Balling The ‘Jack: Ex-con aims to reopen Hammerjacks as Heaven

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 30, 2008

“The law is very clear that the licensee can’t be a convicted felon,” explains Douglas Paige, spokesman for the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners. He’s fielding questions about a newly filed application to transfer a liquor license from the closed Red Lyon Tavern in Canton to the old Hammerjacks nightclub property, downtown at 316 Guilford Ave. The plan is to open a large club called Heaven, but a convicted felon who is not the proposed licensee is listed in the application as its full-time operator. Felons are barred from holding liquor licenses, Paige says, but full-time operators of liquor-licensed businesses can have a felony background, as long as they’re not on the liquor license.

Having paid the $400 filing fee and filled out the necessary paperwork, he says, “the applicants are entitled to a hearing.” Valentine’s Day is the scheduled date of the hearing in the Pressman Board Room in City Hall, Paige says, and the three-member Liquor Board then will decide what to do about the proposed transfer.

“The board would have grave concerns about this, I’m sure,” he predicts. “They will have to look over this application closely to see how this is going to be operated.”

The application lists Leroy M. Brown, 50, and Joanne Giorgilli, 63, as the would-be owners of Heaven’s liquor license, and the full-time operator of Heaven would be Joanne Giorgilli’s 41-year-old son, John Americo Giorgilli.

Known to many as “Johnny G,” Giorgilli’s career as a nightlife impresario includes Club 101 in Towson, which closed in the mid-1990s amid controversy, and the China Room, a downtown club that operated at Uncle Lee’s Szechuan Restaurant and closed down in the early 2000s. He is currently under indictment in Baltimore County for first- and second-degree assault and false imprisonment, and since the mid-1990s he’s racked up charges and convictions for drugs and violence and served at least one stint in jail. The state’s online court-case database lists 85 cases dating back to 1993 in which Giorgilli was a criminal defendant.

On Jan. 25, Liquor Board Chairman Stephan Fogleman told City Paper that “the Liquor Board, in addition to making sure that licensees aren’t felons, wants to make sure the actual operators aren’t felons, too. . . . There are numerous ways we can look at applications such as this, and we will do just that at the hearing.”

One issue raised by information in the Heaven liquor-license application is the source of funds for starting up the club. The application shows that Brown has no money in it, but, since the Giorgillis live in Baltimore County, he satisfies board requirements that a resident city taxpayer be on the license. Joanne Giorgilli, a 29-year employee of Maryland School for the Blind, is listed as 100 percent owner, with the money for the club coming from her Bank of America savings account. Not mentioned in the application is the fact that Joanne Giorgilli is listed as co-debtor in her husband’s 2005 filing for bankruptcy protection. Two others listed in the license application–John Goertler and Ron Jones–are named as each having $200,000 available to pay for remodeling, should the club need financial assistance.

“If the question is, do I have that kind of money, the answer is yes,” says Goertler, one of John Giorgilli’s former partners in the China Room. “If the question is, have I committed fully to [putting $200,000 into Heaven], the answer is, not at this time. I’m thinking about it.”

Jones declined to be interviewed, but sources who spoke to him about it say he, like Goertler, is considering the Heaven proposal. Jones, a former Baltimore City police officer whose interests over the years include for-amusement-only gambling devices, dry cleaning, used cars, bars, and strip clubs. (“Mob Rules,” Oct. 6, 2004).

The Hammerjacks property is owned by 316 Guilford Avenue LLC, controlled by Richard W. Naing, and is on the footprint of a proposed skyscraper. Lonnie Fisher, project manager for RWN Development Group, says “we do not care to make any comment on the liquor application at this time.” The license application states Heaven has a three-year lease on the building for $15,000 per month.

John Giorgilli would not answer questions about Heaven during a phone interview on Jan. 28 unless, he said, City Paper gave him “final proof and approval of whatever is written” about the deal. When asked if he had a financial stake in the proposed club, his response was, “No, not at this time.”

Brown says the plan for Heaven is for it to be like Hammerjacks was–a place for large crowds to gather for a good time. “It’s going to be just basically like it was before,” he explains, “for enjoyment, for partying.” Brown refuses to say whether he has a monetary stake in the club, stating only that “I’m going to be a part of it. As for John Giorgilli, Brown says, “we’re friends, business friends.”

For 12 years, Brown’s job has been, as he explains it, to “assist, teach, and counsel mildly mentally challenged adults” for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Woodlawn-based nonprofit that promotes ways other than incarceration and institutionalization to help troubled people. Brown says he’s never before been on a liquor license and is not entirely familiar with what the requirements are.

“As a juvenile, there was some stuff,” Brown says of his own criminal record. “But I thought that was expunged.” When reminded that public records indicate that a man with his name and birthday was convicted of breaking and entering, in 1986, and of theft, twice, in 1993–long after Brown passed his juvenile years–he exclaims, “You have a computer there and you can look that up?” He asks for the web address, says, “I’m going to look that up,” and abruptly ends the phone call.

Subsequent attempts to reach Brown for this article were unsuccessful. Whether his record of criminal convictions came up in the Liquor Board’s required review of his background was unclear as of press time, as was the question of whether Brown’s theft-related background, which includes a history of incarceration, bars him from being on a liquor license.

“Leroy Brown, I didn’t know he didn’t have a clean record, and that pisses me off,” Giorgilli says. As for his own background, Girogilli owns up to having one felony conviction–“and that’s under appeal,” he says, “so that doesn’t even really count, according to my lawyer. I served jail time, I paid restitution, I paid my debt to society, and it’s under appeal.”

Giorgilli refused to discuss or confirm details of his criminal charges and declined to have an attorney explain any possible discrepancies in the online court records, which show he was guilty of second-degree assault and false imprisonment in 1997, drug possession and telephone misuse in 1998, a traffic violation with $14,000 in court costs and fines in 2000, and theft and passing a bad check in 2005. A pending sentence-modification motion was filed in the drug case in 2005. His arraignment on the open assault charges was held on Jan. 7, though no court date had been set as of Jan. 28.

Melvin Kodenski, a veteran lawyer for clients appearing before the Liquor Board, is the attorney for both parties in the license transfer for Heaven. At a Jan. 24 hearing, Kodenski appeared before the board with Craig Stanton, the current owner of the Red Lyon liquor license that owners are hoping to move to Heaven. The Red Lyon shut its doors last July, Kodenski told the board. Since inactive licenses die for good after 180 days of disuse, unless a 180-day “hardship extension” is granted, Kodenski asked the board to extend the license’s life for another six months.

“This is the license that’s up for transfer to John Giorgilli for the old Hammerjacks,” Kodenski said. “So while the board’s mulling that, we’re asking you to give [Stanton] an extension.”

The board agreed, pushing back the deadline for transferring the license to July 9. Thus, if Stanton’s Red Lyon license does not go to Giorgilli, as proposed, Stanton still has time to find another buyer.

In the Liquor Board’s conference room the day after the Red Lyon’s extension, board spokesman Paige is reminded that the circumstances surrounding Giorgilli’s application for Heaven are similar to a case uncovered by City Paper 12 years ago. That situation involved a large club called the Royal Café slated for the old Sons of Italy Building on West Fayette Street downtown. In that case (“The High Life,” Jan. 3, 1996), Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, owner of the Eldorado Gentleman’s Club and a felon and former lieutenant in “Little Melvin” Williams’ drug organization, appeared to be the co-owner (with his mother, Rosalie Jackson) of the proposed club, but a high-school guidance counselor named Mary Collins applied for the license. Though the Liquor Board approved the Sons of Italy license, the club never opened and Jackson eventually sold the building to the University of Maryland.

