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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 1996

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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.”

Mobtown Confidential: Thirty Years After His Mysterious Disappearance, Gentleman Racketeer and Block Kingpin Julius “The Lord” Salsbury Still Haunts Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore magazine, April 2000

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“Little Melvin” Williams is shouting through a thick sheet of Plexiglas at the Prince George’s County Detention Center. The burly owner of the recently defunct Scrapp Bail Bonds is awaiting sentencing on a federal conviction for possessing a handgun while on parole for earlier federal crimes related to his career as a major heroin trafficker. Williams has spent 22 of his 58 years in jail; he claims, among other things, to be an accomplished chess player, a martial arts expert, and a speaker of five languages. What he isn’t, he says, is a snitch.

“Mr. Levinson has made a devastating mistake!” he exclaims. “I’m known as ‘Iron Jaws’!”

The source of Little Melvin’s indignation is Liberty Heights, filmmaker Barry Levinson’s latest nostalgic ode to Baltimore. In the film, released last fall, an amiable, soft-spoken racketeer named Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) juggles his family life, his illegal gambling operation, and his burlesque business on the Block in the 1950s. His downfall comes via a gambling payoff owed to a villainous dope peddler named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), who first kidnaps Kurtzman’s son and then rats on a bookie. Kurtzman is targeted for prosecution by the Feds and arrested on Rosh Hashanah at a Cadillac dealership. “You know,” Nate says to his lawyer, “over the years in my business, you watch enough shows, you learn. A good performer knows when to get off the stage.” Nate quits the game and gets eight-to-10 years in the Big House.

The movie is fiction, of course, but the real-life Little Melvin knows that the shuckin’, jivin’, bug-eyed bungler in the movie is supposed to be him. And anyone who remembers the Baltimore of a few generations ago can tell that the doomed gentleman racketeer is drawn from the man Williams says once “called me his godson” – Julius “The Lord” Salsbury.

Salsbury, like Levinson’s Kurtzman, was a Block kingpin who was hunted down by the Feds. Unlike his fictional alter ego, though, Salsbury was never caught. After appealing a gambling conviction, he jumped bail and fled the country in 1970, eluding capture ever since. Legend has it that he went to Israel to enjoy the protections afforded Jewish-American criminals under the 1965 U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty. The grapevine says Salsbury died a few years ago, probably in 1995; if he were still alive, he would be 84 years old.

But the Lord never really left town; in his long absence, Salsbury’s legend took on a life of its own. Novelists and filmmakers have mined his tale for material; journalists have told and retold what is known of his tenure as Lord of the Block and entertained speculative reports of Salsbury sightings. In the process, Julius Salsbury became Mobtown’s outlaw hero.

The Salsbury myth holds the Lord up as the benevolent peacekeeping patriarch of the Block-based numbers rackets, an honorable man in a rogue industry that – like the East Baltimore Street nightclub district itself during its fondly remembered heyday – was tinged with menace but basically harmless. The nostalgia-driven take on Salsbury  and the Block during its salad days remains common among Baltimoreans. History – at least the popular version of it – has been good to the Lord.

Little Melvin Williams knows all about that, because right now it is being less kind to him: When he’s sentenced in March, Williams will get almost 22 years without parole. He’s locked up, probably for the rest of his life, and cast as the villain in the latest retelling of his fugitive godfather’s story. And the Lord, as always, has escaped without a scratch.

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Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915, Julius Salsbury was 12 years old when his parents, Isadore and Sarah, moved the family up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and opened a lunch counter on Pratt Street downtown. At 16, Julius dropped out of Edgar Allan Poe school on West Fayette to start earning a living full-time. His first vocation – cab driver – began by the time he was 18. By 21, he already lived on the Block and was getting initiated in the rackets.

Salsbury’s education as a gambler was interrupted by World War II. His draft number was picked soon after Pearl Harbor, and he served as a military policeman in Europe. But before the war ended, he accompanied a prisoner back stateside and went AWOL. Salsbury was caught and did six months of hard labor. When he returned to Baltimore in 1945, he was a 29-year-old veteran with a dishonorable discharge and nothing much to do.

