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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old and In the Game: “Wire”-inspiring gangsters face new prison time

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2012

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When they went to prison in separate early 1990s drug cases in Baltimore, Savino Braxton and Walter Lee “Stinkum” Powell had been convicted as bit players in larger schemes. Such was the case, too, when their identities were used—though not their real stories—to create characters in HBO’s The Wire: Savino Bratton (pictured, from Season 5) and Anton “Stinkum” Artis, two of the five prominent enforcers in Avon Barksdale’s crew.

Today, 55-year-old Braxton and 60-year-old Powell are again in drug trouble, and their federal cases reveal how the gangster lifestyle can keep an obdurate hold on those whose only game in life has been “the game”—and they underscore the serial prison terms that lifestyle can exact on players.

But first, an acknowledgement about the use of real people’s names from Wire co-creator David Simon: “We mangled up real Baltimore surnames and real Baltimore given names and real Baltimore street names” to create Wire characters, he says in an email.

“Why?” Simon continues. “To give reality a chance to exist on its own, while at the same time creating a collective sense of the real Baltimore that we were depicting. Having all the correct surnames and street names floating about—but in the wrong order, and clearly disconnected from the correct narrative street history of Baltimore—tethered us loosely to the real, but at the same time allowed the actual survivors of that history some fair and legitimate distance.”

“We also,” Simon adds, “thought it would make people who knew the game from either side—street or stationhouse—smile a bit. An inside joke for those with ears to listen.”

Thus, “Savino Bratton,” the Wire character, has a story that does not jibe with that of real-life Savino Braxton. Simon, as a Baltimore Sun reporter covering the 1990 heroin conspiracy of Linwood Rudolph “Rudi” Williams, described Braxton as “a sizable westside dealer in his own right who sold narcotics to the Williams group.” Bratton, meanwhile, is an enforcer for Avon Barksdale’s crew who drives snitching strip-club frontman Wendell “Orlando” Blocker and undercover detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs to a shooting ambush that leaves Orlando dead and Greggs critically wounded.

The Wire’s “Stinkum,” also a key Barksdale enforcer, ends up as gangster-robbing Omar Little’s second revenge victim. His role in the narrative seems much larger than that of real-life Walter Lee Powell, who served as an errand-runner and bill-collector for his real-life bosses, Baltimore drug dealers Walter Louis Ingram and Patricia Carmichael.

Braxton’s initial undoing began in 1990, when phone-tapping cops heard him say “I got to see you” over the phone to Rudi Williams, then one of Baltimore’s biggest law-enforcement targets in the narcotics trade. They proceeded to build sufficient evidence to raid Braxton’s home, where they found a little over 27 grams of heroin and other drug-dealing evidence.

Three years after Braxton’s 2006 release from prison, he was on law-enforcers’ radar again, thanks to a cooperator’s tip, and a raid on his Frankford apartment turned up 35 grams of heroin in his car; and in his apartment, another kilogram, more than $4,000 cash, and a variety of drug-dealing appurtenances, prompting new charges (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009).

Braxton is fighting the charges—though he took a break from doing so in early 2010, when he left the Volunteers of America facility on East Monument Street, where he’d been ordered to reside on a pre-trial release, to go to a medical appointment, and failed to return. For more than two years he was a fugitive, a status that ended ignobly on Aug. 17, at BWI Airport, when he tried to board a flight with a fake driver’s license and was caught.

Since then, Braxton has filed with the court a series of legal motions, handwritten in floral script, including one asking that his appointed attorney, Archangelo Tuminelli, be replaced—a request that was denied during a Dec. 12 motions hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who cleared the courtroom to resolve the attorney-client dispute. The case, which is scheduled for trial in February, is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorney John Purcell, who is seeking an enhanced penalty of a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years based on Braxton’s prior federal conviction, though Bennett signaled during last week’s hearing that Purcell may want to back off that hard-edged stance.

Braxton told Bennet during the hearing that he’s anxious to obtain video evidence from a Kentucky Fried Chicken video camera near the location of his arrest that would show officers lied in sworn documents presented as evidence against him. Bennett reminded Braxton, though, that “you prejudiced yourself by absconding” for more than two years and that “the cameras may or may not be there” anymore.

Unlike Braxton’s case, the current one against “Stinkum” Powell is already over; Powell pleaded guilty and on Nov. 30 received a 121-month sentence. Its details, which overlap with other FBI heroin cases populated by the likes of big-name federal defendants such as Steven Blackwell, Christian Gettis, and Roy Lee Clay Jr., stretch from Baltimore to Philadelphia, New York, Miami, and Africa. Powell ran some of his illicit business out of Quantico Carwash on Reisterstown Road, according to court documents, and some of his dealings were intercepted over a phone issued by his employer, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit based in Windsor Mill.

Meanwhile, one of Powell’s former bosses from back in the day—Walter Louis Ingram, now 61, whose earlier criminal career Simon wrote about extensively for The Sun—is also facing federal charges filed in 2010 (“Old Folks’ Boogie,” Mobtown Beat, July 22, 2010). He’s accused in a heroin conspiracy involving eight others, and all but Ingram and one other defendant have pleaded guilty—despite jailhouse attempts to dissuade them from doing so by using improperly obtained evidence in the case (“In the Wrong Hands,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2011). The lead conspirator, Kevin Hently, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, so Ingram, if convicted, can expect the same or more, given his long list of priors.

The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Sept. 10, 2009

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Fans of The Wire know Savino Bratton as the character played by Christopher Clanton, the Baltimore actor who was stabbed last year at an Overlea party. Clanton’s character in Season One was a dreadlocked soldier in the Barksdale organization who helped set up the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs and stripclub manager Orlando Blocker. In Season Five, after doing time in prison, Savino Bratton (pictured) returns as a soldier for the Stanfield organization.

But what fans of The Wire might not know is that Savino Braxton—whose name is one letter removed from that of The Wire character—is a real-life Baltimore heroin dealer. In 1990, Savino Braxton was convicted as part of a massive heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams, and earned his release in 2008. His freedom was recently cut short, though, when on Sept. 2 he was arrested again on new federal heroin charges.

The Wire producer David Simon, asked in an e-mail whether the fictional Savino Bratton’s name is based on the real-life Savino Braxton, says only this: “The Wire is a fictional story. I have no comment otherwise.”

So what was Braxton up to on Sept. 2 that landed him with new federal charges? According to the complaint [see below], agents got a search warrant for Braxton’s apartment at 5312 Goodnow Road in Frankford. While preparing for the raid, they watched Braxton leave his residence, get in a purple Honda Accord, and drive off. They arrested him a short time later and found 35 grams of heroin in the car’s center console. The agents then returned to Braxton’s apartment to find another kilogram of heroin, a variety of drug-dealing paraphernalia (cutting agents, gel caps, a scale, etc.), and lots of cash “bundled in thousand dollar stacks.”