Why, Paige is asked, is there a prohibition on felons being on liquor licenses when felons are permitted to own and operate liquor-licensed businesses? Isn’t the point to keep felons from owning and running nightclubs, whether they are on the license or not?

“That’s a matter for the legislature,” Paige responds. “The law is the law. We just administer it.”

The Game Remains The Same: Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale’s new charges ring familiar

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

Over the last half-decade or so, City Paper has done in-depth reporting about how Baltimore’s drug game is tied to heroin arriving from Africa, gangsters who double as gang interventionists, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang’s broad reach in prisons and the streets, and legendary old felons getting charged anew. Now, with federal drug-and-gun charges unsealed Nov. 26 against Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, one man embodies all four themes.

The case involves Barksdale’s alleged dealings with co-defendant Suraj Tairu, a man with a 1990s New York conviction for helping to import heroin from Africa, and involves heroin contained in an “egg-shaped object”—a type of heroin packaging that is commonly swallowed and later excreted by so-called “internal smugglers” from Africa who bring them to the U.S. on commercial airline flights. Initially, only Tairu was charged in the case, on Sept. 12, and court documents state that he was supplying heroin to “a long-time, high ranking member of the BGF”—who, once the indictment was unsealed, was revealed to be Barksdale.

Barksdale grew up hustling in West Baltimore’s since-demolished Lexington Terrace projects in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the end of that decade he had become a local criminal legend whose violent exploits were depicted in a 2009 docu-drama project spearheaded by Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, a stevedore and strip club manager with his own outsize past in Baltimore’s drug game. The project, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, claimed Barksdale was the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a key character on the HBO series The Wire—a claim The Wire’s co-creator David Simon rejects. Two other old school Baltimore gangsters whose identities were used to create Wire characters—Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell, whose names were applied to characters who were enforcers for Avon Barksdale, Savino Bratton, and Anton “Stinkum” Artis—have also faced federal drug charges in recent years and are now in federal prison.

The Baltimore Sun’s reporting on Barksdale’s latest arrest revealed that he’d been working as a gang interventionist for Safe Streets, a publicly funded project managed by local nonprofits that seek to employ ex-felons to diffuse street violence before it happens. The Sun’s coverage quoted Safe Streets’ Delaino Johnson, director of the outfit’s branch in Mondawmin, as saying Barksdale “had a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area.”

In a wide-ranging City Paper interview in 2009 for a feature about Unwired, Barksdale described how, at that time, he worked “informally” with his nephew, Dante Barksdale, a Safe Streets worker, to help stem violence among the younger generation.

“I try to keep some of them from traveling the same path I’ve traveled,” Barksdale said, noting that, “when I show up, it keeps some stuff from happening.”

Hiring ex-felons as street-violence mitigators has long been proposed and carried out, with mixed results. Radio talk-show host Marc Steiner in 2008, for instance, urged “cities, states, philanthropies, and businesses” to “spend millions” to “hire, train, and supervise hundreds of ex-felons to work in the streets with youth and families.” That year in Chicago, two anti-violence workers for the program after which Safe Streets was modeled, CeaseFire, were indicted and later pleaded guilty to drug dealing, and one of them, according to prosecutors, “promoted controlled violence among gang members in an effort to avoid subsequent and random retaliatory murders.” Also in 2008, the executive director of an anti-gang nonprofit in Los Angeles, No Guns, admitted to gun-running charges and another gang-interventionist pleaded no contest to drugs and firearms charges.

Subsequently, Safe Streets emerged in prior federal BGF cases in Maryland in 2009 and 2010. “Operation Safe Streets located in the McElderry Park and Madison East neighborhoods is controlled by the BGF, specifically Anthony Brown, aka ‘Gerimo,’” court documents in those cases state, adding that “BGF members released from prison can obtain employment from Operation Safe Streets.” Another Baltimore anti-violence nonprofit that previously had received Safe Streets funding, Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), employed two men who were convicted in that round of BGF cases: youth counselor Todd Andrew Duncan, who prosecutors described as the BGF’s “city-wide commander” at the time, and outreach worker Ronald “Piper” Scott.

Still, Baltimore’s Safe Streets program is credited with having stopped much bloodshed. A 2012 Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the program concluded that its workers mediated 276 incidents between July 2007 and December 2010, 88 percent of which “involved individuals with a history of violence” and three-quarters of which “involved gang members.”

Barksdale’s name emerged in the 2010 round of BGF indictments, which were investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was described in court documents as “an active BGF member” and a “B. Barksdale” was thanked in the acknowledgements section of The Black Book, a 122-page, soft-bound self-help guide published by BGF leader Eric Brown that authorities portrayed as a gang-recruitment tool whose sales helped finance the BGF.

“Hell, no!” Barksdale told City Paper at the time, when reached by phone at the number listed in the court documents and asked if he was an active BGF member. “I ain’t no motherfuckin’ member,” he says. “When I was in prison, I mean, yeah—but that was 20 years ago. I’m a filmmaker. I’m pushing 50, man. I’m too old for that. That’s for teenagers.”

In the current case, the heroin-possession charge against Barksdale and Tairu arises from their alleged interactions on June 22—when Barksdale allegedly tried to hoodwink Tairu after a police stop for a seatbelt violation resulted in the seizure of 1 ounce of heroin in the egg-shaped package. The stop occurred shortly after the two met at a Rite Aid parking lot off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, court documents say, though Barksdale was not arrested. About a half-hour later, Barksdale called Tairu to explain what had happened and told Tairu that the police “took both of them.”

“Based upon that conversation,” a federal agent wrote in court papers, “I surmised that” Barksdale “had actually been in possession of two ‘eggs’ of heroin and that the second ‘egg’ was still” in Barksdale’s possession, but that he “misled Tairu into believing that both ‘eggs’ were seized.”

On Nov. 27, Barksdale pleaded not guilty to the charges, which are being prosecuted by assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, who handled the complex series of cases filed against the BGF in 2009 and 2010. Barksdale’s court-appointed attorney, Nicholas Vitek, declined to comment. The case was initially assigned to U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who scheduled a three-to-five-day trial starting Feb. 24, but on Dec. 6, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge George Levi Russell III.

Walter Ingram pleads guilty while crying foul in federal heroin case in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014

In 2010, when Walter Louis Ingram was 59 years old, he was charged in a Baltimore-based heroin conspiracy, three years after his release from federal prison for a 1992 cocaine-conspiracy conviction. Since the new charges were filed, the Baltimore gangster – famous in the 1980s and early 1990s for beating murder raps and other serious charges here and in New York City – has been fighting them from his jail cell.

His efforts, which have spanned more than three years and as many defense attorneys, came to an end Oct. 2, when he pleaded guilty before U.S. District judge J. Frederick Motz and received a six-year prison sentence – less than expected in CP‘s prior coverage of the case.

Given the long time it’s taken the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office to convince Ingram to admit his guilt, it’s worth noting that Ingram’s plea agreement gives him credit for “apparent prompt recognition and affirmative acceptance of personal responsibility for his criminal conduct,” the document states, and for his “timely notification of his intention to plead guilty.”

Three years is a long time for the feds to put a case to bed, and Ingram’s posture during the lengthy proceedings has been, to put it kindly, intransigent. Given this background, the agreement’s liberal use of the terms “prompt recognition” and “timely notification” seem almost sarcastic. The plea agreement also includes a waiver of appeal rights for both Ingram and the government should the sentence actually imposed be 72 months – which is precisely what Motz gave him.

