Sweet Deal: Reptilian Records’ Chris X pleads guilty, gets probation on drug charges

By Van Smith

Published on March 23, 2011 in City Paper

On March 15, 44-year-old Christopher Neu, better known as “Chris X,” owner of Reptilian Records in Baltimore, started five years of probation during which he could face up to 60 years of incarceration if he is found to be in violation.

As Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill explained from the bench that day, after Neu pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, “I’m going to strike the convictions and enter probation before judgment” on all three counts, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

The outcome was hammered out during a bench conference between the judge, Neu’s attorney Andrew Cooper, and Baltimore City Assistant State’s Attorney Staci Pipkin. If Neu is convicted of new crimes or violates the terms of his probation during the next five years, Fletcher-Hill said he can “enter the convictions without any further proceedings” and Neu will face “the possibility of 60 years” in prison.

Neu, who was busted last summer as a result of a narcotics investigation, said in a post-hearing phone interview that “I feel damn good not to be in jail, and you can quote me on that.”

Cooper, also reached by phone after the hearing, explains that Pipkin’s plea-deal offers for Neu had come in a succession of proposals carrying ever-lighter sentences. At first, she offered 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended; then she dangled the prospect of suspending all but one year. In the end, Cooper says, probation before judgment “was a good result for everyone involved,” but was “a big benefit” for Neu.

Cooper predicts that Neu, who has no prior criminal record, is unlikely to violate the terms of his probation. He also points out that two other people charged in the investigation received probation before judgment despite the fact that one of them, whose past included prior run-ins with the law, had a gun seized when the police arrested him. Cooper also says he believes that the police conducted an illegal search when they came for Neu. Had the prosecutor continued to press the charges, Cooper contends, the case may have fallen apart before trial with a ruling that the seized drugs could not be used as evidence.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokesperson Mark Cheshire, in an e-mail, says that “the defense claim that this case involved an illegal search is baseless and played absolutely no role in the outcome.” Cheshire also took issue with Cooper’s assertion that Pipkin offered anything short of “prison time for the defendant. The presiding judge sentenced him to five years of probation, which is [the judge’s] prerogative and a decision we respect.”

Reptilian Records has long received coverage from City Paper, including awards in the annual Best of Baltimore issue in 1996 (“Best Open/Closed Store Sign”), 2001 (“Best Punk Rock Bastion”), 2004 (“Best Record Label”), and 2007 (“Best Relocation”). The store had operated on South Broadway in Fells Point for 17 years until 2007, when it relocated to North Howard Street, next to Ottobar, and then shuttered in 2009 (“Vinyl Destination,” Music, Jan. 14, 2009), opting for online-only sales. In addition to noting Chris X’s book-publishing foray (Q&A, June 22, 2005), CP marked two of Reptilian’s anniversaries with coverage: in 2003 (“Noise to the World,” No Cover, Nov. 26, 2003) and in 2010, when it was described as “Baltimore’s cornerstone underground heavy music outlet and record label” (“Chris X,” Music, Nov. 24, 2010). In the latter piece, Neu’s legal name was given incorrectly as Christopher Xavier Donovan; confusion over Neu’s identity delayed CP’s ability to obtain records of his legal troubles.

Neu was arrested on the night of July 30 last year, after Baltimore City police arrived at his closed record store at 2545 N. Howard St. They came there after having served a search-and-seizure warrant at 4903 Harford Road in Waltherson, where they arrested two men—38-year-old Michael Deming and 37-year-old Daniel Mersheck—and seized about 7 ounces of cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana, 27 oxycodone pills, a loaded 9mm handgun, and other contraband.

Deming, court records state, told the police “that he and his friend, later identified as Christopher Neu, ‘went halfs’ on a brick of cocaine” and “that a significant amount of cocaine was located” at Neu’s Howard Street business. As a result of this information, “two uniform officers were sent” there “to secure the location pending an investigation.”

After the uniformed officers arrived at Reptilian Records, court records state, a search turned up a pharmacopeia of mind-altering substances. In all, about 13 ounces of cocaine (street value: $16,740), more than 21 ounces of marijuana (street value: $3,635), 14 grams of psilocybin mushrooms, and hundreds of pills—mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone, but also Valium, Oxycontin, methadone, and muscle relaxers—were seized, along with other contraband.

“Neu advised he had borrowed more than $12,000 from a friend to purchase the amount of cocaine which he had possession of,” the court records state, noting that Neu “was cooperative throughout the entire investigation.”

Neu is also cooperative with CP, openly discussing his charges and the context in which he was caught. He is anxious to explain that he’d entered the coke-dealing arena only recently, in an attempt to dig himself out of debt, and that he had obtained the pills by purchasing monthly prescriptions from elderly public-housing residents who had come to rely on his cash payments to supplement their meager household incomes.

“I sold weed for years,” Neu says—something that this writer, as a patron of Reptilian Records and acquaintance of Chris X’s, had known, having purchased small quantities of marijuana at the store more than 10 years ago while working as a freelance journalist and bartender. “But I always said I’d never sell coke,” Neu explains, adding, “I broke my own rule and that’s basically why I fell. I never would have done that had I not been so desperate” financially, due to unpaid mortgage and property-tax payments. “Now I’m more in the hole than I was before,” he says, and “my first concern is paying [family and friends] all back for helping with my bail and my lawyer.”

Neu’s Howard Street property is currently listed for sale, he explains, which “is the only reason it hasn’t been foreclosed on.” He has been selling off belongings, and says he still has “plenty of stuff to sell,” including comics, posters, records, and other collectibles.

As for the pills, Neu says, “The truth is, I got them from older people who live in public housing, who got by by selling me their prescriptions. But I’m not running around selling this stuff—that’s why [the pills] were stockpiled. I was kind of loaded up on them, because I only sold them to a few people I trusted who had drug problems, so they wouldn’t run out and buy heroin off the streets. It was a way for them to stop putting needles in their arms.”

Regarding the police search, Neu says the officers “lied to get in the door. They said they had an anonymous tip of a woman screaming” inside his business. Cooper adds that, when the case was first brought in Baltimore City District Court last summer, “The officers admitted this in discussions outside the courtroom, that they made up the reason to go in to begin with. They needed a warrant, but instead they used a ruse to get into his place of business.”

