Out of Storage: Lifestyles of the lowly bankrupt bureaucrats

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 7, 2019

When the Feds came down on the Baltimore-based Rice Organization in 2005, the politically connected violent drug-dealing enterprise had been operating largely with impunity for about a decade. As the facts unfolded in drips and drabs with successive court filings in the hotly contested RICO case that ensued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, and real-life parallels to themes in the then-running HBO series The Wire became apparent, I took notes.

There was George Butler, already a star on the streets for his appearances in the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD. There was actress Jada Pinkett Smith, co-owning an East Baltimore property with Rice Organization co-conspirator Chet Pajardo. There was the backstory on the multiple stabbing that had occurred during Kevin Liles’ birthday bash at Hammerjacks nightclub in 2002. There was Robert Simels, the bigshot NYC attorney who kept showing up in connection with players I was writing about, and who ended up going to prison himself, for witness-tampering in connection with a Guyanese death-squad drug-dealer he was defending. There was Eric Clash, cooperating with the government and living to tell about it. The story just kept on giving, and kept on connecting to other matters I was pursuing.

So when I picked up some old investigative records of mine from storage earlier today, the name “Raeshio Rice” popped up off the page. Back in the day, I’d poured over bankruptcy filings that I’d connected, through various other public records, to Rice Organization players. People go bankrupt for any number of reasons, but sometimes when a crime figure suddenly loses income as the law enforcers close in, people close to them may start to suffer sudden financial hardship.

Brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32 when the indictment came down in 2005, were the leaders of the outfit, and Raeshio’s name appeared in connection with his mother’s 2004 bankruptcy case. Her listed occupation was “program coordinator” for “the City of Baltimore” since 1994, earning less than $50,000 annually. Her 1999 Bentley Arnage had already been repossessed early in 2004, but she still had payments to make on the 1998 Mercedes Benz E320 station wagon that was titled in Raeshio Rice’s name.

Another 2004 bankruptcy case tied via public records to the Rice Organization featured a woman who’d worked for 29 years as a case worker for the Maryland Department of Social Services, earning a little over $35,000 a year. Among her assets: times shares in Massanutten Resort in Virginia and St. Martin Island in the Caribbean.

A Bentley and vacations at the Friendly Island – not bad for a couple of low-level civil servants.

Star-Crossed: Property co-owned by Jada Pinkett Smith tied to alleged Baltimore drug conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 16, 2005

A Feb. 2 indictment of 13 men who federal prosecutors say are involved in a violent Baltimore drug conspiracy called the “Rice Organization” seeks forfeiture of co-conspirators’ assets—including an East Baltimore property that state records show is co-owned by actress Jada Pinkett Smith. The property, 1538 N. Caroline St., is a three-story corner building on a 1,440-square-foot lot in the heart of Oliver, a neighborhood long ravaged by the illegal-drug economy. The indictment does not mention what role the property played in the alleged conspiracy, only that the government would seek “all of the right, title and interest of Chet Pajardo, the defendant, in the real property and appurtenances” there.

The $22,000 purchase of the house by Pinkett Smith (listed as “Jada K. Pinkett” in the property records; her middle name is Keran) and Chet Pajardo, a 36-year-old Owings Mills man named as a defendant in the case, was recorded with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation on Nov. 17, 1994. At the time, Pinkett Smith was 23, had already appeared in her feature-film debut, Menace II Society, and was on theater screens co-starring with Keenan Ivory Wayans in A Low Down Dirty Shame. Less than three years later, in 1997, she married fellow actor Will Smith in a ceremony at the Cloisters in Baltimore County.

Ken Hertz, senior partner of the Beverly Hills, Calif., law firm Goldring, Hertz, and Lichtenstein, who represents Pinkett Smith, told City Paper on Feb. 10 that the actress, who grew up in Baltimore and was living here in 1994, met Pajardo about 10 years ago, when Pajardo was working for United Parcel Service. “He was an acquaintance,” Hertz says, explaining that Pinkett Smith split the down payment with Pajardo and has been paying her share of the monthly mortgage payments ever since. She’s had no contact with Pajardo in many years, Hertz contends, and she’d forgotten she owned the building because her accountant made the monthly payments.

