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.

The Holidays Are Your Oyster: Good tidings of great joy come on a half shell around the Chesapeake Bay

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 23, 2011

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I love September. It means Chesapeake Bay oysters, which local traditions dictate should be had only in those months with “r”s in their names, start coming to market. And that means the holidays are coming, when oysters will be part of the festivities all fall and winter long.

Maybe oysters aren’t a part of the winter holidays in your house, but maybe they should be. Each raw oyster opens like a holiday gift you know you’re getting: a cold, salty, slippery taste treat, packed with pleasing cholesterol, but also with healthful magnesium, phosphorous, protein, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and vitamins D and B12. Prying them open with an oyster knife takes a little getting used to, like when young children first struggle to open wrapped presents. Once you become deft at it, though, a veritable oyster shower ensues. Pop them open one after the other, scrape the muscle that anchors the meat to the shell—being careful not to spill the flavorful oyster liquor—and slurp them down.

Sometimes there’s a bonus gift inside: a tiny pearl, or a scrappy little pea crab, living symbiotically among the folds of the oyster meat. The pearls you can save as mementos—or even the delicate pea crab, if, like my 2-year-old, you find the little crustaceans fascinating. After one turned up in a plate of oysters we were eating this fall, she carried it around in her palm for the rest of the afternoon, showing it to all who cared to listen. When it died, she saved its frail shell in a small wooden dish for days, until it finally fell to pieces in her hands. She still talks about it, hoping to come across another.

Oysters are ever-present at fall and winter gatherings among my crew of friends. When we get together in the cold months, someone usually brings a cooler full of oysters on ice, a shucking glove, and an oyster knife, and people take turns opening them at an outside table for all to enjoy. If there’s enough snow on the ground, a good way to present oysters is stuffed in a snow bank, so partiers can simply pluck them out one at a time when they’re ready to shuck. Either way, it ensures the party has an outside contingent that’s not just the smokers.

A long-running Thanksgiving feast at a friend’s home, where there’s a craftily masoned fire pit in the back yard, generally features the host’s specialty: As a spitted leg of lamb turns, he roasts oysters next to the fire, spooning melted garlic butter over them just before handing them to guests. Noreen Eberly, seafood marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Service, says this is called an “oyster scald,” and it’s a Chesapeake Bay tradition. “On a cool day,” she says, “it’s delightful to enjoy the nice warm oysters outside by the fire.”

Eberly cites three other well-established Chesapeake Bay holiday traditions involving oysters: oyster stuffing in the Thanksgiving turkey, oyster stew on Christmas Eve, and baked oysters on Christmas day. “I also give away oysters as gifts, just to friends around the holidays,” she adds.

“Oyster stew is one of the things I look forward to on the holidays,” says Greg Barranco, communications and government liaison for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program. “My mom always talks about my great-grandmother’s oyster stew for Christmas Eve, and she makes it every year.” Barranco now lives in Annapolis, but he grew up in Towson and, later, Timonium. “My parents live in Oxford now,” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he says, “so now my mom gets oysters right from a boat down the street for the Christmas Eve stew.”

Barranco worries about the bay’s declining oyster population. “The numbers on the fishery are so bad,” he says. A just released study recommends a moratorium, since fishing, disease, and habitat loss has caused the Upper Chesapeake’s population to plummet an estimated 99.7 percent since the early 1800s and 92 percent since 1980. “But if my mom can’t get them from the bay, she’ll find oysters to make stew on Christmas Eve one way or another. It’ll cost her more, getting them from PEI [Prince Edward Island in Canada] or somewhere, but she’ll get them.”

These holiday oyster dishes are strikingly simple to make. For the oyster stuffing, just add a pint of raw oysters to your favorite stuffing recipe. Oyster stew involves melting butter; adding garlic, salt, and pepper; stirring in milk and half-and-half; and quickly cooking oysters in the mixture before adding a touch of sherry, parsley, and cayenne pepper to each serving. Baked oysters can get more complicated, but baking them shucked on the half shell in a hot oven (450 to 500 degrees), perched atop a savory mixture of, say, Gruyère cheese, spinach, and seasoned bread crumbs, until the oysters’ edges start to curl, is sure to make holiday revelers think you’re a proper gourmet. (To learn more about holiday cooking with oysters and other Chesapeake Bay seafood, Eberly recommends DNR’s free holiday recipe brochure. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to DNR Fisheries Service, B-2, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, Md., 21401, and write “Seafood” on the outside of the envelope.)

If you’re not into including oysters in your holiday feasts, there are other ways to make them part of the festivities. Using the shells to make Christmas tree decorations, or to adorn gift-wrapping, is a favorite. “My Christmas tree is always filled with oyster shells,” Eberly says. “Some I make on my own, and some I get in craft stores.” The insides of the shells can be painted with holiday scenes, or cutouts of holiday cards can be pasted on them, or glue and glitter can be used to make them sparkle.

Giving oyster plates as holiday gifts is a way to get in good with the oyster aficionado in your life. These specially made dishes with molded indentations to hold oysters on the half shell, along with the condiments often served with them, such as lemons or sauces, can be highly collectible—or simply utilitarian, if oysters are a regular part of one’s diet. My father-in-law is an oyster-plate collector who hangs them on the wall above his bar at home, and Mama’s on the Half Shell, a restaurant in Canton, has its collection similarly displayed. This hobby can get quite refined: The eBay oyster-plate page generally has about 1,000 plates on auction, with starting prices at anywhere from $10 to hundreds of dollars.

While oysters are often associated with rarefied elegance or hypersexuality, I just think of them as something delectable to go with beer, white wine, or bubbly in the cold months. They arrive with Labor Day’s observance of work and toil, but they stay all throughout the holidays, when I get to try my best to enjoy the fruits of my labor with friends and family. In fact, I think I’ll go get some right now.

Bringing It Back Home: Baltimore Looms Large in West Coast Drug Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 2, 2011

Everyone knows Baltimore has a drug problem, with a high demand for narcotics fueling an active and violent drug trade. But how the drugs get here often goes unnoticed, since local drug cases overwhelmingly focus on corner boys serving street-level customers. Instead, the details of Baltimore’s supply chain tend to come out in major federal cases—including those brought by law enforcers elsewhere.

A recent California drug-trafficking and money-laundering case accomplished just that, showing how hundreds of pounds of cocaine allegedly reached Baltimore’s streets last year thanks to Hollywood-based traffickers, and how millions in drug proceeds left town: by private jet, shuttling between California and Martin State Airport in Essex.