Furthermore, Cooper says, having already found the drugs, the police secured Neu’s consent to a search. To be lawful, such consent must be given beforehand and voluntarily, but Cooper and Neu say it was tendered after-the-fact and under duress. “They told me,” Neu recalls, “that if I didn’t sign the consent, they’d get a warrant and tear the place apart.”

“It was a horrible search,” Cooper concludes. In the end, though, Cooper did not have to argue these legal points before a judge, since Neu agreed to probation in return for a guilty plea without a trial.

The experience prompts Neu to offer cautionary words for others who may be tempted to try to turn a quick buck in the drug game: “Hey kids,” he says, “don’t do what I did. Pay your taxes and keep your noses clean.”

The Maryland GOP on Pot: Free State Republicans have been warming to marijuana reform, but support for legalization so far remains a pipe dream

By Van Smith

Published April 20, 2015 in City Paper

While 2014 was a watershed year in the annals of liberalizing Maryland’s pot laws, ringing in decriminalization and revamped medical-marijuana laws, 2003 was a big one, too.

That’s when then-governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, signed into law a bill meant to protect medical-marijuana users from serious criminal penalties for possession. Ehrlich wholeheartedly supported the measure, even though only 35 percent of his party’s legislators gave it the thumbs up, according to voting records. When the med-pot laws were reformed last year, though, the Maryland GOP’s evolution on the issue was shown to be a sea change: 75 percent of them voted for it.

“They’ve come a long way since 2000, when I first sponsored the medical-marijuana bill,” says Donald Murphy, a former Republican state delegate who represented parts of Baltimore and Howard counties from 1995 to 2003 and now works as a federal-policies analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national group looking to liberalize pot laws.

The nation’s views on pot have shifted significantly too since Murphy first proposed medical-marijuana liberalization in Maryland. In 2000, according to long-term polling by Gallup, 64 percent opposed legalizing marijuana use, 31 percent supported it, and 5 percent had no opinion. In 2014, it was 51 percent to 47 percent in favor, with 2 percent having no opinion. The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, found support for legalization jumped quickly this decade, from 41 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2014. Legalization is popular in Maryland–a majority support it, according to the Goucher Poll, which also found that Marylanders think tobacco, alcohol, and sugar pose more serious health risks than pot.

These changes pose a conundrum for Republicans, who “tend to be conflicted between their desire for small government and their support for law and order,” explains Murphy. “But they are beginning to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a failure, a significant waste of resources, and more and more have to face the hypocrisy of their own prior drug use. There are few who will take the lead in drug-policy reform, but just as few who support the status quo.”

Among conservatives looking for ways the GOP can gain a toehold on the winning side of culture wars, marijuana is a hot topic–so hot that activists are looking to make it an issue that can help separate the wheat from the chaff in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, according to Brookings Institution fellow John Hudak’s analysis of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., which drew about 3,000 attendees. When polled on the question of legalization, 41 percent of CPACers said they support it, while another 21 percent said they want it legally available for medical purposes only. Marijuana policy “made its way into speeches and Q&A sessions not as a tongue-in-cheek, light moment,” Hudak wrote, “but as one of many serious policies of interest to the CPAC crowd.”

The shifting conservative landscape on pot laws is significant to Maryland because, for this year and the next three years (and possibly the next seven), any pot-liberalizing bills the Democrat-controlled legislature may pass–legalization being the Holy Grail–will need the signature of new Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose upset victory last fall in this heavily Democratic state wowed the nation. In 2018, presumably he’ll run for re-election with all the benefits of incumbency. While Hogan’s position on weed appears unequivocal–”I’m opposed to full legalization of marijuana,” he wrote in the Sun’s Voter Guide last fall–he’s left himself some wiggle room by sounding alarm bells about how prohibition is enforced: It “seems unjust,” he wrote, to imprison people “for a very small amount of marijuana, destroying their chances of employment, and exposing them to violent offenders.”

A majority of Republicans in the Maryland Senate, meanwhile, have shown themselves to have open minds on the pot issue. Seven of 12 GOP senators voted for decriminalization last year. While this surely had little bearing on the GOP’s gains in last fall’s elections–two seats were picked up in the Senate, and seven in the House–this pro-decriminalization crowd is moving up in the world of Republican politics in Maryland.

Only two of the seven pro-decriminalization GOP senators remain in the Senate, but of those who left, two are county executives–Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Barry Glassman of Harford County–and two joined the Hogan administration: David Brinkley is the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, and Christopher Shank is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Of the GOP’s two pro-decriminalization senators still sitting, one–J.B. Jennings (District 7, Harford and Cecil)–is the chamber’s minority leader and has announced he’ll run for U.S. Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District), should Harris run to take the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

On the House side, on the other hand, almost all Republicans were loathe to support decriminalization last year. Only three of the 43 GOP delegates voted for it: Michael Smigiel (District 36, Caroline, Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s), Robert Costa (District 33B, Anne Arundel), and Herb McMillan (District 30, Anne Arundel). Costa retired, McMillan is now chief deputy minority whip, and Smigiel lost a close race in last year’s primary–but recently announced he’s back in the game, planning to run in 2016 against Harris, in part because of Harris’ much-publicized, unsuccessful effort last year to derail Washington, D.C.’s pot-legalization law.

Thus, among this year’s roster of 64 GOP senators and delegates, only three who voted for decriminalization–Jennings, McMillan, and Sen. Edward Reilly (District 33, Anne Arundel)–still sit in the legislature. But voting in the recently ended General Assembly session shows that room still remains in the Maryland GOP’s tent for pot liberalization-and it’s coming in part from newly elected legislators.

A bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia passed this session, and while only one Republican voted in favor of the Senate version–Justin Ready (District 5, Carroll)–among House GOP members it fared surprisingly well. Seven voted for it: Carl Anderton (District 38B, Wicomico), Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C, Wicomico and Worcester), Robert Flanagan (District 9B, Howard), Robin Grammer (District 6, Baltimore County), McMillan, Christian Miele (District 8, Baltimore County), and Chris West (District 42B, Baltimore County). In a sign that last fall’s elections may be prompting a slight shift in House Republicans’ heretofore rigid anti-pot mindset, five of them–Anderton, Carozza, Grammer, Miele, and West–are newly elected.

