kentucky, and New York.

On July 25, 2012, M&C Wholesale was raided and its bank accounts emptied. The next day, the DEA announced Operation Log Jam, explaining in its press release that the AEA “allows these drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance,” including anything from pot and heroin to prescription painkillers and methadone.

The raid on M&C turned up several thousand pounds of suspected Spice, several kilograms of suspected analogue chemicals used in making Spice, and several thousand packets of Hysteria, Brain Freeze, and other brands of Spice.

Metzler had good cause to suspect they’d find such a haul. On July 17, about a week before the raid, he’d spoken with a courier who’d made deliveries at M&C and described seeing “8-10 individuals seated around a table handling piles of a green herb-like substance”-“no other sort of activity seemed to be ongoing.”

These observations, Metzler wrote in court records, “are entirely consistent [with] M&C Wholesale being exclusively devoted to the manufacture and distribution of analogue substances.”

No federal criminal charges have yet been filed publicly against anyone involved with M&C’s operation. Nor have charges been filed against Hamal or the Tobacco Stop’s owner, Kyu Tae Yi.

Others have not been so fortunate.

 

In September, federal prosecutors in Maryland moved to keep $105,574 seized from Bruce Lloyd Bradburn and his business, the Dundalk smoke shop Up in Flamez, in part because “large quantities of synthetic marijuana” were found in the store and in Bradburn’s nearby home. As a result of the probe, Bradburn is currently scheduled for a December trial on narcotics and gun charges in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Earlier, in August, federal prosecutors filed suit to keep $259,988.61 seized in a synthetic-drug investigation of three Puff & Stuff smoke shops in the Cumberland area of Western Maryland. Puff & Stuff’s owners, Traci Lynn and Charles Casey, have filed claims in the matter, asserting “a legitimate and lawful interest” in the cash, which they say they “earned, saved, and acquired through lawful employment and enterprises.” But the probe prompted drug-conspiracy indictments against the Caseys in Allegany Circuit Court, and both are scheduled for separate trials later this year.

Also this year, three men – Nathaniel Petit, Andrew Burger, and Joshua Sylvia – were charged and pleaded guilty in a conspiracy to distribute methylone shipped here from China. Methylone is used to make bath salts, and though banned temporarily under the DEA in 2011, it was only in April of this year that methylone was listed as a drug banned by the CSA. Shortly thereafter, Petit, Burger, and Sylvia were charged in Maryland federal court, though they were caught in June 2012 and initially charged in state court. They are scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

These new Maryland cases show how effectively synthetic-drug laws can be enforced to punish accused Maryland criminals and to try to take their ill-gotten gains. Sprouse’s lawyer, Fred Heblich, a veteran federal public defender in Virginia and a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law, says criminal cases involving analogues are hard for defendants to beat.

“The way that the statute is written is very broad,” Heblich says, “so that the legal definition of an analogue is not specifically the same as the scientific definition.” This means cases are “easy to prosecute because the courts don’t require scientific accuracy.” So, in a typical case in which a prosecutor is trying to prove a chemical is an analogue of a banned substance, the prosecutor simply calls to the stand a “DEA chemist who testifies they’re similar,” Heblich explains, “and then brings in a user, who says it’s similar – ‘I’ve used that stuff and it’s a lot like meth.'”

Heblich says Spice cases are “a little different animal than the bath salts-like pot and meth are different.” Law enforcers might find “Spice is less worthwhile to pursue because it doesn’t have the cachet of bath salts – there are no stories of people eating people on Spice,” Heblich says, referring to a story last year in Miami that went viral with the false information that a man who attacked another man by chewing his face was on bath salts. And bath salts, more than Spice, pose a greater law-enforcement problem, he adds, because “there are hundreds of them, and you could create thousands of analogues of this stuff.”

In bringing analogue cases to criminal court, though, the defendant is at a distinct disadvantage, Heblich says, because “the judges let the government put in whatever evidence they want, and the jury is going to convict.”

When asked about probes that have resulted not in criminal charges but in asset-forfeiture cases, Heblich says law enforcers “will go after you if you have money – that’s all they care about now.”

 

Analogue cases that go after alleged manufacturers’ assets have shown some potential to reveal the AEA’s frailties – such as the forfeiture case against M&C, filed in November 2012, which seeks to keep the $2.2 million seized from the company’s bank accounts, along with 34 money orders and 102 checks made out to the company. Like other Operation Log Jam forfeiture cases elsewhere, this one has not been easily concluded.