As first reported in The Washington Times last year, the case, which stemmed from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation dubbed operation “Snow Bird,” alleges that glitzy Hollywood types may fuel Baltimore’s drug game along with more low-key traffickers. It also is emblematic of how “hometown boy does good” stories may not always hold water, since the case features three defendants with strong Baltimore ties who appear to have gotten some legitimate traction in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

The amounts of drugs and cash involved in the case are staggering by Baltimore standards, where a 40-kilogram bust is considered historic. Investigators produced evidence that the scheme transported nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine and more than $4 million in cash during a six-week period last fall. Of that, law enforcers were able to seize nearly 300 kilograms and $1.1 million in cash. Whether from their success in entertainment or drugs, the defendants became wealthy enough to own expensive vehicles, including two 2010 Aston Martin Rapides, a 2008 Mercedes CL63 AMG, and a 2009 BMW 750Li, all of which were seized in the investigation, along with a trove of weapons.

Three of the 14 defendants in the case—Ricky James Brascom, Charles Dwight Ransom Jr., and Darrin Ebron—have roots in Baltimore. Court records show that one of the main phones tapped in the case, used by Brascom, was subscribed to by a man named Thomas Jackson at an address at Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore, and that Brascom had an Owings Mills address when he received a Baltimore County traffic violation in 2009. Ransom and Ebron both have Maryland arrest records dating from the 1990s, and Ransom owns real estate in Baltimore City. Ransom was released from federal prison in 2008, after a 2003 conviction for shipping cocaine to Baltimore and money back to Los Angeles in Federal Express packages.

All three went to California and entered the entertainment industry. But, if law enforcers are correct, they also exploited Baltimore’s appetite for drugs to enrich themselves, using five other Baltimore-based co-defendants—the indictment identifies them only by their nicknames, “Cuzzo,” “O.G.,” “S.O.,” “M,” and “SM”—as local distributors.

Brascom, Ransom, and Ebron “have ties to what appears to be legitimate music-industry business,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Villeza, the California prosecutor who’s handling the case. “But it is not uncommon for criminals to have legitimate businesses. They may profit from the business, but they can make substantial profits on the criminal side and it gets infused into the legitimate business.”

As for the alleged Baltimore distributors, indicted under their nicknames, Villeza says, “It’s an ongoing investigation.”

For Brascom and Ransom, the main vehicle for their entertainment careers appears to be a company called Behind Da Scenes Entertainment. Villeza calls them the “CEOs” of Behind Da Scenes, which promotes Paypa, a Chicago rapper who was signed last fall by SRC/Universal.

But Behind Da Scenes, which was formed last year in Maryland and lists its principal office on Church Lane in Pikesville, does not list Ransom or Brascom on its incorporation papers. Instead, it has one director: a real estate investor and construction company owner named Gerald Lamont Jones. Real estate records show that Jones’ construction company, JBL Construction, gave two Baltimore City properties—2705 Ashland Ave. and 815 N. Kenwood Ave., both in the Madison-Eastend neighborhood—to Ransom in 2007.

“I know that Mr. Jones would not want to speak to you,” says Behind Da Scenes’ Pikesville-based attorney Diane Leigh Davison. “He has no involvement in or awareness of” the drug-trafficking accusations against Ransom and Brascom. The “unfortunate” indictment, Davison adds, has “dragged in and affected an emerging artist”—Paypa—and “also affected other people in the business who have nothing to do with the two individuals under indictment.” Furthermore, she adds, “the real estate transactions have no relation to the recent allegations or to Behind Da Scenes Entertainment, Inc. Mr. 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.”

In sum, Davison says, Behind Da Scenes “has nothing to do with any of these allegations.” Villeza echoes that conclusion, saying the company “has nothing to do with the evidence against” the defendants.

Ebron (“DJ Darrin Ebron Takes a Fall,” The News Hole, citypaper.com, Nov. 10, 2010), however, has brought Behind Da Scenes into the drug-trafficking case in his efforts to be released on bond pending trial. He is arguing, in ongoing hearings on the matter, that the wiretapped conversations the government is using to accuse him of drug trafficking were actually about his music-industry work on behalf of Behind Da Scenes Entertainment.

To support this contention, a declaration was entered into the court record from Virgil Roberts, a Harvard-educated entertainment lawyer and former president of SOLAR Records, who reviewed the wiretap transcripts. Roberts concluded that “all of the conversations . . . clearly pertain only to the work” Ebron was doing on behalf of Behind Da Scenes and its artist, Paypa, and “has no relationship to any other activity.” Roberts wrote that Ebron “was retained” by Behind Da Scenes “to produce music” and “was paid in cash for all of his work.” The disputes over money captured on the wiretap were over payments for this work, not drugs. To support this argument, Roberts attached as an exhibit “a copy of the budget and handwritten notes prepared by Mr. Ebron as he worked on the PayPa project.” (Davison says that Behind Da Scenes Entertainment “has no knowledge of these purported expenses.”)

The charging documents also include celebrity references, caught on wiretaps recording the defendants’ conversations. The alleged traffickers used jets owned by a Las Vegas company called Marquez Brothers Aviation; one of the pilots, Leonardo Concepcion, is named in the indictment. Concepcion spoke of a scheduling conflict in his alleged work for the traffickers because he needed to fly Janet Jackson somewhere. And Drew Sidora Jordan, an actress and singer who is Brascom’s girlfriend, allegedly tells him that she’s worried he’ll get arrested, after he told her law enforcers seized some of the group’s cocaine.

When the charges were first filed on Nov. 2, 2010, Ebron remained a fugitive until he voluntarily surrendered in New Jersey, where he had his first court appearance on Nov. 19. The judge at that hearing released him on $500,000 bail, secured by two pieces of real estate, including one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (That property, in Grasonville in Queen Anne’s County, is owned by a Baltimore funeral director, John L. Williams IV, who could not be reached for comment.) When Ebron appeared in California on Dec. 6 to face the indictment, though, the judge ordered him temporarily detained as arguments over the issue are debated. The next hearing on whether Ebron remains in custody or goes free on bond is scheduled for Feb. 7.

Ebron’s criminal-defense attorney, Winston McKesson, says “we do not think the underlying charges [against Ebron] have any basis in fact,” and states that “Mr. Ebron has no experience with drugs.” (The charging documents say Ebron was caught sending five kilograms of cocaine to New York in 2008, yet was not charged to avoid undermining an ongoing investigation, but McKesson says those facts are “not accurate.”) McKesson says Roberts’ interpretation of the wiretap evidence—that “the conversations are consistent with music-industry talk, not slang for drug sales”—carries the weight of Roberts’ reputation as “one of the best known, if not the best known, entertainment lawyers in the world.” Whether that will convince the judge to let Ebron go free pending trial remains to be seen.

