Direct Connections: Evidence mounts that foreign sources, including the Los Zetas cartel, deal directly with Baltimore traffickers

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 3, 2010

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“The goal of any drug dealer is to cut out as many middle men as possible in order to increase profits.”

That statement was made by Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein a year ago, when he unveiled Operation Xcellerator, a U.S. Justice Department initiative aimed at laying low the long reach of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. “I do believe,” he said at the time, “there are Baltimore drug dealers who do this by having connections with drug distributors outside of the U.S.” He vowed to “continue to trace the drugs back to the source, work our way to the top, and ultimately indict the major players.”

Since then, law enforcers here have successfully ferreted out some international ties to Baltimore’s entrenched drug economy. Though Rosenstein’s office points to only one Xcellerator case in Baltimore–a conspiracy with ties to Hollywood and Baltimore City Hall (“Mexican Connection,” Mobtown Beat, March 4, 2009)–City Paper has found three recent examples of evidence filed in U.S. District Court that indicate direct ties between Baltimore and foreign sources of supply, including the fearsome Los Zetas cartel (whose symbol is pictured above) in Mexico.

The Los Zetas connection arose on Feb. 17, when a superseding indictment was filed in a conspiracy case involving 44-year-old Jamaica-born Baltimorean Wade Coats (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17, 2009). Coats and his co-defendants–43-year-old Ronald Brown of Baltimore and 42-year-old Jose Cavazos of Midlothian, Texas–were snared by law enforcers last April, when Coats and Cavazos used a room at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel to conduct an alleged high-dollar cocaine and heroin deal. The superseding indictment names a fourth defendant, 38-year-old Baltimorean James Bostic, whose presence in the case added evidence of dealings with Los Zetas.

Prior to the superseding indictment, the government’s case seemed tenuous, since the Baltimore police detective who swore out the initial complaints in the case–Mark James Lunsford–has since been charged federally with lying and embezzlement (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009).

Investigators learned of Bostic’s alleged acts involving Los Zetas in December, according to court documents, when a confidential source said that Bostic “would be making a large cash payment to a representative of the Los Zetas Mexican Drug Cartel for previously obtained cocaine and marijuana on December 29, 2009 at the Marriott Residence Inn in White Marsh.”

After receiving the information, the documents say, investigators “pre-wired a room for audio and visual recording” at the hotel. Bostic arrived at the appointed time, allegedly carrying a suitcase containing $590,000, which he gave to cartel representatives at the meeting. The documents say he complained to them about “the poor quality of the marijuana he had received and asked when he could expect his next shipment of cocaine.” Cartel representatives then allegedly counted the money, placed it in heat-sealed bags, and hid it in a Ford Explorer. According to the documents, as the cartel representatives were leaving the state the next day, “a vehicle stop was conducted of the Ford Explorer,” and the same amount of money Bostic had turned over was recovered.

The investigation continued on Feb. 2, according to the documents, when the confidential source told law enforcers “that a multi-kilogram drug transaction” involving Bostic and a cartel representative was about to occur at the same White Marsh Marriott. The investigators again pre-wired the room. Bostic and a cartel representative met and “the representative produced a suitcase.” Bostic opened it, “began counting kilograms of cocaine,” then left with the suitcase. After a short foot chase in the hotel’s parking lot, Bostic was arrested and “recovered from his person was a large hunting style knife and a large sum of U.S. currency.” The suitcase, which Bostic had dropped when the chase began, contained approximately 12 kilograms of cocaine.

The court documents do not say what became of the Los Zetas representatives who met with Bostic. According to the Justice Department’s 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment, Los Zetas is “the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel” and some of its members are former Mexican Special Forces soldiers who “maintain expertise in the use of heavy weaponry, specialized military tactics, sophisticated communications equipment, intelligence collection, and counter surveillance techniques.” More recently, according a 2009 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) press release, Los Zetas has “evolved into not only a security force but a drug trafficking organization in their own right,” merging with the Gulf Cartel to become a powerful entity known as “The Company.”

None of the attorneys representing defendants in the Coats case would comment for this article, since it involves an ongoing matter.

Another recent federal drug case involving Baltimore and Mexico nabbed Santiago Vargas-Ponce, who was charged Feb. 17. The case against him, like the one against Bostic, was built on information provided by a confidential source, followed by recorded surveillance. That source, according to court documents, was “in negotiations” in January with “a Mexican drug-trafficker . . . to deliver a large quantity of cocaine to Baltimore.”

Vargas-Ponce, the court documents say, arrived in Baltimore on Feb. 15 with a drug-laden vehicle, met with the confidential source, and arranged to do the drug deal the next day. After the source picked Vargas-Ponce up at a hotel and “gathered tools to extract the cocaine from the vehicle,” the two headed to “a secured garage located in Owings Mills,” which investigators had equipped with a hidden camera. Once the source dropped Vargas-Ponce off at the garage and left the area to go get money, agents watched Vargas-Ponce “disassemble the vehicle” and “extract a large object from the engine compartment.” The agents then arrested Vargas-Ponce and proceeded to discover another object in the engine compartment. In all, the two objects held approximately six kilograms of cocaine, the court documents say. Vargas-Ponce’s attorney from the federal public-defender’s office, who was appointed on Feb. 24, did not wish to comment for this story.

The third recent case is a Nov. 2009 DEA search warrant for two Baltimore storage lockers leased by a Baltimore man named Paul Sessomes. The warrant relates DEA intelligence-gathering by its offices in New York and Bogota, Colombia, dating to 2008, and names recently convicted drug-dealer Thomas Corey Crosby, who in turn was tied to (but not charged in) a 2007 federal case involving convicted drug conspirators who used Fat Cats Variety store in Southwest Baltimore (“All the Emperor’s Men,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008).

The November search warrant turned up $535,200 in cash stuffed in a large dufflebag, and mortgage documents in Sessomes’ name. The items were retrieved from a Public Storage locker near Security Square Mall. The affidavit supporting the warrant describes how Sessomes used a cell-phone to discuss “the delivery of drug proceeds” with targets of a DEA heroin-trafficking-and-money-laundering investigation conducted by DEA New York and DEA Bogota. “In fact,” the affidavit states, “during September 2008, Paul Sessomes was observed by the agents meeting with Diego Neira and Maria Espitia-Garcia, known money launderers for the Bogot?, Colombia based Espitia heroin organization under investigation, in Baltimore.”

