Good Times: Dion Fearon in Baltimore, asking all about Jean Brown

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 21, 2019

Yesterday at Studio 4 in downtown Baltimore, producer Dion Fearon asked me questions about lifer Jean Brown, the Baltimore-based Jamaican who in 2009 ordered and oversaw the tortuous murder and dismemberment of Michael Knight, Brown’s friend and co-conspirator in a $1M-a-month Mexican cannabis-trafficking operation. Knight’s body, which was sawed to pieces, packaged, and tossed into various dumpsters in the Baltimore area, was never recovered.

I’d first written about Brown in late 2010, when a search warrant in the case dropped at U.S. District Court in Maryland, and ended up writing about her two more times. Fearon is now putting together a documentary about Brown, and managed to track me down just in time for me to go back over my records and writings quickly in preparation for the shoot.

We covered a lot of ground involving Brown, but Fearon also asked me about how the Brown conspiracy compared to other major pot-trafficking cases I’d covered. That prompted me to recall that the very building we sat in was once part of the real-estate holdings of Jeremy Landsman, who played a role in the globe-trotting, jet-setting cannabis conspiracy headed by Matt Nicka, and that next door used to be the location of Sonar, Dan McIntosh‘s nightclub that prosecutors contended, unsuccessfully, was part of the scheme.

When I arrived at the studio just prior to the appointed time, former federal prosecutor Stefan Cassella, who led the prosecution of Brown, was seated in front the cameras. When we were introduced, he was incredibly pleasant – considering all the words I’ve written about his work in Maryland over the years, much of which was critical reporting. There were stories about seizing assets from South Mountain Creamery, prosecuting online gambling and synthetic drugs, a forfeiture case marred by agents’ creating a faked drug-dog certification in litigation, and an occasion when Cassella drew the ire of a veteran federal judge – and that’s just what I can readily recall.

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That’s Cassella on the right. Photo: Dion Fearon

When my interview was over, Fearon and I spoke about other stories, including Querida Lewis – Fearon brought her up her name, asking if I had heard of her – and Sean Hinton, the Baltimore police trainee whose body was found floating off Manhattan in 1992, and whose son Ronald Hinton was later convicted, on shaky evidence and a controversial confession, of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl.

I had presumed Fearon was a Californian – which she is – but it turns out she grew up in Baltimore. I predict we’ll be crossing paths again, and look forward to seeing what comes of her Brown biopic.

 

Dismemberment Plan: Gruesome murder case highlights violence in the pot trade

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 9, 2011

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Jean Therese Brown’s undoing began on Christmas Day 2008, when she arranged for about a half-million dollars in cash to be flown by couriers from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Jamaica. Since then, court documents show, the 41-year-old received a 37-month federal prison sentence for bulk-cash smuggling and was hit with new drug-conspiracy charges that tie her to Mexican suppliers, and two people close to her have been murdered.

One of the murder victims, Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton Jr., was the father of Brown’s child and was killed in Tijuana, Mexico, in April 2010, according to court documents. The other, Michael Paul Knight, who was one of the couriers Brown used to carry cash to Jamaica, was beaten and slain over missing drug money and then dismembered with a power saw in an apartment near White Marsh Mall in December 2009 (“The Scarface Treatment,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010). Knight’s body, which Brown told investigators was disposed of in trash bags over a two-day period, has never been found.

That’s a lot of heartache and carnage over moving pot, which is what Brown is accused of doing.

The drug-trafficking scheme, court documents state, involved using a trucking company to distribute marijuana in California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Florida. Under the new indictment—unsealed on Feb. 24 after it was first filed on Feb. 1, the same day Brown was sentenced in the cash-smuggling case, to which she pleaded guilty—Brown and four others are accused of moving more than 1,000 kilograms of pot since 2000.

The docket in the drug-conspiracy case indicates that none of the defendants has an attorney. Brown’s lawyer in the cash-smuggling case, Sebastian Cotrone of Florida, says he did not know Brown had been charged again. “I wish I could be of more help to you,” Cotrone says, “but I haven’t heard from her since her sentencing, and she has not hired me” to represent her in connection with the new indictment. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Peter Nothstein, declined to comment.

What is known about Brown’s criminal activities, both alleged and admitted, comes strictly from court documents, and there is virtually no available information about her background—except that she also is known as Jean Therese Lawrence and was first arrested in Florida, where she has a court record in Miami under that name.

The cash-smuggling indictment against Brown and her co-defendant, Debbie Ann Shipp, who was arrested in New York and awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in December, was filed last summer. It revealed that large sums of undeclared cash were transported to Jamaica under Brown’s direction by Shipp and two others, including Knight (who was identified in the indictment only by his initials, “MPK”).

In November, a search warrant issued to Baltimore County investigators hoping to solve Knight’s disappearance provided the first public glimpses of the breadth of the investigation, giving details of the two murders, the cooperation provided to law enforcers by Brown and other unnamed co-conspirators, and the alleged pot-smuggling operation’s ties to the bulk-cash smuggling case against Brown and Shipp.

