Mexican Connection: Baltimore drug case with ties to city politics part of nationwide cartel crack-down

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 4, 2009

On Feb. 25a Baltimore drug conspiracy was in the limelight as part of the public unveiling of an ongoing federal effort to destroy the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico. At a press conference in Washington D.C., officials said that Operation Xcellerator, an anti-narcotic initiative targeting the powerful cartel’s operations in the United States, had in the past 21 months arrested more than 750 people and seized more than $59 million in drug proceeds, 12,000 kilos of cocaine, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.3 million Ecstasy pills, and more than 160 weapons.

Eight of those arrested and charged for their dealings with the Sinaloa Cartel are part of a Baltimore-based drug conspiracy that is tied, through one of its members–Lawrence Schaffner “Lorenzo” Reeves–to an educational seminar program for children seeking to enter the entertainment business. Reeves is co-founder of the seminar business, called Hollywood in a Bottle, and a seminar it held last summer at a Baltimore City public school received support from Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt.

“Just 40 miles from here,” said acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Michele Leonhart, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by her side, “we took down violent drug traffickers which were supplied with hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Mexico.”

Later that day, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein told City Paper that the case Leonhart was referring to was against Reeves and his seven accused co-conspirators. Rosenstein added that the Reeves conspiracy is the only Baltimore case that falls under Operation Xcellerator. It was indicted late last August, and has since received extensive coverage in City Paper (“The Hollywood Connection,” Aug. 29, 2008).

Reeves, who has prior drug convictions in Maryland and Arizona, pleaded guilty in January to his part in the conspiracy to import more than 330 pounds of cocaine from Mexico. His criminal-defense attorney, Gary Proctor, had no comment for this story.

In July 2008, a City Paper reporter dropped by the National Academy Foundation School, a Baltimore city public school in Federal Hill, where the well-attended Hollywood in a Bottle program was being held. It featured experienced Hollywood professionals sharing career advice with youngsters.

“Joan Pratt was our biggest sponsor,” the event’s publicist, Sharon Page of Synergy Communications, proclaimed at the time. A month later, after Reeves’ indictment, Page backed off on that claim, saying that Pratt only “paid for our T-shirts.”

When asked in a Feb. 26 e-mail about the heightened profile of the Reeves case, Pratt gave the following prepared statement: “I’m always concerned about crime and it is troubling to hear about this investigation. I have no knowledge of this conspiracy or facts surrounding this investigation.”

Last August, Pratt explained to City Paper that, while she does not know Reeves personally, she does know Reeves’ Hollywood in a Bottle co-founder, LaVern Whitt, a native Baltimorean and former Hollywood stuntwoman. Pratt, who runs an accounting business aside from her public duties, filed incorporation papers on behalf of Page’s Synergy Communications.

Pratt and her private attorney, Sharon King Dudley, who was hired last year by Baltimore City to investigate employee-discipline matters, were two of Hollywood in a Bottle’s four listed sponsors on the company’s web site.

Nothing has come to light suggesting that Pratt had any direct interactions with Reeves, or that Pratt had any knowledge of Reeves’ criminal activities.

Whitt has said she didn’t know about Reeves’ involvement in drug activities either. “I needed help, so he came on board,” she told City Paper after Reeves’ indictment. “I just met him five months ago. This is my hard-earned idea. I need sponsors to help me. I have no idea about that other world. I don’t know him like that.”

Whitt had Baltimore criminal defense attorney Warren Brown handle any further inquiries on the matter. On Feb. 26, after being told that Operation Xcellerator tied Reeves to Sinaloa, Brown said that Whitt, “is just like probably tons of other people who may have received funds from this guy. She would not know about his involvement in any criminal activities.” Lending credence to this claim, he said, is “the fact that she was never contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office” in connection with the case.

Nonetheless, Whitt’s partnership with Reeves has tainted some of her other endeavors, including a documentary-in-progress she’s co-producing with entertainment titan Kevin Liles, the executive vice president of Warner Music Group and also a Baltimore native. Called Women in Power, a seven-minute promo of which was screened at the historic Senator Theater early last year, the film’s subjects are Baltimore’s four top elected officials: Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and Pratt. In late 2007, Whitt did on-camera interviews with each of them. All four have since sought to distance themselves from the project.

After the Reeves indictment came down last year, City Paper contacted the subjects of Women in Power to ask them what they knew about Whitt and her involvement in Hollywood in a Bottle and her relationship with Reeves. Dixon’s then-spokesman Sterling Clifford said he’d vetted Whitt before she interviewed the mayor and turned up no red flags, but Dixon’s office had no comment for this story.

Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty asserted on Feb. 26 that the council president regarded Whitt as simply another member of the media seeking access. “Ms. Whitt came to this office to do filming for a documentary,” O’Doherty said, “and we granted it, just as we do others, and the relationship ends there.”

Jessamy’s office, which last year confirmed that Whitt had interviewed the state’s attorney, did not return calls for comment on the matter.

Other than Reeves, two other members of the eight-man conspiracy–Devon Marshall and Otis Rich–have also pleaded guilty. Both have violent criminal histories. Marshall was described by prosecutors as Reeves’ enforcer, someone who could be counted on to inflict violence to settle disputes. When his Harford County home was searched last year, among the guns that turned up was an assault rifle with 20 armor-piercing bullets. His familiarity with street-level violence landed him on the potential witness list of a death-penalty trial that ended abruptly last spring when two of the three defendants, Harry Burton and Allen Gill, pleaded guilty to charges of running a murderous, decade-long drug conspiracy based at the Latrobe Homes housing project in East Baltimore. Court records indicate that the third man in the Latrobe Homes case, Stanford Stansbury, who has family ties to notorious Baltimore bailbondsman and ex-con Milton Tillman Jr. (“Grave Accusations,” April 23, 2008), negotiated a pending plea deal in the case.

Rich’s criminal career includes two convictions for drugs and firearms, amid three other dropped murder and attempted-murder charges. On Feb. 20, Rich’s name came up in a court hearing in the federal drugs-and-guns case against Andre Kirby. Prosecutors explained that Kirby, on the day that he was arrested last May, had given Rich a ride to the hospital after Rich had been shot amid a surge in gang-related violence.

The five remaining members of the alleged conspiracy have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are awaiting trial, scheduled to begin Aug. 17.

Two of them–Juan Nunez and Marcos Galindo–have transportation-related businesses. Nunez’ trucking company, J&R Transport, was run out of an East Baltimore building that also houses his former bar, El Rancho Blanco on Fagley Street, and Nunez’ loan for purchasing the building was co-signed by Gilbert Sapperstein, a well-known politically connected figure who was convicted in 2005 of bilking millions of dollars through city government contracts. During hearings in the case, Nunez was described as using drug cash to buy luxury cars from a Los Angeles-based car dealer, selling vehicles with hidden drug-stash compartments, and, despite having no reported income, depositing large amounts of money into bank accounts. Galindo, who has prior guns-and-drugs charges in Arizona, is director of a Mesa, Ariz.-based company called Precision Installation, which designs office space and delivers furniture.

Two other co-conspirators–William Leonardo Graham of Baltimore and Nathaniel Lee Jones of Calvert County–have prior drug-related convictions, and Graham has a prior gun conviction. Also charged in the case is Justin Santiago Gallardo of Annapolis, whose prior criminal history appears to consist of driving-related offenses in Maryland and Arizona.

The prosecution of the Reeves case, says Rosenstein, “makes the obvious connection that drugs are coming to Baltimore from outside of Maryland. We will continue to trace the drugs back to the source, work our way up to the top, and ultimately indict the major players.”

Femme Fatale: Accused drug trafficker Querida Lewis got a car salesman tangled up with Milton Tillman Jr.

By Jeffrey Anderson and Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 14, 2009

Visitors to Liberty Ford in Randallstown would probably have a hard time imagining Robert W. Koopman, a bespectacled, gray-haired customer service manager, mixed up with an alleged international drug trafficker. Sitting behind his desk inside the service bay, Koopman, with his quiet demeanor and warm handshake, seems more grandfather than gangster.

But through his acquaintance with a woman named Querida Lewis, who was indicted with two co-conspirators in Maryland last July for running a marijuana-trafficking operation from Mexico to Baltimore via Texas, Koopman’s life has become complicated. After buying a house in Owings Mills from Lewis in 2004, Koopman says Lewis got him to rent the house to Milton Tillman Jr., a politically connected bail-bonds impresario and two-time felon with a fearsome reputation who is under investigation by the IRS, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Now Koopman is suing Tillman. In a case filed late last year in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Koopman alleges that Tillman, who is listed as the sole lessee, owes him $12,400 for four months of unpaid rent at 9833 Bridle Brook Drive, a two-story home in the upscale Rolling Ridge subdivision. Yet public records show that after Lewis sold the property to Koopman, she continued to use the house as a residence and business address into 2008. Forfeiture documents springing from the criminal case against Lewis state that “drug traffickers very often place assets in names other than their own to avoid detection.” Tillman allegedly stopped paying rent in August, right after Lewis was arrested.

Court records show that Lewis was involved in a drug operation that extended to Corona, Calif.; McAllen, Texas; St. Paul, Minn., and Philadelphia. The investigation has led to seizure of more than $100,000 in cash and a car belonging to others tied to the alleged scheme, some of whom have not been charged. An unindicted co-conspirator has a trucking company that leased a warehouse and back lot at 300 South Kresson St. in East Baltimore, which wire-taps show were used to move drugs.

Lewis’ alleged activities, spelled out in court documents and other public records, also involved cocaine trafficking (though she is charged only with marijuana); residences on two coasts; a trucking company; a courier service; a Reisterstown Road funeral home; her mother, who has a church and nonprofit foundation; and a FedEx driver who handled drug packages addressed to Johns Hopkins University, where his wife works as an administrator. Lewis’ trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore was scheduled to start Jan. 20, but has been delayed. She did not return calls for comment. Law-enforcement documents in the Lewis case do not indicate that Tillman is part of the drug investigation

After Lewis was arrested, Koopman posted a $50,000 bond for her in August, helping to secure her release pending trial. She has no criminal record, although in the mid-1990s her name came up in court documents when her then-husband was charged as a drug dealer, fled, and later was convicted.

“You’ll have to talk to my lawyer,” Koopman says when reporters visit him at Liberty Ford, where his colleagues seem amused by his plight. He says he is aware of Tillman’s reputation, which includes a history of ties to drug dealers, but won’t say much more. “I’ve read all the articles in City Paper” about Tillman, he says.

Tillman’s attorney Greg Dorsey, who has requested a jury trial in the lawsuit against Tillman, declines to discuss the relationship between Tillman, Lewis, and Koopman. “Those questions should be posed to Mr. Koopman,” he says. When reached by phone, Koopman’s lawyer, Norman Polovoy, hangs up.

After Koopman bought the Bridle Brook Drive house and listed it as his principal residence, state records show that Lewis’ mother, Beverlie Woodland, ran Arrival Messenger Couriers, a company Lewis started in 1994, out of the house. Though Woodland is not charged in Lewis’ case, court records state she “is aware” of her daughter’s criminal activities and “is taking an active role in collecting and hiding” Lewis’ drug money. In August, Lewis was released to Woodland’s custody pending trial. The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment.

Woodland and her husband, Bishop Robert F. Woodland, are incorporators of Destiny of Hope Apostolic Ministries and officers of the nonprofit Talent Exposition Foundation, which works with children. They answered the door at their Pikesville home on Jan. 7 wearing robes, and referred questions for this story to Koopman. As for the now-defunct messenger service, Beverlie Woodland says “I took it over when Querida moved to California in 2004. She said ‘Mommy, please.'”

On June 16, court records say, Lewis began orchestrating nationwide drug transactions from Corona, Calif., including instructions to have her mother handle the drug money. “They need to be very careful on who was giving us money,” Beverlie Woodland told her daughter on a wiretapped call, after bank officials had spotted two counterfeit $20 bills among the deposited cash.

Lewis and a Pennsylvania woman, Inga Bacote, then traveled in a motor home to McAllen, Texas, near the Mexican border, where Lewis owned one stash house and was looking to buy another. Once in Texas, court records state, Lewis shipped marijuana to Baltimore from a Kinko’s FedEx store, where Ruben Arce let her use his employee discount to ship the drugs. Bacote and Arce are also indicted in Lewis’ case.

Back in Baltimore, on July 8 FedEx driver Robert Wilson prepared to receive an 80-pound shipment of Lewis’ marijuana at a Johns Hopkins University address, according to court documents. Wilson’s wife, Amanda Wilson, works for Hopkins as an education assistance program manager. Investigators concluded that Wilson used his wife’s business address and described him as an “active co-conspirator” in the Lewis case.

Amanda Wilson tearfully denies any knowledge of these matters in a conference call, during which her husband admits delivering “packages” to Lewis. Though Robert Wilson is not charged in the case, investigators seized $78,490 in cash from the Wilsons’ Abingdon home.

Koopman’s life has been disrupted by Lewis as well. On a second visit to Liberty Ford, he steps outside his office to speak with reporters and says he is unclear about how he got tangled up in Lewis’ affairs.