Public records show that Sessomes has a used-auto dealership, Westport Auto, and owns real estate in the area, including a house in Columbia and a condominium at 414 Water St. in downtown Baltimore. State court records show that Westport Auto has been a defendant in four Baltimore City forfeiture cases brought by Rudolph Drayton of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office since 2005. Co-defendants in each of the cases were charged or convicted drug dealers.

Sessomes’ attorney, James Gitomer, says he doesn’t “have anything to say about” the search warrant, but points out that Sessomes has not been charged with a crime and that “there has never been a claim made for that money” seized from the storage locker leased by his client, suggesting that it might not belong to Sessomes.

The three recent instances of alleged direct Baltimore ties to foreign drug-world suppliers suggest that Rosenstein’s office, even after prosecuting the Sinaloa-tied Xcellerator case, is still finding that some Mobtown dealers are indeed able to cut out the middle-men in the global drug game and go straight to source.

Too Rich: Alleged cocaine trafficking mastermind Richie Rich isn’t going down without a fight

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2013

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Baltimore is rife with neighborhoods ravaged as fronts in the drug war, but the area around 30th and St. Paul streets, in Charles Village, isn’t one of them. This is a “college town” neighborhood near the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, frequented by many who study or work at Hopkins, not by drug dealers.

Yet, on Oct. 8, 2010, the area around 30th and St. Paul streets suddenly became ground zero in the intelligence-gathering efforts of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to take down one of Baltimore’s major cocaine suppliers.

“We were pretty excited,” DEA special agent Mark Lester says, referring to the moment he and his colleague, special agent Todd Edwards, realized that Richard Anthony Wilford, who goes by the nickname “Richie Rich,” had walked into their investigation of another drug dealer, Lawrence Lee Hayes Jr., who they’d been pursuing for two months. Literally walked, because the agents watched as Wilford and Hayes spent an hour walking up and down the block around 30th and St. Paul, Lester says while testifying during a Jan. 25 hearing in the resulting case.

“Edwards knew that Mr. Wilford had been arrested before,” Lester explains, and that it was “widely known that he was suspected of being a large-scale drug dealer.”

As the investigation progressed, sussing out the details of the cross-country scheme—the coke would come from California and cash would be sent back—it uncovered the telltale elements of a classic shadow-economy scheme: legitimate-looking businesses, cars, and other assets put in the names of other parties, including ties to a Baltimore City court commissioner and a man working at City Hall.

Hayes allegedly stood at the top of a supply chain that, when it was brought down in the spring of 2011, put in the government’s hands a massive haul of cocaine—nearly 150 kilograms, 136 kilos of it in a tractor-trailer driven by Robert Nyakana, a Ugandan who made the DEA’s “Most Wanted” list while a fugitive, until he was later arrested—and about $3.5 million in cash (including $1.6 million taken from a house in Randallstown), $600,000 in jewelry, 23 vehicles, six pieces of real estate in Georgia, and some expensive electronics. Wilford, Hayes, and four others were indicted in federal court, and five other co-conspirators faced indictments in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Wilford went on the run, hiding in Los Angeles until August 2011, when he was spotted by agents, who raided his home there and recovered $68,000 in cash. Then he laid low in Baltimore, at a house near Pimlico Race Course, where, when he was finally arrested on Sept. 16, 2011, agents found $190,000 in cash. So even as a fleet-footed fugitive, running from the U.S. marshals months after the coke scheme had been dismantled, Wilford still had access to substantial means.

Today, in the federal case, all but Wilford have pleaded guilty. He’s retained an expensive, well-regarded attorney, William Purpura—the same one Wilford has used in his criminal cases for years—to battle the government with a vengeance. Wilford says not only that serious errors were contained in affidavits in the case, but that Lester, Edwards, and their fellow law enforcers conducted illegal electronic surveillance in pursuing him and his co-conspirators by monitoring cellphone “pings”—the communication signals that bounce between phones and cell towers—and global positioning systems (GPS) devices attached to vehicles.

But if not for this warrantless electronic surveillance—which had been common practice until January 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered warrants for “slap-on” GPS devices, and August 2010, when the D.C. Circuit’s appellate court handed down a similar ruling—Wilford contends that Lester and Edwards would not have known to be in Charles Village that October day to watch him meeting with Hayes. If Wilford’s arguments prevail, the government’s case against him would suffer, or even be dismissed, as key evidence could no longer be presented to a trial jury.

Purpura and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sippel offered testimony and argued their respective takes on these questions for much of the day on Jan. 25, before U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, who has scheduled more arguments for March 8. During the hearing, Purpura points out that “we guessed, and guessed correctly” that slap-on GPS devices were used in the investigation—a detail that the government had not volunteered and then “gave it up in drips and drabs.” Whichever way Hollander rules—and she indicated she was leaning in the government’s favor, despite a law enforcer’s affidavit in the case that was “replete with mistakes,” she said—the resulting decision will likely go to Richmond to be reviewed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wilford, at a few inches shy of 6 feet and with neither much fat nor muscle on his frame, is not an imposing man. In the courtroom for the Jan. 25 arguments, he appears relaxed as he waves and mouths conversations with friends and family there to support him. Despite the prison jumpsuit, he looks very much a mild-mannered, legitimate businessman, with a sharp look in his eye. But the man’s not going down without a fight, and if he wins, not only will he likely go free, but drug cops are going to have to push a lot more paper getting warrants before they go pinging suspects’ cellphones—just like they have to do now, thanks to the Supreme Court, before slapping GPS units on suspects’ cars.

To say it’s “widely known” that Wilford is “suspected of being a large-scale drug trafficker,” as Lester put it, is a bit of an understatement. Wilford’s nickname has figured in some of the more storied chapters in the modern annals of Baltimore drug dealing.

Wilford’s first federal drug case, brought in 1992 when he was 19, was a conspiracy that included two men who were then twice Wilford’s age—legendary Baltimore gangsters Walter Louis Ingram and Walter Lee Powell, who are now in their 60s and, like Wilford, in trouble again with the feds (“Old and in the Game,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 19, 2012). Wilford’s cocaine conviction in that case got him five years in federal prison, and after his release, in 2001 he caught another federal stint—two years for possession with intent to distribute heroin.