West voted to decriminalize pot paraphernalia because, he says, “so long as someone can’t be put in jail for possessing marijuana itself, it makes no sense to have laws on the books” that make possessing pot-smoking paraphernalia like rolling papers or a pipe a criminal offense. However, he stresses, “I’m against totally legalizing marijuana until at least two things happen.” First, he says he would need to be shown that marijuana “does not permanently damage your brain.” Second, he continues, “there needs to be a way to deal with people driving under the influence of marijuana,” since there’s “no way” right now to determine whether a driver is high without “drawing blood,” and, “I don’t think people would permit state troopers to pull out a syringe and take their blood, or be detained for hours so a they can prepare a warrant for a doctor to draw blood.”

Hogan and Shank declined to offer insights into their current views of the changing marijuana-law landscape. Asked to comment on the findings of City Paper’s analysis of how GOP legislators’ voting patterns on pot-reform measures have been changing, and how lifting prohibition fits in with conservative values, both demurred through their communications directors. Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, confirmed that Hogan’s campaign position on the issue–that he’s anti-legalization but concerned about the social costs of penalties for possessing small amounts—remains unchanged. Both Montgomery’s and Shank’s communications manager, Patty Mochel, said the men would be happy to discuss the issue once Hogan decides whether or not he’ll sign the pot-paraphernalia bill.

Among GOP legislators, meanwhile, legalization appears to remain anathema. Typical sentiments are those voiced by state Del. Kathy Afzali (District 4, Frederick and Carroll), who’s on the record as “adamantly opposed to the legalization of any drugs,” and Ready, who’s stated that “while I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of decriminalization, if we legalize it, we say to children and young adults that it’s OK to smoke marijuana.” But some have left room to shift their stances. Grammer told the Dundalk Eagle that he’s opposed to legalization, though he’s “not going to commit without seeing a bill.” Newly elected state Del. Haven Shoemaker (District 5, Carroll), meanwhile, told the Carroll County Times last fall that “I oppose marijuana legalization at this time until we have had a chance to see the effects of legalization in states like Colorado.”

Murphy of the MPP, when told of Shoemaker’s statement, remarked that “if you can talk about this in red-meat conservative Carroll County, then you can talk about it anywhere.” Still, Murphy does not see legalization coming to Maryland any time soon. He says that the newly minted decriminalization law and the just-reformed med-pot laws in Maryland “slow the process down,” because legislators want to “watch and see what happens” as the fresh changes are rolled out, just as they want to “see what happens with legalization in other states.”

“I understand the delay on this,” Murphy says of Maryland’s currently cool reception to the prospect of legalization. “It took us 15 years to get to medical marijuana, so I don’t expect that recreational will happen overnight,” he says, “but it’s more a matter of when than if. Legislators are getting in the way of the people on this, and it’s only a matter of time before they wise up. I suspect they’ve wised up already but are afraid to act on it, and Colorado gives them an excuse to wait.”

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 25, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 9, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 10, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Head: “Talking Dan” And The Demise Of A Davis Street Nightclub

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 2007

Daniel Gerard Joaquin McIntosh Sr. manages the Talking Head Club downtown on Davis Street, where he’s better known as “Talking Dan.” In the run-up to the club’s announced Dec. 31 closing, though, McIntosh and the club’s president and liquor license holder, Roman Kuebler, kept mum, declining to talk with City Paper music editor Jess Harvell. Working on a story about the closing, Harvell consulted City Paper‘s news side, searching for ways to hunt up the current owner of the building where the business is located. Ten minutes of internet searching later, and it began to look like Talking Dan–who has a lengthy record of criminal charges, including a 2005 pot conviction–might be part of the Talking Head’s problem. Once McIntosh was informed of the findings on Dec. 28, he addressed such concerns at length over the phone.

“I sold some pot, I got into trouble for it,” McIntosh, 31, says of his criminal record. “Apparently now everything I’ve done in my past is going to be an issue with the Talking Head.”

McIntosh says that Kuebler was aware of McIntosh’s troubled past with the law before bringing him in as a partner in the business a few years ago, and that Kuebler was understanding when McIntosh was convicted in 2005 in Baltimore County of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

“He said, `I know you’re a good person,'” McIntosh recalls Kuebler saying, “`I’m your friend, and I’m not going to hold this against you.'” Kuebler did not return phone calls for this article.

McIntosh asserts that his legal entanglements have nothing to do with the Talking Head closing, which instead is due to a recent financial coup de grace. “We were beating a horse for four years, to make it move,” McIntosh says of the club’s struggling operations, “and then stuff like that happens.” The “stuff,” McIntosh explains, revolves around preparations he and others had made recently to purchase the Talking Head building at 203 Davis St. Their efforts, which McIntosh says included paying for a $2,600 appraisal, came to naught when the club’s vending machine provider, Michael J. DePasquale, Jr., got a contract to buy the place from under the Talking Head. Compounding this wrinkle, McIntosh adds, was the club’s ongoing inability to make timely rent payments and the status of its lease under changing property owners.

What McIntosh didn’t know was that DePasquale filed criminal harassment and telephone misuse charges against him on Nov. 12, 2006, and that a trial date in the case is scheduled for Jan. 4. “I had no idea about that,” McIntosh responds when told. “Wow. That’s very interesting. I’m on probation for my other shit. My next call will be to my attorney.”

DePasquale’s complaint states that McIntosh was “threatening me and my wife” because “he objects to me purchasing a property, that we are settling on 11-17-06–he is a tenant there.” The complaint says DePasquale has saved recordings of threatening messages from McIntosh. “I have told him to stop,” the complaint ends, but McIntosh “continues to threaten our lives and violence [sic].”

DePasquale, reached by phone on Dec. 28, declined to comment, saying the criminal complaint against McIntosh speaks for itself. As for McIntosh’s claim that DePasquale sought to snatch the property up from under the Talking Head, DePasquale says, “you’re a reporter, you know not to believe that.” McIntosh says that DePasquale’s contract to buy the building has since lapsed.

McIntosh, meanwhile, says he would prefer the Talking Head go out gracefully, with prospects for re-opening elsewhere. “I wanted to end it on a happy note,” he says. “I tell you, I just like rocking and rolling, and I’m trying to end it on a nice, exciting note. We’ve discussed a few locations–in a neighborhood of some kind, maybe Hampden.

“I grew up in Hampden, and I’d be into bringing something back, to go back and offer something of pure substance,” McIntosh continues. “I know the names of a lot of those junkies on those corners in Hampden, ’cause I’m a very rare case, one of the few who I came up with who did not wind up junkies or in jail.”