“She came in to buy a car about eight years ago,” he says, declining to explain why he posted a $50,000 bond on her behalf when she was arrested. “I never knew [Tillman] before all of this,” Koopman says. “Ms. Lewis made all the arrangements.”

Fear the Turtle: A federal raid in Maryland shows how common snapping turtles can have an uncommon bite

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 18, 2009

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Tread carefully when messing with turtles. (Photo credit: Van Smith)

Matt and Mike look to be in their 20s. They are keeping warm from the mid-January cold in Turtle Deluxe, Inc.’s stark office trailer, nestled between its loading dock and warehouse in Millington, a small town near the headwaters of the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. An electric heater hums, casting an orange glow on the room’s many bare surfaces, as Matt sits behind the expanse of a clean metal desk and Mike stands, the shelving behind him also empty. They say their boss, Turtle Deluxe owner Mike Johnson, is out of town on vacation.

Yes, Matt and Mike confirm, Turtle Deluxe processes common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and sells the meat for people to cook and eat, but not at this time of year, and usually not for over-the-counter sales. Turtle Deluxe products typically end up shipped through other suppliers to restaurants in Philadelphia and Louisiana, they contend, and no, they don’t know of any Maryland restaurants that serve its turtle meat.

“Kind of unusual,” Matt says of the stuff, “but it sells.”

Maybe in the spring Turtle Deluxe will have some turtle meat, Mike and Matt say. Then again, maybe not.

“It’s hard to say,” a bemused Mike observes as he takes a business card. “Call again in a few months and see.”

For a company called Turtle Deluxe, which sells turtle meat, it seems curious that the forecast would be so uncertain. But the reason is found in U.S. District Court filings in Baltimore: Turtle Deluxe is under federal criminal investigation.

The company’s owner, whose full name is Michael Vincent Johnson, is suspected of buying poached out-of-state snapping turtles from New York trappers, and the feds are trying to make a criminal case out of it. Agents entered Turtle Deluxe’s doors on Jan. 15, armed with a warrant describing why, and carted off voluminous business records.

Johnson has not been charged as a result of the raid. A reporter’s second visit to Turtle Deluxe on Jan. 29, though, made clear that he is under a lot of pressure. Johnson is something of a politician, having lost the Democratic primary in the 2006 Kent County Commissioners race, despite winning more than 1,000 votes–16 percent of the total–in a five-way race, so there must be moments when he is charming. This isn’t one of them.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Johnson commands a reporter. He emerges from behind a storage trailer next to the parking lot, molten anger pulsing through his spry, compact frame. For a split second, there’s hope that the gentle politician hiding under Johnson’s gruff exterior will emerge. A second plea to discuss Turtle Deluxe softens him enough to say, “Have a nice day,” but then another round of venom quickly spits out from behind his graying goatee. “Get the fuck out of here!” he repeats.

There’s no need to risk a third invitation to scram, though the prospect of Johnson resorting to violence seems remote. He looks to be in enough trouble already.

 Mike Johnson’s troubles started when a fellow named Kenneth Howard, who lives near the Alabama swamps in western New York, talked too much. They got worse when Mike Johnson did, too.

Believe it or not, there are laws against what Howard and Johnson are alleged to have done. Common snapping turtles have survived some 200 million years, but, common as they are, New York and other states have moved to protect them. Though Howard and Johnson have not been charged with a crime, the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant contends they knew what they were doing was illegal.

Here’s the law, in a nutshell: The New York State Assembly in 2006 clamped down on trapping live common snapping turtles. While it is OK, for personal use and consumption, to take up to five turtles a day and no more than 30 per 10-week season from July to September, it is not OK to trap them; instead, they must be shot dead with a gun or a bow and arrow. That means live snappers trapped in New York are contraband, and if they are transported across state lines, the federal Lacey Act–which prohibits interstate transport of contraband items–can come into play.

Authorities in New York wasted no time getting down to enforcement of the new law. In January 2007, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) investigator Daniel Sullivan “initiated contact with Howard in his covert capacity,” according to the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant, “portraying himself as a trapper of turtles looking for a buyer.” Howard, being helpful, told Sullivan all he knew on the subject.

Howard “transports about two hundred turtles to the ‘turtle factory’ located in Millington, Maryland three or four times per year,” the warrant explains. He “knows several other guys in New York who trap Common Snapping Turtles and he drives their turtles down to Maryland with his own. He keeps half of the money paid for the turtles he transports for the others.” As for the legality of this activity, the warrant continues, Howard “stated that he knew there was a season for Common Snapping Turtles in New York State and that all turtles were protected.”

Sullivan was off and running. He hit the internet, found that Turtle Deluxe “offered to buy turtles from the general public,” and on Jan. 30, 2007, called and left a message there, saying “he was from Western New York and had turtles he wished to sell.” Three days later, Mike Johnson called back and told Sullivan “he would buy every turtle he could get his hands on.”

According to the warrant, Johnson went on to say that “he has two suppliers in New York State” and “the turtles he bought were mainly processed for their meat and sold to domestic and foreign buyers. Some were sold live to foreign buyers. He stated that prices fluctuated, but he usually paid between $1.00 and $1.50 per pound.” Johnson said he “buys from so many states that he couldn’t keep track of the laws,” so “he buys turtles based on what was legal where he lived (Maryland).”

Sullivan arranged a shipment, and on Oct. 2, 2007, he drove from New York to Millington with 835 pounds of live snappers and 20 painted turtles to be sold to Johnson, who met him when he arrived. While the turtles were being unloaded, Sullivan flat-out told Johnson what they were doing was illegal. “The season never opened in New York this year,” the warrant has Sullivan saying, adding that “it was illegal to trap live turtles” there now.

Johnson’s response isn’t memorialized in the warrant, but the details of the transaction are. He gave Sullivan a receipt for the turtles and a check for $1,212.20 and told him “to go to the Peoples Bank down the street, where he could cash the check and leave no paper trail.”

 The following summer,on June 24, 2008, Sullivan called Johnson about bringing down another load of New York snappers. This time, Johnson was wary. He didn’t want any illegal turtles brought down, he said, but he “needed his turtles live and preferred them caught in traps,” according to the warrant.

Johnson admitted knowing that the New York laws had changed. He told Sullivan that, now that he knew that Sullivan knew the turtles were illegal, how was Johnson supposed to know Sullivan “did not work for the Federal Government?” There was “no way he would buy” Sullivan’s turtles now, and Sullivan “should not have made the mistake of telling him that the turtles were illegal” because now he “could not buy them.” Johnson said “it would be insane for him to knowingly violate the Lacey Act.”

Enter Randy Cottrell, special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, based in Amherst, N.Y.

Cottrell’s investigations typically make use of the Lacey Act, but they tend to involve creatures more exotic than snappers. In one, for instance, a couple was nabbed for bringing endangered African leopards to New York from an Ohio seller. But Cottrell has busted people for reptilian trafficking, too, such as a guy bringing two endangered species–a spotted turtle and two eastern massasauga rattlesnakes–to New York from Canada.

But the ubiquitous common snapping turtle? Well, why not, now that it’s contraband?

According to the warrant, Cottrell had been involved in Sullivan’s Turtle Deluxe investigation from the beginning, working with Sullivan and others from the DEC. Now, though, he’d do the field work like Sullivan did, going undercover as a trapper trying to sell New York common snappers.

Cottrell set up a shipment to Turtle Deluxe, and arrived in Millington on Oct. 20, 2008, with 80 live turtles. Cottrell helped Johnson and another employee unload them to be sorted and weighed. Johnson gave Cottrell a check for $1,045.50 and told him to go cash it at the Peoples Bank down the road, just like he’d told Sullivan a year earlier.

Having invested nearly two years, Cottrell and Sullivan were now ready to take it to the next level–executing a search and seizure warrant. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar signed it in Baltimore on Jan. 14, and the next day, Cottrell and his crew went down to Millington and began taking away Turtle Deluxe documents. In all, they seized 22 items, including nine boxes of records, notebooks, an address book, a phone list, checkbooks and stubs, receipts, business cards, and the contents of a laptop computer.

No one from the various agencies involved in the ongoing investigation would comment about the raid, the warrant, or anything about the case. Neither would Matt Esworthy of Baltimore, the lawyer Johnson recently retained to represent him as the investigation continues. Attempts to reach Kenneth Howard were not successful, though court records in New York indicate he went bankrupt last year after his self-employment income suddenly crashed.

 There’s an old saying: “Behold the turtle, he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That’s also when the butcher cuts off the turtle’s head, so the saying is flawed. But it still makes a good point: The turtle’s progress can also be its undoing.

The same may be said of Johnson and Howard. Their livelihoods stood to gain as they stuck their necks out to get turtle meat to market, and now it remains to be seen whether the axe will fall–and whether they’ll still be able to make turtle-meat money at all.

The Turtle Deluxe raid is part of a global phenomenon, affirms James Gibbs, after he is given the details by City Paper. The State University of New York biology professor is an international expert on turtles of all kinds, but has a keen interest in common snapping turtles in New York–which he says are abundant now, but due to growing global demand for turtle meat, could see their numbers plummet quickly.

“The global market is expanding,” Gibbs explains, “and now it is beginning to affect us, because one can make a pretty good living today in the United States selling live snapping turtles to the Asian market. States that have banned trapping, like Maine and New York, are trying to get a jump on something that could really decimate our stock. In Asia over the last two or three years, they have depleted their own turtle populations and have been looking elsewhere around the world to meet the demand, so prices have been rising. These are forces that are beyond our control here, so shutting down commercial trapping is a pre-meditated attempt to forestall the plummeting of our own stock’s numbers.”

Gibbs is no stranger to turtle meat himself, and doesn’t oppose the capturing, butchering, and eating of turtles. Its appeal in the United States is largely limited to cultural outposts in the South and Midwest, he says, where old-timers still like to run their traps. It’s back-breaking work, bringing big snappers home for butchering, Gibbs observes, but “it’s pretty good meat, once you get past the leeches and the algae and whatnot that grow on them.” Careful about the PCBs, though, because the meat of turtles from some contaminated areas have “levels off the charts,” he adds.

There are still big cities where restaurants serve turtle dishes–the best known, perhaps, being New Orleans, where Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s both have turtle soup on their menus, and Philadelphia, where Bookbinder’s has its “famous snapper soup.” Baltimore’s Maryland Club, a private social club, is renowned for terrapin stew, but that’s a different kind of turtle–and a whole other City Paper story (“Shell Game,” Eats and Drinks, Sept. 17, 1997).

Restaurants’ needs, along with those of swamp chefs and other turtle-eating enthusiasts, don’t add up to much pressure on snapping turtle populations currently, Gibbs goes on. But if demand climbs–as has been happening with the growing Asian market for U.S. snappers–the results could be devastating.

Gibbs says snappers, like many turtles, don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 years, and can live another 30 past that. Each year, 95 percent or more of those adults must survive for the population to stay at viable levels, otherwise it will plummet because of very high juvenile mortality. The youngsters’ long odds of reaching adulthood have gotten longer with the proliferation of mid-sized predators, like raccoons and foxes, brought on by the declining numbers of their own predators.

The New York population of common snapping turtles is “huge” right now, Gibbs says, “but they are not reproducing well at all, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.” Turtles, he explains, need loose soils in sunny areas to have successful hatches, and the reforestation of New England over the last several decades has shaded much good turtle-nesting habitat. Thus, large-scale trapping of live adults–including egg-bearing females–could add up to a very real threat to survival.

If Johnson and Howard were up to what Cottrell and Sullivan are out to prove, and were good for say, 600 to 800 adult New York snappers being trapped for butchering at Turtle Deluxe each year, then, according to Gibbs, they probably haven’t done much damage to the snappers’ overall well-being. Even if there are only six or eight trappers operating at that level in New York, Gibbs continues, it still wouldn’t be a problem. But “if there are 200 or 300 trappers–and there may be that many, I just don’t know–there’s a problem,” though he adds that “it’s not likely to have gotten to that level or someone would have noticed.”

Harlon Pearce,proprietor of the Louisiana seafood processor and supplier Harlon’s LA Fish, knows Mike Johnson and Turtle Deluxe. “There aren’t too many turtle processing plants around–there’s him, and then there’s some in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa that I’m aware of,” Pearce explains. “There’s only a smattering of people around the country doing it, and he’s a pretty large processor. He does do a lot of turtles. And based on his pricing, he’s for sure shipping a lot of those turtles overseas.”

Pearce, who’s a member of the Louisiana state government’s Seafood Standards of Identity Task Force and the advisory board of the Louisiana State University Department of Food Science, has a pretty good grasp of the global turtle picture, too. “The Asian market,” he says, “has helped the [common snapping turtle] industry get a lot stronger very quickly over the last couple of years.” He’s no fan of Johnson and Turtle Deluxe, though. In 2004, he sued them in Kent County court over money he’d given Johnson in advance for turtles that Pearce says he never got. He lost–“that kangaroo court they got down there backed him, if you can believe it,” he says–and moved on. Now he’s intrigued by the news that Johnson may have Lacey Act problems.