Even in pleading guilty, though, Ingram sounds like a fighter. City Paper today received a jail letter from him, which states that “after careful thought and consideration, I accepted the government’s recent plea offer very reluctantly,” noting that, in his view, the case against him “had begun to reveal a [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] cover-up of illegal cell phone tracking and a systematic disregard for the Federal Rules of [Criminal] Procedure, Rule 41,” which dictates conduct involving searches and seizures.

Ingram writes that, based on “the very limited disclosure of discovery material in my case,” he believes that electronic-surveillance orders used in his and other federal probes in Maryland have been unlawfully obtained from state judges, rather than federal judges, based on applications by federal agents “not acting with and under the direction of a state law-enforcement officer” – a no-no, he asserts, under his reading of Maryland and federal laws.

“This erroneous practice,” Ingram continues, “has been systematically perpetuated for several years under seal” – meaning, sealed from public view under judges’ orders – and “there are many other cases involving the same illegally used procedure.” He adds that “this type of conduct undermines the integrity of the federal judicial process” because “federal agents are using illegally obtained information for federal prosecutions and covering up how the information was obtained.”

The pattern of such alleged abuse, Ingram claims, continues in the case of Richard Anthony “Richie Rich” Wilford, who was a co-defendant of Ingram’s in the 1992 conspiracy case and is also currently being prosecuted in a federal drug conspiracy – though Wilford’s case so far remains unresolved.

When Ingram gets out of prison this time, he’ll be pushing 70 – maybe a good age to retire from the streets and instead go to work for a criminal-defense firm. After all, his storied past – including his legendary association with Kenneth Antonio Jackson, the politically connected strip-club owner, longshoreman, and filmmaker who was Ingram’s co-defendant in a famous 1991 New York murder acquittal orchestrated by super-lawyer Robert Simels, who’s currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation – is now ancient history.

New York Boys: A Queens Gangster and His Attorney Visit Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2003


Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, notorious for his ruthless endeavors in the 1980s as leader of a $10-million-a-year drug organization that fueled a crack epidemic in public-housing high rises in Jamaica, Queens, came to Baltimore federal court June 2 for sentencing on firearms charges. McGriff, an ex-con, was arrested in Miami on Dec. 28 for possessing firearms, in violation of federal law, during repeated visits to a Glen Burnie shooting range.

McGriff (pictured, from Wikipedia) is a movie producer now, with a new straight-to-DVD gangster movie out, Crime Partners, based on a Donald Goines novel and featuring Hollywood stars Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. And he was recently revealed as the behind-the-scenes money and muscle of Grammy Award-winning hip-hop record label Murder Inc.

U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Motz, who is presiding over McGriff’s Baltimore gun case, has seen his share of high-profile defendants over the decades, but a Big Apple movie-and-music mogul in a Baltimore courtroom is a very rare bird.

Watching McGriff’s back in court was Manhattan lawyer Robert Simels, a veteran of nearly a quarter-century of famed defendants–from Italian mobsters and drug lords from the ‘hood, to international bankers and Russian gasoline bootleggers. Among his clients have been a few well-known Baltimoreans with New York connections. Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected former lieutenant of Melvin “Little Melvin” Williams‘ heroin hierarchy of the 1980s, has used Simels to fight everything from tax-evasion charges to city liquor-board infractions. Simels represented William “Little Will” Franklin–a drug trafficker who in 1987 was indicted with Phillip A. “Phil Boy” Murray, owner of O’Dell’s nightclub on North Avenue, on drug charges–when he faced new drug-dealing charges in the late ’90s. Antonio “Big Black” Howell, former head of the East Baltimore gang the Nickel Boys, also turned to Simels when the feds closed in on his outfit.

McGriff, on the other hand, is a New Yorker with Baltimore connections–and the little that is publicly known about those connections suggests that Simels is going to have his hands full defending McGriff.

McGriff–who is known to use two other names, “Ricky Coleman” and “Lee Tuten”–pleaded guilty in April to gun charges stemming from his repeated use of firearms at Select-Fire shooting range next to the Glen Burnie Mall off of Ritchie Highway between January 1999 and June 2001.

Federal convicts like McGriff, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term after his exploits in the Queens, N.Y., high rises, aren’t legally allowed to possess firearms or ammunition, yet a certificate from Select-Fire contained in court files reflects that, in August 2000, McGriff completed a “tactical handgun training course” with a “L.E. [law enforcement] Firearms Instructor” whose signature is illegible. The New York federal prosecutor, Tracy Lee Dalton, who was deputized in Baltimore to handle the case after McGriff’s December arrest in Miami, also asserts in a May 28 sentencing memorandum that “on a number of occasions the defendant utilized machine guns” at Select-Fire.

A recent City Paper visit to Select-Fire elicited a shocked reaction from owner Wayne Nowicki. “Where did you get this?” he asked when presented with a copy of McGriff’s training certificate from his establishment. When told it was from the federal courthouse, he exclaimed, “Got my balls up my asshole,” and asked the reporter to leave his shop.

Select-Fire is one of two Baltimore-area locations where prosecutor Dayton places McGriff. The other is a residence in the Red Run Apartments complex in Owings Mills, where two men from New York were gunned down in the parking lot on Aug. 20, 2001. Inside the apartment investigators found McGriff’s fingerprints as well as the Select-Fire certificate, “numerous items related to [Crime Partners],” a stolen handgun, about $30,000 in cash, and “a large quantity” of cocaine and heroin.

The official line on the Red Run double murder, which remains unsolved, is simply that it appears to be drug-related. Four months earlier, one of the Red Run victims, Karon Russell Clarrett, had been nabbed on Interstate 95 in Robeson County, N.C., with 2.3 kilograms of cocaine.

Federal authorities in New York have linked McGriff to violence in recent years, though he hasn’t been charged with any related crimes. “In one instance, McGriff directed co-conspirators to kill a drug associate who, agents believe, McGriff suspected of cooperating with the government,” according to an Internal Revenue Service affidavit, quoted in the May 17 Sun, filed May 12 in a New York federal forfeiture suit filed against McGriff’s assets. “In another instance, McGriff was involved with the shooting of another rap artist named 50 Cent.” The performer in question, 50 Cent, has been at the vortex of hip-hop-world violence: He’s been shot on two occasions and has made a name in part on his resulting street credibility.

At McGriff’s June 2 hearing, Judge Motz handed him a 37-month sentence, to be served consecutively with whatever term he receives for another gun charge pending in New York.

“There is absolutely no excuse for you to be anywhere near a firearm,” Motz admonished McGriff, concluding that the only reason for the defendant’s gunplay at Select-Fire was “to keep your skills up, and that says it all. Felons have no reason to keep their [gun] skills up.”

Before the hearing, Simels bantered with the press.

“It shouldn’t even be in violation of federal laws [for a felon] to be at a firing range,” he insisted. When he went before Motz, however, Simels changed his tune, pleading with the judge for a lighter sentence, acknowledging, “It was wrong for [McGriff] to go.”

“This is a lot of attention for a little case,” Simels remarked to the courthouse press corps. But the widespread attention to McGriff’s misdeeds in Baltimore is due to his newly publicized stature as a player in the rap world.

Since last December, when the New York Daily News first reported that a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn was zeroing in on McGriff and Crime Partners, McGriff’s role in Murder, Inc. has taken shape in the press in drips and drabs. The probe, begun in 2000, is prying into alleged financial ties between the drug world and the rap industry.

