Wired: Alleged Drug-World Figures Tied to Local Politics

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 2, 2005

Anthony B. Leonard’s Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on North Howard Street’s Antique Row had a meteoric run starting in 2002, drawing a clientele of local notables, including many in politics. But today, the Howard Street location is closed, and Leonard and his restaurant businesses (Leonard’s Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown remains open) are allegedly part of a violent drug conspiracy called the Rice Organization, which prosecutors say operated in Baltimore for the past decade. The federal trial in the case is scheduled for next January.

Shades of politics color the background of the Rice Organization case, but they are not spelled out in the 41-page indictment, which was made public on Feb. 2. In fact, very little detail is revealed in that document, other than names and some addresses associated with those charged. From campaign-finance and other public records, though, it’s clear that Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, and at least two other Rice Organization defendants played the political game, and, in Leonard’s case, entered it on the heels of an earlier chapter in Baltimore’s history of overlapping political and drug-world cultures.

That earlier chapter centered on Leonard’s Howard Street landlord, K.A.J. Enterprises, Kenneth Antonio Jackson’s family company. Jackson is an ex-con strip-club owner whose drug-world past has made his political activities controversial. This time, though, the political dealings of Leonard and others allegedly involved in the Rice Organization occurred while prosecutors say they were running drugs.

The indictment claims that 35-year-old Leonard and his 12 co-defendants, including brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32, raked in $27 million as they distributed more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to Baltimore’s streets since 1995. Other co-conspirators include 30-year-old George Butler, a character from the now-infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, which warns viewers against cooperating with law enforcement, and Chet Pajardo, 36, co-owner with movie actress Jada Pinkett Smith of an East Baltimore corner-store property (“Star Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16). The federal government seeks forfeiture of defendants’ assets, including vehicles, the Pajardo-Pinkett property, other real estate, and whatever is left of Leonard’s two restaurant businesses.

The Rice Organization allegations make the political ties of Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, Pajardo, and 26-year-old co-defendant Eric Clash symbols of how the drug economy is embedded in modern civic life. When Downtown Southern Blues sought a liquor license in 2002, then-state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-44th District) and former state senator Larry Young (D-44th District) were copied on administrative correspondence. Shortly after the restaurant opened that year, political business came its way. The financial details show only that political money changed hands in ’02 and ’03 involving businesses and people who only recently were accused of being part of the Rice Organization. There is nothing to suggest that any of the parties to the transactions have any other links to the drug world. Here the are details:

> In ’02 Antonio Hayes, the legislative-affairs director for City Council President Sheila Dixon (D), ran and lost in the race for the 40th District Democratic State Central Committee seat; he spent $1,200 on a June 2002 fund raiser at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Democrats for Ehrlich, a campaign committee supporting then-Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich’s successful 2002 bid for governor, spent $4,000 at Downtown Southern Blues in November of that year for a post-victory reception in honor of Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele.

> In 2002, Leonard and the restaurant made donations to the campaign committees of Mitchell ($250) and Rodney Orange Sr. ($200), the former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter. Mitchell and Orange were running primary campaigns for senator and delegate, respectively, for the West Baltimore’s 44th District. Orange’s campaign also received $80 from Eric Clash. Mitchell and Orange both lost.

> In 2003, the campaign of City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who was running uncontested in the city’s Democratic primary, spent $2,200 on catering from Downtown Southern Blues. Pratt’s campaign also received $200 from Pajardo. The committee of then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh (D), who was mounting an unsuccessful campaign to unseat council President Sheila Dixon (D), spent $600 on a party for Larry Young at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Also in 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary.

In a Feb. 28 phone call with City Paper, Rodney Orange Sr. said Leonard and Clash are related to him—they are both second cousins, he explained—so he is not surprised that they donated to his campaign in 2002. At the time of the donations, he continued, “there was no knowledge on my part of any activity on their part that was illegal.” Hayes said he’d booked his fundraiser with Downtown Southern Blues’ predecessor, Britton’s, and he went ahead with the scheduled event anyway. “Fortunately,” he added, “he didn’t contribute to my campaign.”