Then, while still on supervised release for his 2001 conviction, Wilford in 2008 emerged in the vortex of law-enforcement intrigue surrounding a corrupt Baltimore cop named Mark Lunsford (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009); Querida Lewis, a cross-country drug dealer (“Femme Fatale,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14, 2009) with ties to three-time Baltimore felon Milton Tillman Jr. (“Citizen of the Year,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008), a politically connected bailbondsman, longshoreman, and real-estate developer; and a bevy of other Baltimore drug dealers, among them Gilbert Watkins, Donta Dotson, and Dante Chavez.

Wilford’s ties to all of this came into focus in court documents, many of them sworn out by Lunsford, a former DEA task-force officer who pleaded guilty to theft and lying and who was released from federal prison in March 2012. The documents describe Wilford and his partner, Mark Anthony Hawkins, as large-scale marijuana and cocaine suppliers.

Ultimately, neither Wilford nor Hawkins got in much trouble. Wilford pleaded guilty in Baltimore County court and received probation before judgment, while the feds seized $39,045 of his money, returning $5,000 of it pursuant to a settlement agreement. During the motions battle in the case, which was built based on wiretaps, Purpura argued that Lunsford’s involvement in the probe undermined its integrity and that agents had failed to constrain their eavesdropping to relevant conversations by recording exchanges about Wilford being a “daddy to be” and “shooting over to Shorty’s [for a] cookout.” Hawkins, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to time served.

The others weren’t so fortunate: Lewis, Dotson, Watkins, and Chavez all remain in federal prison for their convictions.

Thus, when October 2010 rolled around and Lester and Edwards discovered Wilford walking around Charles Village with Hayes, the two DEA agents were understandably “excited”—a target of longstanding significance was suddenly in their sights. Wilford’s criminal past and flashy present—an informant told investigators he drove a $150,000 Mercedes and, indeed, several months earlier he’d been clocked at 111 mph in a Mercedes on the Washington Beltway—made him worthy prey if he was, in fact, still in the drug game.

The details of the Wilford investigation, revealed in a myriad of court documents, bring into focus the shadowy elements of the criminal enterprise, including not only the legitimate-looking business endeavors of the conspirators, but their ties to local government as well. The businesses, including Blow It Off Power Washing, R.A.W. Enterprises, B’Mores Dumping, M&M Construction, and Eight K Contracting, were varied, and some of the investigation’s targets had legitimate jobs, including one who worked for a private special-education school, the Chimes School, and another who was on the Baltimore City Hall payroll.

The picture, in all its high-resolution glory, emerged not from wiretaps—none were obtained in the case—but largely thanks to high-tech surveillance aids that provided Lester, Edwards, and their law-enforcement colleagues with nearly real-time location data about the whereabouts of their targets’ vehicles and cellphones. If someone was on the move, law enforcers could watch on computer screens and react quickly, hitting the streets to gain valuable insights leading to hard intelligence about their targets’ habits, associates, and affiliations, wherever they may lead.

During the Jan. 25 hearing, Lester explained that four slap-on GPS trackers were affixed to a total of 12 different vehicles during the investigation, which also obtained “pinging orders” from judges for at least 23 phones, allowing the agents to quickly receive GPS coordinates for those phones via emails from their service providers. If a tracked vehicle or phone moved, the agents would quickly know, and could decide whether to go out and do some good old-fashioned eyeball surveillance.

Wilford’s attorney, Purpura, had a last-minute witness to put on at the Jan. 25 hearing: Joshua Brown of GLS Litigation Services, who demonstrated with mapping software how revealing the government’s GPS-derived data can be about a person’s movements and patterns in life. City Paper visited GLS’ offices at Clipper Mill a few days later, so Brown and his partner, Gabriel Saunders, could give a guided tour of what is shown by the 30,000-or-so latitude/longitude points the government has on Wilford’s phones and vehicles over a nearly 11-month period starting in late October 2010.

“It helps you find important places,” says Brown, pointing out Wilford’s mother-in-law’s home in Los Angeles, his shopping routines when in Los Angeles, his regular routes to and from his luxury home near Elkton in Cecil County, and a trip Wilford took to the Catskills at one point. “Places of interest might also emerge when you have monitored phones intersecting with cars that were monitored—you can use both to determine whether people are together, or whether people are in a car together.”

“We take the data the government has,” says Saunders, “and make it understandable to people.” He ponders the implications as technology advances: “It won’t be long before there’s software that analyzes this, and starts to predict where you will be,” and before facial recognition capabilities can be applied to images caught on public closed-circuit television camera—so that so-called “aids to surveillance” become simply surveillance, done remotely.

While scanning the mapped data on a computer monitor, it is clear that Wilford—or at least his car—went to Baltimore’s jail complex for about two hours on Nov. 19, 2010, and that in late January and early February 2011, both his car and his phone were at the industrial waterfront in Canton, possibly to fill dump trucks with sand from the stockpiles there. On March 9, 2011, multiple cars and phones were at Perring Plaza at the same time—likely a meeting of the conspirators. At various times, the monitoring placed phones and cars in Little Italy, near Mo’s Crab and Pasta Factory and the nightclub Milan, and investigators learned that Wilford and his associates hung out at a barbershop on the 3700 block of Wabash Avenue. Throughout the period of phone- and car-tracking, the conspirators maintained a nearly constant presence in the Union Square neighborhood, in West Baltimore, in a block near Lombard and Calhoun streets that’s known for open-air drug dealing.

What Brown and Saunders show is a remarkably detailed, nuanced portrait of Wilford’s movements not only in Baltimore but Los Angeles and elsewhere. As long as he and his co-conspirators’ cars and phones were being tracked, their lives—or at least their locations, which led to a host of possibilities for surveillance and follow-up investigation—were open books.

One of the places to which electronic surveillance led the agents was 1020 Park Ave., the Symphony Center Apartment Homes, near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This, they learned, was where Hayes laid his head, in unit number 907. They’d seen Hayes leave the apartment with a backpack, meet Wilford over near 30th and St. Paul, and exchange the backpack for a large cardboard box that Wilford would bring, and then Hayes would take the box to an apartment at Belvedere Towers, at Northern Parkway and Falls Road. When agents raided Hayes’ Symphony Center apartment in May 2011, they found and seized $318,006 in cash and seven expensive watches. And even before they raided the Belvedere Towers apartment, they did a trash dump there, after watching one of the co-conspirators throw some garbage in a dumpster, and found evidence that cocaine was being processed there after being shipped in hollowed-out computer towers.