“If Turtle Deluxe is taken down by the Lacey Act,” Pearce predicts, “it will affect the U.S. supply of snapping turtles, and it’ll make more demand in Asia because there will be less turtles to satisfy that market.” Snappers are common–“there certainly is not a problem of overfishing,” he contends–but the meat “is not an easy commodity to handle because the laws are just varied in states across the country.” The loss of one processing plant like Turtle Deluxe, he says, can make a big difference until new avenues for bringing the turtles to market open up lawfully.

Pearce is of the opinion that states like New York and Maine, which have shut down commercial snapper trapping, are engaging in “a lot of knee-jerk reactions based on environmentalists saying we are decimating our resources. I’m not privy to the science of those states, but, no, you don’t have a problem with turtle numbers. There are plenty out there, and these laws are just overreactions. Plus, there are a lot of farm turtles, too.”

Nonetheless, “you got to obey the law, or try and change it,” Pearce continues, “or you’re an idiot and you deserve what you get.”

But it’s still sad, he adds, that people lose their livelihoods over the passage of such laws. “Like that old turtle trapper out there,” he says. “It’s been legal his whole life, and then suddenly it isn’t and he’s supposedly some kind of criminal. I don’t think we should take away jobs like that.”

Tom Frisch of Ohio, a 79-year-old retired snapping turtle trapper, got out of commercial trapping in the 1980s. “Now I just do it for my own, or when someone calls wanting to get a turtle out of their pond. And I’m the Johnny Appleseed of snapping turtles,” he adds, because he also raises them for release in the wild. And though he still processes turtles for people on occasion, “I won’t butcher females anymore. It’s just not good practice.”

Frisch has a sense that, despite the ever-restrictive regulatory environment surrounding commercial snapping-turtle trappers, some have been able not only to keep working, but to make a good living at it. He says he knows a snapper trapper still in business, though he won’t give his name, who’s been going gangbusters compared to what Frisch used to do in his day.

“In Ohio, back when I was doing it, you could trap for a month, maybe take a ton of turtles,” Frisch recalls. “But this guy goes to New York State, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, and after four days there he comes back with a ton of turtles in his truck, and that’s maybe 200 turtles. New York has really been a good trapping area for the last few years. And then he goes up to Maine, and comes back with the biggest turtles you’ve ever seen. He does a lot of traveling, going down into Kentucky, too. But he does not trap anymore until after the turtles have laid their eggs. In other words, he’s a conservationist, too.”

Gibbs, the biology professor in New York, hears about Frisch’s story of the prolific trapper and remains nonplussed. “You’re talking about some guy from out of state with a big truck that he fills up, then trundles on down to some factory somewhere,” he says. “That’s not trivial, dealing in actual tons of turtles and doing it illegally, and if you had a lot of people doing this, it would be a terrible problem. That’s why the enforcement end of the new no-trapping rules is so important, to keep that from happening.”

Ron Fithian is one of Kent County’s three commissioners who beat out Mike Johnson in the 1996 election, and he heard about the Turtle Deluxe raid shortly after it happened. “All we ever heard,” he recalls, “is that a bunch of law enforcement officers showed up at his place, but we never heard anything more about it, so we figured nothing came of it.”

Fithian has been in the seafood business on the Eastern Shore for 27 years, he says, and he’s also the town manager of Rock Hall. He used to sell rockfish to Johnson, “but then he sort of got out of it,” Fithian recalls, “and the next thing I knew, he was in the turtle business in Millington. And there are not that many people that are in the turtle business around here, because there was never much money in it. You’d get maybe a quarter, thirty-five cents a pound, and that was the price forever, no fluctuations for years. Just not worth the effort, at that price.”

But all that changed, Fithian said, when Johnson “discovered a market overseas, and I heard he started paying upward of $1.50 per pound for live snapping turtles. That was just unheard of.”

Now that Fithian knows Johnson is caught up in a Lacey Act turtle investigation out of New York, all he has to say is, “I always have looked upon him as a law-abiding citizen. He’s been somewhat of an activist at times in the community, and he always wants you to think he’s Mr. Environmentalist. I do know him, and I know him well. But there isn’t much I can say, other than this isn’t the type of thing he’s wanting to be known as.”

And perhaps Johnson won’t be known that way, depending on how the Turtle Deluxe investigation wraps up.

Black-Booked: The Black Guerrilla Family prison gang sought legitimacy, but got indictments

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 5, 2009

“I’m a responsible adult,” 41-year-old Avon Freeman says to Baltimore U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar. The gold on his teeth glimmers as he speaks, his weak chin holding up a soul patch. He’s a two-time drug felon facing a new federal drug indictment, brought by a grand jury in April as part of the two conspiracy cases conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Maryland involving the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang (“Guerrilla Warfare,” Mobtown Beat, April 22). Now it’s July 27, and Freeman, standing tall in his maroon prison jumpsuit, believes himself to be a safe bet for release. He’s being detained, pending an as-yet unscheduled trial, at downtown Baltimore’s Supermax prison facility, where he says he fears for his safety.

The particulars of Freeman’s fears are not made public, though Bredar, defense attorney Joseph Gigliotti, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Clinton Fuchs have discussed them already during an off-the-record bench conference. Danger signs from prison first cropped up in the case immediately after it was filed, though, when Fuchs’ colleague on the case, James Wallner, told a judge on Apr. 21 that the BGF had allegedly offered $10,000 for a “hit placed out on several correctional officers” and “all others involved in this investigation, and that would include prosecutors” (“BGF Offers $10,000 for Hits, Prosecutor Says,” The News Hole, April 23).

In open court, though, Gigliotti has said only that Freeman feels “endangered” by “conditions” at the Supermax, that “several of his co-defendants” also are housed there, and that “at a minimum,” Bredar should “put him in a halfway house, or at home with his sister under electronic monitoring.” The judge disagrees, but Freeman–against Judge Bredar’s adamant warning that it’s a “bad idea” and that “any statement you make could be used against you”–still wants to speak.

“I did have a job–I was working,” Freeman says of his days before his BGF arrest, and says of his family and friends, about 20 of whom are watching from the benches of the courtroom gallery, “I got the kids here, responsible adults here.” He declares he’s “not a flight risk” and says he “always come[s] to court when I’m told.” He stresses, “I am a responsible adult.”

Freeman’s doing what many people in his shoes do. He may be accused of being caught on wiretaps arranging drug transactions and of being witnessed by investigators participating in one. The prosecutor may say a raid of Freeman’s home turned up scales and $2,000 in alleged drug cash. But Freeman is still claiming to be a hard-working family man, a legitimate citizen, as safe and reliable as the next guy.

The details of the more than two dozen defendants indicted in the BGF case, filed against a Maryland offshoot of BGF’s national organization, suggest Freeman is not the only one among them who craves legitimacy. Information from court records, public documents, and the defendants’ court appearances over the past three months make some appear as “responsible adults” leading productive lives–or at least, like Freeman, as wanting to be seen that way.

Bredar sides with the government on the question of letting Freeman out of the Supermax. “There’s a high probability of conviction” based on the evidence against Freeman, Bredar says, adding that, given Freeman’s well-established criminal past, he poses a danger to society. So back Freeman goes to face his BGF fears. “I love you all,” he calls out to his 20-or-so family members and friends in the gallery, as U.S. marshals escort him out of the courtroom. “Love you, too,” some call back.

Take, for instance, Deitra Davenport. For 20 years, until her April arrest, the 37-year-old single mom worked as an administrator for a downtown Baltimore association management firm. Or 42-year-old Tyrone Dow, who with his brother has been running a car detailing shop on Lovegrove Street, behind Mount Vernon’s Belvedere Hotel, ostensibly for nearly as long. Mortgage broker and reported law student Tomeka Harris, 33, boasts of having toy drives and safe-sex events at her Belair Road bar, Club 410. Baltimore City wastewater technician Calvin Renard Robinson, 53 years old and a long-ago ex-con, owns a clothing boutique next to Hollins Market. Even 30-year-old Rainbow Lee Williams, a recently released murderer, managed to get a job working as a mentor for at-risk public-school youngsters.

The trappings of legitimacy are most elaborate, though, with Eric Marcell Brown, the lead defendant in the BGF prison-gang indictment. By the time the DEA started tapping his illegal prison cell phones in February, the 40-year-old inmate and author, who was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for drug dealing, had teamed up with his wife, Davenport, to start a non-profit, Harambee Jamaa, which aims to promote peace and community betterment. His The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities came out last year and, until the BGF indictments shut down the publishing operation, it was distributed to inmates and available to the public online from Dee Dat Publishing, a company formed by Brown and Davenport. Court documents indicate that at least 700 to 900 copies sold, at $15 or $20 a pop. The book has numerous co-authors, including Rainbow Williams.

According to the BGF case record, though, they’re all shams. Davenport, for instance, helps smuggle contraband into prison, prosecutors say, and serves as a “conduit of information” to support Brown’s violent, drug-dealing, extortion, and smuggling racket. The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa, the government’s version continues, are fronts for Brown’s ill-gotten BGF gains, which, thanks to complicit correctional employees, are derived from operating both in prisons and on the outside. As a result, the government contends, Brown appears to have had access to cigars, good liquor and Champagne, and high-end meals in his prison cell.

The alleged scheme has Dow supplying drugs to 46-year-old Kevin Glasscho, the lead defendant in the BGF drug-dealing indictment and the only one of the co-defendants who is named in both indictments. Freeman and Robinson, meanwhile, are accused of selling Glasscho’s drugs. Williams, the school mentor, is said to oversee the BGF’s street-level dealings for Brown, including violence. Harris is described as Brown’s girlfriend (even while her murder-convict husband, inmate Vernon Harris, is said by investigators to be helping Brown, too); among other things, she helps with the BGF finances. Most of the rest were inmates already, or accused drug dealers, smugglers, and armed robbers, except for the three corrections employees and one former employee who are accused as corrupt enablers, betraying public trust to help out in Brown and Glasscho’s criminal world. Only one, 59-year-old Roosevelt Drummond, accused of robbery and drug-dealing, remains at large.

Looking legit allows underworld players to insinuate themselves into the shadow economy, where the black market, lawful enterprise, and politics come together. Sometimes, though, people look legit simply because they are legit, even though they’re criminally charged. If that’s the case with any of the BGF co-defendants, they’re going to have their chance to prove it, just as the prosecutors will have theirs to prove otherwise. An adjudicated version of what happened with the BGF–be it at trial or in guilty pleas–eventually will substantiate who among them, if any, are “responsible adult[s].”

Glimpses of Brown’sleadership style are documented in the criminal evidence against him, including a conference call last Nov. 18 between Brown and two other inmates, “Comrade Doc” and Thomas Bailey, each on the line from different prisons.

“Listen, man, we [are] on the verge of big things,” Brown said, and Bailey assured him that “whatever you need me to do, man, I’m there.” “This positive movement that we are embarking upon now . . . is moving at a rapid pace,” Brown continued, and is “happening on almost every location.” He exhorted Bailey with a slogan, “Revolution is the only solution, brother,” and promised to send copies of his book, explaining how to use it as a classroom study guide.

The Black Book is a self-described “changing life styles living policy book” intended to help inmates, ex-cons, and their families navigate life successfully (“The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27). Its ideological basis is rooted in the 1960s radical politics of BGF founder George Jackson, the inmate revolutionary in California who, until his death in 1971, pitched the same self-sufficient economic and social separatism that The Black Book preaches. Throughout, despite rhetorical calls for defiance against perceived oppression and injustice, it promotes what appears to be lawful behavior–with the notable exception of domestic abuse, given its instructions that the husband of a disobedient wife should “beat her lightly.”

The BGF is not mentioned by name in The Black Book, which instead refers to “The Family” (or “Jamaa,” the Swahili equivalent), explaining that it is not a “gang” but an “organization.” The back cover features printed kudos from local educators, including two-time Democratic candidate for Baltimore mayor Andrey Bundley, now a high-ranking Baltimore City public-schools official in charge of alternative-education programs. His blurb praises Brown for “not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs” and for trying “to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom, and equality.”

Tyrone Powers, director of the Anne Arundel Community College’s Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute, and a former FBI agent, offers back-cover praise for The Black Book, describing it as an “extraordinary volume” and calling Brown and his co-authors “extraordinary insightful men and leaders.”

Powers says in a phone interview that he knows Brown “by going into the prison system as part of an effort to deal with three or four different gangs.” Powers is “totally unapologetic” about endorsing The Black Book.

“The gang problem is increasing,” Powers explains, “and we need to have direct contact with the people involved, or who have been involved. We need to be bringing the gang members together and tell them there’s no win in that, except for prison or the cemetery. Gang members can be influential in anti-gang efforts, and we have got to utilize them. Are we calling them saints? No, we are not. My objective is to reduce the violence, and I don’t think sterile academic programs work as well as engaging some of our young people, like Eric, as part of a program.”

In early May, nearly a month after Brown was indicted, Bundley explained his ties to the inmate to The Baltimore Sun. “I’ve seen [rival gangs] come together in one room and work on the lessons in The Black Book to get themselves together,” he was quoted as saying. “I know Eric Brown was a major player inside the prison doing that work. The quote on the back of the book is only about the work that I witnessed: no more, no less.”