Actually, McIntosh acknowledges, he’s been both a junkie and in jail. In the late 1990s, he did time in York, Pa., on drug charges, and earlier in the 1990s “I was a straight-up fucking junkie–but I don’t see what that has to do with the Talking Head,” McIntosh says. Since then, his troubles have continued, though he says his “intent is pure” and that his more recent legal imbroglios amount to “a few questionable things in the eyes of some,” as opposed to his earlier misdeeds, which were “questionable things in the eyes of everyone.”

The 2005 Baltimore County pot conviction, McIntosh says, wasn’t as big a deal as it appeared. “They had a tip that I was some kind of drug kingpin and came in looking for 100 pounds of weed,” he recalls of the Nov. 3, 2004, raid on his Pikesville home. “And they walked away with an ounce and a half.”

According to the court file, the raid also turned up lights for growing pot and $4,800 in cash. On the same day, police followed McIntosh to another location in Baltimore City, where they recovered 36 live pot plants, six pounds of pot, $41,742 in cash, and two guns.

“They followed me to his house and busted his house,” McIntosh recalls, adding that “it was kind of my fault” the location was raided.

McIntosh was not convicted in connection with the Baltimore City haul, only with what was at his Pikesville home, and he pleaded guilty. The court noted his prior convictions–a 1993 assault and a 1997 drug possession with intent to distribute–and gave him a three-year suspended sentence, 80 hours of community service, and two years of supervised probation.

Just before midnight on Nov. 15, 2004–the day before he was indicted in Baltimore County as a result of the raid–McIntosh was pulled over on Calvert Street in Mount Vernon for having a headlight out. He was found to have a suspended license for outstanding child-support commitments; the arresting officer searched McIntosh and found six Valium pills in his pocket. For that, on Feb. 14, 2005–two days before his Baltimore County pot conviction–McIntosh earned a drug-possession conviction with a 90-day suspended sentence and one year of probation.

Since 2002, when the Talking Head first opened, McIntosh has been embroiled in a series of legal battles with the mothers of two of his three children. McIntosh’s need for legal representation on these matters (not to mention the criminal cases), on top of the responsibilities of being a father providing for his children, translate into a need for income that the Talking Head hasn’t met recently, he says.

The club, McIntosh says, “doesn’t pay anybody anymore, and hasn’t been for six months, and I essentially stopped working there.” Instead, he says he “does a lot of construction work,” and collects rent on properties that he’s involved in. “I come from poor,” he stresses, “so I just roll around and get it where I can–it’s all just money in my pocket.” Things are looking up, financially, he says, since he moved recently to Sparks in Baltimore County.

Since McIntosh’s problems overlap with the Talking Head’s problems–at least insofar as the pending charges filed by DePasquale are concerned–McIntosh seeks to distance himself from the club. “I’m not actually the owner of the company,” McIntosh asserts. But the 2005 renewal application for the club’s liquor license, which was filled out by Kuebler, the licensee, lists McIntosh as 25 percent owner, with the rest belonging to Kuebler. “That’s roughly true,” McIntosh says, “but that’s just something that Roman said–there’s nothing in the company’s corporate charter about that.” Kuebler did not respond to requests to clear up the questions about the club’s ownership structure.

McIntosh, meanwhile, decries City Paper‘s interest in his problems. “This is not something the alternative press should be doing,” he says, adding that “you’re going after the wrong side here.” His complaints about City Paper aren’t new. In the 2005 Best of Baltimore issue, the club was designated “Best Rock Club,” and, while praising its esoteric bookings of local and traveling bands, the write-up included an unsupported observation about Talking Head Club’s “laissez-faire approach to underage drinking.” The paper apologized in print for the misstep, but McIntosh was agitated by the insinuation.

In talking about his problems and the end of the Talking Head for this article, though, McIntosh speaks at length, in reasoned tones, with an it-is-what-it-is attitude.

“I just felt the need to call you and say a few things because it would be a shame for all who are involved with the club to be tarnished by me,” he says. “I’ve looked at my [court] record before, and said, `That guy’s a fucking killer,’ so I can understand” why it’s newsworthy. “But, as crazy as [the record] looks, every single one of those things is easily explained. It’s all been blown out of proportion.”

Talking Trash

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Baltimore loses one of its only small venues promoting indie/avant music and you eulogize the loss with a smear piece (“Talking Head,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3). Dan McIntosh’s criminal record has absolutely nothing to do with his management of the Talking Head. If anybody at City Paper really got to know the guy, they would realize his heart is in the right place. As 2007 dawns the future looks grim–no Talking Head and an alternative weekly that has descended journalistically to the level of a shitrag.

Matthew Selander

“Travesty” sums up Van Smith’s recent pulp schlock, ostensibly on the long-anticipated closure of the Talking Head Club, but more so a hatchet job of sensationalist journalism. I’d imagine it would be more than a little embarrassing for CP‘s senior editors to concoct apologia for Smith’s giddy voyeurism masquerading as investigative reporting.

The irony, however, is at our voyeur’s expense. His breathless expose of the seedy inner workings of this fringe club confuses a “scoop” with public knowledge. Didn’t he find it a little striking how unabashedly candid Dan McIntosh would be with a reporter, and on the record? Besides, anyone with even a pedestrian familiarity with the goings-on of the Davis Street building over the past decade-plus, including years long before McIntosh ever made his mark, might find the prudish swoon of the piece a little sigh-inducing. “Vice in a dive bar!? Well, I NEVER…!”

With questions about a third incarnation of the Head remaining just that, I think we can do without the boring kind of rock-scene hagiography we’d often get at a time like this. However, I can’t help but lament a wasted opportunity to give voice to the thoughts of the many Davis Street faithful that damn near grew up in that weird Tudor hovel, or at least give a decent account of its time as the Talking Head with some sense of context and history for the younger crowd.

But then again, maybe it’s kudos for Smith over on Park Avenue; his muckrake has caught whiff of just the kind of juicy poot that CP intends for the Annals of Baltimore Scene Legend! Or maybe they could just dig a little deeper into that DePasquale guy for some truly buff stuff….

Michael Baier

So City Paper did a bit on Dan from the Talking Head in regard to its closing. Whereas an article on the history of the building, who’s been in there–Talking Head, Ottobar, pre my time, etc.–and all the great stuff the place has done would have been rad, instead City Paper decided to smear Dan across the page.