But before all that, in late Sept. 2010, the agents looked into who was leasing the Symphony Center unit used by Hayes. Turned out, it was a man named Damon Crump, a Baltimore City district court commissioner at the Pataspco Avenue courthouse in Brooklyn, whose day-to-day duties involve setting defendants’ bails and reviewing sworn statements of charges to make sure they pass muster for probable cause.

Edwards, in an affidavit, explained that Crump, along with one of Hayes’ and Wilford’s co-conspirators, Alvin Purcell Wells, leased the apartment on Hayes’ behalf. Crump’s name also was on the BGE account for the apartment. “In addition,” Edwards wrote, Symphony Center’s management “identified Hayes as the individual they knew to be Damon Crump,” while Wells paid the rent—and had run up a couple thousand dollars in credit.

Crump, who was not charged with any crime for the role Edwards ascribes to him in the investigation, said in a Feb. 1 phone interview that “I’m a victim” for having helped Hayes, who he says he’s known since “I was 8 years old.” He explains that Hayes came to him in 2006 and said he’d been “put out from his home and needed a place to stay, so I got the apartment for him” by signing the lease.

The first year, Crump continues, Hayes was “doing fine, selling cars and doing carpentry and landscaping work,” and so “I see that everything is going well, so I’m going to back off.” Then Hayes talked “Wells into putting his name on the lease too,” and “so I am not down there [at the apartment] from the middle of 2007 on,” since the rent’s being paid and Wells—who Crump says he’s known since middle school, and whom he describes as “a legitimate businessman who had a group home”—is sharing responsibility for the lease. Then, Hayes gets arrested in the Wilford investigation and “I was just dumbfounded,” says Crump, adding that “I had no involvement—if I did, I would have been arrested—and if I’d known, I would’ve broken the lease.” As for Wells, Crump says, “he could have been a victim too”—and, indeed, prosecutors later declined to pursue the charges against Wells.

Much less detail is available about a target in the investigation who court documents say was on that payroll of Baltimore City mayor’s office in 2009 and early 2010, during the waning days of Sheila Dixon’s tenure there. His name appears in the Baltimore City Circuit Court case file against one of Wilford’s co-conspirators, Michael Smooth, who owns a dump-truck company, B’Mores Dumping, located at a Wilford-owned industrial property near Cherry Hill. The target is described in a “report of investigation” as one of several unindicted targets in the case, without any further details—except that he also earned income from a clothing store he owned in West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood, a few blocks from the near-constant cluster of locational data points turned up by the investigation’s GPS tracking efforts.

Attempts to contact the target were unsuccessful, as were efforts to learn his duties at the mayor’s office, but a visit to the clothing store’s location reveals it is no longer in operation, and its listed phone number is no longer active. As he was not charged and could not be located, City Paper is not publishing his name.

That the Wilford investigation touched on a court commissioner and a man on City Hall’s payroll is perhaps not surprising in an era of Baltimore crime-consciousness informed by intricacies of The Wire, with its thought-provoking fictional portrayals of the drug game’s far-reaching consequences. But this is real life—at least insofar as the agent’s sworn facts reflect reality—and the Wilford case stacks up as a big one by Baltimore standards.

In 2008, a 40-kilo cocaine seizure was touted by the Baltimore police as the biggest in the department’s history (“Man Gets Federal Charges for Historic 40-Kilo Coke Bust Next to Kevin Liles Drive,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 23, 2009), though two prior ones at the Port of Baltimore were bigger, but involved other law-enforcement agencies (“OK, But It’s Probably Like the Third-Biggest Drug Bust Ever. At Least,” The News Hole, March 2, 2009). One of those larger ones, in 2004, involved a little over 130 kilograms—a few kilos less than in the Wilford case.

At the very same time as the Wilford investigation, another probe handled by the DEA in California, involving Hollywood-based figures with Baltimore ties, turned up evidence that nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine were shipped to Baltimore over a six-week period, with more than $4 million in cash going back to California (“Bringing It Back Home,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011). Aside from the large amounts of California coke being exchanged for Baltimore cash, the case has another similarity to Wilford’s—some of the coke in both cases was shipped in hollowed-out desktop computer towers.

In a case involving Mexican cartel coke coming to Baltimore, trial testimony from a cartel operative provided some context for these amounts (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23, 2011). The operative, Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, told jurors that he had been one of the Gulf cartel’s Houston-based distributors, and his group handled about 300 tons of coke a month coming over the border from Mexico—that’s more than 272,000 kilograms per month. On the Baltimore end, Mendoza-Cano said he delivered 40 to 60 kilos per month for six months to one of the case’s co-conspirators.

The Wilford investigation, then, turned up big amounts by Baltimore standards—but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, it’s not a case prosecutors care to lose over the question of whether or not the agents failed to get needed warrants for their highly effective electronic-surveillance tactics—which is precisely what Wilford is trying to make happen. Whether or not Wilford wins, he can at least say he tried.

Cooking Goose: “Stop Fucking Snitching” figure gets snitched on in prison

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 24, 2013

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Sherman “Goose” Kemp, one of the cash-loving, drug-dealing stars of 2004’s anti-rat Baltimore street-culture documentary Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. I, already had a prodigious list of prior drug-related convictions before he was charged anew in early 2012 with conspiring to smuggle heroin into federal prison, where he was serving a 30-year sentence, and sell it at a huge mark up: two federal convictions in the 2000s and one Maryland conviction in the 1990s. Now, having copped to the new charges, Kemp’s list of priors is even longer.

After signing a guilty-plea agreement in October, Kemp (pictured, in a Stop Fucking Snitching scene) was recently sentenced – and received a pretty good deal, given that such priors often result in draconian sentences: four more years added to his existing term, shifting his release date from 2035 to 2039, when he’ll be about 60 years old. He actually got a 10-year sentence, but U.S. District judge Catherine Blake ordered six of them to be served concurrently with his existing prison term.

