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

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 30, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mob Rules: Ex-Gangster Charlie Wilhelm is Making a Different Kind of Book These Days, and it’s Opening Up a Lot of the City’s Secrets

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 6, 2004

Mobtown is not, by reputation, a mob town. Baltimore’s nickname derives from its citizens’ proclivity to riot, not from its role as a home to organized crime—a role that until very recently has been little recognized, much less resisted. Sure, there was Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, who hobnobbed with city pols and lawmen as he ruled Baltimore’s rackets in the 1950s and ’60s, until he skipped bail and fled the country in 1970, never to be heard from again. (Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights in 1999 retold the Salsbury story). And sure, there’s a 16-month-old outfit in the Baltimore City Police Department called the Organized Crime Division, but it claims to target low-level drug dealers, not racketeers involved in loansharking, narcotics-running, gambling, arson, and murder. Poker-machine guys and titty-bar owners with ties to police and politicians, rogues who maybe bring some coke in from Ocean City or Miami or New York every now and then—they’re not The Sopranos. They’re more like Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

But with the release this week of Wised Up (Pinnacle Press), by gangster-turned-informant Charlie Wilhelm and ex-Sun reporter Joan Jacobson, Mobtown’s long-held denial of its own entrenched organized-crime problem may start to dissolve. Recognition and frank discussion of a problem, as everyone knows, are the first steps on the road to recovery. And Wised Up—Wilhelm’s story, fully corroborated and retold by Jacobson, almost entirely in Wilhelm’s voice, as if he were regaling the reader over rounds of beer at Showalter’s Saloon in Hampden—promises to let that process begin.

The recovery process for Wilhelm—a longtime loan shark, bookmaker, arsonist, drug dealer, and extortionist—started when he hit bottom in the summer of 1995. The police staged an early-morning raid on his house on Keswick Road in Hampden, and Wilhelm’s gut wrenched as he saw his youngest son, a 7-year-old, scared and crying while the house was searched. Wilhelm wasn’t arrested, though, and a few days later his partner in crime, Billy Isaacs, with whom Wilhelm had run for nearly 20 years, appeared at his front door, fresh out of prison after a federal stint for witness tampering. Wilhelm knew Isaacs had gotten away with a murder in 1978. He also knew Isaacs wanted him to kill two men who Isaacs believed were stealing from their operation. Wilhelm, who had never killed, didn’t want to do the job, and was quickly getting sick of the gangster life. Within a week, Wilhelm went to Washington to tell an FBI agent—a childhood acquaintance of his, Wilhelm’s brother’s best friend—that he wanted to turn informant. He brought no lawyer, sought no deal for the crimes he’d committed, and had no pending charges hanging over him. It was the only way Wilhelm saw to get out.

And it worked. Ultimately, Wilhelm’s dicey errands as an undercover informant led to the arrest of 23 people, including Isaacs, who went to prison for the 1978 murder. Wilhelm supported his family on government funds—$2,500 per month, for a total of $140,000—until he could land a legitimate job as a Baltimore-area carpenter, a career he still has. He never entered the federal witness-protection program, instead leaving town in 1996 to live quietly in Alabama, until homesickness drew him and his family back in 1998. Meanwhile, Wilhelm kept a journal to help beat back chronic anxiety, and eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, from which he still suffers. But the journal became the basis for a four-part series by Jacobson in The Sun, published in November 2001, as well as for Wised Up.

“It’s the only thing I ever did right in my life,” Wilhelm said recently during a sit-down at City Paper’s offices, with Jacobson in tow. “Why should I be the one persecuted for doing something right? Even though all that stuff I did before was wrong—if they told me I had to do 30 years, I’m perfectly happy with that. But why should I have to run? You know what I mean? Why can’t the guys that I dealt with be on the run? Why can’t regular people, hard-working people say, ‘Hey, those guys don’t run. He’s right, he did the right thing, let them run off,’ and get them to run away?”

That, in a nutshell, is the central message from Wised Up: Baltimore has to recognize that organized-crime henchmen live and do their dirty work in its neighborhoods, and it needs to reject them, just like Wilhelm rejected his earlier life. “The general public has to make these guys the criminals—the bad cops, the bad politicians, the wise guys,” Wilhelm says excitedly. “Make them be the wrong guys. The public has to say, ‘That’s not right, what you’re doing.’ Like Billy [Isaacs]. Billy goes into Hampden, everybody looks up to him. He’s a murderer! Why don’t you have a problem with that? Why can’t people’s opinions change? That’s the problem. Billy will come out of jail, and everybody will think he’s a hero. That has to change.”

A crucial turning point in Wised Up comes in that pivotal 1995 encounter, when Isaacs ordered Wilhelm to murder the two men, and he balked. Wilhelm figured it would only be a matter of time before a contract would be out on him, too. But what’s most interesting, in terms of the larger lesson of Wised Up about the presence of organized-crime figures in city life, is the identity of one of the men Isaacs wanted killed: a fellow named in the book as Ronnie Jones, whom Wilhelm and Jacobson do not describe further.