I pretty much think that is horseshit.

Are you going to tell me everyone has a clean past with no screwups? Hell…I was arrested at the age of 14 for possession and attempt to distribute with marijuana and speed and subsequently expelled from high school for a year. I have had many an unpleasantly ending relationship that you could dig some dirt up on, I’ve stolen, got in fights, did my share of property destruction here and there, played the I-don’t-care-about-anyone-but-myself gig…but you know, that is what got me to here, where I am today: operating the Baltimore Free Store and really being able to make an impact on Baltimore.

Running Dan into the ground was a low blow and really put a bad taste in my mouth with regard to City Paper. We all have skeletons in our closet. I don’t see why it is necessary to display them to the world, especially when it seems like all it is is a back and fourth between City Paper staff and one individual. I don’t see how his past has anything to do with the Talking Head. If you were trying to pass judgment on his managing abilities as reasoning for the closing of the Talking Head, then you need to bring up issues that relate to business practices, not drug use or issues within his personal life.

I love you, City Paper, but sometimes you make me want to use you for kindling rather than reading.

Matt Warfield

Your story about the closing of the Talking Head nightclub sounded more like an episode of America’s Almost Wanted than it did a story about a group of Baltimore artists, entertainers, restaurateurs, and impresarios who came together earlier in this millennium to successfully establish and run an extraordinary music, social, and beverage venue by, of, and for the people of Baltimore.

And despite your insinuations to the contrary and your largely irrelevant information about the club, the folks who kept the Talking Head going these years (including the “president and liquor license holder” Roman “Guitar” Kuebler) in my view have consistently behaved conscientiously and even scrupulously with regard to their legal and dare-I-say social responsibilities and obligations under the law; this continuing attitude on your part to suggest otherwise borders on libel, and if not that, at least dickheadism of the worst kind.

I for one would rather know how the joint came to be, who played there, who went there, and where they will go now in Baltimore for a true alternative venue.

Frankly, the building on Davis Street, in my opinion, is a not-quaint, disgusting firetrap with dysfunctional plumbing, poor acoustics, and not nearly enough “liebensraum” for the rockers and rollers and movers and groovers who happily congregated there and supported the noteworthy tunesmanship of the Talking Headers.

Its new owner would do well to erect a nice little parking structure or another “badly needed” law office building. Seriously.

Hopefully, the TH folks will find new permanent quarters and continue bringing the Baltimore experience to music lovers from around the globe and beyond.

And why don’t you investigative journalists down at City Paper cut the Chris Hansen-esque bullshit and do something productive with your talents like reviewing my album.

Walter T. Kuebler

The writer is Talking Head co-owner Roman Kuebler’s father.

I was shocked and appalled at the article this week about the end of the Talking Head. I can only hope anyone who knows anything about that place, its owners, and their ongoing feud with your paper sees right through the thinly veiled final stab you took at Dan McIntosh now that you don’t need to coax him for his advertising. However, that actually isn’t why I was so angered. What has angered me is you chose to print a pointless story, when the real story there was about the building itself, and its place in Baltimore music history. I came across that history in the late ’80s, performing some of my first gigs in a band at the club called Chambers, and from that point on in my life, that building became synonymous with good underground music and a place where Baltimore’s underground could come and be their freaky selves. From those days of Chambers, to the birthplace of the Ottobar, to its last incarnation as the Talking Head, 203 Davis St. has been an integral part of the music scene in this town for over a quarter of a century. What occurred on New Year’s Eve, when the Head shut its doors for good, was not the death of one club, it was the death of an era. Instead of eulogizing it properly, you spit on the grave, and for that you should be ashamed.

Lonnie Fisher

The writer is the proprietor of Sonar, where Dan McIntosh now works as a manager.

Editor Lee Gardner responds: For the record, there is no ongoing feud with the Talking Head, at least on City Paper‘s part. I’ve known co-owner Roman Kuebler for at least a decade; I like him and respect him. My only encounter with Dan McIntosh was essentially an extended argument, but he impressed me as a passionate guy. In the wake of dust-up regarding the 2005 Best of Baltimore issue–an incident, speaking personally, that I regret–City Paper employees continued to frequent the club and we continued to write about its shows. We were a media sponsor of its Reverent Fog Festival last September and awarded it Best Rock Club again in the Best of Baltimore issue that same month.

As explained in Van’s story, we fully intended to do a fairly standard farewell-to-the-Talking Head story in our No Cover space. Noncooperation from the club’s principals led to some cursory internet research to try to confirm some basic facts, which lead us to information about McIntosh’s criminal record, and the still-pending complaint from Michael DePasquale. Given the paper’s lengthy history of reporting on the junctures where crime and nightlife intersect, whether benignly or otherwise, it seemed necessary to follow up on that information. Under similar circumstances, we would have done the same with any club.

Believe it or not, I’m sorry the Talking Head is closing, and I sincerely hope that the folks behind it can re-establish a sustainable version of the club elsewhere. For better or worse, we will continue to write about it then, too.

Evidence revealed in the long-running Matt Nicka globe-trotting pot-conspiracy case in Maryland

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 24, 2015


It’s been nearly half a decade since Matt Nicka (pictured), allegedly the shadow owner of the now-defunct downtown Baltimore nightclub Sonar, was first charged for sitting atop an international, high-volume, decade-long, pot-and-money-laundering conspiracy based in Baltimore. And still the case goes on.

Nicka and his co-defendant wife Gretchen Peterson were brought to Maryland last fall to answer the charges after being picked up in Canada in 2013, a few months after another top co-defendant, David D’Amico, was extradited from Colombia. Now, with California attorney James Bustamante at Nicka’s side, he’s fighting for his freedom, in part by challenging the legality of a 2010 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raid of a house he used to own at 4210 Clarkdale Road, in the woods just northwest of Television Hill in Baltimore. By doing so, Nicka put in the court record evidence against him that had not previously been in the public sphere.

At issue, according to the Bustamante-penned motion to suppress evidence against Nicka that was collected at the Clarkdale Road home, filed in court on March 20, is the constitutionality of the raid. Bustamante asserts that “probable cause to support the search” was “based on insufficient and stale information.” Regardless of how fresh and pertinent the information was for probable-cause purposes, it still sheds new light on how the investigation was developed by case agent Cindy Buskey of the DEA, who testified at the lengthy 2012 trial in which a jury found two of the conspiracy’s 16 defendants—former Sonar co-owner Daniel McIntosh and pilot Keagan Leahy—guilty of some, but not all, of the charges against them.

