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

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2012


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


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.”

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


“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.”