Attorneys for Brascom did not return e-mails seeking comment, and the case docket does not list an attorney representing Ransom.

“Mr. Ebron can certainly claim these [wire-tapped conversations] were music-related,” Villeza says, “but we have strong evidence that they were about drugs and that he was involved in the cocaine conspiracy.”

The Rake’s Helper: California man to cooperate with federal online gambling probe as part of plea deal

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 12, 2011

“Yes, your honor,” James Davitt said, over and over again, as he answered U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake’s questions during his Jan. 4 hearing in the federal courthouse in Baltimore. He was in Blake’s court to plead guilty to a single count of conducting an illegal gambling business. The hearing revealed that the 38-year-old California man—one of five people charged publicly in connection with an ongoing federal probe of online gambling staged by Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s Office (“The Ghost Hand,” Feature, March 24, 2010)—signed an agreement in November to cooperate with federal authorities in Maryland and New York, where a high-profile online gambling investigation is also underway.

Davitt’s plea agreement, as summarized by Blake during the hearing, may require him to testify in court and turn over documents. “If truthful in your cooperation,” Blake explained to Davitt, then the documents and information that he may provide “cannot be used against you” by prosecutors, though if he breaks the agreement or fails to be truthful, she continued, he could face new charges based on that same information. Davitt’s “sentencing might be delayed until your cooperation is complete,” Blake said. The prosecutor, Richard Kay, told Blake that Davitt’s cooperation will “take up at least the next several months.”

Davitt—a square-faced, broad-shouldered fellow with a close-cropped beard, wearing a brown suit—was released on his own recognizance while the charges are pending against him. His release form indicates he resides in La Habra, Calif. A portion of the hearing was spent addressing the fact that he keeps a gun in a safe at his home, which he is required to relinquish under the terms of his supervised release.

The other four people charged so far in Maryland are Edward Courdy, Michael Garone, Kenneth Wienski, and Martin Loftus. The cases against them, and related forfeiture cases in which the government seeks to keep seized cash, are part of a federal push to interrupt the flow of international online gambling money when it is in the United States, where the proceeds are considered illicit gains. The companies that provide online gambling services tend to be foreign entities that allegedly rely on facilitators, called “payment processors,” to conduct gambling transactions in the massive U.S. market, which is estimated to account for about 70 percent of the $4 billion-a-year industry.

Courdy, of California, and Garone, a Georgian, were charged with money laundering in 2008 (“Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2008). The cases against both men were initially filed publicly, but disappeared from the court docket in late 2009, presumably after having been placed under seal by a judge. Courdy’s case appears to still be under seal, but Garone’s re-emerged on the public docket in December, when he was sentenced to a year of probation. He signed his plea agreement in September 2008, when the charges were first filed against him, and the agreement’s statement of facts describes a scheme in which he helped launder money used as payouts in 2007 to online gamblers who wagered on sites operated by Bodog, a company based in Canada and Costa Rica. The transactions amounted to at least $7.9 million.

Gambling and money-laundering charges were leveled against Wienski, a Missourian, in May 2010 (“Billing Complaint,” Mobtown Beat, May 24, 2010). The 12-page criminal complaint against Wienski accuses him of using a medical-billing company, SNR Inc., and a check-processing company where he worked, Diversified Check Solutions, to move online gambling funds in 2009. The complaint also summarizes how federal law enforcers in Maryland have gone after the industry since 2006, when then President George W. Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) prohibiting internet gambling-related transactions in the United States. To date, Wienski has not had any court appearances related to the Maryland charges.

Davitt’s name was mentioned numerous times in the complaint against Wienski, though Davitt himself was not formally charged until Dec. 7 (“Superfecta,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010). In the Wienski complaint, Davitt is described as using two California companies, HMD Inc. and Forshay Enterprises—both of which have had funds seized by investigators (The News Hole, Sept. 24, 2009)—to facilitate online gambling transactions. In particular, Davitt and Wienski are alleged to have moved funds for two of the world’s largest online poker sites—Ireland’s Full Tilt Poker, and Poker Stars, based in the Isle of Man—in 2009 via HMD and SNR. Davitt’s plea agreement says $3.9 million in Full Tilt Poker money was involved in the transactions for which he pleaded guilty.

In preparing for Davitt to plead guilty, the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a memorandum to persuade Blake that online poker is primarily a game of chance rather than skill, and thus is illegal under Maryland law (The News Hole, Dec. 16, 2010). The memorandum, which includes as an attachment an academic paper prepared for prosecutors by University of Maryland mathematics professor Benjamin Kedem, addresses a subject that has been hotly debated. Last year in Pennsylvania, a state judge ruled that “skill predominates over chance” in poker, though the ruling was later overturned by a higher state court.

On Dec. 8, 2010, the day after Davitt was charged, a criminal information was filed against Loftus, accusing him of a single count of money laundering in connection with the 2009 transfer of $1.5 million from Switzerland to an HMD bank account in California. Details of the accusation against Loftus are spare, though in Davitt’s guilty plea, Loftus and another man—Daward Lee Falls, the CEO of Electracash, a California company previously associated with Courdy (The News Hole, Sept. 24, 2009) —are named as having “made arrangements with representatives of Full Tilt Poker to make payments by checks to gamblers through HMD, Inc.” Loftus is scheduled to be arraigned in court on Jan. 19.

Loftus and Wienski, neither of whom have defense attorneys listed on their case dockets, could not be reached for comment, and neither could Garone. Courdy’s attorney, Stanley Greenberg, has consistently declined comment. Falls has not responded to City Paper’s numerous messages since investigators seized money from Electracash bank accounts in 2009. Davitt’s attorney, Christopher Mead, had no comment.

In addition to the five men charged in Maryland’s online gambling investigation, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Marcia Murphy writes in an e-mail that “our office has seized $65 million, some of which is still being litigated.” The amount, while large, pales in comparison to the federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which Davitt will be helping under his plea agreement. There, for instance, more than half a billion dollars has been seized in connection with charges against Douglas Rennick, a Canadian, who ran payment-processing companies that served the online gambling industry, and another $300 million was forfeited by Anurag Dikshit, a founder of partypoker.com. Both men pleaded guilty in 2010. In addition, the Financial Times in London reported last year that Full Tilt Poker is under criminal investigation by New York’s Southern District prosecutors.

The fact that Davitt’s plea agreement commits him to cooperating with authorities both in Maryland and in the Southern District of New York suggests investigators in the two jurisdictions are coordinating their efforts. And, since efforts to repeal the UIGEA failed during the lame-duck session of Congress that ended in December, it appears that facilitators of online gambling in the United States will remain targeted by federal investigators for the foreseeable future. At the very least, the ongoing probe is proving lucrative to federal coffers.