The DEA’s original basisfor tying Brown to BGF violence came from a confidential informant called “CS1” in court documents. A BGF member who’s seeking a reduced sentence, CS1 starting late last year gave a series of “debriefings” that lasted into early 2009. The investigators say in court records that CS1’s information has a track record of reliability, and the story checked out well enough to convince a grand jury to indict and a handful of judges to sign warrants as the case has progressed.

“BGF is extremely violent both inside and outside prison,” investigators recounted CS1 saying, “and is responsible for numerous crimes of violence and related crimes, including robbery, extortion, and murder for hire.” But “historically BGF has not been well-organized outside of prison,” CS1 asserted, and now the BGF “is attempting to change this within Baltimore, Maryland by becoming more organized and effective on the streets.” Brown “is coordinating and organizing BGF’s activities on the streets of Baltimore” and The Black Book “is a ploy by Brown to make BGF in Maryland appear to be a legitimate organization and not involved in criminal activity,” CS1 said, even though “Brown is a drug trafficker” and the BGF “funds its operations primarily by selling drugs.”

If CS1 is correct, then Brown is not as he was perceived by his supporters. Could it be that yet another purported peacemaker is actually prompting violence? It happened in Los Angeles last year, when a so-called “former” gangmember who headed a publicly funded non-profit called No Guns pleaded guilty to gun-running for the Mexican Mafia prison gang. It may have happened in Chicago last year, when two workers for the anti-violence group Ceasefire, which uses ex-gangmembers as street mediators, were charged in a 31-defendant gang prosecution.

Brown, with his book and his non-profit organization, wasn’t up and running at nearly the same scale as No Guns and Ceasefire, and there’s no evidence he was grant-funded. He was only just beginning to set up his self-financed positive vibe from inside his prison cell. But his is the same street-credibility pitch as in Los Angeles and Chicago: redeemed gangsters make effective gang-interventionists because the target audience will respect them more. Clearly, the approach has its risks, and Brown may end up being another example of that.

“It’s a dilemma,” Powers says of the question of how to prevent additional crimes from being committed by gang leaders who claim redemption and profess to work for reductions in gang-related violence and crime. “It has to be closely monitored.” As for Brown’s indictment, the lessons remain to be seen: “I don’t know if I can make it make sense,” Powers says.

For dramatic loss of legitimate appearances, Tomeka Harris may take the cake among the BGF co-defendants. She’s been on the ropes since late last year, when in December she caught federal bank-fraud and identity-theft charges in Maryland, in a case involving Green Dot prepaid debit cards that turned up later as the currency for the BGF’s prison-based economy. But from then until her April arrest in the BGF case, Harris had been out on conditional release–and making a good impression in public.

Media attention had been focused on Club 410, at 4509 Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore near Herring Run Park, because the police, having noted that violence was on the rise in its immediate vicinity, were trying to shut it down. At a March 26 hearing on the matter, Harris fought back, and The Sun‘s crime columnist, Peter Hermann, wrote that she “handled the case pretty well, calling into question some police accounts of the violence.” Herman described her as a “law student representing the owners,” and Sun reporter Justin Fenton, in his coverage, called her “the operator and manager” of the club. Not in the stories was the fact that she’s out on release, pending trial in a federal financial-fraud case in Baltimore.

Club 410’s liquor-board file lists as its licensees not Harris, but city employee Andrea Huff and public-schools employee Scott Brooks. Harris is referred to as its “owner” only in a March 3 police report, in which she “advised that she and her husband are the current owners of Club 410” and that “she has no dealings with the previous owners for several years.” Making matters murkier is the fact that “Andrea Huff,” whose name is on the liquor license is Harris’ alias in her BGF indictment. No wonder Sun writers were confused–Harris seems to have wanted it that way.

Harris made another public appearance before the BGF indictment came down in April. This time, it was in connection with John Zorzit, a local developer whose Nick’s Amusements, Inc., supplies “for amusement only” gaming devices to bars, taverns, restaurants, and other cash-oriented retail businesses around the region. The feds weren’t buying Zorzit’s non-gambling cover, though, and, based on a pattern of evidence that suggests he’s running a betting racket, in late January they filed a forfeiture suit and sought to seize as many of Zorzit’s assets as they could find. In the process, they raided his office on Harford Road, and there in the files were documents pertaining to Tomeka Harris and Club 410. Turns out, a Zorzit-controlled company owns Club 410, and ongoing lawsuits indicate Harris and Zorzit have had a falling out (“The 410 Factor,” Mobtown Beat, April 22).

Meanwhile, Harris still found the time to be Eric Brown’s girlfriend, according to the BGF court documents, in addition to helping the BGF smuggle, communicate, and arrange its finances. While her husband, alleged BGF member Vernon Harris (who has not been indicted in the BGF conspiracies), was in jail for murder, Tomeka Harris is said by investigators to have conducted “financial transactions involving ‘Green Dot’ cards on behalf of BGF members.” Court documents also say “one of her other business ventures was establishing bogus corporations for close associates so that they could obtain loans from banks in order to purchase high-priced items such as vehicles.”

Despite the vortex of drama that has been Harris’ life of late, she seems calm and collected at her first appearance in the BGF case on April 16. Her straight, highlighted hair hangs down the back of her black hoodie, heading south toward the tattoos peeking out from her low-hanging black hiphuggers; she’s wearing furry boots. She’s unflappable when a parole officer wonders about her claims of being a mortgage broker, when the conditions of her release in the fraud case don’t allow it.

But on June 4, a court hearing is called to try to untangle the various issues involved in Harris’ two federal indictments, and she comes undone. Her wig is gone, as are the boots and street clothes. She’s wringing her hands and holding her forehead as she talks with her lawyer, looking both exhausted and agitated. Finally, as the judge orders her detained pending trial, Harris starts crying.

The historic Belvedere Hotel has had its troubles over the years since is past glories, but it remains a highly visible symbol, like the Washington Monument, of the grandeur of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Its presence in the BGF picture is a statement as to how far a prison gang’s reach may extend.

Club 410’s liquor board file contains records of 2007 drug raids carried out at Club 410 and Room 1111 at the Belvedere Hotel in Mount Vernon. The records state that evidence taken from Club 410 (a scale, razor blades, and a strainer, all with residue of suspected heroin) match evidence taken from the secure, controlled-access Belvedere Hotel condominium (a handgun, heroin residue, face masks, a heat sealer). That evidence was traced to a suspect, Michael Holman, with ties to both the Belvedere Hotel room and Club 410. Though it is unclear what, if any, ties the raids have to BGF’s currently indicted dealings, they call to mind instances in the BGF case where the Belvedere Hotel appears.

BGF court documents say Tyrone Dow, drug supplier for Kevin Glasscho’s BGF drug dealing conspiracy, “is the owner of Belvedere Detailers,” which is “located at 1014 Lovegrove Street” in Baltimore. A late-July visit there reveals that it is still operating, and that the property is right next to the rear entrance of the Belvedere Hotel parking garage.

In June 2008, Dow and his brother were highlighted in a Baltimore Examiner business article about the fortunes of Baltimore-area “garage-based premium car-wash services” during an economic downturn. Credited for Belvedere Detailers’ ongoing success is “client loyalty for the business,” which the article says Dow and his brother have operated “out of the same brick garage for more than 15 years.”

Public records of car-detailing shops operating at the Lovegrove Street location, though, don’t list Belvedere Detailers, despite the Examiner article’s claim that it’s been there for so long. In fact, no company by that name exists in Maryland’s corporate records. Instead, Mount Vernon Auto Spa LLC, headed by Hadith Demetrius Smith, has been operating there. Smith, court records show, was found guilty in Baltimore County of drug dealing in 2007, a conviction that brought additional time on a federal-drug dealing conviction from 2000, which itself violated a 1993 federal drug-dealing conviction in Washington, D.C.

City Paper‘s attempts to establish clear ties, if any exist, between Belvedere Detailers and Mount Vernon Car Wash, were unsuccessful. But the BGF investigators maintain in court records that Dow’s detailing shop at that location is tied to the prison gang’s narcotics dealings.

The Belvedere Hotel also figured in BGF investigators’ wiretap of a conversation between two BGF co-defendants, Glasscho and Darien Scipio, about a drug deal they were arranging to hold there on March 24, according to court documents.

“Yeah you gotta come down to the Belvedere Hotel, homey,” Glasscho told Scipio, who said, “Alright, I’m gonna call you when I’m close.” Just before they met there, though, Scipio called back and told Glasscho to “get the fuck away from there” because “it’s on the [police] scanner” that “the peoples is on you,” referring to law enforcers. The alleged drug deal was quickly aborted.

Glasscho, who has a 1981 murder conviction and drug-dealing and firearms convictions from the early 1990s, is accused of being the leader of a drug-trafficking operation that smuggled drugs into prison for the BGF. As the only BGF co-defendant named in both indictments, he alone bridges both the drug-dealing and the prison-gang conspiracies that the government alleges. The contention that Glasscho was a Belvedere Hotel habitu while dealing drugs for the BGF suggests that, until the indictments came down, the prison gang was becoming quite comfortable in mainstream Baltimore life.

CS1, when laying out the BGF leadership structure for DEA investigators in late 2008 and early 2009, gave special treatment to Rainbow Williams and Gregory Fitzgerald. Williams is “an extremely violent BGF member” who has “committed multiple murders” and “numerous assaults/stabbings while in prison,” CS1 contended, while Fitzgerald “has killed people in the past” and carried out “multiple stabbings on behalf of BGF while in prison.” CS1 wouldn’t actually say they were “Death Angels,” the alleged name for BGF hitmen whose identities “only certain people know,” pointing out as well that the BGF sometimes “will employ others to act as hitmen who may or may not be ‘Death Angels.'” Nonetheless, CS1 said Williams and Fitzgerald “are loyal to and take orders from” Eric Brown.

Fitzgerald was not indicted in the BGF case, and though recently released from prison on prior charges, he has since been arrested in a separate federal drug-dealing case. Williams’ fortunes, though, had been rising since he was released from prison last fall after serving out time for a murder conviction.

When Williams was named in the BGF prison-gang conspiracy, he had a job. As his lawyer, Gerald Ruter, explained in court on April 21, Williams was working for the nonprofit Partners in Progress Resource Center, a four-day-a-week gig for $1,200 a month he’d had since he left prison. Partners in Progress works with the city’s public-schools system at the Achievement Academy at Harbor City, located on Harford Road. Ruter told the judge he’d learned from Partners in Progress’ executive director, Bridget Alston-Smith (a major financial backer of Bundley’s political campaigns), that Williams “works on the campus itself as a mentor to individuals who have behavioral difficulties and is hands-on with all of the students.”

The contrast between Williams’ post-prison job, working with at-risk kids, and his alleged dealings as a top BGF leader is striking. In early April, for instance, he’s caught on the wiretap talking with Lance Walker, an alleged BGF member whose recent 40-year sentence on federal drug-dealing charges was compounded in July by a life sentence on state murder charges. Williams confides in Walker, telling him that rumors that Williams ordered the Apr. 1 stabbing murder of an inmate are putting him in danger with higher-ups in the BGF. The next day, Williams is again on the phone with an inmate, discussing how Williams is suspected of passing along Eric Brown’s order to hurt another inmate named “Coco.” Court documents also have Williams aiding in BGF’s smuggling operation and mediating beefs among BGF rivals.

And yet, Williams, with his job, was starting to appear legitimate. When law enforcers searched his apartment in April, Williams’ dedication to Brown’s cause was in evidence. Gang literature, “a large amount of mail to and from inmates,” photos of inmates and associates, and a “handwritten copy of the BGF constitution” were found, according to court documents. But they also found 38 rounds of .357 ammo. Now, Williams is back in jail, awaiting trial.

If proven right, either at trial or by guilty pleas, the accusations against the BGF in Maryland would mean not only that Brown’s legitimate-looking “movement” is a criminal sham. It would mean that the prison gang, while insinuating itself so effectively within the sprawling correctional system as to make a mockery of prison walls, was also able to embed itself in ordinary Baltimore life. If not for the indictments, should they be proved true, one can only imagine how long it could have lasted.

Calvin Robinson might have gone undetected. But the city waste-water worker, who owns real estate next to the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District station house and next to the city’s historic Hollins Market, where his In and Out Boutique clothing store continues to operate, instead was heard on the BGF wiretap talking with Glasscho about suspected drug deals. And he was observed conducting them. And when his house was raided, two guns turned up.

Robinson at least made a good show at legitimacy during court appearances in the BGF case, unlike Freeman’s performance before Judge Bredar. His lawyer played up Robinson’s city job, and even had his supervisor, Dorothy Harris, on hand in the courtroom to attest to his reliability at work. He looked poised and professional, with his clean-shaven head, trimmed mustache, and designer glasses. But just like Freeman, Robinson, who has drug convictions from the early 1990s, lost his plea to be released and was detained pending trial.

Of the 25 BGF defendants, five were granted conditional release. All of them women, they include three former prison guards, Davenport, suspected drug dealer Lakia Hatchett, and Cassandra Adams, who is Glasscho’s girlfriend and alleged accomplice. All were deemed sufficiently “responsible adults” to avoid being jailed before trial, so long as they continue to meet strict conditions. They, unlike the rest of their co-defendants, were found neither to be a threat to public safety nor a risk of flight, should they await trial outside of prison walls. Given the sprawling conspiracies, one can imagine why Freeman’s in fear at the Supermax–and why the released women should be breathing a sigh of relief.