In short order, Salsbury was back in the bookmaking business. In between day jobs lending his father a hand re-treading tires, bottling soda, and running a bar, he began to build up a gambling network. He eloped to Miami with Susan Clara Wellman, a young waitress who had moved to Baltimore from Pennsylvania, because his parents didn’t approve of him marrying a gentile. And he took his lumps in the profession – a bookmaking conviction in 1948 was followed by another in 1950. But the battle scars from his run-ins with the law readied him for bigger and better things.

By the early 1950s, the lowdown on the Block was attracting out-of-town press. In Washington Confidential, the bestselling pulp expose from 1951, Baltimore’s red-light strip was described as “one of the most vicious and lawless areas in the world” by muckraking authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. “At this writing,” they concluded, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything and it’s not much.”

That same year, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime sent its investigators to root out the Baltimore underworld. Long-established racketeers cooled their heels to avoid trouble from the out-of-town heat. And into the vacuum rose the Lord.

The nickname came serendipitously. At a wrestling match at Carlin Park one night, a grappler called “Lord Salsbury” entered the ring; Julius Salsbury and his cohort, who were there to watch the fights, adopted the moniker on the spot.

It fit like a glove. Salsbury’s demeanor was soft-spoken, aristocratic, and confident – a good match with his distinctive, sharp-featured countenance.

His gambling organization, however, suffered its early setbacks. In 1952, Anne Arundel County police raided his Glen Burnie bunker in a case that Salsbury took to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost; he got six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In 1954, he was nabbed for keeping a disorderly house and putting on an indecent show at Kay’s Cabaret, the Block bar he managed at the time. And in 1955, the Feds fined him $2,000 for failing to buy a required $50 gambling stamp.

But once Salsbury gained title to the Oasis Nite Club in 1956, he troubles with the law eased. Located at East Baltimore and Frederick streets, the club provided Salsbury with a way to wash his gambling proceeds. It also served as a home base from which to run a burgeoning empire. He bought a nice house in Cheswolde in Northwest Baltimore for his wife and three daughters. A fancy car and yacht rounded out the life of the late-1950s racketeer.

As a gambling kingpin and a Block bigwig, Salsbury was well-connected not only in the criminal world, but also with politicians and lawmen. The Lord operated in a carefully guarded region of society where criminal, political, and law-enforcement interests interweave – an area where corruption and cover-up put down deep and hidden roots.

People who worked for Salsbury remember politicians partying with Oasis girls on Salsbury’s boat. He was close friends with Baltimore political boss Jack Pollack. Pollack’s son, Morton, a lawyer and erstwhile Block habitué, says that “a lot of politicians, judges, and commissioners would go down to the Oasis at night.”

Retired Baltimore police lieutenant George Andrew, who headed the vice squad on the Block during the 1960s, suspected that Salsbury had high-up friends in the police department. “He really had somebody tied up,” Andrew recalls. “He knew somebody, but I don’t know who. But if I went on the Block, nobody would be there when I hit it. I wish I’d known – I’d have sent somebody to jail.”

Even Salsbury’s staunchest detractors admit that the man was a civilized racketeer. He shunned violence as an inducement for debt repayment; rather, he punished debtors by not allowing them to bet again until the account was settled. He was known as a generous philanthropist. And he didn’t hold grudges. When a drugstore owner on the Block was compelled to testify against Salsbury, the Lord stayed friendly with him and continued to eat at his lunch counter throughout the trial, just as he had done regularly for years.

But the image of the Lord as charitable rogue was marred by the reality of life on the Block during his ostensibly nonviolent rule: Murder, strong-arming, kidnapping, and intimidation were regular tactics of the Baltimore underworld in that era. In 1961, a troubling crime spree spurred a grand-jury probe of Block rackets, and the probe in turn set in motion the forces that would eventually bring down the Lord.