In the Wrong Hands: “Serious, disturbing problem” complicates federal heroin case

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Mar. 2, 2011

An inmate awaiting trial in a federal heroin case has improperly obtained copies of portions of the evidence in the case, a prosecutor’s letter contends, and the inmate has been using the documents to convince co-defendants to change their minds and not plead guilty, as they’d intended.

The breach in the case’s discovery agreement—under which the government shares evidence with defense attorneys in preparation for trial, with the caveat that the defendants themselves do not obtain copies—calls to mind a similar situation that law enforcers say ended with the 2009 murder of a federal witness in Westport, Kareem Kelly Guest (“Snitched Out,” Mobtown Beat, June 9, 2010).

The letter, written Feb. 11 to U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sippel, regards a heroin-conspiracy case indicted last June against nine co-defendants, including legendary Baltimore gangster Walter Louis Ingram (“Old Folks’ Boogie,” Mobtown Beat, July 22, 2010). Sippel does not name the defendant who obtained the evidence, but asks Motz to postpone the scheduled April trial in the case “so that the situation . . . can be resolved.” Sippel wrote:

A serious, disturbing problem has developed that has caused a delay in the plea negotiation process. In late January, undersigned counsel learned that one of the defendants was provided portions of the discovery materials and is/was maintaining the hard copy in his jail cell. Based on our investigation, we have learned that the defendant in possession of the discovery materials has reviewed the materials with other defendants and has convinced many defendants to change their minds about pleading guilty. Many of the defense lawyers who discussed plea options with their respective clients and believed their respective clients were going to enter into a plea agreement now report that their respective clients are no longer interested in pleading guilty.

Defense attorneys in the case express differing views on the nature of the problem. “There was no actual discovery found” in the defendant’s possession, Ingram’s attorney, Benjamin Sutley, said, adding that it appears the inmate “was blowing smoke other defendants’ way.” But Edward Smith, who represents defendant Curtis Connor, said, “Whoever it is, has it,” regarding the discovery material—while hastening to add that it can’t be his client, who is on supervised release pending trial.

Marcia Murphy, spokesperson for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a Feb. 25 e-mail that “we are investigating” the breach and that, other than what’s stated in Sippel’s letter, “We have no other comment.” She did not respond to a request for information about whether there had been suspected discovery breaches in any other recent cases.

The repercussions of the prior discovery violation that allegedly resulted in Guest’s 2009 killing are still being felt. In December, Antonio “Mack” Hall was indicted for murdering Guest (The News Hole, Dec. 3, 2010); his six-week death-penalty trial is scheduled to start in March 2012. Meanwhile, a woman accused last year of obstructing justice and lying to a federal grand jury about Guest’s murder, Raine Zircon Curtis (“Street Rules,” Mobtown Beat, July 14, 2010), remains detained pending a trial that has yet to be rescheduled after its initially scheduled start date in November 2010 came and went.

Partial Admission: Tearful gang leader sentenced on RICO charges he calls overblown

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 26, 2011

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When 36-year-old Todd “Donnie” Duncan—a former gang-interventionist who worked for the West Baltimore nonprofit Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL)—pleaded guilty in September to federal racketeering charges, he admitted to being what his plea agreement says he is: “the overall city-wide commander” of the street-level criminal operations of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang in Baltimore. Duncan (pictured) and 14 other alleged BGF members are accused of orchestrating the gang’s drug trafficking, bribery, witness retaliation, extortion, and money laundering, both inside and outside of Maryland prisons. But during Duncan’s Jan. 20 sentencing hearing, when he rose to make a statement to U.S. District Judge William Quarles, he cast himself—and the BGF—in a different light.

“Yes, I was part of the BGF,” Duncan said, while trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears, “but it didn’t really function on the street,” adding that “the BGF had no leaders on the street because it’s too many people.” He paused to collect himself, but continued to cry, saying “the guys I dealt with, we were not bad guys,” “we weren’t about violence,” and “I believe in the justice system, I believe in right and wrong, I believe in God.” While openly copping to drug dealing, he asserted that the overall charges have been “blown out of context” by the government.

Duncan’s statements to Quarles, along with those of his lawyer, Robert Waldman, may foreshadow how the remaining BGF defendants, scheduled for trial in May, will try to contest the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges before a jury. So far, three out of the 15 have pleaded guilty, leaving 12 to take it to the jury.

Prosecutors, relying on the work of investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Baltimore-based Special Investigations Group, have painted a picture of the BGF as cloaking itself in legitimacy and the rhetoric of self-improvement and dignity while, in fact, empowering itself through a fearsome array of criminal activity (“Black Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009). A critical aspect of the BGF’s operations has been its reliance on corrupt prison guards (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010), several of whom have pleaded guilty to helping gang members, including its alleged Maryland leader, veteran inmate Eric Brown (“Eric Marcell Brown,” Mobtown Beat, May 7, 2009), who with his wife, Deitra Davenport (“Deitra Davenport,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), published The Black Book (“The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), a self-help guide that won kudos from local educators.

To combat the government’s version of the truth about the BGF, defense attorneys may set out to do for their clients at the upcoming trial what Waldman attempted to do for Duncan during his sentencing: cast the BGF as more of an ideological social club whose members sometimes sell a few drugs than the dire threat to public safety that the government contends.

Waldman’s soliloquy on behalf of Duncan was broken up, here and there, by Quarles’ comments, which injected facts from Duncan’s plea agreement. Yet Waldman’s points, if used before a jury instead of a judge, may have a measure of traction.

“This group really was a bunch of mostly older guys who had been incarcerated together,” Waldman said, adding that “nearly everybody” in the BGF who was no longer incarcerated “had a job.” In saying “I wouldn’t call it a social club,” Waldman suggested just that, telling Quarles the BGF was not like the “gangs that you and I know about from other cases,” that it did not engage in “turf wars,” that there were “no executions in order to expand territory.” In fact, Waldman said, there was “no indication of serious violence at all” at the hands of the BGF defendants.

Waldman also sought to differentiate BGF members who aren’t inmates from those who are, saying, “It is true that the BGF inside prisons is a nasty outfit” and that “other inmates complain about the grip that the BGF has” inside prison walls. On the outside, though, while “they sold some drugs,” Waldman contended, “they did not sell large quantities. There is no indication of bulk sales of any degree whatsoever.” They did some “selling on the side,” he said, but weren’t even very good at it; evidence in the case, Waldman pointed out, includes complaints from fellow members that it took one BGF dealer “days to sell 30 pills.”