According to the plea’s statement of facts, “beginning in April 2011, through November 7, 2011, Sherman Michael Kemp, agreed with Lasheta Claybourne and others to smuggle heroin from Baltimore, Maryland, into FCI Beckley, West Virginia, where he was serving a federal sentence. Once the heroin was smuggled inside the prison, Kemp and other distributed the heroin at approximately $600 per gram.”

The statement has an additional sentence, with lines drawn through it, indicating that Kemp and the government do not agree that this could be proven: “Additionally, in September through November 2012, Kemp worked with others to try to smuggle heroin into the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was being held pretrial.” The facility is run by Maryland’s prison agency and now is used to house federal pretrial detainees, but until early 2011, it had long been used as the state’s “Supermax” prison, formally known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.

In the prison-heroin case, another Beckley inmate ratted Kemp out, according to court records, prompting investigators to uncover a complex smuggling scheme involving Claybourne, who has not been charged publicly. She is described in court documents as a licensed nursing assistant at University of Maryland Medical Center who arranged for heroin shipments to be sent to Kemp in Beckley and managed the scheme’s money.

Kemp’s 2008 firearm-and-cocaine conviction in Maryland, for which he received a 180-month sentence, was followed with a jury conviction in a Pennsylvania case that yielded Kemp’s 30-year sentence and $31 million judgment for his part in the sprawling and murderous Phillips Cocaine Organization, in which other Baltimore players were in the picture, including Anthony Ballard and Shawn Green. Kemp’s name also appeared in court documents in the 2010 racketeering case against the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang in Maryland, with his phone tied to that of the gang’s on-the-streets heroin dealer, Kevin Glasscho.

Back in 2004, before Sherman “Goose” Kemp went to prison to serve 30 years for successive federal drug-trafficking convictions in Maryland and Pennsylvania, his appearances in Stop Fucking Snitching made law enforcers bristle. The Baltimore street-culture documentary’s core message-that those who cooperate with cops should be silenced by violence-went viral on both sides of the issue, and when Kemp’s 2007 Maryland indictment came down, Baltimore DEA’s then-assistant special agent in charge, Carl Kotoswki, said in a press release that “if convicted, Kemp, a self-proclaimed star of the streets, will have years in federal prison to refine his acting skills.”

In February 2012, Kemp, now 34 and serving a sentence set to end in 2035, was indicted again in federal court, this time for running heroin in prison. Details that emerged in court on June 28 reveal that, just as in his prior two cases, snitching made it happen. If convicted, he faces a possible life sentence.
In September 2011, a fellow inmate at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Beckley, in West Virginia, sparked a new DEA investigation into Kemp’s alleged heroin-dealing at the medium-security prison. The scheme, as described in court documents, involved an intricate chain of phone calls, text messages, shipping, and smuggling that made Kemp “responsible for the majority of the heroin that is being smuggled into and trafficked within” FCI Beckley, which has an inmate population of 1,643, plus another 416 in an adjacent minimum-security camp.
Each of the inmates served by Kemp’s alleged scheme had to give him half the heroin they smuggled in, which, according to court documents, commanded a price of $600 per gram-much higher than the $200 or so per gram it costs on the street. Thus, the single 10-gram package agents tracked and seized during the investigation could have been sold for $6,000; Kemp stood to make a good living this way – and based on what Kemp had to say in Stop Fucking Snitching, it’s the only kind of living he cares to make.

In one scene in the movie, according to court documents, Kemp talks with his friend Tremain Tazewell as they sit in the West Baltimore bar they then ran together, Pete’s Place. Kemp declares that it doesn’t “count” if “you got money from your grandmother dying or your mother passed away or someone died on an airplane,” or “you were hurt from when you were born,” or “you made your money from baseball, basketball, football and shit.” The only money that “counts,” he says, is “street money, blood money, money in rubber bands,” adding that “if it don’t come in rubber bands, vacuum sealed, freezer bags, or ziplock bags, shit don’t count.” Then Tazewell chimes in: “And trash bags.”

Tazewell later ended up convicted of drug crimes; now 34, he’s scheduled to be released from federal prison in 2025. Many others who appeared in or helped make Stop Fucking Snitching, including producer Ronnie Thomas (better known as Skinny Suge), Van Sneed, Akiba Matthews, George Butler, Warren Polston, and Eric Bailey, were later convicted in federal court on drug-related charges. In addition, two former Baltimore City police officers mentioned in the film, William King and Antonio Murray, were convicted of robbing drug dealers and selling the drugs themselves.

The details of the investigation into Kemp’s prison-heroin indictment emerged when prosecutors filed documents in Maryland U.S. District Court on June 28 to oppose Kemp’s argument that investigators employed unlawful tactics to build their case. The filing offered the first public glimpse of the evidence against Kemp.

The alleged scheme involved numerous steps. First, once Kemp “approved of an inmate receiving heroin inside of FCI Beckley,” court documents say, the inmate would be provided the cellphone number of Kemp’s “female associate in Baltimore City, Lasheta Clayborne,” described as a licensed nursing assistant at University of Maryland Medical Center. The inmate would then have his girlfriend call Clayborne and say, “I’m calling for (insert inmate’s name); he said to give you an address.” Clayborne would respond by telling the girlfriend to “hang up and text her the address,” and then would mail to the address a package, “usually a box of candy,” that “contained a quantity of heroin secreted in small balloons.” Once the heroin arrived, “it was then up to the inmate’s girlfriend to smuggle the heroin inside to the inmate”-usually by “body carrying” in “private areas of the body” or by “mouth transfer” when kissing the inmate.

Clayborne, who has not been publicly charged for her alleged involvement in Kemp’s case and could not be reached for comment, also had an important role on the money side of the alleged scheme. “Kemp frequently directs Clayborne to send money to other individuals involved in his heroin smuggling operation,” court documents say, and she “sends money into Kemp’s account via Western Union.” Kemp’s prison customers, meanwhile, are “directed to have someone on the outside send an amount of money to Clayborne,” who then “notifies Kemp the money has arrived” in payment.

Kemp has maintained his innocence in the prison-heroin case, as he did in the Pennsylvania case-in which he was one of 11 defendants in a violent drug-conspiracy case against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO) which included the murder of a federal witness. Kemp and two others, including kingpin Maurice Phillips, stood trial for three months as co-defendants, and cooperators testified for the prosecution. After Kemp was convicted of a single cocaine-conspiracy count, he asked for a new trial, saying the government had failed to disclose to him, as required, evidence that could have been used to impeach one of the cooperators who testified against him. When his motion was denied, he appealed, and still awaits a ruling.