Despite the neighborhood’s plight—two blocks away in 2003, for example, all seven members of the Dawson family were burned to death in their home by one of the drug dealers they’d been trying to run off—Hertz says Pinkett Smith’s was “not a dumb investment, because it was so little money.” The Sun reported on Feb. 12 that Hertz also said it was “very important to note that we’ve been assured that she is not a target of the investigation.” (City Paper first reported on its web site that Pajardo and Pinkett Smith co-own the Caroline Street property on Feb 10.)

Pajardo’s defense attorney in the federal conspiracy case, James Gitomer, told City Paper that “I don’t speak to reporters about my clients” when asked if he would be willing to answer some questions about Pajardo.

Members of the Rice Organization, according to the federal indictment, are charged with murders in connection with a drug-trafficking conspiracy that yielded at least $27 million since 1995. Prosecutors allege the group has brought at least 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to the streets of Baltimore. Chet Pajardo faces one conspiracy count, though the details of his alleged crimes are not given.

One Rice member appears in the locally produced Stop Fucking Snitching DVD that drew widespread attention late last fall as an unusual example of witness intimidation doubling as entertainment. Another of those indicted as an ostensible part of the Rice Organization, Anthony B. Leonard, co-owned the former Antique Row restaurant Downtown Southern Blues, which was housed in a North Howard Street property owned by the family of Kenneth Antonio Jackson. Jackson is a strip-club owner and an ex-con who, in the 1980s, became famous as a top lieutenant for the heroin-trafficking organization of Melvin Williams, a major figure in Baltimore’s drug underworld of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Pajardo has a noteworthy connection to city politics. On Sept. 8, 2003, he gave $200 to the re-election campaign of city Comptroller Joan Pratt (D) at a fund raiser catered by Downtown Southern Blues; the event brought in a total of $11,500. Four days later, on Sept. 12, 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary. Pratt also donated to Williams’ upstart campaign, giving $1,500 of the $22,500 it raised. Pratt did not respond to requests for comment by press time; attempts to reach Williams were unsuccessful.

During a Feb. 9 visit to the Caroline Street property co-owned by Pajardo and Pinkett Smith, the building was boarded up but had a fresh coat of paint on the entrance. It appeared structurally sound and well-maintained, though its property-tax assessment dropped from $14,100 to $3,000 this year, according to state records. A pay phone was attached to its outside wall. When a photographer visited the building the next day, a woman driving by in a car shouted out, “Is that Jada’s place?” On another Feb. 10 visit, an unidentified man was seen locking up and leaving the property.

Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals records indicate that Everton Allen applied in April 2003 to use a portion of the building as a grocery store, though housing records indicate that the property has been vacant since 2000. A phone number could not be found for Allen at the Randallstown address given in his application.

The previous zoning application for the Caroline Street property was filed in 1996 by Brian E. Macklin, who wanted to open a convenience store at the site. A Polaroid of the building contained in the zoning file shows a Pepsi-Cola sign hanging over the entrance that reads andy’s grocery. A copy of Macklin’s application was sent by the zoning board to “C&J Inc., c/o Chet Pajardo,” and the file notes that in 1993 Pajardo and Jay Anderson pulled an occupancy permit for the address. Court records indicate that Macklin’s current address is on Kentbury Court in the Lyonswood subdivision of Owings Mills, the same small cul-de-sac as another Pajardo property that is under federal forfeiture as part of the Rice Organization indictment. The listed phone number for Macklin’s home-improvement company, Sorgen LLC, is disconnected, and no other contact information for him could be found.

An internet search of the Caroline Street address turns up the name of a business, Peaceful Image Inc., located there. Its corporate charter was forfeited for failure to file tax returns for 1998, according to state records, and it was incorporated by Pajardo on Aug. 15, 1995, “to engage in the business of retailing, wholesaling, manufacturing, and distributing clothing and accessories.” The founding board members were Pajardo, Leon Dickerson, and Michelle Narrington. A year earlier, on Aug. 3, 1994, these three and another individual, Condessa Tucker, registered Peaceful Image as a trade name, and stated its business as “silkscreen, embroidery, T-shirts, and hats.” The company’s principal office was in a building Pajardo owned between 1992 and 2000, on the 1000 block of West 43rd Street in Medfield.