In sum, regarding the BGF as a whole, Waldman told Quarles, “We need to keep this thing in context . . . Most of these guys were up to bad, but not a whole lot of bad.”

As for Duncan in particular, Waldman cast him as a man who was “looked up to as a guy who carried himself with integrity without swagger.” He became BGF’s street-level leader because of those qualities, Waldman explained—because “he didn’t step on toes or heads” as he was “dealing with beefs and ameliorating conflicts” on the streets. After serving 14 years in prison for two attempted second-degree murder convictions, Waldman explained, Duncan got out and started working at COIL. While Duncan “helped other fellows getting out of prison find jobs,” Waldman continued, he didn’t get them jobs at COIL, which therefore didn’t become “a nest for the BGF”—so Duncan “didn’t misuse his COIL connection in that respect, at least.” And Duncan “had no dealings with anybody inside the prisons,” the attorney added.

(As a result of Duncan’s work at COIL, he made a television appearance on a religious show, Grace and Glory, hosted by Rev. Lee Michaels, in January 2010, several months prior to his arrest.)

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner didn’t attempt to rebut Waldman’s broad assertions belittling the government’s charges against the BGF; presumably, he’s saving his fire for trial. Rather, he succinctly asked Quarles to sentence Duncan to 180 months in prison, given that Duncan has admitted to being the BGF’s citywide commander, to dealing drugs, to supporting the BGF’s overall racketeering enterprise—and the fact that he has two prior convictions for violent felonies, although, due to the particulars of the federal sentencing guidelines, he dodged “career offender” status, which would have enhanced his penalty.

Waldman argued that 151 months was an appropriate sentence for Duncan. “That’s a lot of time,” he told Quarles, and it “provides him the opportunity to get out and see his children before it is too late.”

Quarles asked each of Duncan’s seven loved ones in the courtroom to rise and speak—including his fiancee, with whom he has children. The fiancee mentioned that her prior partner, who fathered one of the children Duncan had helped her to raise, was deceased. When Quarles pressed her to explain the circumstances of that man’s death, she was overcome with emotion, and Quarles relented. Six other people spoke in support of Duncan. One said news coverage of the case had failed to point out “the good things he did in the community,” and another said, “I think he’s a pretty decent guy.”

As Quarles prepared to announce the sentence, he revealed more about Duncan: that he’d been arrested 17 times between the ages of 12 and 18, and that he’d faced “at least 10 other adult charges”; that he is “no stranger to the violence that often accompanies the drug trade”; that his sister had been murdered in 1993, at the age of 19; that his fiancee’s prior partner had been murdered in connection with drug violence; and that he dropped out of school in ninth grade. As for the BGF, Quarles stressed that it is “not a purely social club.” And he allowed that Duncan “has some good things going for him,” that he’s “not a big-time gangster,” and that he “did not misuse his COIL affiliation.”

With that, Quarles, noting that Duncan had narrowly “avoided career offender status,” announced a sentence of 168 months in federal prison, with a start date on May 7, 2010. When Duncan is done serving his 14 years in 2024, he will be 50 years old—and 28 of those years will have been spent behind bars.

Corner Cartel: A Federal Trial Shows How Mexican Cartel Drugs Get to Baltimore Street Corners

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 23, 2011

Photo-illustration by Frank Hamilton

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Ronald Eugene Brown was a natural target for Baltimore narcotics investigators. The 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound man, nicknamed “Truck,” had already served many years in prison for 1990s drug-dealing and robbery convictions, and his rehabilitation after getting out was, well, dubious. The 44-year-old had lost his low-paying job as a forklift operator, yet he somehow could afford to have two Baltimore County residences (in Overlea and Ten Hills), a BMW, a Mercedes, and a Dodge Ram pickup truck. His comfortable, middle-class lifestyle defied explanation—but for the fact that he was a habitué of the drug-infested Monument Street corridor near Baltimore City’s Northeast Market.

When the probe into Brown began, it was standard Baltimore cop fare: A confidential source arranged to buy a small amount of drugs from Brown on the evening of April 27, 2009, and the cops followed Brown to see where he would lead them. Before the sun rose the next morning, they had about $750,000 in heat-sealed, aluminum-wrapped cash at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel and two men suspected of being Brown’s suppliers. The case’s significance snowballed, and by February 2010, it had unearthed mammoth shipments of Mexican cartel cocaine and marijuana coming to Baltimore from Texas every two weeks.

Indications of drug cartel ties to Baltimore are not new. The 1991 assassination of Baltimore shipping executive John Shotto outside a Broening Highway warehouse, for instance, was ordered by the Cali cartel after Shotto crossed them on a deal involving a drug-transporting ship. More recently, in 2008, federal defendants in Baltimore with ties to the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang and the politically connected Rice Organization cocaine ring (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005) were nabbed for bringing drugs to Baltimore from the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico (“Mexican Connection,” Mobtown Beat, March 4, 2009; “Stuck in the Middle,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 26, 2009). And last year, a Mexican drug trafficker was caught by law enforcers unpacking cocaine from a car he was dismantling in a secure garage in Owings Mills (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010).

What’s different about this case is how thoroughly and publicly it connects the dots between Baltimore players and the cartels. For reasons only they know, Brown’s suppliers—45-year-old Wade Conroy Coats of Baltimore and 43-year-old Jose Roberto Cavazos of Midlothian, Texas—decided not to plead guilty. Perhaps it was due to the fact that one of the investigators in the case, former Baltimore Police Detective Mark Lunsford, is serving prison time for theft and lying after pleading guilty to crimes tied, in part, to this investigation (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009). But since Coats and Cavazos fought the charges, the evidence against them was paraded before a jury, who listened, riveted, to five days of testimony in February.

To help persuade the jury, assistant U.S. attorneys James Wallner and Peter Nothstein debuted a government cooperator named Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, who detailed how he got hundreds of pounds of cartel drugs to Cavazos, Coats, and their co-conspirators until he was arrested in December 2009. Combined with the mountains of other evidence in the case, including phone and financial records and step-by-step accounts of investigators’ work, Mendoza-Cano’s testimony revealed how sophisticated and skilled high-level drug traffickers are in cloaking their high-volume dealings behind appearances of legitimate business activity. The jury apparently believed what it heard, since it convicted the two men on Feb. 7, after deliberating for about an hour.