Back when Kemp was a “star of the streets,” kicking it in his posh waterfront apartment at Spinnaker Bay in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood and owning a sporting goods store on Loch Raven Boulevard, life carried some risks. In the early 2000s, for instance, when a vicious drug-dealing outfit headed by rap-music producer Willie Mitchell was warring with the infamous Rice Organization, a rival drug crew with political pull, Mitchell’s underlings hatched an aborted plan to rob and kill Kemp, according to court documents.

But Kemp lived large-as seen in Stop Fucking Snitching, when, hanging at Pete’s Place, he “pulls wads of cash out of his pocket” that are “wrapped in rubber bands,” court documents say. No matter what happens in his prison-heroin case, those days are long gone.

Out of Reach: The Black Guerrilla Family Gang Aimed to Show a Way Out of the Criminal Lifestyle – Until Its Criminal Activities Brought It Down

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 15, 2012

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“It’s hard to promote black nationalism when you have a black man in the White House,” Thomas Bailey said on Jan. 6, 2009, weeks before Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American President of the United States. Bailey, a Maryland inmate serving life for murder, couldn’t have known at the time how prophetic his words were, or that they would end up memorialized in court documents.

As Obama was moving into the White House, court documents show that federal investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Maryland—a unit dubbed the Special Investigations Group (DEA-SIG)—were kicking into gear a sprawling probe of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), the black-nationalist prison gang for which Bailey ran “the day-to-day operations” at North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI), a maximum-security prison near Cumberland.

When Bailey uttered those prescient words, he was talking over a prison phone at NBCI with Eric Marcell Brown (“Eric Marcell Brown,” Mobtown beat, May 7, 2009), who was on a cell phone at the Maryland Transition Center (MTC), a correctional facility in Baltimore, where Brown was close to finishing a lengthy prison stint for a 1992 drug-dealing conviction. Brown, DEA-SIG investigators wrote in court documents, was “in command of day-to-day operations” in Maryland for the BGF, a national prison gang founded in California in the 1960s by inmate/radical George Jackson, a Black Panther Party member who espoused the black-nationalist view that African-Americans needed to build separate economic and social structures for themselves.

Numerous conversations between Bailey and Brown were intercepted by DEA-SIG, unbeknownst to them at the time, and they show that the two, and their many BGF comrades, seemed to have a genuine desire to promote a better, less violent, more productive path for ex-cons and street hustlers. They weren’t the first. Jackson’s ideas were wrapped up with the Panthers’, and few would question that at least some of their intentions were good. It was their tactics and internal contradictions—along with the machinations of law enforcers—that quashed their ambitions. The same, it now appears, could be said of the BGF in Maryland.

As the DEA-SIG’s probe began in late 2008, Eric Brown had already established himself as a soon-to-be-released inmate prepped to become a force for economic and social good, both in prisons and on the streets.

Brown and his wife, Deitra Davenport (“Deitra Davenport,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), had started a nonprofit, Harambee Jamaa Inc., “to improve the lives of our people who are living under sub standard conditions here in Baltimore” and “to educate, invigorate and liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison,” according to its incorporation papers. They had formed DeeDat Publishing Inc., which had printed and distributed The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities, a “living policy book” intended to serve as “a deterrent to continued criminal behavior and prison recidivism.”

The Black Book condemned drug dealing as “genocide” and “chemical warfare,” and promoted a vision for “Jamaa”—the Swahili word for “family,” which The Black Bookuses to refer to the BGF—to build “legitimate and organized ventures” and to “establish Jamaa in a positive light in the prison system and in the streets.”

The rhetoric was persuasive. The Black Book’s back cover featured glowing blurbs from Andrey Bundley, a Baltimore City Public Schools administrator and two-time mayoral candidate; two Anne Arundel Community College professors; former FBI agents Tyrone Powers and Leslie Parker Blyther; Bridget Alston-Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Partners in Progress, which works with at-risk children in Baltimore City’s public schools; and Michael Curtis Jones, an author and youth counselor based in Washington, D.C.

“Kudos, to Eric Brown (E.B.) for not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs,” Bundley’s blurb stated. “He has availed his leadership capacity in Jamaa to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom and equality.” Blyther’s blurb called Brown “an extraordinary human” who “deserves our respect,” and said that “what he has to say” is “life changing!”

But DEA-SIG’s success torpedoed the love-fest. Scores of Bailey’s “comrades”—the term BGF members use to address one another—would plead guilty to a host of federal charges brought in 2009 (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009) and 2010 (“Round Two,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2010), including racketeering, heroin trafficking, extortion, assault, money laundering, and smuggling contraband into prison. Those convicted include inmates (though not Bailey, who, like many of the investigation’s targets, ultimately wasn’t charged), prison personnel, and previously law-abiding citizens.

The presence of prison staff in the scheme prompted City Paper to look at the issue of corrupt correctional officers in Maryland, in connection both with the BGF and other gangs (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010), but there were other defendants with legitimate-looking careers. Todd Duncan was a gang-interventionist for a government-funded nonprofit (“Inside Out,” Mobtown Beat, April 14, 2010). Rainbow Williams was a youth mentor for Baltimore City Public Schools students (“Rainbow Lee Williams,” Mobtown Beat, May 1, 2009). Kimberly McIntosh was a health care worker (“Health Care Worker Accused,” Mobtown Beat, April 16, 2010). Tomeka Harris was a mortgage broker (“Day of Reckoning,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 22, 2010). And Calvin Robinson was a Baltimore City wastewater worker with a clothing boutique (“Calvin Renard Robinson,” Mobtown Beat, June 10, 2009).

In all, as much as City Paper could determine from federal court records, 40 people were charged in connection with the probe, and at least 28 of them—maybe more; the court docket is vague on the fates of some defendants—have pleaded guilty so far. According to a Jan. 12 press release issued by the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, “all the indicted high ranking members of BGF, and their associates, including four employees of state prisons, have pleaded guilty to charges relating to their BGF activities.”

In reality, the problem for Bailey and the BGF was not “a black man in the White House.” It was their hubris and hypocrisy in promoting themselves as a legitimate alternative to the criminal lifestyle, when, in reality, they were committing crimes like any other prison gang. And they got caught.