City Paper, during the mid- to late 1990s, published numerous stories involving Ronald David Jones, an ex-city cop with a history of involvement in vending machines, bars, real estate, and strip clubs. The paper’s interest in Jones was due to his political ties to then-City Councilman, now Mayor Martin O’Malley. Those ties apparently ended not long after O’Malley was elected mayor in the fall of 1999, according to Jones and others interviewed during the intervening years. But during O’Malley’s formative years as a Baltimore politician, Jones was one of his earliest and most generous financial backers. Jones made donations through his wife, ex-wife, and businesses to O’Malley’s campaigns, and the sum reported in campaign-finance records approaches $10,000. (O’Malley isn’t the only political pony Jones has backed. State Sen. George Della, outgoing City Councilwoman Lois Garey, former City Council President Lawrence Bell, and former state Senators Tommy Bromwell and Vernon Boozer all have campaign ties to Jones, and the full list is likely longer.)

During the decade that Jones was betting on O’Malley and others, he was also involved with Joe’s Tavern, an infamous Dundalk Avenue bar that looms large in Wised Up as Wilhelm and Isaacs’ base of operations. Joe’s took its name from its earlier owner, the late state senator, Joseph Staszak, who died in a mysterious boating accident in 1979 on Old Road Bay near Sparrows Point, three months after pleading guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and filing false tax returns. In 1990, Isaacs and Wilhelm were taking over Joe’s, and Jones was at the table with them from the start—though, in a series of Oct. 1 telephone conversations with City Paper, Jones discounted his involvement with the bar, and the Isaacs-Wilhelm crew, and questioned the truth of the claims Wilhelm makes in Wised Up.

Jones says that “because I lent [Isaacs] money at one point, [Wilhelm] said I had something to do with [Joe’s], but I was never a partner, nothing like that. I lent him 7 or 8 thousand dollars for setting up Joe’s, and that was it.” As for whether there was a contract that Isaacs put on his life, Jones says, “It was bullshit. If Billy had killed all the people he said he wanted killed, you’d have to put [all the names] in a phone book.”

Also, he says, Wilhelm wanted out of the gangster life not because of his unwillingness to do the killings Isaacs ordered but because he had “no money. [Wilhelm and another Isaacs associate] put their own hits in—they were robbing the book and blowing [the money] all over town.” In other words, Jones contends that Wilhelm was stealing from his and Isaacs’ own bookmaking operation, and spending so much money that he was running out of juice, so he ran to the feds in order to make government cash as an informant. “The guy wrote a book,” Jones concludes. “To me, it’s fiction.”

“I robbed all the bookmakers—that’s the way it was,” Wilhelm explains in a follow-up interview, while at his carpentry job. “In July of 1995 [when Wilhelm offered himself as a federal informant], I still had $60,000. I did it for money? Who would put their whole family what I had to put them through for $2,500 a month? That little piece of shit.”

When told of Jones’ contention that Jones had virtually nothing to do with Joe’s Tavern, Wilhelm went ballistic: “He’s an absolute liar—I’ve got the paper on that!” And then he left his job site to retrieve a document, which he shortly delivered to City Paper. It was a handwritten promissory note (apparently in Jones’ hand) for $71,000, with a promise to spend $15,000 more on equipment, lent to Joe’s Tavern by Jones, who signed the document along with Isaacs associate Richard A. Payne (the other man Isaacs later ordered Wilhelm to murder) on behalf of Joe’s. Wilhelm signed the note as witness to the December 1990 transaction, which also secured a 50-50 split between Joe’s Tavern and Ron Jones for all the tavern’s vending-machine business for 10 years. Wilhelm says the document was drawn up and signed at the offices of Baltimore criminal-defense attorney Michael Marr.

“I don’t recall anything like that,” Jones responds, adding, “I never got a dime out of” Joe’s vending-machine revenues. Then he remarked about the promissory note, “Goddamn, I gotta get a hold of that—I could collect on it. If you find anybody else who owes me money, call me.” In a phone message left at City Paper later the same day, he said that his wife at the time, Lois Arreguin, was on the Maryland State Lottery license for Joe’s Tavern for one year in 1990.

The absolute truth of the matter is hard to ascertain, despite the documentation. It’s still possible that the money was never loaned, and that Jones never shared the vending-machine take at Joe’s. But Jones freely admits to a long-term relationship with O’Malley. “I’ve known Martin for 14 years, going back to when he ran against [former state Sen. John] Pica” in 1990. Jones recalls being introduced to O’Malley through John Hubble, a real-estate investor who later, in 2001, served for three months as real-estate officer for Baltimore City government. “Once [O’Malley] became mayor, he got a different life,” Jones says. “I don’t want to be in that circle. If you need the mayor, you’re in trouble.”

In response to questions about the mayor’s relationship with Jones, O’Malley spokesman Steve Kearney would only say that “the mayor’s office has nothing to say other than there have been over 10,000 donors to the mayor’s campaigns over the years.” With Wised Up hitting bookstores on Oct. 9 and also available online (www., though, one of the mayor’s longtime—though erstwhile—political benefactors is now fingered in print as having been in business with organized-crime figures. Journalists, voters, and other political observers are sure to notice, and it’s safe to predict that a discussion about organized-crime ties to Baltimore politics will enter the civic debate.

Despite Wised Up’s remarkable disclosures and descriptions of mob life in Baltimore, it remains at its core a story about a man who made a change. “I really wrote the book because I thought it was a great story about how [Wilhelm] changed his life,” Jacobson says. “And I understood that there needed to be chapters about loansharking and bookmaking, and it was fascinating, but I really see this as a book about a guy who really turned his life around. And that’s what I think is the most interesting part about this book. That’s what really kept moving me along. I’d never written a book before, and it’s a big, long process. And that’s what kept me going—it’s a great story. It’s a story of hope.”