The trouble started in October of 1960, when Block restaurant manager Frank Corbi was shot at outside his house. The following May, his nephew Ed was ambushed by three masked gunmen; his bodyguard, Earl Fifer, was abducted and held for six days. In June, a Miami Club waitress was found murdered in a stream near Bowley’s Lane after being questioned by police investigating rackets on the Block; a car salesman named Edward Castranda was shot dead as he sat in his car outside the Dixie Diner in July. The three men arrested – brothers Orlando and Angelo Perrera and Benjamin “Hittie” Wildstein – were all major players on the Block and, as Morton Pollack recalls today, friends of Salsbury.

By September, eight Block club owners – including Salsbury – were indicted for various offenses involving the operation of their establishments. A fearful suspect in a numbers-writing case told the judge, “I can’t help you catch the big wheels. These syndicate people would do away with you.” Maryland’s U.S. Attorney, Joseph Tydings, announced that gambling profits were so great that racketeers nationwide spent an estimated $4 billion annually to bribe law-enforcement officers and sports figures. “Organized rackets are disciplined and able to rid themselves of people they no longer want in very efficient ways,” Tydings said.

In November 1961, Salsbury’s case came up for trial: He was charged in city court for pandering and maintaining a disorderly house. The judge and a state witness both reported receiving threats and received police protection. The witness, an Oasis dancer, testified that Salsbury once beat her up when she asked for a loan and that she and her children were told their lives wouldn’t be worth a “plugged nickel” if she took the stand. Still other witnesses were roughed up, left town, or changed their testimony. During a trial recess, a state’s witness in the custody of police was taken out drinking at the Oasis. Three police officers who patrolled the Block testified at trial that they’d never seen any problems at Salsbury’s club. Ultimately, after a retrial, Salsbury won acquittal. The Lord had slipped off the hook again.

In June 1962, the U.S. Senate had taken testimony about organized crime based on the Block as part of its investigation into corruption in the showgirls’ union. Salsbury – already fingered by the U.S. Attorney General as one of the nation’s top racketeers – was called to testify before the Senate committee, but under questioning asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Based on the information about the Block gathered during the hearings, Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota dubbed Baltimore one of the nation’s “great metropolitan fleshpots” and said its citizens have “the kind of city they want … the kind of city they deserve.”

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After Salsbury’s photo was on the front page of the newspapers during the 1962 Senate hearings, he was fixed in the public imagination – and in the sights of federal law-enforcement – as an organized criminal of national proportions. From that point on, his fortunes started to change. The year 1963 brought Salsbury a federal conviction for tax evasion, for which he served eight months in federal prison. In 1965, $745,000 in tax liens were filed against him by the IRS. And from 1963 to 1965, the FBI bugged the Oasis (illegally, it was later revealed) and picked up all sorts of nefarious activities: graft among city police and vice detectives and bribes to IRS agents, according to Paul Kramer, who as an assistant U.S. attorney later prosecuted Salsbury.

“There were people coming in and out of his office and getting picked up on the wiretap – payoffs taking place in his office, exchanges of information, and the women back there with them,” Kramer recalls today as he sits in his memento-crammed office. He now runs a criminal-defense practice. “It did show the corruption that was associated with this kind of behavior. I assume it’s probably worse today, with all the narcotics money involved, than we had with gambling.”

Kramer was in zealous pursuit of Salsbury for much of the 1960s. As one of Salsbury’s defense attorneys, Arnold Weiner – himself a former federal prosecutor – recalls, Kramer “was Captain Ahab and Julius was his white whale.”

Success didn’t come easily. After a 1968 raid on the Oasis, Kramer charged Salsbury with failing to purchase a required $50 wagering-tax stamp; hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law on which the case was based. Kramer came back at him in 1969 with a new harpoon – the Travel Act, which prohibits interstate transport of ill-gotten gains. That one connected: Salsbury was convicted and slapped with a 15-year sentence.

“For a guy who got convicted as a nonviolent gambler,” Kramer asserts, “the judge really threw the book at him.” The main rationale for the severity of the sentence Salsbury received, Kramer explains, was the public corruption bred by the Lord’s activities. “What made it was the amount of corruption that was associated with him: law-enforcement corruption, whether it’s the liquor board or federal agents or police officers. He even asked me if I could be corrupted, which I took as flattery.”