Though Brown and his BGF comrades claimed to be engaging potential re-offenders in an effort to set them on a more productive path in life, court documents show they were, in fact, engaged with a who’s-who in Baltimore’s underworld as they carried on like common gangsters.

“You are trying to do good,” explains a BGF member who wasn’t charged as a result of DEA-SIG’s investigation, but who knows many of the now convicted BGF leaders and members well, “but you are doing so much fucked-up shit at the same time.” The member, who asked that his real name not be published (in this article, he’ll be called Sam) so that he could speak freely and stay safe from retribution, identifies what may be the BGF’s central contradiction: “You [can’t] tell people about uplifting your people but you’re one of the biggest drug dealers around. There’s no gray area in the struggle. You’re either in it, or you’re not. You can’t say you’re a revolutionary and you’re in the struggle, but you’re a dope-slinging, gangbanging, shooting motherfucker. That ain’t what the struggle is about.”

 

Because there was no trial in the prosecution of the BGF racketeering probe, the full scope of the evidence that yielded the long cascade of guilty pleas is not publicly available. What is available, though, is abundant. DEA-SIG’s affidavits supporting search warrants and wiretap orders provide hundreds of pages of detailed information about what the investigators were finding. A host of them, attached to a motion filed in the case last year by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, show that investigators linked BGF leaders—especially its main heroin trafficker, Kevin Glasscho, who has prior convictions for murder, handgun possession, and drug trafficking—to a roster of suspected and convicted drug traffickers, some of whom have been the focus of City Paper articles in recent years.

Glasscho ended up on DEA-SIG’s radar thanks to a confidential informant, identified in court documents as “CS1” and described as a BGF member incarcerated at NBCI. On March 3, 2009, CS1 told the investigators that Glasscho “is a major Baltimore drug trafficker and a drug-trafficking associate of Melvin Williams, a/k/a ‘Little Melvin,’ a notorious convicted drug dealer from Baltimore who is now back on the streets of Baltimore.”

Williams is a legendary figure in Baltimore, and his alleged ties to Glasscho add perspective to the extent of the BGF’s reach in the city’s streets—as well as its affinity to people who suffer their own contradictions.

Williams had an acting role in the HBO series The Wire, playing a church deacon who tries to draw hustlers out of “the game.” In real life, he served a lengthy federal prison sentence, starting in the 1980s, for bringing heroin to the streets of Baltimore in bulk. He says he put his gangster ways behind him in 1996, when God appeared to him in a vision (“Little Melvin’s Holiday,” The Nose, Jan. 22, 2003). After his release from prison, he became a bail bondsman, and in 2000 was convicted of possessing a firearm, but his 22-year sentence for that crime was reduced in 2003 to time served, courtesy of U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis. In 2005, Williams’ house in Randallstown was raided after investigators intercepted phone conversations he’d had with Antoine K. Rich, a major Baltimore drug trafficker with whom Williams claimed to play high-stakes craps (“Redemption Song and Dance,” Mobtown Beat, March 19, 2008). The raid turned up more than $100,000 in cash, including $90,000 stashed in the ceiling of his basement bathroom. Ultimately, though, Garbis in 2006 ordered the money returned to Williams, calling it “unlawfully seized property.”

Two days before CS1 described Glasscho’s alleged relationship with Little Melvin Williams, investigators intercepted a phone conversation between Eric Brown and Glasscho. According to the affidavits, the two discussed the then recent murder of Frederick Jeffrey Archer, a 68-year-old who had been stabbed and bludgeoned with a brick inside a Harlem Park apartment complex for senior citizens. They referred to Archer as “Archie,” and talked about how “Melvin”—a reference to Williams, according to DEA-SIG—was upset about the murder, because Archer had been a “close associate” of his. They agreed that Glasscho, who was already investigating the murder, would handle the punishment. In another call later the same day, Brown told Davenport that “when they find out who did it, I know they going to torture his ass. That whole West Baltimore love old man Archie, boy.”

(Baltimore police say the murder of Archer, who in 2002 was charged in a cocaine and heroin conspiracy and received a three-year federal prison sentence, remains unsolved.)

During their conversation, according to the affidavit, Glasscho also told Brown that “Melvin want some trees. I got to get him some damn trees.”

“Some what?” Brown asked.

“Trees,” Glasscho responded.

“What the hell is that?” Brown asked.

“That weed shit,” Glasscho said.

“Oh, oh, oh, the trees,” Brown said.

The DEA-SIG investigators believed the two were referring to Little Melvin Williams, according to court documents.

When City Paper told Williams over the phone about how he was described in the affidavit, and what Glasscho and Brown had said while DEA-SIG was listening in, he said, “I don’t have a clue who Glasscho is, and you do what you want to do” with the information. Asked if he knew Archer, Williams said, “I don’t know none of these people. Whatever the U.S. attorney wants to do they can go ahead and do. I’m through with this.” After a short pause, he hung up the phone.

 

DEA-SIG’s probe into Glasscho’s criminal activities monitored his phones to develop evidence tying him to 27 people who had figured in DEA investigations in recent years. Investigators came up with this list of people by tracking back which phones his phones had called, and which phones those phones had called, thereby mapping a network of contacts linked to Glasscho.

Perhaps Glasscho was working his network in order to draw them into BGF’s path of greater legitimacy, or perhaps he was leveraging his high-level criminal contacts in order to boost the gang’s standing as a drug-trafficking enterprise. Either way, the picture that emerges from this list is that the BGF was fully embedded with Baltimore’s underworld on the streets.

Some of those named in the affidavit have no record of being charged with crimes, though many have been convicted in federal court. Among the latter are:

• Sherman Kemp, who made an appearance in the famous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD (“Skinny Suge Presents Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. 1,” Film, Jan. 19, 2005). Kemp pleaded guilty in Maryland in 2008 to federal cocaine and firearms charges, receiving 180 months in prison (“Return Flight,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008), and in 2010 in Pennsylvania, after a months-long jury trial, he was found guilty for his part in the massive Phillips Cocaine Organization conspiracy, and received a 30-year federal prison sentence.