The federal forfeiture suit filed on May 12 in New York against McGriff’s movie company, Picture Perfect, alleges that since 1999 McGriff has been laundering drug money, including profits from his Baltimore operations, through the Crime Partners project. Murder Inc. promoted the movie while Def Jam Records produced the film’s soundtrack, according to the suit.

Other entertainment-industry players crop up in the complaint, including Raven Knite Productions of Los Angeles, which is said in the suit to be Crime Partners’ agent. The company’s roots are in producing 1990s music videos, including ones for Marion “Suge” Knight’s Death Row Records. It currently gets decent work on the Hollywood periphery. In 2001, for instance, Raven Knite snagged a production credit for Queens-based Transcontinental Records’ jump into the movie world, Long Shot, a movie that describes as “a teen comedy with cameos from Britney Spears, Lance from *NSync, KC [of the Sunshine Band], and Kenny Rogers.”

“In or about 2001,” the IRS forfeiture suit alleges, a package to Raven Knite was intercepted by authorities after it had caught the attention of drug-sniffing dogs. The package was from one of Crime Partners’ co-producers, Jon Ragin of New York, a man with a criminal history in the drug business who currently is facing credit-card fraud charges in connection with the Murder Inc. investigation. Inside was $5,000 in cash, wrapped in scented baby wipes–a tactic, the complaint alleges, that is frequently used by narcotics traffickers “to disguise the tell-tale scent of their narcotics proceeds.”

Attempts to reach Raven Knite for comment were unsuccessful. The company’s listed Los Angeles telephone number has been disconnected.

With the federal investigation of McGriff and Murder Inc. heading into courtrooms, Simels is handling spin control as the feds’ version of events seeps out of the court files and into press coverage. Simels has said repeatedly that while McGriff has an ugly past in the drug business, his present moneymaking endeavors in the entertainment industry are entirely legitimate.

And profitable, by all appearances. After McGriff’s Dec. 28 arrest in Miami on the Baltimore gun charges, a magistrate judge concluded that McGriff should be kept in detention because he presented a flight risk, in part because his billfold is fat. In addition to the small amounts of ecstasy and heroin found in McGriff’s wallet when he was arrested in a Miami hotel, the judge proclaimed that McGriff “has extensive financial resources.” Presumably, then, he can afford Simels’ pricey legal services–unlike some of Simels’ past clients, like Good Fellas mobster Henry Hill and New York Jets football player Ken O’Brien, both of whom Simels sued for failure to pay their bills.

New York Attorney Robert Simels, Serving a 14-Year Prison Sentence, Co-Owns Baltimore Condo with Kenny “Bird” Jackson’s Mother

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2010


Robert Simels, the New York criminal-defense lawyer who for decades represented some of Baltimore’s most notorious drug-world defendants, won’t be using his Water Street condominium in downtown Baltimore anytime soon. In early January, he began serving a 14-year prison sentence for intimidating witnesses on behalf of one of his clients, Shaheed “Roger” Khan, a former Marylander convicted in New York of running a massive Guyana-based cocaine conspiracy.

Simels purchased Unit 1201 at 414 Water St. with Rosalie Jackson in 2008 for $362,300, according to land records. Rosalie Jackson is the mother and business partner of Kenny “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected ex-con who owns the Eldorado Lounge strip club on East Lombard Street.

Over the years, Kenny “Bird” Jackson made use of Simels’ prodigious skills as a criminal-defense attorney, including for a New York case in 1991, when Jackson was acquitted of the 1984 murder of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez after Gonzalez’ relatives testified against the government at trial. Today, in addition to running the Eldorado, Kenny Jackson is the producer/director of The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, a series of docu-dramas that claim to tell the real-life stories behind HBO’s The Wire.

Other notable drug-world clients of Simels who appeared in Maryland courts over the years include:

Eric Clash of the politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which also involved restaurateur Anthony Leonard of Downtown Southern Blues, a tenant of Kenny Jackson’s; Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, a legendary Queens, N.Y., gangster who faced gun charges here; and former fugitive Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008), an associate of accused kingpin Maurice Phillips, who is currently facing the death penalty in a lengthy drug-conspiracy trial in Philadelphia. (See also our stories on Green’s arrest [“Return Flight,” Motown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008] and his guilty plea [“Shawn Green Pleads Guilty,” The News Hole, Dec. 11, 2009] made in Dec. 2009.)

Big Target: Feds in New York Dub Indicted Defense Attorney Simels a “Danger,” Aim to See His Fees in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 12, 2009


On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Justice Department took two shots at Robert M. Simels (pictured, from, the self-described “Rolls Royce” of criminal-defense attorneys.

In New York, where Simels is charged with witness intimidation in connection with his defense of former Marylander Shaheed “Roger” Khan (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who is accused of running a violent Guyanese cocaine conspiracy, prosecutors called Simels a “palpable danger” to public safety and convinced a judge to keep Simels’ bond, which is secured with his $2.5 million Westchester, N.Y., home, at $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, in a Baltimore case that appears unrelated to Khan, another Justice Department attorney asked a judge to order Simels to cough up detailed information to a grand jury about how he’s getting paid to represent accused drug trafficker and money launderer Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008).

Just another day in the decades-long war between Justice and Simels.

In the mid-1980s, shortly after Simels had entered private practice on the heels of a career as a young federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s U.S. attorney, tried and failed to get information about Simels’ fee arrangements with clients. But today in Maryland, according to local attorneys, the law is clear that grand juries are entitled to look at attorneys’ fee arrangements, though they rarely do so.

“It’s rare but not unheard of,” says former federal prosecutor and longtime defense attorney David Irwin, when asked about how frequently the grand jury goes after attorneys’ fees. He predicts that “the government is going to win the motion and Simels is at best filing a delaying action.”

Simels is famous in New York for representing high-profile clients such as Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (“New York Boys,” Mobtown Beat, June 4, 2003) and Henry Hill, whose gangster stories have entered popular culture. But Simels’ Baltimore clientele over the years, such as Green, tend not to be household names–though they are accused of being high up in the game and are often well-connected. Two of them–Eric Clash of the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 2, 2005) and Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995), who owns the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club–have known ties to Baltimore politics.

The motion filed against Simels in the Shawn Green case, by assistant U.S. attorney Kwame Manley, is stunning for its disclosures about a secret grand-jury investigation. Green was captured after nearly two years on the run, and at his first court appearance in December 2008, Simels was at his side. In light of what the Justice Department reveals in Manley’s motion, the grand jury is interested in whether or not Simels was getting paid to represent Green during his lengthy stretch on the lam.

What’s known about Green so far is based largely on court records in Baltimore and in connection with a sprawling federal prosecution in Philadelphia against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO), in which Green is not a defendant. Real-estate lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother, Yolanda Crawley, pleaded guilty last year to their parts in Green’s allegedly illicit assets and activities, with interests spanning the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey.

Yet the Justice Department, according to the motion to compel Simels to open up his books, thinks Green kept up the conspiracy while on the run, after his co-conspirators were arrested. It expects to file more charges. The grand jury, the motion continues, “is continuing its investigation of Green and other individuals,” and “the Government believes that during Green’s nearly two-year period as a fugitive, he continued to launder proceeds of illegal activity through known co-conspirators in this case.”

The specific information sought by the grand jury from Simels concerns “attorney fees and retainers received for the representation of Green, the amount of funds received, the identity of the individuals who provided such funds, and the dates and manner in which such funds were provided (i.e., cash, check, wire, etc.).”

Last March, with Green still a fugitive, Simels told City Paper in a telephone interview that he was not Green’s attorney. The question was raised because court records show that Simels had been sent mail from U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in connection with the federal forfeiture of Green’s Reservoir Hill apartment building and recording studio.