The new indictment unsealed in February shed little light on the nitty gritty of Brown’s alleged conspiracy, other than to name the defendants, say how long it operated, and state the quantity of marijuana involved. Brown’s co-defendants are Hubert “Doc” Downer (also known as Michael Reid), Tamara Henry, Robert Henry, and Dmytro Holovko, whose nickname is “the Russian.”

Most recently, though, on March 1, federal prosecutors moved for a court-ordered forfeiture decree against one of the trucks allegedly used in the operation, and that document unveiled new details—including the assertion that Brown was the leader of the enterprise, and that it dealt directly with Mexican suppliers.

The forfeiture states that Brown’s outfit “used trucks to transport marijuana from Arizona to Baltimore and transported the cash proceeds of the marijuana sales from Baltimore back to Arizona where it was used to pay her Mexican suppliers and to purchase additional marijuana.”

Based on information provided by confidential sources, the forfeiture describes Holovko as one of Brown’s truckers and gives details about numerous trips in which Holovko hauled drugs and cash back and forth between Arizona and Baltimore. One of the sources, the forfeiture recounts, “stated he and Holovko would drive to a predetermined destination on Liberty Road in Baltimore,” where “they would offload the marijuana into one of Brown’s vehicles.” The source “stated that on one occasion he loaded approximately 38 boxes of Marijuana, with each box weighing approximately 20 to 25 pounds.”

City Paper was able to locate phone numbers for Holovko and a trucking company that New Jersey business records indicate is associated with him, but no one had answered either phone as of press time.

The forfeiture filing adds to mounting indications that Baltimore traffickers have direct links to Mexican cartel suppliers. The use of trucks and other large vehicles to move massive quantities of drugs and cash back and forth between Baltimore and the Mexican border, as is alleged in Brown’s case, was recently detailed in a federal drug trial (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23) featuring a cartel witness who greatly enhanced the already-established picture of Baltimore’s ties to Mexican suppliers (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010). The danger of such dealings is suggested by the murders of Smith and Knight.

The truck that is subject to the forfeiture filing was seized when Holovko was arrested in New Jersey in mid-February, at around the same time Tamara Henry and Robert Henry were arrested in Florida. Downer faces a separate Maryland indictment, filed in December, accusing him of illegally reentering the United States after having been deported due to a prior aggravated-felony conviction. The dockets in his cases suggest he has yet to be arrested.

The “Scarface” Treatment: Missing Baltimore man believed killed and dismembered in large-scale pot conspiracy

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 10, 2010

Michael Paul Knight, 50, was last seen around 8 P.M. on Dec. 16, 2009, when he left his Woodlawn home driving a green 1991 Honda Accord after telling his family “he was going out to meet someone,” according to a Baltimore County Police missing persons flier. “Police and his family are concerned for his well-being, and do not know of any remarkable medical issues with Mr. Knight,” the flier continues.

If investigators are right about Knight’s fate, he was beaten, tied up, and murdered, and his body was then dismembered “with a power-type saw” and disposed of, according to Detective Carroll Bollinger of the Baltimore County Police homicide unit, who believes the alleged crime is related to a cross-country marijuana trafficking organization.

Bollinger’s suspicions about Knight’s case are contained in an affidavit for a search-and-seizure warrant filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 9. The warrant was used in mid-November to collect evidence from a Rosedale apartment—especially its bathroom, which is believed to be the scene of the dismemberment—and a vehicle where he had allegedly been beaten prior to the murder. Knight’s body “has not been recovered,” Bollinger’s affidavit states, and the warrant was needed to help develop leads about its whereabouts.

At precisely whose hands Knight was murdered remains unclear, though Bollinger’s affidavit names two people—Jean Therese Brown and Carl Smith, who is also known as Mario Skelton Jr.—as present when Knight was beaten in a vehicle and taken to the apartment where he is believed to have met his death. Smith is no longer around to help solve the crime, because he “was murdered on April 26, 2010, in Tijuana, Mexico,” the affidavit states. Brown, meanwhile, recently pleaded guilty in federal court to bulk-cash smuggling and is due to be sentenced in February.

Bollinger’s affidavit says the alleged details about how Knight died were obtained from Brown and “others closely associated with the events.” Those others remain unnamed “due to the violent nature of the individuals involved in this investigation and the magnitude of the drug operation.”

Who killed Knight—or even if he was killed—and where his body might be remain undetermined, but Bollinger’s affidavit draws a clear picture of why he may have been killed. He was “holding as much as a million dollars” for Brown and Smith—money that “was being held for an upcoming drug transaction”—and “possibly as much as $250,000, was missing.” The missing money, the affidavit suggests, may have cost Knight his life.

Brown and Smith were participating in “a large scale marijuana smuggling and distribution operation,” the affidavit states, “which included the states of California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Florida,” and used a “trucking company to transport the marijuana and money across the country.” Knight’s prior dealings with Brown include a Dec. 25, 2008, trip to deliver cash to Jamaica for Brown, Bollinger’s affidavit says. Knight and two others—including Brown’s co-defendant in the bulk-cash smuggling case, Debbie Ann Shipp—were stopped as they entered Jamaica that Christmas day, and $565,035 in U.S. currency was found on them.

City Paper’s attempts to contact Knight’s sister, who is named in the affidavit as the person who reported him missing last year, were unsuccessful.