Buskey wrote the affidavit supporting the raid on the then-vacant house, which turned up no dope or money, but did produce a money counter, a heat sealer, photographs, maps, and various other documents, among other seemingly innocuous items. Her sworn statement described how investigators unearthed connections between the players, prompting them to interview D’Amico’s ex-wife, Liliana D’Amico, and Peterson’s mother and sister, Mary and Jessica Peterson. The affidavit also gave details provided by co-conspirator Andrew Sharpeta, who cooperated with authorities, about the scope of the pot-dealing operation, with the Clarkdale Road house serving as its nerve center. The affidavit also relates conversations with an unnamed neighbor, with whom Nicka had entrusted a key to the house.

Sharpeta, who testified before the grand jury that indicted the case as well as before the jury that convicted McIntosh and Leahy, told invesigators that he lived at the Clarkdale Road house in 2008 and 2009, and that Nicka had moved there about a year earlier. While there, “he, Nicka, D’Amico, and others had counted large amounts of money” using money counters, the affidavit states, and bundled them in $50,000 increments made up of 10 bundles of $5,000. Six $50,000 increments were then put in envelopes that were then “loaded into a suitcase or duffle bags” in increments up to $1 million. The suitcases were “locked and super glued shut” and then “taken to California on D’Amico’s airplane and/or a tractor trailer.” Aside from detailing the cash-management tactics undertaken at the house, Sharpeta also “described the delivery and distribution of hundreds of pounds of marijuana from this residence.”

When Mary and Jessica Peterson were interviewed in Pennsylvania in late 2009, Jessica Peterson said “Gretchen had told her that she acted as a money courier” for Nicka, and that Gretchen Peterson “was living beyond her means,” based on “her clothing and her social lifestyle” even though she was “unemployed.” At the restaurant where Jessica Peterson worked, employees were “happy to see Gretchen because she would leave extremely large tips.” Mary Peterson, meanwhile, “stated that she suspected that her daughter was involved in drug trafficking” because she’d found a “duffle bag in 2005-2006” that “contained marijuana” and “observed a stack of money that she decribed as being one and a half feet by one and a half feet on Gretchen’s bed.” Both women “also stated that Gretchen informed them that she left” Pennsylvania “in October of 2009 to avoid speaking with law enforcement” after “investigators attempted to serve a grand jury subpoena” on her there.

Investigators caught up with Liliana D’Amico after a 2009 raid at a house in Hampden turned up evidence that the conspiracy made use of an aircraft co-owned by David D’Amico, and her name turned up on database searches as associated with him. They found that in 2004 in South Carolina, she had been stopped in a vehicle registered to Gretchen Peterson that had an empty, hidden compartment, and the car was seized by the DEA after drug-sniffing dogs gave a positive alert. Found in the car were photographs, including one of Leahy, the pilot who flew D’Amico’s plane and had been involved in its purchase. When she was interviewed in 2009, she told them she was no longer married to D’Amico, and she denied any knowledge of drug trafficking, but admitted she’d seen D’Amico with large amounts of cash.

When investigators interviewed the Clarkdale Road neighbor in February 2010, they learned he “had not seen Nicka or any other individual at the residence in approximately one year.” Previously, though, “Nicka would leave the residence for weeks at a time,” and “had given the neighbor the key to 4210 Clarkdale Road” and “asked the neighbor to look after the residence during his extended absences.” During “the latter part of 2009, the water pipes burst in the residence on two occasions” and the neighbor “had attempted to contact Nicka on his cellular phone,” but it “was disconnected.” The neighbor also had seen Gretchen Peterson, Sharpeta, and D’Amico at the house.

The jury trial of Nicka, Peterson, and D’Amico is scheduled to start next March, and run for five weeks. In the meantime, all three have consented to detention pending trial. Back when they were on the lam, all three, as well the only remaining fugitive in the case, Jeffery Putney, were the subject of “Most Wanted” media coverage. The jury that convicted McIntosh and Leahy, meanwhile, did not buy the government’s theory that Sonar was a money-laundering front, and arguments in the case alleged prosecutorial improprieties that were deemed inapposite by the judge. An interesting figure in the case was Baltimore developer Jeremiah Landsman, who received a relatively lenient sentence, though all the players bear some intrigue. When McIntosh was sentenced, he got the lowest penalty he could—10 years in prison—though some of the others received serious time too. In light of what happened to the others, it’ll be interesting to see how the case against Nicka, Peterson, and D’Amico—the top three defendants in the conspiracy—plays out.

Feds Name-Drop Baltimore’s Sonar Nightclub in New Pot-Conspiracy Indictment

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014


Daniel McIntosh has long maintained he’s been the majority shareholder of Sonar nightclub in downtown Baltimore since he took over from co-founder Lonnie Fisher in 2007. But if new federal charges against McIntosh and nine others, filed May 2 in Maryland federal court, are true, McIntosh has had a silent partner in Sonar: Matt Nicka, pictured above, the lead defendant in the decade-long, $30-million, cross-country pot-conspiracy case that was first filed under seal in Dec. 2010.

Court records do not indicate that Nicka has ever been arrested and arraigned for the charges, so, presumably, he’s a fugitive, along with three other co-defendants in the case. His nicknames are “Surfer Dude,” “Grump,” and “Morrow,” according to the indictment, and he also uses the following aliases: Anthony Thacker, Matt Smith, Matt Marino, Matt St. John, Calvin Bartlett, and Matthew Johnson. Other than information in the new, 26-page indictment, which describes Nicka’s leadership role in a scheme that used trains, planes, and trucks to move pot and money around the country for years, and that engaged in a host of activities to hide the proceeds, City Paper has learned little about Nicka.

In 2008 and 2009, the indictment states, Nicka and McIntosh “did manage and control” Sonar, and made it “available for use, for the purpose of unlawfully storing, distributing and using marijuana,” verbiage that the indictment distils down to “maintaining drug-involved premises.” They also are accused of laundering money together by wiring pot-dealing proceeds to “purchase sound equipment for Sonar” in July 2007. While Nicka and McIntosh, who is 36 years old, are lumped in with all the defendants as accused pot-dealing money-launderers, they are the only two named in connection with Sonar.