Simels did not respond to messages left at his office for this article. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The government’s strong language came in reaction to a Feb. 2 bond-modification request by Simels’ attorney, Gerard Shargel, who sought to remove the secured money bond as a condition of Simels’ release pending trial. In it, Shargel points out that the bond set on Sept. 10 “was not based on any judicial finding that Mr. Simels poses a risk of flight or a danger to the community,” and thus asserts that the prosecutors cannot show that Simels poses such risks.

The prosecutors, Steven D’Alessandro and Morris Fodeman, went ahead and called Simels dangerous anyhow, while arguing that they are not required to prove that he is. In doing so, they restated the allegations–that Simels sought to bribe and threaten witnesses, including with violence–and note that Simels is wealthy, that the evidence against him is strong, and that his behavior was conducted in his role as an attorney.

“The Court can have little confidence,” the prosecutors continued, that Simels will not further obstruct justice “now that Simels, as opposed simply to a client, would benefit” from such crimes. Thus, they concluded, “there exists a palpable danger were the defendant released without significant pre-trial conditions,” such as the high bail set when he was first arrested.

The New York round went to the government when the judge agreed last Friday to keep Simels’ bond set high. Green’s judge in Baltimore, J. Frederick Motz, set a Feb. 23 deadline for Simels to submit his opposition to Manley’s attempt to open up his books on the Shawn Green account.

Union Busted: Ex-cons, and some current ones, find a home in troubled Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2010


Ask Michael Thames if he’s a member of the Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and the 42-year-old quickly pulls his Port of Baltimore photo-identification card out of his pants pocket. He’s been working for nine years on crews that load and unload ships calling on Baltimore, he says, and his brother and two uncles do too, as did his father until retiring recently. All, he says, are members of Local 333.

Thames is holding his Baltimore Orioles cap and sunglasses in his hand, sporting a black faux-leather jacket with lots of zippered pockets. A grill of gold caps his front teeth, flashing as he speaks. He has close-cropped hair and a slight mustache.

Yes, Thames says, he’s aware there’s a Local 333 election coming up on Dec. 3, and that Riker “Rocky” McKenzie is running for Local 333’s president.

McKenzie has already been president of the union once, having won the position in January 2009. But he was replaced in August by an acting president after the ILA’s national leaders in New York determined that a heroin-dealing conviction from the 1970s rendered him ineligible for the position, since felons are barred from serving as union officers. The day after the decision, McKenzie appealed. While he did not contest the conviction during a June hearing on the matter, in his appeal he contended he received probation before judgment in the heroin case rather than a guilty finding. Pending the outcome of his appeal, he’s allowed to be nominated as the local’s president. He has only one opponent: longtime Local 333 member John Blom.

And yes, Thames says, he knows McKenzie’s bid for president included a Nov. 15 fundraiser at the Eldorado, a strip club in East Baltimore co-owned by Kenneth Antonio “Kenny Bird” Jackson, an iconic Baltimore underworld figure—and a fellow member of Local 333.

Jackson hasn’t been part of an active prosecution since a generation ago (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1996), but his criminal history includes several notable convictions—manslaughter, narcotics, and gun possession—and he beat two murder raps, one in 1974 and the other in 1991. In between, he was twice pulled over in his car on the New Jersey Turnpike with large sums of cash during the late 1980s. The first time it was $91,000; the next it was nearly $700,000.

Over time, Jackson’s life quieted on the law-enforcement front. In a 2009 interview about a film he produced, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired (“Last Word,” Feature, Apr. 29, 2009), Jackson told City Paper he’d undergone “a transition from one lifestyle to another,” shelving his gangster ways and retreating peacefully to the simple life of running a family-owned strip club.

But Jackson is still a lightning rod for criminal and political intrigue. In the mid-2000s, a federal prosecution of a politically connected violent drug gang, the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), targeted a man who helped run the criminal enterprise while also operating a restaurant in a Jackson-owned building on Howard Street’s Antique Row. And Jackson’s mother—who co-owns the Eldorado with him—still co-owns a downtown Baltimore condominium (The News Hole, Feb. 22) with Jackson’s former criminal-defense attorney, Robert Simels of New York (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who’s now serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation.

It’s hard to imagine a man of Jackson’s stature doing wage-paying labor as a stevedore. And, in fact, he may not have, according to multiple Local 333 members who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, for fear of retribution. Instead, they say it’s common knowledge on the docks that another man, Anthony James Carroll, worked in Jackson’s place—a not uncommon practice known as “covering” (“Clocked,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 6). To shore up this contention, they share details about a woman who almost married Carroll, thinking he was Jackson, until the ruse came tumbling down after Carroll’s arrest when driving a stolen car in 2007.

“I don’t know,” Thames says when asked about Carroll standing in as Jackson at the port. “I just know [Carroll] worked down there [as a stevedore] before.”

Jackson did not respond to a detailed e-mail and could not be reached by phone. Attempts to reach Carroll, who court records indicate is now in South Carolina, were unsuccessful. The phone number he gave officials when he signed probation papers in October for a recent theft conviction is no longer active.

Thames is also aware that Local 333 member Milton Tillman Jr.—a politically influential bail-bondsman and real estate investor with two prior federal convictions for attempted bribery and tax evasion—was indicted by a federal grand jury early this year. Some of the charges against Tillman involve covering, alleging he was paid port wages for shifts he did not work. Tillman’s reputation as a drug-world figure was exploited in a federal courtroom in 2002, when since-deceased Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna, while prosecuting a case involving the 2000 shooting of Tillman’s son, called him “one of the most notorious drug dealers in Baltimore City history” (“Grave Accusations,” Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008).

Tillman and Jackson are arguably two of the most enduring names in the modern annals of Baltimore crime. And both are members of Local 333.

In addition to McKenzie, Jackson, and Tillman, Thames says he knows about the federal fraud convictions in September of three port timekeepers for covering. The case against the timekeepers, who are members of Local 953 and track dockworkers’ hours on behalf of employers, grew out of the federal investigation into Tillman’s conduct on the waterfront (“Collateral Catch,” Mobtown Beat, March 31).

Asked about the investigations and the upcoming elections, Thames says, “I don’t really have no recommendations. As far as Rocky and all them, all I know is what you know.”

The conversation with Thames occurred on Nov. 12 in a hallway outside a courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Thames, whose street name is “Gotti,” had just pleaded not guilty to an indictment accusing him of being a cocaine dealer. According to the charging papers, on Sept. 1 law enforcers descended on Thames’ Essex residence armed with a search warrant. The search turned up about five ounces of cocaine, about $5,000, two digital scales, and two blocks of mannite, often used as a cutting agent for illegal drugs.

Thames’ circumstances—along with convicted criminals Tillman and Jackson being Local 333 members and union president McKenzie’s hazy criminal charge—beg questions. Does Local 333 draw people with criminal pasts or presents? And if so, why? Thames answers as best he can, saying, “I don’t know.” Attempts at follow-up interviews were unsuccessful.


In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice in New York filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the national ILA. The government calls its target “the Waterfront Enterprise,” and says it is comprised of ILA leaders and members and associates of the Genovese and Gambino organized-crime families. Among the dozens of named defendants in the case are two Baltimoreans: Richard Hughes, the ILA’s president, who is the longtime business agent for Local 953 in Baltimore; and Horace Alston, a Local 333 member who serves as an ILA vice president in New York.