Salsbury appealed the conviction and – despite strident warnings by Kramer that the Lord would slip away – was allowed to remain free on bail pending the outcome. Days before the appellate court upheld the conviction, Salsbury fled. Given the high level of corruption surrounding the Lord, suspicions abounded that he had some high-powered help in making his escape.

“Where was the leak in the U.S. Court of Appeals when the decision came down?” asks E. Thomas Maxwell, a former assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore who prosecuted Salsbury in 1961. His raised eyebrows concerning the circumstances of Salsbury’s disappearance are common among afficionados of the Lord. Maxwell speculates that, if Salsbury had not fled and instead been imprisoned, information the racketeer had about public corruption could have erupted in scandal.

Kramer, however, says the question of whether someone leaked word of the appellate court’s decision in order to give Salsbury the opportunity to run is settled. “A lot of people thought that,” Kramer recalls. “There was an investigation and we determined that we do not believe that there is any evidence showing that there was any kind of leak out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Instead, Kramer believes Salsbury “was just playing the odds” on when and how the appeal would come down and fled town just in time.

The Lord took with him everything he knew about criminally culpable public officials, and in his wake he left a red-faced federal law-enforcement community. “The government was just embarrassed for many, many years” after the escape, says Maxwell. George Beall, who was U.S. Attorney for Maryland when Salsbury escaped, agrees. “It was an embarrassment to the FBI, to the government, that he was gone,” he explains. “They turned themselves inside out to try to solve the mystery.”

According to Kramer, Salsbury left his Horizon House apartment on Calvert Street and “went directly to Canada. We later determined that there was a safe deposit box in Canada. We finally got the search warrant for it and found it empty. The best we could determine was that he took a gambling junket to England, probably under an assumed name, and later we could prove he was in South Africa. Money was being funneled [to Salsbury] through Germany, we believe, from businesses being sold in Maryland.”

Besides the government, the other big loser when Salsbury fled was his friend and gambling colleague, the bail bondsman Robert “Fifi” London, who had posted a total of $80,000 bail that had to be forfeited, according to Morton Pollack. “I know for a fact that he was paid back” on Salsbury’s behalf by a third party, Pollack says. Fifi London died in the 1970s after a lengthy prison term for tax evasion, but his bailbonds firm lives on. In fact, Melvin Williams’ Scrapp Bail Bonds was (until it tanked due to Williams’ recent legal troubles) a subagency of London Bonding Agency.

Homicide author David Simon investigated the Salsbury case as a Sun reporter in the 1980s and early 1990s and concluded that the Lord ended up in Israel, living in a townhouse in Tel Aviv. Melvin Williams is full of insinuations that he had been in communication with Salsbury since his flight, has information about the Lord’s whereabouts over the years, and knows the truth about the man’s mysterious fugitive years. But, like any good gambler, Little Melvin plays that card close to his vest.

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Back in 1969, as the net closed in around Salsbury, Fred Motz served as co-counsel to lead prosecutor Kramer. Now the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Maryland, Motz was one of the men who helped hunt Salsbury down, and he understands well why the Lord still haunts the Block. “As you get older, you can romanticize,” he says. “It is an overstatement to say that the Salsbury people were sort of like Damon Runyon characters. [But] there’s a certain poignancy to the fact that that is now gone.”

Never mind that the real-life Salsbury helped cement Mobtown’s still-thriving reputation as a hopelessly corrupt and dangerous town. Forget that, during his reign, the Block was wracked with shocking violence, and the widespread public corruption Salsbury instigated to protect his rackets undermined the public trust in honest government. From the perspective of modern Baltimore, the Salsbury era still inspires a certain nostalgia for the days of honorable outlaws and crime that seemed at least to be organized. Maybe, Motz guesses, it’s only because corruption and violence grew so much worse after he left.

“[Salsbury] was really in quite strong control of the Block, and … after he was taken out, rough people came in and there were a lot more murders,” Motz says. “Nobody’s saying that crime is appropriate, but you are going to have crime. There’s almost a sense of longing for [Salsbury’s brand of crime], as opposed to what you see out on the streets today. I think that’s one of the appeals of the Salsbury story. It is something from a different era. And one senses that things are different now than they were then.”