While law enforcers say this was the first time Mendoza-Cano testified in open court, it is likely not the last. As the man who, for five years prior to his arrest in Texas on drug charges, coordinated massive shipments of drugs and cash across the United States on behalf of the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels in Mexico, Mendoza-Cano “knows too much,” he told the Baltimore jury. Mexican cartels’ drug-fueled violence is deemed responsible for 34,000 murders in Mexico over the past four years, and Mendoza-Cano says he intends to share what he knows about cartel operations—not just in this case, but others as well—in a bid for leniency when he is sentenced eventually.

Mendoza-Cano’s testimony was a rare public moment in law enforcement. It gave the cross-continental context for the drugs that change hands on countless street corners every day in Baltimore and other cities. But the trial is also a striking example of how law enforcers, with some luck and persistence—and despite mistakes along the way, including corruption in their ranks—can turn a penny-ante probe into a major case that rattles the cartels’ supply chain.

 

Coats and Cavazos entered the courtroom as if  entering a boardroom. With their stylish suits and eyeglasses and casual confidence, they had the look and bearing of lawyers, not drug defendants escorted by U.S. marshals. It’s hard to believe they’d been chilling in prison ever since their arrests 21 months ago; rather than a bunk behind bars, they look as if they’d slept in a nice bed in a nice house in a nice part of town. They’re both stocky, though Cavazos is taller than Coats, and both had well-groomed hair and mustaches.

Until they were charged, neither one had a criminal record. They were the picture of legitimate businessmen, plying their trades. Coats had a cell phone store called Keeping it in the Community, on Duncan Street near the Northeast Market. Cavazos, who testified under direct examination by his defense attorney, Marc Zayon, that he helped found a Hispanic business association in Dallas, was a car dealer and pawnshop owner. They met, according to Cavazos, in the late 1990s at a small-business convention in Dallas, and struck up a friendship based on Cavazos’ desire—never realized—to add cell phones to the mix of products he sold.

Coats, according to court filings by his attorney, Ivan Bates, was born in Jamaica, though he has lived in Baltimore since coming here as a youngster. Until his arrest, he’d believed he was a U.S. citizen, and has since applied to become one. He’s a political donor, having given $500 to Republican Michael Steele’s unsuccessful campaign to become a Maryland U.S. senator and another $800 to the Republican National Committee (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17, 2009). He is the father of four; two, from a previous marriage, are now adults and live in Ohio, and two are children, living in Baltimore with Coats’ fiancee.

Cavazos described himself to the jury as a hard-working businessman who bootstrapped himself up from humble beginnings in Mexico. He came to the United States in 1975, became a legal U.S. resident in 1979, and in 1980, when he was 12 years old, moved with his family to Dallas from San Bernardino, Calif. He attended school “until my father pulled me out in 10th grade,” he said, since in his culture “the oldest child usually has to help the father with his siblings.” After years of working a variety of jobs—at a Denny’s Restaurant, at a pawnshop, in lawn-care, and as a security guard—he ended up as a pawnshop owner, and then started selling used cars bought at auctions and fixed up. The businesses flourished, and, as the years rolled by, he became a business leader in his community. He married in 1987, and has five children and three grandchildren.

So how did these two men, with longstanding success in running small businesses and no criminal records, end up accused of being cartel drug traffickers? It started on a Wednesday night, April 27, 2009, when the police watched “Truck” Brown meet a man in front of Milan restaurant and nightclub in Little Italy and slip a package of what they suspected was cash into the man’s car. They then watched the man drive to the nearby Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor hotel, enter the hotel with luggage, and, about half an hour later, leave empty-handed. The man then went briefly to Mo’s Seafood House in Little Italy and on to a cell phone store on Duncan Street. He parked his car and entered the store.

At 1:35 a.m. on April 28, when the man exited the cell phone store, he was calmly and cordially interviewed by the police, who learned his name was Wade Coats. It was the beginning of the end for Coats and Cavazos, whose legitimacy quickly started to unravel.

 

Brian Shutt has clocked in on some serious cases since he first became a Baltimore cop in 2002. But this investigation, which he led as a task-force officer assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Group 54 Major Drug Trafficker Initiative (HIDTA Group 54), is huge. Before the jury, his eyes often beamed and flashed beneath his short-cropped blond hair, belying the emotional and professional investment he has in convincing them that, despite its problems, this case is solid.

There were several moments during Shutt’s testimony that revealed his guilelessness about how the investigation progressed, warts and all. Embarrassing, yes, but he owned them—though he wasn’t going to play up the missteps as all that important, either. When they arose in the course of the trial, he addressed them, and looked at the jury as if to say, “I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is.”

The first misstep put him and his Group 54 colleagues in danger, though no one was harmed. It happened during the arrest of Wade Coats.

Their interaction with Coats on Duncan Street had resulted in a host of reasons to suspect that criminal activity was afoot. The detectives had observed Coats entering and leaving the hotel earlier, yet when Shutt interviewed him, Coats denied he’d been there. So Shutt called a K-9 unit to the scene, which alerted police to the odor of drugs in Coats’ rented car, giving the detectives the right to search the vehicle. They found no drugs, but they did find a scanner set to monitor Baltimore Police and DEA frequencies and two Maryland drivers’ licenses in Coats’ name—in addition to the one Coats had already shown Shutt when they first spoke.

While searching Coats’ car, Shutt told the jury, he started “watching Mr. Coats’ body language because it had changed. I saw him start blading himself”—“blading” being a “characteristic of an armed person,” in which they keep the side of the body where a gun is turned away from the police. That’s when Shutt realized “no one had patted down Mr. Coats.” Now there wasn’t going to be a pat-down.

“I reach right in, I feel the gun, and I scream, ‘Gun!’” Shutt testified. Coats was tackled, cuffed, and read his Miranda rights. He’d had a loaded .40-caliber handgun in his waistband the whole time. He also had $7,000 in cash on him, $5,000 of it stuffed in his sock.

“It was a bad move on my part,” Shutt told the jury, regarding his failure to pat Coats down. “I should have done it as soon as we suspected criminal activity was afoot, especially when the dog hit.” It was a “very, very scary” and “potentially very violent” situation, he said.

As for the scanner, Shutt testified that Coats said, “’I got it from K-Mart and it came with those frequencies,’” adding, “We kind of laugh at that, because that’s not true.”

Later, as Coats was being loaded onto the police transport to take him to lockup, Shutt told the jury, “He stops, turns around, and says, ‘There’s your side of the story, there’s my side of the story, and there’s the truth. We’ll see what the judge believes.’”

Shutt and his crew hightail it to the hotel, Coats’ three IDs in hand. When they get there, the hotel staff checks the registry and finds that Coats has rented Room 943. Shutt, his crew, and hotel security go up to the floor and walk down the hallway toward the room—a “fatal funnel,” Shutt explained, since “we don’t have any place to hide to shield ourselves from being shot.” His “senses are heightened” and he believes “we need to act swiftly and tactfully at this point,” but the hotel security staff balk at letting them in without a warrant. So they knock on the door, screaming “Police!” Cavazos answers it, and “could not have been” more cooperative and agreeable in what was a very tense situation.