The purpose of the litigation, the federal attorneys wrote in a 2008 motion, is “to eradicate the pervasive and long-enduring Waterfront racketeering that has deprived” the ILA’s “honest membership,” the “innocent beneficiaries” of its pension and welfare funds, and businesses that use ILA labor “of rights and property for decades.”

Last week, the ILA’s problems in New York and New Jersey were put under a spotlight by the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the watchdog agency that polices port labor practices there. According to news reports, testimony revealed that an ILA shop steward makes $400,000 a year logging 168 hours of work each week, an ILA timekeeper earned about $462,000 in 2009 by getting paid for 25-hour workdays, and a cargo checker with mob ties had a no-show job. The hearings seek to reveal how irrational labor practices drive up port costs and create conditions ripe for organized crime to have a say over how billions of dollars worth of cargo is moved through New York Harbor each year.

The words “Baltimore,” “Maryland,” or “Local 333” do not appear in the federal case, which focuses on conduct alleged—or in many cases proven—to have occurred in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Nonetheless, the ongoing, slow-moving litigation casts a pall over the ILA as a whole, lending credence to the possibility that something about its institutional culture attracts, or perhaps even welcomes, criminal elements.

People like to say that Baltimore doesn’t have organized crime; instead, it has disorganized crime. There aren’t any Gambinos or Genoveses to infiltrate the ILA here in Mobtown, calling the shots about how cargo gets moved. Instead, there are run-of-the-mill, disorganized criminals. An analysis of the Local 333 membership roster bears this out.

Local 333 isn’t packed with people who have bribery, extortion, racketeering, kickback, and public corruption backgrounds. Instead, the records of many Local 333 members reflect the core criminality of Baltimore: drugs, violence, and property crime. At least a fifth of its membership consists of serious felons.

City Paper used online court records to determine that out of the 918 distinct port identification numbers issued to ILA members through Local 333, according to its roster in mid-October, 272 of them are held by presumably honest workers who have never been charged with a crime in Maryland in their adult lives. Thus, at least 29 percent of the membership is untainted by any criminal accusations at all, based on available information.

The number of completely upstanding members is likely greater, because, in the case of another 267 members, City Paperwas unable to ascertain whether or not they’ve ever had criminal charges filed against them in Maryland: Either their names were too common to match up with available information in the court records, or someone with charges or convictions on the record shared their name, but available information was insufficient to reach any definite conclusions. Of these 267, it is unknown if they’ve ever been charged with a crime, charged but not convicted, or found guilty. This group comprises another 29 percent of Local 333’s membership.

That leaves at least 379 members, or 41 percent of the membership, who are confirmed to have been accused of criminal wrongdoing in Free State courts at some point in their adult lives—though this number, too, is likely to be higher, given the 30 percent of members with undetermined backgrounds.

Of these 379 members, 219—almost a quarter of the union membership—have been convicted. By removing from the list of convicts those who were ruled guilty only of relatively minor charges—things like traffic offenses, cable-television fraud, open container, disorderly conduct, housing violations, leaving the scene of an accident, etc.—the list is whittled down to 194 members with serious criminal backgrounds, more than one-fifth of Local 333’s roster.

So far this year, 21 members of Local 333 have been convicted of serious crimes. All but one of them have prior convictions. Their 2010 convictions include: armed robbery, possession with intent to distribute drugs, drug dealing, attempted drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), firearms (three counts), sex offense, escape, theft (two counts), and assault (three counts).

One member, who was convicted this year of escape and drug possession, already had 10 convictions dating back to the mid-’90s for such crimes as drug dealing, battery, firearms, robbery, and car theft. Another, who was convicted this year of theft, also has an open drug-possession charge and has been convicted previously of drug-dealing crimes in 2004, 1997, and 1996. On average, before getting convicted this year, this group’s number of prior guilty findings is three, and three of this year’s convicts were first found guilty of a serious crime in 1993.

In 2009, 19 members were convicted of serious crimes. Six of them were subsequently convicted of other crimes in 2010, or currently face open charges. Their 2009 convictions include: assault (three counts, including one for assaulting a correctional officer), theft (four counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and escape (two counts). All but two of them have prior convictions on their records and, on average, this group, like 2010’s, had three prior convictions. The member convicted of assaulting a prison guard has drug-dealing and firearms convictions going back to 1995, while another, convicted of three counts of theft in 2009, has drug dealing and assault convictions going back to 1996, and faces new drug-possession charges this year.

Thus, the group of Local 333 members convicted recently of serious crimes consists almost entirely of repeat offenders, and several have records that make them appear to be career criminals. Being a Local 333 member, with access to good wages working as a stevedore, does not seem to have solved the recidivism problem for them.

It is possible that many of those with serious convictions in their past have put their criminal behavior behind them, with the aid of their well-paying jobs at the port. Of the 98 members of Local 333 who had serious criminal convictions in 1995 or before, 40 have never been convicted of a crime again (though one of them was recently arrested for drug possession, which triggered an outstanding drug-dealing warrant from 22 years ago). That’s a powerful statement about the rehabilitative effects of a good job. Among the remaining old-school felons, the picture is rather dismal.

These 58 aging criminals, on average, have been convicted three additional times since 1995. Eleven of them have five or more new convictions since then, including for: theft (13 counts), drug possession (21 counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (six counts), drug dealing (three counts), assault (10 counts), robbery (two counts), firearms (two counts), deadly weapon with intent to injure, conspiracy (two counts), violating protective orders (four counts), and 16 probation violations. The other 47 members, who have one to four convictions since 1995, display a similar laundry list of bad or dangerous conduct: assault (11 counts), firearms (three counts), drug dealing (seven counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (14 counts), drug possession (20 counts), and theft (nine counts)

In addition to the 58 members who appear to be career criminals and the 38 members convicted of crimes since 2009, nearly all with prior convictions, there are 23 members of the local who currently face open charges and are awaiting trial. They are accused of such crimes as arson threat, false imprisonment, attempted kidnapping, assault (seven counts), sex offense, felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug possession (nine counts), selling counterfeit goods, burglary (three counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and violating a protective order.

While Local 333 has more than its fair share of felons, new, old, or soon-to-be-again, it also boasts a high number of productive members of society who either have never demonstrated a criminal disposition, or shed their criminal lifestyles long ago. Whether or not these good people make up the union’s majority is hard to say, but they might. And the upcoming elections offer them the chance to control the local’s destiny.

When visited at his fundraiser at Kenneth Jackson’s Eldorado strip club on Nov. 15, Riker “Rocky” McKenzie declined to discuss his candidacy for president—or anything at all, for that matter. He refused to answer questions and said he was not interested in receiving a follow-up call to try to change his mind about being interviewed.

McKenzie’s opponent, John Blom, wasn’t eager to talk either when reached by phone a few days later. He was unhappy because a rumor had been making the rounds that he’d sicced City Paper on McKenzie, which was not the case. But Blom agreed to answer questions, though he was far from pleased with the prospect that his union would be portrayed as a den of thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells.

The union’s problems, Blom says, are not due to criminal elements in its midst, but instead to “disarray” and “infighting” that are detracting from its ability to defend workers from employers’ never-ending quests for labor-contract concessions.

“I was originally planning on retiring this year,” says Blom, who has been a member of Local 333 since 1977, “but I don’t want to leave with it in such a mess as it is in right now.” He says “there’s an incredible amount of infighting involving Mr. McKenzie,” and it’s gotten so bad that “people won’t work together. It’s pretty brutal, to the point of being, as far as I’m concerned, pretty dysfunctional.” He explains that “the infighting is making us ineffective when the companies are trying to wrest concessions from the workers,” but is circumspect when it comes to the details of what’s prompting dissension in the ranks.