Leon R. Dickerson was identified on the Peaceful Image trade-name application as Leon Dickerson III. An obituary for Leon R. Dickerson III was published in The Sun on Dec. 21, 2001, after he was killed in a stabbing. He was 31 years old and described as a social worker and basketball coach who worked with students struggling with learning disabilities and emotional challenges. According to Baltimore County Police records, Dickerson, who was married, was killed in a lovers’ triangle when the estranged husband of his girlfriend entered her Cockeysville apartment and stabbed both of them; only Dickerson died from his wounds. Dickerson’s parents are neighbors of Pajardo and Macklin in the Owings Mills subdivision of Lyonswood.

When Pajardo and Pinkett Smith purchased the Caroline Street property in 1994, the address given for property-tax mailings was in the 2300 block of North Monroe Street in West Baltimore. The owner, then and now, is listed as Wahseeola C. Pajardo. City Paper’s attempts to reach her at her listed phone number were unsuccessful.


Wired: Alleged Drug-World Figures Tied to Local Politics

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 2, 2005

Anthony B. Leonard’s Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on North Howard Street’s Antique Row had a meteoric run starting in 2002, drawing a clientele of local notables, including many in politics. But today, the Howard Street location is closed, and Leonard and his restaurant businesses (Leonard’s Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown remains open) are allegedly part of a violent drug conspiracy called the Rice Organization, which prosecutors say operated in Baltimore for the past decade. The federal trial in the case is scheduled for next January.

Shades of politics color the background of the Rice Organization case, but they are not spelled out in the 41-page indictment, which was made public on Feb. 2. In fact, very little detail is revealed in that document, other than names and some addresses associated with those charged. From campaign-finance and other public records, though, it’s clear that Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, and at least two other Rice Organization defendants played the political game, and, in Leonard’s case, entered it on the heels of an earlier chapter in Baltimore’s history of overlapping political and drug-world cultures.

That earlier chapter centered on Leonard’s Howard Street landlord, K.A.J. Enterprises, Kenneth Antonio Jackson’s family company. Jackson is an ex-con strip-club owner whose drug-world past has made his political activities controversial. This time, though, the political dealings of Leonard and others allegedly involved in the Rice Organization occurred while prosecutors say they were running drugs.

The indictment claims that 35-year-old Leonard and his 12 co-defendants, including brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32, raked in $27 million as they distributed more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to Baltimore’s streets since 1995. Other co-conspirators include 30-year-old George Butler, a character from the now-infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, which warns viewers against cooperating with law enforcement, and Chet Pajardo, 36, co-owner with movie actress Jada Pinkett Smith of an East Baltimore corner-store property (“Star Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16). The federal government seeks forfeiture of defendants’ assets, including vehicles, the Pajardo-Pinkett property, other real estate, and whatever is left of Leonard’s two restaurant businesses.

The Rice Organization allegations make the political ties of Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, Pajardo, and 26-year-old co-defendant Eric Clash symbols of how the drug economy is embedded in modern civic life. When Downtown Southern Blues sought a liquor license in 2002, then-state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-44th District) and former state senator Larry Young (D-44th District) were copied on administrative correspondence. Shortly after the restaurant opened that year, political business came its way. The financial details show only that political money changed hands in ’02 and ’03 involving businesses and people who only recently were accused of being part of the Rice Organization. There is nothing to suggest that any of the parties to the transactions have any other links to the drug world. Here the are details:

> In ’02 Antonio Hayes, the legislative-affairs director for City Council President Sheila Dixon (D), ran and lost in the race for the 40th District Democratic State Central Committee seat; he spent $1,200 on a June 2002 fund raiser at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Democrats for Ehrlich, a campaign committee supporting then-Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich’s successful 2002 bid for governor, spent $4,000 at Downtown Southern Blues in November of that year for a post-victory reception in honor of Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele.

> In 2002, Leonard and the restaurant made donations to the campaign committees of Mitchell ($250) and Rodney Orange Sr. ($200), the former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter. Mitchell and Orange were running primary campaigns for senator and delegate, respectively, for the West Baltimore’s 44th District. Orange’s campaign also received $80 from Eric Clash. Mitchell and Orange both lost.

> In 2003, the campaign of City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who was running uncontested in the city’s Democratic primary, spent $2,200 on catering from Downtown Southern Blues. Pratt’s campaign also received $200 from Pajardo. The committee of then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh (D), who was mounting an unsuccessful campaign to unseat council President Sheila Dixon (D), spent $600 on a party for Larry Young at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Also in 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary.