Premature Death? Political club’s closing prompts last-ditch revival effort

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 9, 2009

After 55 years of political organizing in Baltimore, the Mount Royal Democratic Club is closing down. “I think we’re getting to the point where we’re tired” in the face of flagging interest, says its president, former state senator Julian Lapides.

But even as invitations went out announcing the club’s last holiday party, scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Maryland Institute College of Art–in the heart of the club’s geographical base in Bolton Hill–its youngest board member, 46-year-old Kim Forsyth, bucked the decision to close as undemocratic, and possibly premature.

“I am simply frustrated that this is a Democratic club and, ironically, it is being terminated by anything but a democratic methodology,” Forsyth writes in a Dec. 4 e-mail to City Paper. “There has been no consultation with members or vote of the membership, and I think the group should continue if there is adequate enthusiasm among its membership.”

She says the matter could be put up for debate and a vote among the members. Forsyth says that Lapides and Mount Royal Democratic Club leaders who are ready to fold the group should “retire, if they choose, gracefully” and allow the club to continue. “There is no reason for [it] to end,” she says.

The decision to close was made, she says, by a few members instead of “a democratic vote”–a process she’d like to see happen, after “providing a venue for the discussion of the club’s future.” She intends to provide that venue, at a meeting to be held on Jan. 31, 2010.

Lapides is encouraged by Forsyth’s enthusiasm. But in a Dec. 4 interview at his Cross Keys law office, he says, “there’s not a tremendous amount of interest in traditional Democratic clubs anymore–for traditional any kind of clubs anymore. I think people are so geared to sitting home on their butts watching TV or doing nothing that it’s hard to get people to meetings anymore.”

Lapides is vague about the current size of the Mount Royal club’s membership. Reached by phone, the club’s founder, retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Thomas Ward, says it stands at around 55 to 60 dues-paying members, down from a high of 850 in the late 1960s.

“After 9/11, we lost our regular meeting place,” Lapides says. “We’d been at the officer’s club of the Fifth Regiment Armory for years, when it became a restricted area. So we met at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, but there was choir practice [to schedule around], and we were getting very little turnout. Instead of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, it was sort of almost becoming the Mount Royal Social Club. But it was a club with a great tradition.”

Ward recalled that tradition in a recent press release to announce Lapides’ decision to close the club “with honor.” Its 1954 founding, Ward wrote, “challenge[d] an aging political structure married to old ways,” and the club’s members “quickly assembled increasing effectiveness by electing a new wave of elected officials”–including Lapides, who spent three decades in the Maryland General Assembly until 1994; Ward, who was in the Baltimore City Council prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1982; Walter Orlinsky, who rose up to become City Council president until his political career was destroyed by a 1982 extortion conviction; and several others.

On issues, according to Ward’s write-up, the club–which “was integrated from the beginning, the first to lead the way in a segregated city”–was a leader over the decades on important matters of the day, including promoting historic preservation and expanded options for public transportation, while opposing highways planned for development through historic Baltimore neighborhoods.

The watershed event in the club’s history happened in 1968, when a new organization–the New Democratic Club of the 2nd District, or NDC-2–split from Mount Royal over what Ward now calls “a hidden antagonism.” He says the problem erupted over Ward’s control of the club’s newsletter, but it was really centered on the issues of gun control and the Vietnam War. The new group, Lapides says, was “more liberal” than Mount Royal and more in keeping with Lapides’ own politics, though he stayed on with Ward, helping to guide the club for decades.

When Ward is asked what undermined Mount Royal Democratic Club’s viability, he echoes Lapides’ assessment by bluntly snapping: “Television is what killed the club, the same way television’s destroyed all organizations. I do not have and never have had a TV. People don’t go to meetings anymore, and don’t have clubs–they stay home and watch television.”

Forsyth, though, points out that the club “has not recruited new people for years.” The lack of new blood means that natural attrition will, over time, drain the club of vitality. A good measure of Mount Royal’s wane is the result of a Nexis news search of the club’s name, which yields many more mentions in obituaries than in political coverage.

“It is too important for Baltimore right now to have a political force in place to let this go,” Forsyth says of the decision to pull the plug on the club. “We need to see the kind of enthusiasm the club used to generate recreated.”

According to long-time club member Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College, the club’s vitality has been on the decline for some time.

“The long period of Mount Royal Democratic Club activism probably ended about a decade ago,” says Smith. “Urban political clubs have been on the long good-bye for quite awhile.” He says that Lapides “was the last man standing from its heyday in the 1950s to the 1970s. There didn’t seem to be a generational transfer to Gen X or Gen Y as the baby-boomers aged. And internet organizing has really replaced the clubhouse–instead of newsletters, there are blogs.”

Regardless, he says, the closure of the club will be a loss.

“Mount Royal, it was phenomenal in its day,” he says. “The Mount Royal holiday party–there’s the governor on one side, the mayor on the other, a U.S. senator over there. The networking possibilities were amazing. The city will be less for not having the Mount Royal holiday cocktail party anymore.”

Unless the party goes on, should Forsyth be successful in rallying the troops.

“I’m seen as a rebel,” she says, “because I don’t think we should fold the club just because the current leadership is aging and tired. I really do respect them, and I understand, you can’t make enthusiasm happen–it has to be there already.”

In the weeks and months to come, she plans to find out if it is.

Costly Charges: Drug prosecutions suffer after detective is accused of embezzlement

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 11, 2009

On Aug. 3, Ira Jimmy Martin was arrested for armed drug dealing in Baltimore City. “Lots of cash [was] recovered in this case,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns says. But on Sept. 24, court records show, prosecutors dropped all six charges against 33-year-old Martin. The reason, according to Burns: The case rested on the honesty of veteran Baltimore Police Det. Mark James Lunsford.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task-force officer, Lunsford was revealed in federal court as being accused by the FBI of embezzlement and lying (“Baltimore Cop Charged by Feds with Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept. 24 ) on the same day Martin was let off the hook.

Burns explains in an Oct. 7 e-mail that it “turns out that the drugs [in Martin’s case] were handled at all points by Lunsford only, and so we lost this one. There is no way we could get the drugs in [as evidence in court] due to the taint of the officer.”

Lunsford-related cases dropped by city prosecutors since the FBI’s accusations include drug charges against Ivan James, Teon White, and Demetrius Waters. Burns predicts the total tally is likely to be few in number, since much of Lunsford’s work was for federal investigations.

Federal prosecutions impacted by Lunsford’s charges include two cases previously covered by City Paper.

Querida Lewis and Inga Bacote (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14) have pleaded guilty to a cross-country marijuana-trafficking conspiracy, but have not yet been sentenced. Their attorneys won court approval to postpone sentencing so they can better determine Lunsford’s role, which ties in through Lunsford’s affidavits in another, related case against Gilbert Watkins. Watkins pleaded guilty early this year to a cocaine conspiracy and received a 135-month prison sentence. Lunsford was “clearly involved” in the Lewis-Bacote case, says Lewis’ lawyer, Catherine Flynn, who says she now will take the “opportunity to re-review the discovery in the case, now that the information about Mark Lunsford has been disclosed.”

Firearm-and-narcotics charges against Wade Coats and his co-conspirators (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17), whose alleged dealings occurred, in part, in a Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel room, were based upon a statement of charges sworn out by Lunsford.  In a motion for disclosure of exculpatory evidence filed in the case by attorney Marc Zayon, who represents co-defendant Jose Cavazos, Lunsford is said to have a stolen a watch from the hotel room. Court records show Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner’s response to the motion, due on Nov. 5, has not yet been filed as of press time.

[The Coats/Cavazos trial later became the subject of Corner Cartel, City Paper, Feb. 23, 2011.]

“We are reviewing all federal cases in which [Lunsford] had a role to determine if it impacts the evidence,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein says. “Abuse of a position of public trust is one of our highest priorities, and this case is of significant concern because Det. Lunsford was working with a federal task force on important cases.”

The details of the charges against Lunsford are found in a 16-page affidavit by FBI Special Agent Brian Fitzell. The document lays out a time line, starting in June and ending with the filing of the sealed complaint on Sept. 22, during which Lunsford arranged to have an informant paid government funds in exchange for helping in investigations, and then allegedly split the proceeds with the informant, who reported the kickback scheme to the FBI. In fact, the FBI affidavit explains, the informant provided no help in the cases for which Lunsford arranged for funds to be paid.  In addition, the informant told the FBI of instances when Lunsford allegedly stole valuables from suspects, including watches, clothing, and video games.

Conversations between Lunsford and the informant–referred to in Fitzell’s affidavit as “CHS,” short for “confidential human source”–were recorded by the FBI, and some of the exchanges were included in the affidavit. Regarding $10,000 in funds that the two had split, the CHS asked, “Me and you are the only ones that know we split that 10 grand, right?” “Oh, yeah, nobody knows,” Lunsford replied according to the affidavit, “don’t nobody know nothin’ about that money . . . but me and you.” In another conversation, Lunsford told the CHS that he’d stolen video games from the house of someone interviewed recently by law enforcers.

“I ain’t goin’ into a [expletive] house,” Lunsford said, “if I ain’t gettin’ something out of that bitch.”

On Sept. 23, the day after the sealed complaint was filed against Lunsford, FBI agents conducted a morning raid on his home at 1246 Canterbury Drive in Sykesville (“Stash Found at Home of City Cop Charged With Lying and Embezzlement,” News Hole, Sept 30). According to court documents, they seized a host of items, including a money-counting machine, $48,300 in cash, a digital scale, testosterone gel packets, 29 pieces of expensive jewelry and watches, $1,000 money wrappers, a “zipped plastic bag containing green leafy substance,” and a “box of property taken from Darrell Francis.” According to court records, Lunsford wrote the complaint against Francis that resulted in the defendant’s 2008 guilty plea and a resulting 19-month prison sentence, in a federal drug-conspiracy case that spanned from Baltimore to Atlanta and Texas.

Rosenstein would not comment specifically on the fruits of the raid on Lunsford’s home, but says, generally, that his office “often pursues additional leads that are generated when search-and-seizure warrants go with arrests.”

Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, asked to comment on Lunsford’s case, says that the department won’t put up with corrupt conduct on the part of its officers. “Commissioner [Frederick] Bealefeld has made it very clear that we hold people accountable,” Guglielmi says. “Any behavior which undermines the integrity of this agency and the hard work of our police officers simply will not be tolerated by this administration.”

Lunsford’s attorney, Paul Polansky, declined to comment. In early October, Lunsford was quoted by WJZ-TV saying that “there is a legitimate explanation” for his alleged conduct “that does not involve illegal activity, and hopefully the truth will come out in court.”

Court documents in the case against Lunsford suggest the charges against him are based, in large part, on Ira Jimmy Martin’s arrest. Fitzell’s FBI affidavit discusses an individual described as “Suspect-3,” who was arrested on Aug. 3–the same day Lunsford arrested Martin. During a recorded meeting between Lunsford and the CHS, the affidavit explains, Lunsford said he “hoped to seize all of Suspect-3’s assets when he arrested him” and credit the CHS with providing the information leading to Suspect-3’s arrest.

“If I get him when he comes back from New York, you know,” Lunsford’s was recorded as saying of Suspect-3, “it’s 30 grand or 40 grand to [expletive] buy the kilo, you know, or maybe a lot more than that but anything he’s got in that [expletive]. I’m jammin’ this [expletive] toad up, man. [Expletive] it. ‘Cause that counts as money. That counts as you [expletive] givin’ me [expletive] and they got these [expletive] assets; therefore, I can get money off of that.”

The day after Suspect-3’s arrest, another conversation between Lunsford and the CHS was recorded. “I did that house,” Lunsford allegedly said. “Didn’t come up with nothin’ too good, man. I got ah . . . maybe like 10 grand, 11 grand, so I’m gonna try to put you in for that.” The next day, Fitzell’s affidavit says, Lunsford told the CHS that he was putting in “for a 20 percent payment from the $17,490 cash seizure made on the Suspect-3 case,” so the CHS could get paid.

Later, when Lunsford put in paperwork for the payment, Fitzell’s affidavit says that Lunsford falsely stated on the form that, “‘without the valuable intelligence provided by the [CHS] . . . [Suspect-3] could not have been arrested.’ As Lunsford well knew at the time he submitted the claim for an award to the DEA, the CHS had provided no intelligence to him concerning Suspect-3.” The CHS later received a $3,498 check from the DEA “for his supposed assistance on the Suspect-3 case,” Fitzell’s affidavit says.

City Paper could not confirm that Suspect-3 was Ira Jimmy Martin because the court file of the case against Martin is “not subject to be inspected,” according to the Baltimore City Circuit Court clerk’s office. Though online information for the case had been available on Oct. 27, when City Paper printed it out, on Nov. 4–the day after a scheduled hearing on the matter–it no longer was.

Attempts to reach Martin through his father, also named Ira Martin, were unsuccessful as of press time. His attorney, Stanley Needleman, did not return calls asking for comment about the allegations against Lunsford and whether they relate to Martin.

Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 30, 2008

Federal authorities in Maryland have filed money-laundering charges against two men, Edward Courdy and Michael Garone, who have figured in an ongoing investigation into the internet gambling empire Bodog. Both men were described in two forfeiture proceedings earlier this year, which resulted in the seizure of a total of $24 million from numerous bank accounts, as processors of illegal gambling transactions in the United States on behalf of Bodog.

The charges against Courdy and Garone were filed on Sept. 29, though the filings were not publicized and were found yesterday by City Paper on the online federal courts web site, known as PACER.

Courdy is charged with transferring $2,380,273 in April from Dublin, Ireland, to a Nevada State Bank account held by Zaftig Instantly Processed Payments Corporation (ZIP Payments), and then to Maryland and elsewhere, to promote the carrying on of an illegal gambling business [Courdy Info]. Garone is charged with the same general scheme, alleged to have occurred in April 2007, involving the transfer of $1,499,975 from Frankfurt, Germany, to Branch Banking and Trust Bank account in Georgia held by JBL Services, Inc. [Garone Info].

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland confirms that the two men are not currently in custody on the charges, and that no court dates have been set in the cases. Spokeswoman Marcia Murphy says that the office cannot discuss the matters other than what is contained in the court filings.

The Sept. 29 filing the of Courdy and Garone charges coincides with the date that Courdy and ZIP Payments filed a claim in forfeiture proceedings involving $9,869,283.05, which was seized in July from several bank accounts tied to Courdy. Courdy and ZIP Payments, through their California attorney, Stanley I. Greenberg, are seeking the return of the seized money. Also filing a claim that day was 1st Technology, LLC, which recently won a $46,597,849 Nevada court judgment against Bodog and is seeking to collect part of the money by intervening in the ZIP Payments forfeiture proceeding.

Garone and his company, JBL Services, did not contest the federal forfeiture of $14,200,195.73 in alleged Bodog-related proceeds [Bodog Affadavit $14.2M]. In mid-July, Maryland U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake finalized the forfeiture of those funds.

Garone and Courdy could not be reached for comment. Greenberg, Courdy’s attorney in the forfeiture case, did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

The affidavits supporting the forfeiture proceedings describe in great detail the lengthy, convoluted efforts of Internal Revenue Service criminal investigator Randall S. Carrow to bring to light the global movement of money in support of Bodog’s on-line gambling activities. The documents also indicate that the case is being brought in Maryland because on-line gambling via Bodog was conducted by an undercover agent working in Maryland.

Bodog founder Calvin Ayre, a Canadian now living in Antigua, became a world-famous billionaire from online gambling and other entertainment enterprises. He was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine in 2006. Carrow writes in his affidavit that investigative interest in Bodog and Ayre started in 2003, but the passage of a 2006 federal law that strengthened prosecutors’ ability to go after on-line gambling activities kicked a formal investigation into gear.

Miller’s Crossing: Anthony Jerome Miller Convicted in Redwood Trust Double Murders

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 21, 2007

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Just before 4 p.m. on March 15, as a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury was preparing to render its verdict in the double-murder case against Anthony Jerome Miller, prosecutor Sharon Holback turned to the victims’ family and friends, who were assembled in the courtroom, and said, “Let’s hope for something poetic with a verdict on the Ides of March.” The jurors did indeed hand down a poetic verdict, convicting Miller of two counts of second-degree murder, nearly four years after the April 2003 night when 22-year-old Sean Wisniewski and 31-year-old Jason Convertino were shot to death in Convertino’s Upper Fells Point apartment.

Judge Robert Kershaw, who presided over the nine-day trial, scheduled sentencing for June 8, and each murder count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. But the jury also acquitted Miller of eight other charges arising from the state’s theory that he went to Convertino’s apartment intending to rob, shoot, and kill the victims. If they had believed the large body of evidence that the crime was premeditated, as the state contended, the jurors would have found Miller guilty of first-degree murder and the other felonies, and he’d be facing two life sentences–and then some.

Miller, 31, was charged last January, after Baltimore Police detective William Ritz took over the lapsed investigation as a cold case in late 2005. Ritz quickly developed evidence that included Miller’s DNA on a latex glove left at the murder scene, a map of the movements of Miller’s cell phone at the time of the crime, business records indicating Miller robbed Convertino, and testimony from Convertino’s next-door neighbor, who was first interviewed by police two and a half years after the slayings.

After the verdict, the two sides made the usual statements. “I believe my client was not guilty, and we’re going to continue to fight to prove his innocence,” said Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, who promised to file an appeal. State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko said, “We’ll obviously ask for the maximum” sentence. Holback announced that she was “very happy” with the outcome.

But Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan of Binghamton, N.Y., says she is disappointed that the jurors didn’t hand down convictions for first-degree murder, gun crimes, and robbery. “I guess I should be grateful for something,” Morgan says of the guilty findings the day after the verdict. “But how do they think the bullets got in the kids’ heads?”

The autopsy revealed that Convertino’s fatal back-of-the-head shot was accompanied by two others, one also to his head and the other to his right arm. Wisniewski died of a single gunshot to the head. A firearms expert testified that the bullets were fired from a .38- or a .357-caliber handgun.

Morgan sees Miller’s conviction as partial justice not only because the verdict wasn’t as comprehensive as she would have liked, but because she remains convinced that Miller did not act alone. She intends to pursue her theory that the killings were a conspiracy, as she has since shortly after the crime. “It’s not really over for me,” Morgan says. “I have to say I’ll definitely not be sitting back on this.”

Scott Henry, a prosecution witness and Wisniewski’s friend and employer, agrees that Miller’s prosecution addresses only a part of the crime’s complexity. “I hope this is only the beginning, because you and I both know there is a lot more to this [case],” Henry told City Paper after his hourlong testimony on March 6. Neither Wisniewski’s family nor the jurors could be reached for comment in time for this article.

Trial testimony described the nightlife milieu in which the murders occurred. Wisniewski worked as Henry’s assistant and handled radio programming for Buzzlife Productions, a concert promoter based in Washington, D.C. At the time, Buzzlife held events on Saturday nights at Redwood Trust, the historic downtown bank-turned-nightclub where Convertino was general manager. Shortly before the murders, Miller had worked briefly at Redwood Trust on the security staff. Convertino worked for Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Piscatelli, but at the time of the murders he was arranging to leave Piscatelli and take the gigs he was booking at Redwood Trust to Bohager’s, another venue that has since closed.

The state’s case was that Miller was hardly employed, working itinerantly at a car wash and as a security guard at a car dealership, and was marrying Tarsha Fitzgerald, a successful older woman, so he needed money to pay for their honeymoon in Mexico. With greed as his motive, the state tried to prove that Miller gunned down Convertino (Wisniewski was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time), stole and pawned his laptop, and fraudulently used his credit card to pay the travel agency. Holback painted Miller as a cunning and deceptive charmer who fooled a lot of people, including Convertino and Fitzgerald. Holback described the latter as Miller’s “living victim.”

Polansky’s defense of Miller was composed solely of four character witnesses, including New Psalmist Baptist Church Bishop Walter Thomas, who testified that the defendant was a religious man who would never commit such atrocities. But Polansky also cross-examined the state’s witnesses in an effort to suggest a vague, alternate theory of the case to jurors: that Piscatelli, not Miller, had a motive to kill Convertino, who was in the process of taking high-profile hip-hop events away from the Redwood Trust. Investigators, Polansky stated in his closing argument, “rushed to judgment” in deciding early in the investigation that Miller was the killer, and suffered from “tunnel vision,” so they “didn’t look at Nick Piscatelli a little more carefully.”

Piscatelli testified as a prosecution witness for 45 minutes on the second day of the trial, March 6. Holback asked him to look at the jury and answer a series of questions about whether he killed Convertino, or had Miller kill him. Piscatelli repeatedly answered “no” to the questions. He also stated that he doesn’t know Miller: “I thought I might recognize him today,” Piscatelli said from the witness stand, “but I do not.” Piscatelli told City Paper for an article last year (“Late Discovery,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 6) that Miller asked him for money to pay for the honeymoon, which Piscatelli declined to lend. “I didn’t really know” Miller, he said then.

“The truth is in the evidence,” Polansky said during the trial, arguing that “this was an execution” and “not a robbery at all,” and that “what happened here is that Jason Convertino crossed the wrong people.”

In addition, Polansky pointed out that Holback made Miller out to be “so slick, so smart,” yet at the same time the evidence against Miller attests to a remarkable level of stupidity. It’s as if Miller “wanted to get caught,” Polansky said, because he “leaves the only evidence that he was there . . . right on the dead man’s bed,” where the glove containing Miller’s DNA was recovered. The evidence also showed that Miller left his fingerprints all over the fruits of the alleged robbery by pawning the laptop at a shop Miller regularly patronized, producing his driver’s license to validate the transaction, and using Convertino’s credit card after the murders.

“Either Anthony Miller did it,” Polansky told jurors, “or somebody went to an awful lot of trouble to make you believe he did it.” Judging by the verdict, the jurors decided Miller did indeed do it–though they didn’t buy the state’s version of how the deed was done.

The Lonely Killer: Anthony Jerome Miller Got 60 Years For Double Murder, But Questions Still Remain Over Whether Or Not He Acted Alone

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 20, 2007

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Tarsha Danielle Fitzgerald was a 34-year-oldsingle mother when she married Anthony Jerome Miller, then 27, in the spring of 2003. The two had met only recently, not long after Miller’s mother had died of cancer, and the relationship quickly grew serious. Both were congregants at West Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church in Uplands. Fitzgerald sold advertising for Magic 95.9 FM, a Radio One station, while Miller–well, Fitzgerald’s friends hardly knew anything about her fiancé, much less what he did for a living. But they knew he did a lot of nice things for her and that she was crazy about him. He fast became like a father to her two children after he moved into her Owings Mills townhouse, and they later had a child of their own. Miller even paid for the honeymoon in Mexico. He used an acquaintance’s credit card to make the final payment, claiming it was the friend’s wedding gift to the couple.

The card belonged to 31-year-old Jason Michael Convertino, the general manager of the now-defunct downtown nightclub Redwood Trust. Miller used Convertino’s card on April 12, 2003, the day after Convertino and 22-year-old Sean Michael Wisniewski, a DJ who sometimes spun vinyl at Redwood Trust, were shot to death. Nearly three years later, in January 2006, Miller was charged with the murders. In June of this year, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Immediately afterward, Miller appealed his conviction and filed a motion to modify the sentence.

At the time of the murders, Convertino had been arranging hip-hop celebrity appearances at Redwood Trust and was planning to take his crowd-gathering skills to another Baltimore venue, the now-defunct Bohager’s Bar and Grill. He and Wisniewski were killed on a Friday evening inside Convertino’s Gough Street rowhouse apartment, just across the street from General Wolfe Elementary School in Upper Fells Point. Their bodies were discovered five days later, after Wisniewski’s friends kicked in the door to the apartment, discovered the carnage, and called the Baltimore Police Department.

The police investigation stagnated shortly after it began, when the initial lead detective resigned from the force. That investigator, Blane Vucci, found that Miller had used Convertino’s credit card and had pawned Convertino’s laptop after the killings, but the evidence was not enough to bring charges. The investigation revived in 2005, after detective William Ritz was assigned it as a cold case and, in a matter of months, established that Miller’s DNA was found at the crime scene. Ritz, following official policy, has declined to speak on the record about the case.

Miller was on a trip with Fitzgerald in Atlanta when the murder charges were filed, and he immediately returned to Baltimore to surrender and declare his innocence. His attorney, Paul Polansky, pleaded for a speedy trial, but the proceedings were delayed when the prosecutor assigned to the case took a private-sector job and another prosecutor, Sharon Holback, took it over.

When the trial finally took place in March 2007, evidence showed that Miller and Fitzgerald both knew Convertino, whose nickname was Jay. Miller had worked briefly on Redwood Trust’s security staff, having been hired by Convertino, who knew Fitzgerald because, as a promoter, he knew who was who among the Radio One sales staff. Holback presented evidence that Miller came to Convertino’s apartment to kill him and steal his credit card and laptop in order to pay for the honeymoon, and that Wisniewski was shot dead simply because he happened to be there when Miller arrived.

On March 15, after two and a half days of deliberations, a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found Miller guilty of two counts of second-degree murder–the non-premeditated kind–but acquitted him of handgun, robbery, and first-degree and felony murder charges. Afterward, jury members asked Judge Robert Kershaw to seal their names, so they can’t be contacted to explain their decision. The verdict seems to suggest, however, that they believed Miller killed the two, but, despite the prosecution’s evidence and arguments to the contrary, he didn’t plan to. What’s more, the jury evidently decided that he didn’t use a gun, even though that’s what killed the men, and that he didn’t rob Convertino, even though he used Convertino’s credit card and pawned his laptop. It probably wasn’t exactly what the prosecutor was hoping for, but it was a conviction.

Holback described the jury’s decision as a “compassionate verdict.” But there is room to wonder whether Miller found his way to Convertino’s apartment on his own initiative, and whether access to a stolen credit card and a laptop to hock was enough to prompt a double murder. Whether the investigation remains open is a can’t-confirm-or-deny matter, as far as law enforcement is concerned. But, despite Miller’s conviction, the Redwood Trust double murders remain mysterious.