This summer, after Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Evan Shea filed an amended complaint in the case with U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, M&C’s attorneys, Randall Skeen and William Feldman, moved to dismiss it. They argued that the government failed to establish a fundamental common-law principle: mens rea, which is Latin for “guilty mind.” No evidence, they claimed, had been produced to show that M&C and its operators “actually knew that the substances at issue were unlawful.”

The reason the government hadn’t shown this, the lawyers continued, is that the AEA is so “unconstitutionally vague” that “a person of ordinary intelligence would have no way to reasonably learn that these substances are unlawful and thus have an opportunity to conform their conduct to the requirements of law.”

Shea swatted down these arguments in a brief filed in August, citing abundant precedent that the AEA-even when applied to recently banned substances and their analogues-consistently has been ruled not unconstitutionally vague.

Then M&C attorneys’ reply cut to the core of the matter: money. Any proceeds derived from M&C’s sale of Spice before March 1, 2011, the date the compounds involved were temporarily banned by the DEA, should not be forfeitable, they argued, nor should any proceeds that haven’t been shown to be connected to sales of banned substances. This, they claim, comes to $1,829,784.50 plus interest “based upon the government’s improper seizure.”

While M&C’s motion to dismiss the Maryland forfeiture is awaiting a ruling by Hollander – and while a related suit M&C filed in Utah, where some of its money was seized, has been put on hold pending Hollander’s decision – in Florida, a whale of an Operation Log Jam forfeiture fight is underway.

In Operation Log Jam’s Tampa-area takedown, over $18 million, a handful of homes, and a brand-new Infiniti belonging to Timothy Hummel and his family were seized. Hummel, his family, and his colleagues in an alleged Spice-manufacturing operation have not been charged criminally, and they want their property back – but the government has moved to keep it. In working to have the case thrown out of court, Hummel’s lawyers, James Felman and Katherine Yanes, have tossed around some weighty rhetoric and strong claims.

Calling the Hummel forfeiture and Operation Log Jam “the latest installment of the modern American assault on the bedrock principle of mens rea” and “the first instance in the history of the Republic in which the government has sought to seize assets – and potentially imprison its citizens – based on conduct that it literally would not have been possible for the citizenry to know was unlawful,” the lawyers argued that, in Hummel’s case, the government is doing this based on “a single man-a chemist employed by the DEA named Terrance Boos.”

Boos, according to court records, testified in February at another federal proceeding in Wisconsin, offering his scientific opinion that two compounds-XLR11 and UR-144-are banned analogues under the AEA’s standards, and that he was not aware of anyone at DEA who disagreed with that conclusion.

But Hummel later obtained government documents showing that wasn’t the case-that, in fact, as Hummel’s lawyers put it, “an entire Section of the DEA disagreed not only with Dr. Boos’ conclusion that UR-144 is an unlawful analogue, but also with his authority to reach such a conclusion on behalf of the agency.”

Thus, Hummel has unearthed dissent within DEA over whether certain substances do, in fact, meet the AEA’s “substantially similar” standard.

The Wisconsin case Boos testified in was heard by veteran U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa, a Vietnam War veteran who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and served until 2009 as the chief judge of the state’s eastern district. It involved $100,000 worth of “herbal incense” that was seized in September 2012 from The Smoke Shop in Delavan, Wis., by law enforcers who wanted to test it for illegal analogues. When they wouldn’t give it back, the owner sued for its return.

After late-winter hearings and briefings, Randa noted that “the overwhelming weight of opinion in the scientific community” is that the substances found in the incense, UR-144 and XLR-11, “are not substantially similar to the chemical structure” of an already-banned substance, JWH-018, and therefore could not be ruled analogues.

On May 16, though, in the midst of the litigation, DEA put UR-144 and XLR-11 on the list of temporarily banned analogues.

Less than a week later, on May 21, Randa concluded in an order that, given DEA’s new ban, he had no choice but to dismiss the Smoke Shop’s suit. In doing so, though, he leveled some blunt criticism of the way this complicated law is being enforced.

“Under this scenario,” Randa wrote, “it seems unfair for a federal agency to seize the property of a small business owner and then keep it until it is declared illegal.”

There you have it: a federal judge saying what defense attorneys have been arguing, so far without success – that law enforcers’ approach to leveraging the AEA’s significant powers in expanding the menu of banned analogues, in one instance at least, “seems unfair.”