The other politicians or campaigns whose ties are disclosed above could not be reached for comment by press time.

By 2002, when Leonard leased the space for Downtown Southern Blues from K.A.J. Enterprises, the property’s ties to 47-year-old Kenny “Bird” Jackson were already well known. From 2001 until Leonard took over, the location was used by another Jackson-related company, Universal LLC, to house Britton’s, a restaurant where politicians spent nearly $1,500 in ’01 and ’02 combined, according to state campaign-finance reports. The manager of Britton’s, James Britton, owns Class Act Catering, which has gotten $120,000 worth of business from Maryland political committees since 1999. Britton, like Jackson, earned a drug-related criminal record when he was younger: He pled guilty in 1983 to pot and handgun charges in Baltimore city.

Jackson’s days in the drug business in the 1980s were summed up by The Wire producer David Simon, a former newspaper reporter, in a 1987 Sun series about a famous Baltimore drug trafficker, “Little” Melvin Williams.

“Wholesale exchanges of narcotics were carefully controlled, according to detectives,” Simon wrote, “with Williams represented by tested lieutenants such as Glen Hawkins or Kenny ‘Bird’ Jackson—men identified in court papers as Williams’ most trusted surrogates, men who allegedly had the authority and knowledge to carry large amounts of cash and make purchases without being cheated. The loyalty of such lieutenants was unquestioned.”

Jackson’s convictions in 1978 (manslaughter), 1979 (resisting arrest), and 1984 (a gun charge) were accompanied by dozens of other criminal charges in numerous jurisdictions that didn’t stick. In 1992, Jackson faced bribery charges in New Jersey, but pleaded down to one count of giving false information to a state trooper who had stopped him with nearly $700,000 in cash in his car. Meanwhile, Jackson sought to establish himself as a legitimate manager of his family’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, and as an accepted figure in the city’s political circles. In 1995, Jackson was a major backer of a short-lived political-action committee called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which was run by one of Orange’s sons. A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which sought to give political voice to inner-city residents, made a total of $8,000 in contributions to city candidates in 1995, including Pratt, Dixon, Orange, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D).

Later, after the 1999 city elections, as the city’s plans for redeveloping the west side of downtown forced the Eldorado to move, Jackson’s contributions to politicians again became a public issue. Dixon got $2,500 and Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), ducking controversy, returned $2,000 he’d received from Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson. In 1999, Jackson had former governor Marvin Mandel represent him in a paternity case, a measure of Jackson’s access to politically connected help. Meanwhile, donations from Jackson and those tied to him continued at the federal level. In 1999, Rosalie Jackson gave $1,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore’s committee in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary. More recently, in 2003, Kenneth Jackson gave $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2004 Universal LLC, which operated Britton’s, donated $250 to Lt. Gov. Steele’s campaign.

Leonard, in his 2002 city liquor-license application to fill the vacancy left by the closing of Britton’s, wrote that he had been self-employed since 1999, and had previously worked from ’95 to ’99 at the Starlite Lounge, a West Baltimore bar. The sources of funds for starting Downtown Southern Blues were disclosed as proceeds from the Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown and from Raphael Barber Shop, also in Randallstown Plaza. The purchase price for the restaurant was $350,000, with $3,394-per-month payments to K.A.J. Enterprises. Under Leonard’s proprietorship, violence struck at Downtown Southern Blues in October 2003, when an argument that started in the restaurant spilled outside, resulting in four men shot and another stabbed. Today, a new restaurant called Gambrino’s of Spain is preparing to open up there, with owners who moved here recently from Elizabeth, N.J., and a letter in the files on the property kept by the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners indicates that K.A.J. Enterprises is considering selling building.

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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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