Jeremy Landsman, a 32-year-old Baltimore developer who last year partnered with David Berg, of the Baltimore-based Berg Corporation demolition firm, to purchase the real estate where Sonar is located, and who is also the landlord for McIntosh’s other business–McCabe’s Restaurant in Hampden–was revealed in February to be a co-defendant in the case.

In the new superceding indictment, Landsman is not listed as a defendant, though he is mentioned as having participated in the conspiracy’s pot-dealing and money-laundering activities. Property records indicate that Anthony Thacker–one of Nicka’s aliases–gave a property on Weldon Avenue in Medfield to one of Landsman’s real-estate companies in 2008. That property, which Landsman’s company sold for $226,500* in 2009, is two doors down from the property that was posted to make McIntosh’s bail in the case.

McIntosh is the lone defendant in two of the new indictment’s 16 counts. They allege that, during 2008, he used property on Weldon Ave. to deal and use pot, and that, also in 2008, he traveled to and from California on pot business. Landsman’s lawyer, Barry Pollack, did not immediately return a phone call and e-mail for comment. A voice message left on Berg’s cellphone was not immediately returned. McIntosh’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, wrote in an e-mail today that McIntosh continues to maintain his innocence.

The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office does not comment on pending cases as a matter of policy. Nicka does not have an attorney on record in the case, and his whereabouts are unknown. The original indictment in the case listed 15 co-defendants. Six of them–Landsman, Andrew Sharpeta, Sean Costello, Daniel Fountain, Adam Constantinides, and Joseph Spain–are not on the roster of co-defendants in the new indictment.

Four of those no longer named–Sharpeta, Costello, Constantinides, and Spain–have entered plea agreements with the prosecution, and three–Sharpeta, Costello, and Constantinides–have already pleaded guilty to superceding charges.As City Paper reported in March, the Nicka indictment is tied to other cases in state and federal court in Maryland. Another Baltimore developer, 34-year-old Jacob Jeremiah Harryman, and 34-year-old Andrew Jin Park of Pikesville, are central figures in the investigation that connects the cases, which has been conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and the Baltimore County Police Department.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the sale price as “more than a quarter-million dollars.”

The Nose: Stoned Justice

By the Nose

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2013

Daniel McIntosh, the erstwhile co-owner of the erstwhile downtown nightclub Sonar and Hampden’s McCabe’s, is a thrice-convicted pot dealer, currently jailed and awaiting a possible life sentence for his part in a massive cross-country pot conspiracy involving 16 defendants, four of them still fugitives, that City Paper covered to death until the trial ended last fall. If McIntosh ever does leave prison, he’ll still be on the hook for $6.3 million-the amount U.S. District Judge Roger Titus, after hearing arguments from Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Johnston, ruled is attributable to McIntosh’s involvement in the scheme, and thus the amount McIntosh owes the government.

Geez, it’s just pot. A lot of it, yeah, but the Nose thinks this is a case of prosecutorial overkill-and defense attorneys recently pointed to evidence that it may even be a case of prosecutorial misconduct.

In this age of pot-law liberalization in numerous states, including Maryland, what’s going on in the McIntosh case looks way out of proportion. First off, there’s no hint of violence here, and absent that, the Nose thinks even repeatedly convicted pot dealers should be given a chance to someday resume their lives with the liberty that allows them to be productive. McIntosh is now 37, so a prison sentence much longer than the mandatory minimum of 10 years would hamper his chances of paying off the punishing financial debt he’ll owe the government.

Titus, in coming up with the $6.3 million figure, ruled that McIntosh procured the services of a truck driver, Phillip Parker, who on six occasions brought 300 to 600 pounds of pot from California to Maryland, and that McIntosh oversaw the delivery of another 304 pounds of pot from Canada. The jury also found that McIntosh participated in the conspiracy’s money-laundering activities but did not do so with respect to Sonar, in which the lead conspirator – Matthew Nicka (pictured below), who’s still at large – is alleged to have been a shadow partner.


Thus, McIntosh helped set up a multi-trip pot-trucking scheme and was in charge of one large shipment. One would think helping such high-volume movements of high-value contraband would yield a gold mine. But anybody who has even a faint familiarity with McIntosh’s lifestyle – while he was quite effective at making himself into an attention-grabbing vortex of nightlife buzz, the Nose believes McIntosh was devoid of millionaire pot-dealer trappings – would roll their eyes at the idea that McIntosh has ever been close to anything approaching $6 million. More like $60,000, maybe. Even then, the chump change likely would’ve disappeared into one of his skin-of-his-teeth entertainment schemes, leaving him virtually penniless.

By all appearances, McIntosh was a bit player here. Even if the Nose buys into the $6 million argument, compare that amount to what the conspiracy made. Prosecutors put its value at $30 million over about a decade, but that’s likely a major undercount. The Nose recently spoke to a person who was in the pot business with the defendants, and asked to remain anonymous, who estimated that the overall conspiracy pulled in $150 to $200 million a year. That’d make it more like a billion-dollar enterprise, with only $6 million tied to McIntosh.

It seems to the Nose that the lead prosecutor, Johnston, feels that McIntosh’s real crime was fighting the charges. Only McIntosh and one other defendant – Keegan Leahy, who was convicted for piloting aircraft that transported the conspiracy’s weed and cash, and in April was sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay $775,096.31, the amount Titus ruled was attributable to Leahy’s involvement – didn’t cop a plea. And for that, McIntosh, it seems, is paying dearly.

McIntosh was scheduled to be sentenced on June 12, but his attorney, Carmen Hernandez, won a motion for postponement (it’s currently scheduled for Sept. 18), in part because there was an outstanding “motion to disclose intercepted communications” to which Johnston had referred during Leahy’s April 1 sentencing. Then, on June 12, Leahy’s attorney, Michael Montemarano, went further, asking the judge to chuck the entire case “due to governmental misconduct” because “communications involving counsel, which referenced trial strategy, were intercepted and overheard by the government.”

The basis for the misconduct allegation arose during Leahy’s sentencing hearing, when Johnston stated that the government knows “for a fact that there’s been telephone communications” between defense attorneys and a Philadelphia lawyer named Michael Farrell. The statements suggest the government listened in on lawyers’ conversations about the case, and that’s a no-no that, if proven, may breach attorney-client privilege and poison the integrity of government’s entire case.