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Redemption Song and Dance: Little Melvin Williams Is Not The Deacon He Played On “The Wire”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 19, 2008

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“I’m sorry I let you in the door,” Melvin Williams says as he ushers a reporter out of his warehouse office to the sidewalk outside, where the conversation continues. The old gangster has long been called “Little Melvin,” and he’s dressed all in black, save a blue handkerchief wrapped around his ankle that peeks out from below the hem of his left pant leg. He quotes the Bible, chapter and verse, and condemns the visitor as a “troublemaker” and a “snoop,” and he casts himself as “a peacemaker.” Evidence of this last claim comes when he shakes an offered hand as the time comes to say goodbye.

Williams’ righteous indignation is entirely in keeping with his current reputation as the wizened, redeemed OG aiming to keep souls out of the drug game, an image he earned playing a church deacon on the HBO television series The Wire. He’d lived up to his prior persona–the fearsome drug kingpin–until 1996, when he confirms he “saw God.” He then was nearing the end of a lengthy federal prison sentence, begun in the 1980s, for his leadership role in introducing bulk shipments of heroin to Baltimore. Williams became a bail bondsman after his release, but caught a gun conviction in 2000, earning a new 22-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis. In 2003, though, Garbis removed the career-criminal mantle he’d previously draped over Williams’ shoulders and set him free (“Little Melvin’s Holiday,” The Nose, Jan. 22, 2003). The old gangster’s public redemption was aided further by his Wire appearances as a man of God.

At 66 years old, Williams is boastful of his abilities in math, language, martial arts, and the law–especially the tax code. “I’m a world-class gambler,” he declares repeatedly during the two-hour visit on March 13, saying as well that he remains on federal parole and can’t go 40 miles from Baltimore without permission. It’s not illegal to gamble as long as any gambling income is declared for tax purposes, Williams asserts, offering to bet lunch at Sabatino’s in Little Italy that’s he’s right.

During the cut-short interview, Williams rolls easily with the tough questions about his continuing love of big-money craps games with big-time Baltimore drug dealers like Antoine K. Rich, whose intercepted phone conversations with Williams in 2005 prompted agents to search Williams’ house and seize more than $100,000 in cash, which Garbis later ordered returned. Instead, Williams goes ballistic over a question about his company, Correct Choices Inc., started in 2006 in order to “provide vocational skills training,” according to its incorporation papers. Listed on those papers as a Correct Choices board member is Ed Burns, co-producer of The Wire with David Simon, though that’s news to Burns.

“I’ve never heard of” Correct Choices, Burns says over the phone on March 11, adding that Williams has “never talked to me about something like” having him sit on a board.

When Williams is asked about this, he instantly becomes angry and announces the meeting is over. “I will never [speak] with you again,” he says. He denies the fact that Burns is listed in Correct Choice’s incorporation papers, insisting that the evidence simply doesn’t exist. City Paper has posted the paperwork here [136kb pdf no longer posted, but available in the public record].

Burns takes the situation in stride. “Now I got to see if there is money attached to this board membership thing,” he jokes, and says the whole episode is “just Melvin being Melvin.”

Williams has been a gambler since childhood, and today he’s happy to cop to the currency of this enduring career, saying “Who are you to judge?” when asked how it squares with his man-of-God image. He says his intercepted phone calls in January 2005 with Rich were about craps, not drug-money laundering, as law enforcers alleged. Williams’ conversations with Rich were enough to support a search warrant, and in the predawn hours of March 3, 2005, agents came through the door of Williams’ Randallstown home, recovering $104,703 in cash, including $90,000 found above the ceiling tiles of his basement bathroom, and a device used to detect room bugs. Prosecutors began forfeiture proceedings, claiming the money was actually Rich’s ill-gotten gains, but dropped the case after Williams won a lawsuit in November 2006 to get the money back as “unlawfully seized property,” according to Garbis’ order. Facts about the cash seizure and forfeiture case against Williams were not reported in the press until now.

To Williams, the predawn seizure of cash from his house was yet another example of the government’s corruption. He says that he first experienced it in 1967, when a police officer planted heroin on him to make a bust, and that all law enforcement has done to him since is the “poison fruit” of that first transgression.