“It’s all kinds of stuff,” he says, “kind of in-the-family stuff, so I don’t want to go into it. But it needs to stop in order for us to be an effective organization. I’m going to take a crack at making things better. I believe I can be a unifying force. I think I’m pretty well perceived as being a fair person.”

As for the contention, based on the roster analysis, that the local appears to have been infiltrated by active criminals, Blom believes the data City Paper turned up “pretty much matches up with the population of Baltimore City. Statistically, I don’t think that’s unusual,” he says of the high proportion of ex-cons, recent convicts, and recently accused people among Local 333’s membership. “We incarcerate people at a far greater rate than any other country in the world,” he points out.

Blom, who is one of the local’s many members without a trace of criminal blemish in his background, concedes that the local may have attracted some who want to be members just so “they can tell a judge, ‘Yeah, I work there, and I’ve worked there for five years,’ even though maybe they haven’t worked a shift in five years.”

Kenneth Jackson and Milton Tillman Jr., who both have legitimate business incomes, presumably don’t have to worry about explaining where their money comes from. Asked what advantage a union stevedoring job—especially one that they may not work—provides Jackson and Tillman, Blom says, “I don’t have a clue. That’s beyond my payscale.”

Blom adds, “I don’t even know who the Jackson guy is. ” Of Tillman, he says, “I recognized by sight the guy who said he was Tillman” while working at the docks, “and all of the sudden, he disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Blom is banking on winning the Dec. 3 election for Local 333 president so he can work to make the union’s problems disappear too.

The High Life: Ex-Con Has High-Powered Help in Opening Nightclub

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 1996


Kenneth Antonio Jackson, Jr., aka “Kenny Bird,” is out to become a leader in minority enterprise in the downtown entertainment market. By opening a big new nightclub, he and his supporters – including state Senator Larry Young and City Council President Lawrence Bell – hope to make “the region’s neighborhood” more inviting to the city’s prominent black middle class.

On December 22, Jackson’s lawyer, former Circuit Court judge and city solicitor George Russell of the law firm Piper and Marbury, received word that the liquor board had approved a liquor license and floor plans for the Sons of Italy building at 410 West Fayette Street, where Jackson has started renovations to open a jazz club/restaurant called the Royal Café. Jackson envisions the club as an upscale venue for national acts such as Lou Rawls and Aretha Franklin, which will attract middle-class and wealthy blacks over 30 years old.

Jackson’s initial plan for the large three-story building was to house a high-end/multistage strip club. Land records show KAJ Enterprises, a company owned by Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson, purchased the building in April 1995 for $250,000 from the Sons of Italy, a fraternal order. (Jackson manages his mother’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, at 322 West Baltimore Street.) But when word of his plan circulated among the neighborhood’s main institutions – Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, and the Downtown Partnership – the resulting outcry led him to change his proposal to something more palatable: a reputable jazz and supper club. At a September 28th liquor-board hearing about the proposal, Russell explained that “at first [Jackson] was thinking about adult entertainment; that is gone. … This is going to be legitimate. … Even I would go there.”

The focus of the hearing was concerns that the Royal Café will exacerbate existing security problems in the neighborhood, which on weekend nights already attracts as many as 2,000 rowdy young adults cruising the streets until the wee hours. Shootings, stabbings, and many arrests have occurred in the area over the past year or so. But Russell suggested that the resistance to this new club is really due to the fact that the owners and operators are black. “It is time for people … downtown to be willing to embrace others different from them, others whose culture may be different from them, to demonstrate to the community that we can get along here.”

Young also testified on Jackson’s behalf at the hearing, saying that the venture is a positive example of minority entrepreneurship. “When it comes to downtown business,” Young declared, “blacks to not have a fair share. And I’m here to say that minorities who come up with the right qualifications, follow the laws, and [do] all that they should do should be given the opportunity to participate. And this is an entrepreneur that I strongly support.”

Unaddressed at the hearing, though, were the issues of Jackson’s criminal past and the financing of his new venture.

Jackson’s rap sheet extends back to 1974, when at age 16 he was charged with murder and acquitted by a jury. In 1977 he was again charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 10-year suspended sentence with five years’ probation. From then until the end of 1984, Jackson faced 47 other criminal charges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, New York, and Falls Church, Virginia, involving narcotics, handguns, murder, theft, bribery, and harboring a fugitive. These included charges stemming from allegations that Jackson was involved in a drug war for control of the Lafayette Courts public-housing project, but those charges were dismissed in 1982, according to a 1989 Sun article.

Federal-court affidavits in 1985 named Jackson as a lieutenant in the drug ring headed by Melvin D. “Little Melvin” Williams, who was sentenced that year to 34 years in prison. Also in 1985, Jackson pleaded guilty to narcotics and handgun-possession charges and accepted a five-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. When he violated probation by leaving the state without permission – he and two companions were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike with $91,000 and a large amount of lidocaine, which is used to dilute cocaine, in their car – Circuit Court Judge Elsbethe Bothe gave him two years’ incarceration. Jackson appealed the case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which overturned the probation-violation conviction in September 1988.

In June 1988, Jackson was again pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, this time with nearly $700,000 in cash in the trunk of his car. He was charged with attempting to bribe his arresting officer with $200,000 and received probation before judgement. In April 1989, Jackson and two other Baltimore men were arrested by federal agents and charged with the 1984 murder in New York of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez. At the time of his arrest, federal agents also raided the Eldorado Lounge. He was acquitted of the murder charge by a New York State Supreme Court jury in May 1991.

Since returning the Baltimore after his acquittal in New York, Jackson has avoided new charges while making friends in high places. In last year’s elections, for instance, the Eldorado Lounge or Jackson himself gave $1,000 to the Schmoke re-election campaign and $3,500 to Bell’s successful bid for City Council president. When Jackson was seeking liquor-board approval for his new club, Bell submitted a letter to the board expressing his familiarity with Jackson and his support for Jackson’s venture. Both Young and Bell say they did not know of Jackson’s criminal past until asked about it by a reporter.

George Russell would not comment for this article, but Jackson says of his criminal history, “I’m trying hard to put my past in the past.” As indication of his efforts to do so, Jackson points out several public-service awards he has received in recent years, including a 1994 Mayor’s Citation from Kurt Schmoke and a 1990 Congressional Achievement Award from Kweisi Mfume. He is active in the newly formed political-action committee, A Piece of JUICE, which works to get African American men involved in the political process.

Shortly before the April 1995 purchase of the Sons of Italy building, however, Jackson and the building both figured in an undercover FBI investigation into the drug-money-laundering operations of businessman Gregory Scroggins and attorney Zell Margolis, who were convicted in December 1995. First assistant United States attorney Gary Jordan, who prosecuted the case, says that in March 1995, Scroggins introduced Jackson to Edward Dickson, a man he though was a drug dealer but was actually an undercover FBI agent. The purpose was to convince Jackson to let Dickson in on the purchase as a “silent partner,” Jordan says. FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations in the case document Scroggins’ opinion of Jackson, a childhood friend, as very wealthy, highly intelligent, and “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.”

As for the nightclub’s financing, land records indicate that KAJ Enterprises obtained a $200,000 mortgage from Maryland Permanent Bank and Trust of Owings Mills to finance the $250,000 purchase of the Sons of Italy building. The mortgage calls for monthly payments of more than $2,300.