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Attorneys attacking the AEA often turn to a memorable critique penned in 2008, well before the recent spate of analogue bans: the act’s definition of an analogue is an “unholy union of legalese and chemistry jargon [that] is probably enough to bewilder even the most studious individuals,” Gregory Kau concluded in “Flashback to the Federal Analog Act of 1986: Mixing Rules and Standards in the Cauldron,” an article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Still, arguing that the AEA is so vague that people can’t reasonably be expected to know whether or not they are breaking it has not been received well by courts. Over and over again, the argument has been rejected.

A high-profile Operation Log Jam defendant in Arizona, Michael “Rocky” Lane, for instance, got nowhere in pre-trial motions on this question and ended up convicted by a jury this summer. Afterwards, in September, his attorney asked for a new trial-again, in part, based on claims the AEA is unconstitutionally vague. As the prosecutor’s response makes clear, the argument is not likely to win-but the attorney, Bruce Feder, scored rhetorical points in trying.

In addition to quoting Kau’s “unholy union” commentary, Feder reached back in time to invoke the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in a 1931 opinion. “Although it is not likely that a criminal will carefully consider the text of the law before he murders or steals,” Holmes wrote, “it is reasonable that a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear.”

Sometimes, the line may not be sufficiently clear even to the law enforcers themselves. In one 2011 case in Maryland, for instance, a designer-drug prosecution was abandoned until a judge officially dismissed the charges – and the defendant proceeded to successfully sue for the return of property seized in the probe. This rare instance, perhaps, is more telling of the vagaries of the designer-drug crackdown than any protests of those targeted.

The man’s name is Mohd Abujamous, and his saga began on May 3, 2011, when a suspicious box containing five packages of an off-white powder arrived from China at a Howard County UPS store. Investigators, thanks to information from the people who arranged to have the package picked up, quickly got a search warrant to raid a warehouse in New Market, near Frederick. They found it operated “as a manufacturer, packager, and distributor of various designer drug products including bath salts and Spice,” according to court documents, and determined Abujamous ran it.

The warehouse was filled with incriminating evidence, including barrels and boxes of chemicals used in Spice and barrels of powder, an envelope in one of them labeled MDPV, which is used to make bath salts, along with lots of substance-filled packets labeled “not for human consumption.”

On May 27, 2011, Abujamous was charged with manufacturing and possessing with intent to distribute chemicals used in Spice, JWH-018, and JWH-073, which the DEA had temporarily banned under the AEA on March 1, 2011. The case languished for months, and Abujamous’ attorney, Richard Karceski, asked for it to be dismissed, pointing out that the “Government has done nothing, to include refusing to respond to defense counsel’s calls and e-mails.”

In November 2011, Abujamous instead was indicted for a different crime-introducing misbranded drugs into commerce-and shortly thereafter the Spice charges were dismissed by the prosecutor, Philip Jackson. The misbranding indictment was based on the “not for human consumption” Spice labeling and the fact that the bath salts packages did not say they contained MDPV.

Nearly a year passed after the indictment without any activity by the government. So in October 2012, Karceski moved to dismiss the indictment, pointing out that Abujamous’ right to a speedy trial was being violated. Jackson never responded, so, in late November, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ordered the indictment dismissed.

Abujamous was off the hook, after about 18 months of prosecutorial silence and inactivity. But his property taken during the raid-about $36,000 of industrial equipment, including a truck, cement mixers, and some packaging machines-was being kept by the government, and he wanted it back. Not getting any response to his requests, he ended up suing-and winning.

Judge Blake ordered the government to return Abujamous’ seized equipment in June. In doing so, she also denied attempts by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan Cassella, an expert on asset-forfeiture law, to have the case dismissed or put on hold – which, in the latter instance, was filed under seal, so Cassella’s arguments remained shrouded from public view.

Neither Karceski nor the U.S. Attorneys’ Office will provide insights as to what went on with this case. However, an August 2011 letter from Karceski to Jackson, included in case documents, sheds some light on the circumstances.

“My client has always said that he was never in violation of any federal law regarding the compounds with which he is charged,” Karceski wrote. “I request that you provide me with a detailed chemical analysis conducted by the forensic division of the DEA. A fair evaluation will show that the banned chemicals were not contained in the product seized, nor were they seized in bulk from my client.”

Apparently, there was some confusion over the law.

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 25, 2009

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.