“You know why I became a drug dealer?” he asks. “Because that cop put 16 pills of heroin in my pocket. Like Rambo said, they drew first blood. And all I wanted to do after that is sell kilos and kilos, and I know a lot of people died from it, but if they didn’t want a drug dealer, then they shouldn’t have fucked with me.”

Williams came out unscathed in his recent dealings with the government, but Rich was not so successful. Court records show he was indicted in October 2006 as a drug-dealing co-conspirator with the politically connected Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005). In August 2007, Rich was convicted under a superceding charge of a single count of drug dealing and sentenced to 87 months in the federal penitentiary.

“The Rice Organization?” Williams asks when Rich’s alleged ties to the notorious traffickers are mentioned. In the case, two brothers–Howard and Raeshio Rice–and a host of others, including Anthony B. Leonard, owner of the now-defunct Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on North Howard Street, were convicted of operating a violent drug business until they were indicted in 2005. Leonard’s landlord at Downtown Southern Blues was Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, who in the ’80s was a top lieutenant in Williams’ drug organization. Today, Jackson is a politically connected businessman with a strip club in East Baltimore and a sporting-goods store in Edgewood.

Williams maintains he was completely ignorant of any ties Rich and his associates had to the drug trade. “I didn’t know those young men from a can of paint,” Williams says of them, though he recalls joining them for craps games over a six-month period in 2004 and ’05.

“These kids had a lot of money, man,” Williams says. “I don’t care how they got their money and I don’t know. I met them at a filling station, and they said, `That’s the OG, and he’s got all kinds of old-time money.’ We played craps.”

Asked if he knows what Rich and the other craps players are doing today, he says, “I know some of them are in some form of federal confinement.”

At the end of the interview, on the way to the door, Williams changes his tune about his relationship with Rich. “We know each other–now,” he says. “If you’re still here in the next 15 minutes, Rich is going to call.”

Rich’s ties to the politically connected bail bondsman Milton Tillman Jr. were explored at length in a courtroom last fall. Tillman Jr., his son Milton Tillman III, and his business partner Bernard Dixon were acquitted by a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury of charges that they’d criminally manipulated the bond-writing system to get certain key criminal defendants out of jail. Rich was one of them, and the Tillmans admitted making honest mistakes in 2003 by double-posting property to help raise the funds to make Rich’s $2 million bail. But the jury decided no crimes had been committed. Last week City Paper described Tillman Jr.’s business ties to federal fugitive Shawn Michael Green, who has been on the run from a drug and money-laundering indictment for more than a year (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 12), and recapped Tillman Jr.’s criminal convictions for bribery and tax evasion.

Thus, Antoine K. Rich is a nexus to three of the best-known names in Baltimore’s annals of modern crime: Williams, Jackson, and Tillman Jr. Of the three, only Williams enjoys a deaconlike reputation, thanks to The Wire.

Burns, who was a key Baltimore Police Department investigator in sending Williams to prison in the 1980s, says he would be surprised if Williams was caught talking with Rich about how to launder drug proceeds, as federal prosecutors believed.

“They kicked in his door,” Burns says of the 2005 warrant and cash seizure at Williams’ house. “But if Melvin Williams is talking drugs on the phone, he’s either senile or not the man I know. When he talks on the phone, it’s tough to catch him, because he’s extremely cautious. Whether or not he’s in the game, I don’t know. I have no idea what Melvin is up to–though I guess I should,” Burns adds, laughing, “because I’m a board member” of Correct Choices.

David Simon, whose 1987 Sun series about Williams remains the most detailed treatment to date of the drug dealer’s career, says he too knows nothing of what Williams has been doing recently.

“I have not the slightest knowledge of Mr. Williams’ current affairs,” Simon writes in a March 13 e-mail. He explains that Williams’ theatrical skills won him a role in The Wire, and that he was cast as the deacon “because it seemed . . . that his involvement with Bethel African Methodist Church constituted a new phase in his life.” Simon adds that he has “no regrets whatsoever” for collaborating with Williams, and that he hopes that Williams’ “retirement from previous pursuits is an enduring one.”

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