In response, Johnston said that DEA special agent Cindy Buskey did not find any improperly intercepted attorney-client communications when she reviewed case materials. Montemarano on June 20 shot back that Johnston’s response “entirely fails” to address the issue because it was Johnston, not Buskey, who had revealed the information.

“There is of course another possibility” in play here, Montemarano added: that Johnston’s “claims of purported knowledge” about the attorneys’ communications “could have been false, and knowingly so, when she made them on April 1.” Indeed, given Johnston’s response – that Buskey’s search yielded negative results – Montemarano wrote that “based upon the record, such falsity is the only alternative possible explanation” for Johnston’s statements.

In other words, Montemarano argues that Johnston either told the court false information about the attorneys’ communications or she’s failed to disclose how she could have known about them.

To risk torpedoing years of investigative and prosecutorial work in the case by providing ammunition for such dire defense claims seems like a prosecutorial mistake – but one that, given the out-of-whack penalties in the offing for McIntosh, may serve the larger interests of justice. After all, it’s just pot.

Baltimore Real-Estate Developer Jeremiah “Jeremy” Landsman Among Those Sentenced in Pot-Conspiracy Case

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014

One of the more intriguing defendants in the 16-member federal pot-conspiracy case involving the shuttered Sonar nightclub in downtown Baltimore (“Risky Business,” Feature, Aug. 15, 2012) has been 32-year-old Jeremiah “Jeremy” Brandon Landsman, the Baltimore real-estate developer whose JBL Real Estate, based in Fells Point, is tied to several properties that figured in the case.

Before Landsman’s troubles in criminal court started after the Dec. 2010 indictment, and even afterwards, Landsman’s been a high-profile presence on the Baltimore real-estate scene, especially in the pages of Baltimore Business Journal, which twice in the past year featured him as a source in trend stories about falling rents for restaurants and taverns. Also, the Jewish Times in 2008 profiled Landsman and his father, Jeff Landsman, about their experience going into business together – a piece that is featured on JBL’s website.

Landsman’s legit-biz image as a young up-and-comer contrasts sharply with the charges against him, to which he pleaded guilty last June: conspiracy counts for laundering money and possessing with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of pot. Perhaps the milieu to which he’s more acclimated, given his conviction, was described in City Paper‘s prior Landsman coverage in 2006, when armed robbers hit an illegal Greektown poker game he was playing in – though Landsman claimed he wasn’t actually gambling (“Luck of the Draw,” Mobtown Beat, June 7, 2006).

Either way, Landsman now heads to prison for nearly five years – less than the maximum sentences for the pot conspiracy (not less than five years, but no more than 40 years, plus a $2 million fine) and the money-laundering conspiracy (20 years, plus a fine of whichever is greater: $500,000 or twice the value of the laundered property). On Jan. 7, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. District judge Roger Titus sentenced him to 57 months of incarceration followed by four years of supervised release, plus he must forfeit $200,000 and a cluster of garages behind Keswick Ave. in Hampden owned by one of his companies, JBL Keswick LLC. He’s due to report to prison on March 4.

In addition to the relatively light sentence he received, Landsman can count himself fortunate that he wasn’t charged with lying to a grand jury. In the factual statement attached to his guilty plea, he admits to making “several false statements” when he was subpoenaed to testify in October 2009, including about the identity of and his contacts with co-defendant David D’Amico (pictured below right)– who remains a fugitive – while D’Amico lived at a Hampden property at 3522 Hickory Ave. owned by a Landsman-related company; and about “his knowledge of and involvement in” the conspiracy, including its leader, Matt Nicka (pictured below left), who also remains a fugitive, and other members.

Landsman’s guilty plea is notable, as well, for its description of the money-laundering he engaged in, which made use of his resourcefulness as a real-estate developer. Between about June 2003 and August 2009, the plea says Landsman participated in “several financial transactions involving at least $400,000 but less than $1,000,000” in pot proceeds, and facilitated the “lease, purchase, and/or sale of property to, for, and between members of the conspiracy” in order to conceal “the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of drug proceeds, disguising the source of those funds and promoting the aims of the conspiracy” via properties owned by Landsman under seven limited-liability companies: JBL 2, JBL Aqua, JBL Keswick, JBL Services, 3520-22 Hickory, Weldon Chapel Properties, and McCabe-Falls. Public records indicate those companies own 46 properties in the Baltimore area – 24 in Hampden, 14 in Fells Point, one in West Baltimore near the Gwynns Falls, five in Mayfield, and two in Towson – though the plea does not specify which ones were tied to the conspiracy.

In addition to Landsman, several others who pleaded guilty in the conspiracy have been sentenced:

– On Nov. 19, Andrew Sharpeta and Ian Travis Minshall were sentenced, according to court records. Sharpeta, who pleaded guilty to participating in the pot and money-laundering conspiracies, received a 63-month prison sentence followed by five years of supervised release, and an order that he give up $7,800 in seized cash and pay a $242,200 judgment, representing the amount of proceeds he obtained due to the conspiracy. Minshall, who pleaded guilty to participating only in the pot conspiracy, got four years in prison followed by four years of supervised release, plus he was ordered to forfeit $25,000 in cash and to pay a judgment of $25,000, the amount he made in the conspiracy.

– On Dec. 10, Anthony Marcantoni, who pleaded guilty to participating in the pot conspiracy, got 121 months in prison followed by eight years of supervised release, plus a $500,000 money judgment against him and an order that he “forfeit all property obtained as a result of the drug trafficking,” according to a Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office press release.

– On Dec. 20, Joseph Spain, who pleaded guilty to participating in the pot conspiracy, was sentenced to one day in prison, and given credit for time served, followed by four years of supervised release.

– On Jan. 3, Daniel Fountain, who pleaded guilty to participating in the pot and money-laundering conspiracies, was sentenced to eight years in prison followed by four years of supervised release, plus an order to forfeit $100,000, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Yet to be sentenced are the two defendants who took the case to trial and were found guilty – Daniel McIntosh and Keegan Leahy (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 7, 2012) – and four others: Sean Costello, Michael Phillips, Adam Constantinides, and Ryan Forman.

Descriptions of their roles in the scheme, based on their plea agreements, are here. In addition to Nicka and D’Amico, Gretchen Peterson and Jeff Putney remain fugitives.