Shutt’s second mistake was harmless, but telling. According to Cavazos, Shutt screamed “We got kilos! We got kilos!” after he’d found a bag of vacuum-packed, heat-sealed blocks wrapped in aluminum foil in Cavazos’ room. “He was jumping up and down,” Cavazos recalled on the stand, and “people next door were complaining about the noise.”

Shutt’s account was more muted. “I get very excited, because I think I just found kilos,” he told the jury.

But Shutt was wrong.

After reading Cavazos his Miranda rights, Shutt testified, “Mr. Cavazos informs me it’s not drugs, it’s money,” adding that Cavazos admitted to him that “he is just the money counter,” “that there are no drugs here yet,” and that “I count the money to make sure it’s right, and then the drugs come.” And there was a lot of money—all told, about three-quarters of a million dollars, found in the hotel room and in Cavazos’ minivan, parked in the hotel garage.

Cavazos, however, testified that all he told Shutt was, “That’s my money,” and nothing else.

Shutt’s third mistake, though, goes to his credibility. Shutt admitted under cross-examination that, in June 2009, he misled a federal grand jury about the case. Contrary to his trial testimony, he told the grand jury that neither Coats nor Cavazos made any statements after being read their Miranda rights. Confronted on this by Coats’ defense attorney, Ivan Bates, Shutt meekly contended that he “may have been confused by the question from the grand jury.”

 

The most acute vulnerability of the case against Coats and Cavazos was not Shutt’s conflicting testimony or his tactical errors. It was, instead, the case’s most hard-fought legal issue during the many months before it came to trial: former HIDTA Group 54 detective Mark Lunsford’s involvement in the investigation, and to what extent information about Lunsford’s crimes—in which he falsely credited information to a paid informant, with whom he would split the proceeds, and stole valuables from suspects—should be available for the jury’s consideration.

The question even led to the cancellation of a previously scheduled trial in the case, for which a jury was seated and then dismissed in October 2010. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who presided over the trial, blocked defense attorneys’ efforts to have Lunsford take the stand before the jury. But, on the last day of testimony, the two sides agreed to stipulate for the jury that Lunsford was in prison after a conviction for theft and lying, that a watch belonging to Coats had been found in his possession, and that he had given clothing that belonged to Cavazos to a cooperating source in the FBI investigation that ultimately led to the September 2009 charges against him.

The defense team exploited the Lunsford factor as best it could. Since there were discrepancies in the investigative record about the amount of money recovered from Cavazos’ hotel room and minivan, there was room to create doubt about whether Lunsford had helped himself to some of it. Shutt had testified, after all, that Lunsford was left alone for hours in the hotel room and with the minivan. This meant that when Cavazos testified, and told the jury that all that money was not for cartel drugs, but was actually his winnings in an illegal Texas Hold ’em poker game that took place over a four-day period in Baltimore just prior to his arrest, he could boldly state that he’d been robbed by the police.

“They stole over $200,000,” Cavazos told the jury. “It was taken by the police. . . . They lied and they stole.”

Shutt shared his feelings about Lunsford’s crimes with the jury. After a long, thoughtful pause, he said: “I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, and I don’t tolerate anyone who does. It was a black mark on my police career because someone I worked with, without my knowledge, was committing criminal acts. It has taken a toll on me personally and professionally.”

 

After arresting Coats, Cavazos, and Brown, and conducting search warrants all over town in connection with their suspected drug-dealing scheme, Shutt knew there was more yet to find. The first order of business was to try to secure Brown’s cooperation. That was obtained immediately; given Brown’s serious criminal background, which would expose him to a severe sentence in this case, he was eager to help himself in any way he could in order to gain the possibility of leniency. But Brown’s help only went so far—he could say he had gone into business with Coats, selling about five to 10 kilograms of cocaine Coats had provided him in 2008 and 2009, but he didn’t know who Coats’ supplier was, and he’d never even heard of Cavazos. Based solely on the fact that Cavazos was a Hispanic male from Texas, Shutt suspected cartels in the picture, but he had nothing to prove it.

So Shutt started going through what he had so far. He had a flash drive from Coats’ briefcase that contained photos of two people Brown did know: associates of Coats, whom Brown called “Jimmy” and “B.” By following other clues—records of phone calls, text messages, financial dealings, airline flights, and the like—he established numerous links between Coats and Cavazos. But who were “Jimmy” and “B”?

Shutt told the jury that communications are drug dealers’ “weakest link,” and narcotics investigators such as himself are trained to exploit them. In Coats’ phone, he found something to exploit: phone calls and a text message from James Bostic, all right around the time Cavazos was staying at the Baltimore Inner Harbor Marriott. The text message read: “Home boy is alright. I’m about to head up.” Shutt’s interpretation of this, he explained to the jury, is that Bostic is letting Coats know that Cavazos has arrived at the hotel, and that Bostic is taking the elevator up to meet him.

The Bostic angle was tantalizing. Shutt was able to learn that Bostic owned a house in Dover, Pa., outside of York, two doors down from one owned by Coats and his fiancee, Shannon Best. He was able to determine that the man Brown called “Jimmy” was, in fact, Bostic. He knew Bostic was involved somehow, but he needed a break.

Shutt’s big break came in December 2009, when the FBI in Dallas called him shortly after they’d arrested a man in Texas with nine kilos of cocaine. This man, the FBI said, had immediately begun to cooperate, and had provided intelligence that James Bostic was Wade Coats’ partner. This man, of course, was Mendoza-Cano, and Bostic did not yet know Mendoza-Cano had been arrested. Neither did the Mexican cartel for whom he had been working. The investigation suddenly kicked into high gear to nab Bostic—and to establish with unexpected clarity that, despite its origins as a routine drug bust of a run-of-the-mill Baltimore drug dealer nicknamed “Truck,” this case was really about the far reach of ruthless Mexican cartels.