Convertino came to Baltimore in the fall of 2002, hired to manage Redwood Trust after a couple of short gigs managing other venues in the region, including Jillian’s at Arundel Mills Mall. His résumé already boasted substantial experience managing and owning clubs in his native Binghamton, N.Y. He got his start in the business there from a club owner named Bill Uhler, who hired him in 1996 to manage a place called the Shark Club.

“He was the first to bring major DJ acts to the [Binghamton] area,” Uhler recalls in a recent phone conversation, and lists appearances by hip-hop luminaries such as Funkmaster Flex and DJ Skribble as promotions handled by Convertino. Uhler says he watched Convertino develop as an entrepreneur, both as a club owner and as an entertainment promoter, and they became close friends. By the time Convertino left for Maryland, Uhler recalls, he was a fixture in Binghamton: “Everybody in town knew him.”

Having landed at Redwood Trust, Convertino quickly consolidated the contacts necessary for successful club promotions and started his own company, J. Michaels Entertainment. He specialized in bringing in big names from the hip-hop world, who would draw throngs of paying customers happy just to be in the same venue as the featured celebrity. The star, who would have already performed elsewhere that night, would show up and hang out at the club for a while. These “after act parties” cost up-front money to arrange and carried with them the ever-present risk that the celebrity might not show or make only a fleeting appearance. In arranging these gigs, Convertino had to cross paths and make deals with a host of people in the entertainment business.

“I remember him as a wannabe promoter who was trying to be something that he’s not, and going about it in a shady fashion,” Mike Esterman recalls of Convertino. Esterman represents celebrity talent on a nonexclusive basis out of Washington but also works in the Baltimore area. “He’d say, `I’ve got $10,000 to spend on an artist,'” Esterman continues, “not telling me that he actually has $20,000, which I come to learn later. So he would try to pocket the difference. He didn’t do it to me, but I almost did deals with him that I found out about later. I come across those kinds of deals all the time, and it makes us all look bad, but he was no different than a lot of promoters.”

Baltimore-based entertainment consultant David Geller recommended that Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli hire Convertino as the club’s manager and has a different take on Convertino’s dealings. “He was a harmless, hard-working, motivated, ambitious guy, and he was trying to be clever in a business setting,” Geller says. “Maybe Jay was networking himself to the talent, bypassing the local promoters, and it pissed somebody off. This guy, whatever his flaws were, he was just harmless. Whatever he did, he didn’t deserve to be shot.”

The idea that Convertino had angered others in the promotions business came up during Miller’s trial, when Scott Henry–owner of BuzzLife, a D.C.-based concert-promotions company, and Wisniewski’s boss–testified. Henry was one of the group of people who discovered the murder scene, and immediately afterward he was interviewed by police. During that interview, he discussed “heated arguments” that promoters had been having with Convertino. “I’d say there was maybe a deal gone bad,” he testified during Miller’s trial. Henry remains convinced there is more to the murders than Miller killing to get a credit card and a laptop. “I hope this is only the beginning, because you and I both know there is a lot more to this,” he said after his March 6 testimony.

“Jay tried to work around middlemen a lot of times,” Uhler observes. “If he met somebody through a promoter, the next time he tried to do it without [the promoter]. That may have caused problems in Baltimore. One thing I know, people with a lot of money don’t like to lose any–that’s how they ended up with a lot of money.”

Another old Binghamton friend of Convertino’s is Jason Smith, better known as DJ Boogie. Now an international artist based in New York City, he got his start doing gigs with Convertino. “Maybe Jay just went to compete against the wrong guys, and they hired somebody to kill him,” Smith says. “There are parts of Baltimore you really don’t want to mess with.”

Many tantalizing questions about Convertino’s business dealings and their possible role in his death are likely to remain unanswered–take the cash. Convertino’s body was found on his bed. Weeks later, the landlord’s cleaning crew threw the bed out into the alley to break it up and put it in a truck to haul away. When it hit the ground, a bundle of $7,900 in cash fell out of the mattress. The information about the money came out at trial, but no one testified what it was for, where he got it, whether anyone else knew about it, or how it fits into any theories about the murders. It was just a bundle of cash, stuffed in the mattress underneath Convertino’s dead body, discovered by happenstance, weeks after the crime.

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During his sentencing hearing, Miller spoke publicly about the case for the first time. In the middle of his statement, his shackles jangled as he suddenly turned around to face Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan, who was sitting about 15 feet away on a courtroom bench. Miller, an imposing, broad-shouldered man, is much bigger than the diminutive Morgan, a 55-year-old retired nutritionist from upstate New York. Over Holback’s vigorous protests and Polansky’s just-as-vigorous counterprotests, Judge Kershaw allowed Miller to continue addressing Morgan face-to-face, as well as Wisniewski’s family.

“I knew your son for a short time,” Miller said to Morgan, adding that Convertino was “a good man” and claiming that “I never had no intentions at all to hurt your son.” Miller then turned to the Wisniewskis, who, like Morgan, had come in from out of town for the sentencing, and said, “I never knew Mr. Wisniewski.” He forgave Holback for prosecuting the case, asked Kershaw for mercy, and declared, “I did none of these crimes.”

Moments later, Kershaw gave Miller the maximum sentence: 30 years for each of the two murder counts, one term to be served after the other. Under state sentencing guidelines, and barring any changes from appeals, Miller can apply for parole after serving half his prison time.

“I think justice has been served, and I’ll leave it at that,” Wisniewski’s father, Michael Wisniewski, said after Miller was led away by sheriff’s deputies. Morgan, contacted by phone the next day from her home outside of Binghamton, also said that justice was served. She has believed Miller committed the murders since shortly after they occurred, when she first learned he had used her son’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon. But Morgan, unlike Michael Wisniewski, is not prepared to leave it at that.

“I was just in shock [Miller] was even talking to me,” Morgan recalled. “I was in such awe that I don’t know if he said that he didn’t kill Jay, but the overall thing sounded like [Miller said] Jay was his good friend and that he wouldn’t have done that.”

Reminded of the exact words Miller had uttered, that he “never had no intentions at all to hurt your son,” Morgan softly said, “Oh.” She paused briefly before continuing: “Ooh, now that came out funny. That, to me, is saying that he did it, but didn’t mean to.”

Morgan recalls that, right after the murders in 2003, she was led to believe by the initial homicide investigators that the killings were done by more than one person. “From day one, they all seemed to give me the inkling that the crime scene led to at least two people being in the apartment,” she says. “I never was told any facts about how they got that. I don’t know. But that’s all they’ve all led me to believe–that, and that there was no evidence, and that they didn’t think the case would ever be solved. Up until, of course, detective Ritz took over.”

The idea that more than one person was involved in her son’s death has stuck with Morgan. Even though Miller is now serving time, she says, “I don’t know if [the truth] will come out” about the full circumstances surrounding the crime. “I hope it does, because this is the hardest thing–to live without knowing if Miller was alone, or if someone else really was the cause of Miller doing this. I really want to know the whole truth, no matter who it comes from or whatever they discover. Once I know the whole truth, I think then I’ll be OK for whatever life I have left.”

Not present at the sentencing hearing–or for most of the trial, including the verdict–was Miller’s wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald. On the fifth day of the trial, Fitzgerald arrived to assert her spousal privilege not to testify against her husband, who mouthed, “I love you,” to her as she left the courtroom without looking at him. (Fitzgerald has adamantly refused to discuss the case publicly, and has threatened to sue if her name is included in media reports about the charges against her husband.)

The son Fitzgerald and Miller had together is a toddler now and was in the courtroom for his father’s sentencing. The child was held in the arms of Miller’s brother Samuel Lester Miller III. When Holback called Anthony Miller “the ultimate sociopath” and “a cold-hearted con man,” Sam Miller stood up and left the courtroom with the baby. After the hearing, he walked down Saratoga Street outside the courthouse, still carrying Miller’s son, and declared to a reporter that “it’s not over.”

Sam Miller was reiterating a point he made at length during a phone conversation days earlier. “I hope the investigators won’t be satisfied with this,” he said of his brother’s conviction. “These murders were a conspiracy,” he continues. “Anthony might have known something about it, but sometimes people feel they have to keep their mouth shut. Do I believe he knows something? Possibly. Do I believe he’s a murderer? No. We all can be fooled, but I don’t see it in him. He’s no angel, don’t get me wrong, but I honestly just don’t see that.”

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As any trial attorney who’s not in the middle of trying a case before a jury will tell you, trials aren’t really about the truth. They’re about competing interpretations of presented facts, and the jury is instructed to sort out the resulting mess. The jury’s hesitance to throw the book at Miller in its verdict may have been because of facts presented at trial that raise questions about why Convertino was murdered.

Take, for instance, the motive that Convertino’s boss may have had. Convertino was hired to manage Redwood Trust by Nicholas Piscatelli, a successful Baltimore real-estate developer. Piscatelli meticulously restored a historic downtown bank building that had survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 to house his posh nightclub. Convertino, witnesses testified at Miller’s trial, was planning to take his proven skills as a scene-maker to one of Redwood Trust’s competitors, Bohager’s Bar and Grill, when the murders happened. More specifically, Convertino was scheming to take a P. Diddy event that was scheduled to happen at Redwood Trust on April 13, 2003, to Bohager’s instead; after the murders, on April 11, P. Diddy appeared at Redwood Trust, as originally planned. What’s more, Piscatelli suspected Convertino of stealing not just shows, but money from Redwood Trust.

Holback took on this nettlesome situation directly during the trial: She called Piscatelli to testify. His attorney, Peter Prevas, was present in the courtroom. Piscatelli is short and a sharp dresser–he wore a dark blue shirt and a shiny dark suit, and he hung his overcoat over the side of the witness stand as he sat down. After a few questions about his background and the Redwood Trust restoration, Holback got to the meat of the matter.

“OK,” she began, “I’m going to ask you, please, sir, to look at the jury. Did you have anything to do with the murder of Jason Convertino?”

“No, I did not,” Piscatelli responded. He didn’t so much look at the jury as quickly glance at them, and then up, down, and anywhere else but at them as he continued to answer questions. He appeared exceedingly uncomfortable but exhibited no outward outrage or anger that he was being asked if he was a murderer.

“Did you have anything to do with the murder of Sean Wisniewski?”

“No.”

“Did you have any knowledge that they were going to be murdered?”

“No.”

“Did you have any information that they might be murdered?”

“No.”

“Did you ask anyone to murder them?”

“No.”

“Did you ask anyone to murder either one of them?

“No.”

“OK. Now, do you know Anthony Miller?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Have you ever seen him?”

“No. I thought I might recognize him today, but I don’t.”

In a December 2006 interview with City Paper, however, Piscatelli recalled that Miller had asked to borrow money from him to pay for the honeymoon, but he didn’t make the loan (“Late Discovery,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 6, 2006). While Piscatelli may not have met Miller face-to-face, he at least knew him as someone who once asked him for money.

Holback went on to ask Piscatelli about Convertino’s employment situation at Redwood Trust, about how the club was run, about the hip-hop events that Convertino was bringing in. Then she asked if he knew Tarsha Fitzgerald, and Piscatelli responded, “Sounds familiar, I don’t remember in what capacity.” Holback suddenly launched back into the hard questions:

“Did you ever ask Anthony Miller to hurt or kill Jason Convertino?”

“No.”

“Would you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Any reason to hurt him?”

“No.”

Holback went on to ask him how successful the Redwood Trust had been, and he explained that he sold the business in summer of 2003, not long after the killings. “It just wasn’t doing a lot of business,” he explained, adding that it had been a success before and during Convertino’s tenure as manager. In Piscatelli’s previous interview with City Paper, he claimed that Redwood Trust had never done well, since he’d banked on changes in the law that would have allowed it to stay open past 2 a.m., but the law wasn’t changed as he’d hoped.

Piscatelli handled Holback’s questions for 25 minutes before facing Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky. Piscatelli described his relationship with Convertino as “good,” and added that “I liked Jason. He was a great guy. We’d go out to dinner once in a while.”

When Polansky asked whether or not Piscatelli argued with Convertino over stolen money, Piscatelli said, “I think I got upset with him when I heard that that was happening,” and testified that the argument occurred “maybe a month before” the murders. Asked when he first learned Convertino was trying to take acts to a different venue, Piscatelli said, “We just found out about that the week that he was missing, really.”

Then Polansky asked if Piscatelli had “an argument with Jason in the office in the presence of other people about the theft of the money and the fact that he was hustling business to another club?” Piscatelli responded: “You know, we were aware of it, we discussed it, we weren’t happy about it. But our feeling was, as the owners of the club, that he was bringing in money that we wouldn’t be earning, so, you know, we let it go.”

Polansky had made his point: Convertino’s skills as a nightlife manager and promoter were valuable to Redwood Trust. If Convertino went to work for a rival–Bohager’s, as he was about to do–Redwood Trust would be competing against him in the nightlife market. It might not seem like a suitable motive for murder, but neither does the theft of a credit card and a laptop. (Piscatelli has not been charged with any crime in relation to Convertino and Wisniewski’s deaths.)

Polansky had one last question for Piscatelli. Piscatelli’s answer–“No, I didn’t go to his funeral”–hung in the air as he left the courtroom.