In a Feb. 28 phone call with City Paper, Rodney Orange Sr. said Leonard and Clash are related to him—they are both second cousins, he explained—so he is not surprised that they donated to his campaign in 2002. At the time of the donations, he continued, “there was no knowledge on my part of any activity on their part that was illegal.” Hayes said he’d booked his fundraiser with Downtown Southern Blues’ predecessor, Britton’s, and he went ahead with the scheduled event anyway. “Fortunately,” he added, “he didn’t contribute to my campaign.”

The other politicians or campaigns whose ties are disclosed above could not be reached for comment by press time.

By 2002, when Leonard leased the space for Downtown Southern Blues from K.A.J. Enterprises, the property’s ties to 47-year-old Kenny “Bird” Jackson were already well known. From 2001 until Leonard took over, the location was used by another Jackson-related company, Universal LLC, to house Britton’s, a restaurant where politicians spent nearly $1,500 in ’01 and ’02 combined, according to state campaign-finance reports. The manager of Britton’s, James Britton, owns Class Act Catering, which has gotten $120,000 worth of business from Maryland political committees since 1999. Britton, like Jackson, earned a drug-related criminal record when he was younger: He pled guilty in 1983 to pot and handgun charges in Baltimore city.

Jackson’s days in the drug business in the 1980s were summed up by The Wire producer David Simon, a former newspaper reporter, in a 1987 Sun series about a famous Baltimore drug trafficker, “Little” Melvin Williams.

“Wholesale exchanges of narcotics were carefully controlled, according to detectives,” Simon wrote, “with Williams represented by tested lieutenants such as Glen Hawkins or Kenny ‘Bird’ Jackson—men identified in court papers as Williams’ most trusted surrogates, men who allegedly had the authority and knowledge to carry large amounts of cash and make purchases without being cheated. The loyalty of such lieutenants was unquestioned.”

Jackson’s convictions in 1978 (manslaughter), 1979 (resisting arrest), and 1984 (a gun charge) were accompanied by dozens of other criminal charges in numerous jurisdictions that didn’t stick. In 1992, Jackson faced bribery charges in New Jersey, but pleaded down to one count of giving false information to a state trooper who had stopped him with nearly $700,000 in cash in his car. Meanwhile, Jackson sought to establish himself as a legitimate manager of his family’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, and as an accepted figure in the city’s political circles. In 1995, Jackson was a major backer of a short-lived political-action committee called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which was run by one of Orange’s sons. A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which sought to give political voice to inner-city residents, made a total of $8,000 in contributions to city candidates in 1995, including Pratt, Dixon, Orange, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D).

Later, after the 1999 city elections, as the city’s plans for redeveloping the west side of downtown forced the Eldorado to move, Jackson’s contributions to politicians again became a public issue. Dixon got $2,500 and Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), ducking controversy, returned $2,000 he’d received from Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson. In 1999, Jackson had former governor Marvin Mandel represent him in a paternity case, a measure of Jackson’s access to politically connected help. Meanwhile, donations from Jackson and those tied to him continued at the federal level. In 1999, Rosalie Jackson gave $1,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore’s committee in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary. More recently, in 2003, Kenneth Jackson gave $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2004 Universal LLC, which operated Britton’s, donated $250 to Lt. Gov. Steele’s campaign.

Leonard, in his 2002 city liquor-license application to fill the vacancy left by the closing of Britton’s, wrote that he had been self-employed since 1999, and had previously worked from ’95 to ’99 at the Starlite Lounge, a West Baltimore bar. The sources of funds for starting Downtown Southern Blues were disclosed as proceeds from the Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown and from Raphael Barber Shop, also in Randallstown Plaza. The purchase price for the restaurant was $350,000, with $3,394-per-month payments to K.A.J. Enterprises. Under Leonard’s proprietorship, violence struck at Downtown Southern Blues in October 2003, when an argument that started in the restaurant spilled outside, resulting in four men shot and another stabbed. Today, a new restaurant called Gambrino’s of Spain is preparing to open up there, with owners who moved here recently from Elizabeth, N.J., and a letter in the files on the property kept by the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners indicates that K.A.J. Enterprises is considering selling building.