 

Like Coats and Cavazos, 34-year-old Mendoza-Cano did not look like a stereotypical drug dealer. Unlike the defendants, though, he didn’t look like a businessman, either. Instead, he looked like someone who could easily pass by unnoticed—a useful trait, given his chosen profession. A small man with dark hair, he wore a dark blue tunic and pants with a long-sleeved white T-shirt underneath. Over the course of his translator-interpreted testimony, his eager, matter-of-fact candor seemed not to match the shocking words coming out of his mouth. Despite the trouble he’s in—with U.S. law enforcers, with the cartel—he seemed not to have a care in the world. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Mendoza-Cano said he was one of the Gulf cartel’s Houston-based distributors, orchestrating regular, large-scale shipments of Mexican drugs to points in the United States. Sometimes the drugs arrived from Mexico “in trailers,” he said; other times “in a car, between six and nine kilos in a car, five to 10 cars per day.” Thus, counting only the amounts brought in by cars, Mendoza-Cano’s outfit was receiving up to 3 tons of cocaine each month, not including whatever came in trailers. Marijuana, he explained, came in “refrigerator truck trailers, 2,000 pounds per truck.”

Once in Houston, the drugs were transferred to other large vehicles, which delivered them across the country. “My line,” Mendoza-Cano said, “was [from] Houston to the central region [of the United States] and east. There are other people who work the West.”

Every two weeks, Mendoza-Cano would leave Houston in a motor home or moving van packed with 150 to 200 kilos of cocaine, make deliveries in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, then fill the vehicle with his customers’ cash on the return trip. Once back in Houston, he and the other route drivers would unload the cash for counting, re-packaging, and shipping to Mexico in tractor-trailers and cars—or sometimes jet skis and small boats crossing lakes along the border.

When Coats and Cavazos were arrested, the money Cavazos owed the cartel for 24 kilos of cocaine ended up in law enforcers’ hands. At $23,000 per kilo, Mendoza-Cano testified, Cavazos’ debt came to about $552,000, and someone needed to answer for it. James Bostic stepped up to the plate, offering to work it off by selling in Baltimore the cartel’s drugs that his now-incarcerated partners could no longer sell. Every two weeks during the second half of 2009, Mendoza-Cano delivered to Bostic 20 to 30 kilos of cocaine, or 600 to 700 pounds of marijuana, for distribution in Baltimore.

As Mendoza-Cano was dealing with Bostic, meanwhile, his cartel world was shaken. Los Zetas, which had previously operated as “the armed force” of the Gulf cartel, protecting its distribution routes, morphed into a cartel itself. Mendoza-Cano’s Gulf cartel boss, “Charlie,” met an untimely demise—“he was killed and he was cooked,” he testified—and was replaced by a Zetas called “Munchie,” who became Mendoza-Cano’s new boss. Then Mendoza-Cano was arrested.

When he was first charged, Mendoza-Cano said “the cartel provided me with” a lawyer, “but I refused that attorney, because any and everything I did would be provided as information to the cartel in Mexico. The reality was, I know too much. I was between a rock and a hard place. I’ve seen others go down and meet their end, and their families. In the type of work we did, it was either jail or death.” He took a Spanish-speaking public defender, who persuaded him to plead guilty and cooperate. First on the agenda? “I turned Jimmy in.”

Shutt and the FBI worked quickly. They wired a hotel room in White Marsh, and on Dec. 29, 2009—a mere 20 days after Mendoza-Cano’s arrest—played host to a pre-arranged meeting there between Bostic, a Zetas named Ismael Zamarro Villareal, and an American woman named Jessica, who had long served as Mendoza-Cano’s interpreter and aide-de-camp and now was his partner in cooperating with the government.

The resulting video was played for the jury, showing Bostic entering the room and bantering with Jessica as he opens a suitcase filled with approximately $590,000 in cash. The heat-sealing machine comes out, and the task of packaging the money for shipment—the same way Cavazos’ money was packaged when Shutt found it at the hotel—takes hours.

Later that night, Shutt watched as Villareal stashed the cash in a Ford Explorer parked outside. The next day, Jessica and Villareal left in the Explorer, which was pulled over on I-95 south of Baltimore. The money was seized, but Villareal was allowed to leave in order to protect Jessica’s cooperation.

Bostic, too, was not arrested after making this cartel payment. Instead, Shutt and the FBI set up another pre-arranged meeting, in a different wired hotel room in White Marsh, on Feb. 2, 2010. Jessica was there again, but this time the Zetas representative was not Villareal, but an undercover FBI agent. And this time, the purpose was not for Bostic to pay the cartel, but for the cartel to deliver drugs—actually 12 kilos of DEA cocaine, packaged in cartel fashion—to Bostic. The meeting didn’t last long. As a raid team moved in to arrest Bostic, he dropped a drug-laden suitcase and ran outside the hotel. After a short chase, Shutt tackled him into a snowbank.

 

The coup de grace in the investigation wasn’t aided by Mendoza-Cano. It was another stroke of luck for Shutt.

Earlier in the investigation, he’d figured out who the other guy was in the photo found on Coats’ flash drive, the guy Brown had called “B.” It was Brandon Isiah Barnes of Columbia, Md. Earlier, Shutt had been tracking phone communications between Bostic and Barnes, but with all the activity resulting from Mendoza-Cano’s cooperation, Barnes had gotten lost in the shuffle. Now that Bostic was arrested, Shutt checked his e-mails and noticed that the GPS coordinates of Barnes’ phone were still being sent to his inbox. They showed the phone was moving across the country, towards Midlothian, Texas, the Dallas suburb where Cavazos was from.

Shutt hustled out to Midlothian to look for Barnes, to no avail. So he kept watching the phone. Its GPS coordinates showed it traveling back to Baltimore. As Barnes drove up I-81 in Virginia, Shutt and his team eyeballed him when he passed them—they actually saw him at the wheel. When Barnes’ car entered Howard County in the wee hours of March 10, 2010, a Maryland State Police trooper who’d been alerted by Shutt clocked it speeding, pulled it over, and called for a K-9 scan. Lo and behold, about one and a half kilos of cartel coke was inside.

Barnes faces cocaine conspiracy charges in a separate federal case, scheduled for trial in August. Brown pleaded guilty, and his trial testimony established for the jury that Coats was his cocaine supplier; his sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled. Bostic also pleaded guilty and received a 210-month prison sentence last year.

As for Mendoza-Cano, well, after his testimony ended he was whisked out of the courtroom, bound for parts unknown to help the government prosecute cartel cases elsewhere.

On Dec. 16, though, as the Coats-Cavazos case was gearing up for trial, a new drug-conspiracy indictment was filed against Mendoza-Cano, his Texas co-defendant, and two other men, in federal court in Ohio. The docket there indicates he didn’t show up for his arraignment in that case, scheduled for Feb. 10, eight days after he testified in Baltimore. Of Mendoza-Cano’s failure to appear, the Ohio court docket says this: “U.S. Marshal is unable to transport the defendant to Court as he is in Federal Custody in another District.”

It’s a safe bet the judge won’t hold it against him.