Meanwhile, court records indicate that Jackson’s employment at the Eldorado Lounge paid $325 a week in 1988, although he says he now makes substantially more than that. Since Jackson is a convicted felon, he cannot apply for a liquor license; Mary Collins, who refused interview requests, applied instead. She is a guidance counselor for Baltimore City Public Schools.

Regarding the financing for the new club, Jackson explains that all expenses not covered by the $200,000 mortgage so far have been covered by revenue from the Eldorado Lounge. The extensive renovations to the Sons of Italy building ultimately will require a sizable bank loan, he says, adding that the Eldorado Lounge has applied for a $500,000 loan from Nationsbank.

Asked why the liquor board did not inquire during the September 28th hearing about the club’s financing or whether Collins has the money to fund such a major investment, liquor-board executive secretary Aaron Stansbury explained that the board simply chose not to. He also stated that it is “obviously illegal” for a straw person to hold a liquor license on behalf of the actual owner of the club, but his understanding is that Collins is the club owner, while KAJ Enterprises is merely the landlord; Stansbury says that it is legal for a landlord to fund the building renovations on the club’s behalf. “It is presumed by the board that [the money for the club] comes from Mary Collins,” Stansbury said. Of Jackson’s criminal background, Stansbury said the board was not aware of it “to the extent that [Jackson] couldn’t manage the club.”

Working Overtime: Drug Conspirator Eric Clash Says Cooperating Rehabilitated Him

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 1, 2009

His well-fitted gray suit and good-natured confidence lend 30-year-old Eric Clash the look of an earnest young professional as he stands behind the defense table on March 9 in U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles’ courtroom in Baltimore. With bright eyes shining under his clean-shaven dome and a light, trimmed beard on his chin, Clash doesn’t look like what he is: a second-generation drug dealer who, after agreeing to plead guilty to charges in a massive drug conspiracy, has spent the past three years helping the government make criminal cases. He appeared before Quarles on March 9 to ask for leniency, saying he left the thug life for good when he became a cooperator.

When Clash was first charged in 2005 as a member of the violent, politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which operated in Baltimore from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), prosecutors seized about $150,000 from his bank account and said he “occupied a high level” in the group’s hierarchy. Today, with Quarles set to sentence him, Clash is projecting the image of a changed man in grave danger, due to his cooperation with authorities.

Of the 13 Rice Organization co-defendants, Clash is one of three who remains to be sentenced. The other two are Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also have been revealed in open court to have cooperated with the government. The remaining 10 Rice Organization co-defendants–brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, Chet Pajardo, Eric Hall, Robert Lee Baker, Michael Felder, Keenan Dorsey, George Butler, Oreese Stevenson, and James Jones Jr.–are serving prison sentences, with release dates ranging from two or three years from now until 2030.

In addition to bringing a steady stream of cocaine to Baltimore, the Rice Organization was responsible for violence, including murder. Among the businesses associated with the crew was Downtown Southern Blues, a restaurant on Howard Street’s Antique Row whose landlord was Kenneth Antonio Jackson, an ex-con and strip-club owner with a long history in the drug game and local politics (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995). Several Rice Organization members gave campaign funds to local politicians, some of whom held fundraisers at Downtown Southern Blues.

One of the Rice Organization members, Pajardo, co-owned an East Baltimore corner-store property with Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith (“Star-Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 9, 2005). Another, Butler, was featured in 2005’s infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, produced in Baltimore to warn off potential cooperators. Clash, who bought and sold Baltimore real estate including a westside bar called the Red Door during his drug-dealing years, is the son of Edward Clash, who himself was convicted of drug dealing in 1994.

Four Rice Organization rivals–Willie Mitchell, Shelly Martin, Shelton Harris, and Shawn Gardner–were convicted of numerous federal organized-crime charges last fall. Among them were murder charges arising from the 2002 stabbing of three Rice Organization members, including Clash and Raeshio Rice, outside the now-defunct Hammerjack’s nightclub in downtown Baltimore, after a birthday party for Baltimore-born rap mogul Kevin Liles. In February and March, three rivals received life prison sentences while Martin received a 400-month sentence.

Both Clash’s lawyer, Robert Simels, and his prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Jason Weinstein, tell Quarles that Clash is over and done with his former life in the game, and that he holds promise in lawful pursuits in the future.

Weinstein says Clash is an “extremely bright man” with “impressive potential.” He says Clash’s sentence reduction will be “richly deserved,” since “‘exemplary’ is the word I’d use to describe Mr. Clash’s cooperation.” He reminds the judge that Clash had “less of a role in the conspiracy” than two other indicted Rice Organization members, Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also cooperated as part of their pending pleas.

Simels’ job is easy, given the prosecutor’s lavish praise for his client: “It is rare in my experience that I have heard an assistant [U.S. attorney] speak as glowingly as Mr. Weinstein has of Mr. Clash,” he says. And Simels, a New York attorney with a decades-long history of representing major drug figures in Maryland (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who himself is currently under indictment in New York for witness tampering in a Guyanese cocaine case (“Big Target,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 12), has plenty of experience.

Simels tells the court that Clash’s cooperation has been “remarkable in terms of his assistance to this community, and the United States as a whole,” as “set forth fully” in a sealed letter to the judge. He says Clash is married now, has professional expertise in real estate and construction, is taking classes, and has “adopted his faith as his guiding light.

“He’s not going to be in trouble again in the future,” Simels says. “At some point we have to demonstrate the sacrifice that he’s made” and “make sure the reward is an appropriate sentence.” The attorney recalls that at one point putting Clash in the witness-protection program was discussed. He says that Clash’s cooperation puts him in danger, and “to incarcerate him at this stage puts a burden not only on the [U.S.] Bureau of Prisons, but also on Mr. Clash, who will be looking behind his back at all times.”

Simels suggests that Quarles impose a “non-incarceration form of sentence.”

“I am pleading for leniency to save my life,” Clash tells Quarles on his own behalf. “I have put my family in jeopardy, myself in jeopardy. . . . I am here to better myself.” Clash says he now plans to help steer people away from crime. “When I was living that lifestyle, I knew it was wrong,” he says. “Nobody forced me into the decisions I made.” He says he wants to write a book to help others, especially children, get the direction he lacked when he was younger.

Clash tells the judge that while he was cooperating with the government, he spent three months working as a mortgage broker in New York, and that he went to Detroit, where he learned about educational broadcasting while working on a documentary for a major cable channel.

Quarles tells Clash that his cooperation “goes some distance to correcting some of the damage you and your cohorts inflicted on this community [by] bringing in more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine.” Instead of the 10-year sentence the federal guidelines call for, Quarles gives Clash 48 months, with credit for 16 months already served.

After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein explains that Clash received an extraordinary break. As a matter of policy, Rosenstein says, his office recommends a two-level departure for cooperators who help prosecutors in the case they are charged in, and two more levels if they help in other cases. In Clash’s case, he says, Weinstein recommended that Clash get the standard four-level departure for cooperators that helped in cases other than their own, but Quarles tacked on two more, for a total of six years shaved off the sentence.

“You really have to do a lot to get recommendations for departures of more than four levels,” Rosenstein says, but in cases of cooperators who go the extra mile, “we increasingly make exceptions to it. Ultimately, the judge decides.”

In this case, Quarles decided that Clash’s work helping prosecutors was valuable enough to schedule him for release from prison in late 2011, and, in order to enhance his safety, to have him assigned to prisons that maximize protection from the expected threats of other inmates.

It may not be all the leniency Clash was hoping for, but it’s a pretty good deal compared to the long, hard time his old Rice Organization running buddies are serving.

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.