Miller said he intended no harm, yet the victims’ bodies displayed signs of brutally intentional violence. What was found in Convertino’s apartment, after Wisniewski’s friends kicked in the door, screamed cold, calculated murder.

Wisniewski’s body was sitting in a living-room chair, his hand propping up his head. A burned-out cigarette butt lay on the floor next to him, and the television was on. He died instantly from a single bullet fired from a gun that was nearly touching the side of his head. Whoever fired the shot likely did it while coming up behind him, and Wisniewski probably never knew it was coming.

Upstairs in the bedroom, Convertino’s body lay face down on his bed. Unlike Wisniewski, he knew he was facing a violent death. The bathroom door was bashed in, evidently because Convertino had sought refuge there, though whoever killed him entered the apartment without force. He fought back, judging by his bruises. He took one bullet through his arm and another into the back of his skull, which exited through his jaw. A vase filled with pennies was broken over his head. A third bullet lodged in his cranium after being shot from close range into the back of his head. His bedding had been used to quiet the sound of the gun.

The evidence at Miller’s trial was circumstantial but strong. His skin cells were recovered from inside a latex glove found on the bedroom floor and mixed with Convertino’s blood in another piece of a latex glove that was left on the bed next to Convertino’s body. Cell-phone records put Miller near the scene at the likely time of the murders. The next day, Convertino’s credit card was used to pay for Miller’s honeymoon and purchase gasoline. A week or so before the murders, Miller’s cell phone was used to call Convertino’s immediate next-door neighbor, who testified that someone resembling Miller came to his apartment, claiming to be working for the cable company, and asked if the guy living next door made a lot of noise–ostensibly trying to determine whether gunshots might go unnoticed.

A handwriting expert who testified for the prosecution couldn’t say for certain whether Convertino’s signature on a form submitted to the travel agency authorizing Miller to use the credit card was a forgery penned by Miller, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t Convertino’s handwriting. The day after the bodies were found, Miller pawned Convertino’s Gateway laptop for $250, presenting his driver’s license to document the transaction at a Randallstown pawnshop where he was a regular customer. Two days later, he returned to the pawnshop to bring in the laptop’s power cord, which fetched another $150. How Miller ended up in possession of Convertino’s laptop was never addressed during the trial by the defense.

Polansky told the jury that if Miller did the killings, then “he’s the world’s dumbest, stupidest murderer of all time” because he left behind so much evidence for investigators. No witnesses, no recovered gun, no fingerprints, and a hugely out-of-proportion motive–robbery of a credit card and a laptop–but the trail led directly to Miller. Even his criminal record–he ducked a double-murder rap in an incident that resulted in his conviction for assault in 1993, and in 1997 he was convicted of forgery–seems to foreshadow the crime. Yet it took nearly three years for the homicides to be cleared with his arrest. And nowhere along the line did Miller act like a guilty suspect: He cut short his honeymoon to be interviewed by detectives in 2003, freely submitted his blood and handwriting exemplars in ’05, returned to Maryland to surrender immediately after the charges were filed in ’06, and steadfastly asserted his speedy-trial rights rather than delay the start of the trial.

But it’s hard to argue with DNA evidence that places Miller at the scene, wearing latex gloves. Any explanation other than that he was there, with the gloves on, when the murders were committed hasn’t been offered. Short of that, Polansky tried to convince the jury that it was a massive frame job, emphasizing how long it took to come up with the DNA evidence.

“They now say his DNA fits, years later,” Polansky argued in his opening statement at the trial. Miller “was set up for this crime,” he continued. “What would you do,” he asked the jury, if confronted with evidence “appearing that you know nothing about, and you know couldn’t have existed? I suggest that you would do exactly what Anthony Miller has done. Plead not guilty in the belief, in the prayer, that during the course of the trial the truth will emerge, and the truth will set you free.”

For a long time, Pam Morgan suspected that Nick Piscatelli had something to do with her son’s death. Her radar went up early on, when she met with detective Blane Vucci–the first lead investigator on the case–on her first visit to Baltimore, right after the murders in 2003. Morgan had thought of Piscatelli as nothing more than her son’s employer prior to the murders. But she recalls that when she told Vucci that she thought that the murders must have something to do with Redwood Trust, “because if Jay knew anybody, it would have been through the business,” Vucci’s heated reaction surprised her.

“He informed me that Nick did everything for my son, yelling at me,” Morgan says. “He told me there was no evidence, that the case would never be solved, and made it seem like somehow Jay did something wrong. And I left feeling hopeless.” (Attempts to reach Vucci for comment were unsuccessful.)

Morgan went back to upstate New York, and began to investigate the case on her own. She went through her son’s records that she had, calling any contacts she could find, and tried to share any information she developed with the Baltimore Police Department.

One of the things she shared with the police had to do with Piscatelli. About a month after the killings, in May 2003, a benefit was held near Binghamton to raise money for Convertino’s young daughter. About 500 people showed up, and while it was going on, Morgan says she was approached by a man she’d never seen before and hasn’t seen since. “He said that Nick Piscatelli was behind my son’s murder,” Morgan recalls, “that [Piscatelli had] hired someone to do it, and that he’d covered his tracks.”

Since then, Morgan had kept Piscatelli close. She says she maintained a phone relationship with him, never letting on that she suspected his involvement.

Morgan and Piscatelli spoke every few months throughout 2004 and ’05, she recalls, and more frequently in ’06 to discuss whether either of them had heard of any new developments in the case. Neither of them had. This past December, after her account of the encounter with the man at the benefit was published in City Paper after it surfaced in court papers in the Miller case (“Late Discovery,” Mobtown Beat), they spoke once more, and Morgan says she told Piscatelli that she hadn’t brought her suspicions up with him because they were based on rumor, not fact. “I never spoke with him again,” she says. (Informed of Morgan’s story about the mysterious tipster during a December 2006 interview with City Paper, Piscatelli said, “Oh boy! She said that? That’s unfortunate.”)

Morgan was not present when Piscatelli testified at Miller’s trial–it was the first and only day of the trial she missed. Now that Miller’s been convicted, she says she feels less certain about her suspicions than ever.

“If I knew Nick actually did it, if I actually had the proof” that he was somehow involved in Convertino’s death, Morgan says, “I don’t know what I would have done differently. As long as I still had a doubt and could speak to this man, I did so. So many other things are surfacing, and sometimes we are led to believe one thing when it is the opposite. Now, I have doubts that Nick is responsible. Before, I could go either way on this whole thing. But right now, it’s like I don’t know anymore.

“Don’t forget,” she continues, “[the police] told me they felt two people were involved. And of course, I’m thinking, Well, somebody came [to the benefit] and told me that. Was he the second person? Now, I don’t know.”

Or it might have been Miller, acting alone, killing two people simply to get a credit card and a laptop in order to pay for his honeymoon. If so, barring a successful appeal, Miller will be paying for that honeymoon for a long time to come.

Talking Machinations: Vending Machine Co. Owner Wants Talking Head Property

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 24, 2007

In late December, Dan McIntosh erupted with expletives over the phone at the mention of Michael J. DePasquale Jr.’s name. McIntosh, who managed and co-owned the since-closed Talking Head Club on Davis Street, said he was mad because he believed DePasquale, who operates Millionaire Vending LLC, screwed him out of an opportunity to buy the building where the Talking Head operated. The deal would have saved the failing club, McIntosh thought, but when DePasquale stepped in and got a contract with the seller last fall, it was the final nail in the coffin.

“That fuckin’ cocksucker,” raged McIntosh, who is on probation in Baltimore County for drug dealing and has open Baltimore City criminal charges against him for harassment filed in November by DePasquale, who alleges McIntosh has left phone messages threatening to kill him and his wife (“Talking Head,” Jan. 3). The case is scheduled for trial on Feb. 20.

“He came into the Talking Head as a vendor, overheard me discussing the purchase, and two days later he puts in a contract on the building,” McIntosh said last month of DePasquale. “And then he didn’t buy it! He called me recently, left a nasty message, said he’d found out about my past and he’s going to ruin my life.”

DePasquale, whose company has had a jukebox, pool table, game machines, and bill changer in the Talking Head since the fall of 2005, recalled events differently in a phone call to City Paper on Jan. 5. “Those guys wanted me to come in with them on the club,” he said, referring to the group McIntosh was pulling together to pool resources for the purchase. “But they didn’t have anything to bring to the table – no money at all. Nothing. So I went on without them.”

DePasquale added that his contract to purchase the building was extended until Feb. 17, a contention that Jim Turner, the real-estate agent for the seller, Jae Y. Hwang, confirmed over the phone on Jan. 18. Turner would not disclose the agreed-upon price, saying that it is privileged information that he’s not free to share even though he’d like to. McIntosh said he’d paid for an appraisal that put a value of $270,000 on the building and contended that DePasquale’s bid was $312,000. Records show that the last time the building switched hands, in 2004, it went for $450,000.

On Jan. 5 DePasquale urgently wanted to share more information about his dealings with McIntosh, saying “your readers would find all of this very interesting” and setting up a plan to meet during the second week in January. But he abruptly stopped talking to City Paper after that phone call. His last communication was a phone message left on the evening of Jan. 5: “Got some news for you,” he said. “We’re actually going down tonight to the Talking Head with the police. They’re repossessing equipment that Mr. Daniel McIntosh is trying to steal, and he’s been trying to sell it on the streets. . . . And I’ve got the evidence for it. So Mr. McIntosh might be put in jail tonight.”

According to David Goldberg, DePasquale’s attorney, the repossession of Millionaire Vending’s equipment from the Talking Head went swimmingly. After filing a complaint in Baltimore City District Court on Jan. 2 against the Talking Head over the return of Millionaire’s machines, which the complaint asserted are worth nearly $27,000, DePasquale went to the club to claim them. “At this particular moment in time, [McIntosh] was a cooperative guy,” Goldberg says. “He was very congenial. There weren’t any fistfights or bombs thrown or anything like that.” The complaint, Goldberg explains, “was nothing sophisticated or sexy. It’s simply that Millionaire Vending requested the machines back and [Talking Head] wouldn’t give the machines back. Now that [DePasquale] has them back, the issue may have become moot.” McIntosh did not respond to messages asking for comment for this article, and neither did his business partner Roman Kuebler.

Goldberg says he advised DePasquale not to talk to City Paper any longer. “I told him not to talk to reporters,” he recalls. “I said that, based on my experience, they don’t write what you tell them to say, they write what they want to say.”

Like McIntosh, DePasquale has a tumultuous history in the courts. He was convicted of assault in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore in 2001 and received a four-year sentence, with three years and four days suspended. He’s been charged with a number of other crimes, including impersonating a police officer, theft, writing bad checks, a battery charge, and another assault charge. In several of the cases the prosecutors declined to pursue the charges, and in the others he received probation before judgment.

DePasquale’s attorney in many of the criminal matters is from a Baltimore-based law firm, Silverman, Thompson, and White, that is now suing him for nearly $3,000 that it claims he owes; the case is scheduled for trial in February. The dispute is over services the firm provided in negotiating a lease for one of DePasquale’s companies, Vicious Boutique, which operated a sex shop out of the same address – 6506 Ridge Road in Rosedale – that is listed as the principal office of Millionaire Vending.

Vicious Boutique’s short existence–the public record indicates it was open for about a year starting in the fall of 2003–generated a handful of other lawsuits for unpaid bills. In particular, Jack Gresser, who owns real estate on the Block, including the old Gayety Theater, where the Hustler Club now operates, sued Vicious in 2004 and won judgments totaling more than $4,500 over pornographic DVDs and sex toys that weren’t paid for. Baltimore County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, Gresser’s lawyer in those cases, says, “We got a judgment, and when we tried to collect it had gone out of business. When we got to the store to seize the property, it was empty.” The case file indicates that neighbors said DePasquale had moved to Florida.

In Dania Beach, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, DePasquale owns another vending machine company called Tripleblaster Vending. That company was recently dissolved due to its failure to file an annual report with the state of Florida. In 2005, DePasquale used Tripleblaster checks to pay for about $2,500 in veterinarian services from the Academy Animal Hospital on Belair Road. The first check was drawn from a closed account, according to the court file of the criminal bad-check charge that the vet filed, while the other was returned for insufficient funds. Also in 2005, DePasquale was charged in Baltimore County with cutting a bad check to Komar Co., a pornography wholesaler in Hampden, but prosecutors declined to pursue the case.

These and other cases of DePasquale coming up short on the bills, or not paying off court judgments, raise the question of whether or not he can make good on his contract to buy the Talking Head real estate. The building’s current owner, Jae Hwang, repeatedly says, “I have no idea,” or, “I really don’t know,” when asked about DePasquale and his troubles.

February will be the month when many of these issues will be resolved. That’s when DePasquale’s contract to purchase the Davis Street building expires, when the law firm’s suit against him goes to trial, and when his criminal harassment charge against McIntosh will be adjudicated. What remains unclear is how DePasquale’s contract to buy the building contributed to the already-failing Talking Head’s ultimate demise. To DePasquale, it was all just business-rejecting an offer to come in with cashless partners and instead pursuing the deal on his own. McIntosh, though, said, “All the shit that he put us through, it was a lot to deal with.”