• David Funderburk, a co-defendant in Frederick Archer’s 2002 coke and heroin case. Funderburk’s bail documents were found in bailbondsman and stevedore Milton Tillman Jr.’s car (“Another Tillman Court Document Comes Available,” The News Hole, Aug. 28, 2008) during the high-profile 2008 federal raids that led to Tillman’s indictment on tax and fraud charges (“Milton Tillman and Son Indicted in Bailbonds Conspiracy,” The News Hole, March 17, 2010), to which he has since pleaded guilty.

• James Henderson, who in 2008 was sentenced to five years in federal prison for his part in a heroin conspiracy centered at Fat Cats Variety (“All the Emperor’s Men,”Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008) in Southwest Baltimore, a business that was co-owned by one of Tillman Jr.’s bailbonds agents.

• Duane Truesdale, a co-defendant in 1990 with Savino Braxton (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009) in the legendary Baltimore heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams.

• David Zellars, who last year was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for his part in a large cocaine conspiracy.

• Richard Cherry, who in 2009 was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison for a cocaine conspiracy.

• Tahlil Yasin, who in 2007 received a 92-month federal prison sentence for a heroin conspiracy.

Among those whom DEA-SIG tied to Glasscho is Noel Liverpool, who, despite having a clean criminal record, is described in the affidavit as “a multi-kilogram cocaine trafficker operating the Baltimore area.” When the Tillman Jr. raids went down in 2008, the feds seized evidence involving Liverpool (“All Around Player,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 8, 2008), whose business ties to Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton Tillman III, (“Creative Licensing,” Mobtown Beat, April 9, 2008) have been reported by City Paper. Another Liverpool associate is Shawn Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 12, 2008), a former federal fugitive now serving time for drug trafficking and money laundering; court documents also link Green to the Phillips Cocaine Organization in Pennsylvania, though he was never charged in that prosecution.

Attempts to reach Liverpool, who was a basketball and football star at Morgan State University in the 1980s, were unsuccessful. His attorney, Jeffrey Chernow, did not return phone calls, as was the case in prior City Paper articles that mentioned Liverpool.

 

Drug dealing, money laundering, violence—this was far from the image Brown was trying to project through The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa. Rather than ushering ex-cons and hustlers to their redemptions, with hopes for productive lives to come, the BGF was organizing and executing crimes, undermining the very communities it was ostensibly trying to build up. What were they thinking?

BGF members are supposed to operate in secrecy, but City Paper was able to get incisive perspective from Sam, a BGF member who wasn’t charged in the investigation. He spoke at length about the gang’s mentality, potential, and shortcomings.

From Sam’s perspective, very few of BGF’s members in Maryland are even faintly aware of the gang’s ideological underpinnings. “Do dudes get involved in it because of the revolutionary aspect and the struggle?” he asks, rhetorically, then answers: “Hell, no. Two-thirds of them never even heard of that shit, nor do they care. Not even a fucking clue. Because if they did, and they had any understanding of it, [the BGF] wouldn’t be where it is now, and never would have went where it went.”

Asked whether the BGF prosecution had any impact, Sam at first says, “None at all. It actually probably made it worse for the simple fact of this: The few people that actually had the ability to steer and think and really, truly put some shit in motion are gone. The only people left keep it on a street level, the motherfuckers who can’t think bigger than this corner or this neighborhood.” Later in the conversation, though, Sam says DEA-SIG’s investigation put a stop to something that could have become truly insidious—a gang masquerading as a do-gooding organization supported by the city’s political class.

“We were getting ready to take it to a whole different level,” he recalls. “We were ready to come on the street and really try and put that Black Book to work and be able to make money and make some changes in the way shit was going.”

The wherewithal to effect change, though, required that some damage be done, Sam says. “You might have one neighborhood selling drugs and the next neighborhood over you have rotating food kitchens,” he says. “The streets would have provided the money. We would have got the city to provide grant money. If it had worked,” Sam speculates, “that shit would have gone in the fucking history books, and Baltimore would have been a city where every fucking mayor and every fucking councilman is corrupt. That’s what that shit would have been. That’s the direction it was going.

“There’s a duality to it, though,” Sam continues. “In [the gang’s] laws, it says you’re not even supposed to use drugs, not just [not] sell them. But here’s the biggest level of hypocrisy—you have so many motherfuckers that are up here [in charge], who violate all that shit, and then you got motherfuckers down here, and I’m trying to discipline you for the same shit these motherfuckers up top are doing? Come on, man. You can’t get more hypocritical than that.”

The BGF’s efforts to become an “organization,” not a gang, were bound to fail, whether or not DEA-SIG dismantled its ambitions, Sam says, because its members never rose above their ingrained street-level mentality.

“Baltimore’s a fucked-up city,” he observes, “and these dudes are a product of the streets, a product of what they know. They always do what they’re comfortable doing. Motherfuckers comfortable with that street shit, so why not join something that’s going to keep you in the street? That’s what it comes down to.” Many ostensible BGF members “ain’t even official,” he says. They might think they’ve been made members because someone initiated them, but often it’s actually a farce. “OK, here’s the oath,” he says, pretending to be a BGF recruiter. “You got it. It’s yours. You’re a comrade. Alright, go shoot him. You’re a comrade, you gotta do what I tell you to.

“The real struggle,” Sam continues, “is about overcoming the condition, the situation, learning from it, and bettering that situation—whether it be yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your whole community and all that shit. And it’s a fucking shame that the blueprint is there—George [Jackson] and them laid that shit out in the ’60s. But [many BGF members in Baltimore] are a product of what George tried to fight against—you become an actual enemy of your own fucking people.

“Do people have to die in a revolution? Sure, absolutely, but they die for a cause, not because he owed me $100 or he called my girl a bitch. There’s got to be a purpose to it. A revolution is a full and complete change. It’s a turnaround. None of these motherfuckers are doing that shit. You come from [prison], being a part of classes and learning [about Jamaa], and now all of the sudden you’re out and you’re running a regime uptown and you guys have the highest crime rate in the fucking city. How the fuck are you in the struggle?

“They don’t know the difference between the animal ‘gorilla’ and the revolutionary freedom-fighter ‘guerrilla,’” Sam says. “They get tattoos of gorillas on them—that’s how fucking stupid they are.”

 

Though Eric Brown and the BGF’s positive spin may have been utterly discredited by the DEA-SIG probe, at least one man—Tyrone Powers, the ex-FBI agent who endorsed The Black Book—doesn’t blame the message. “I still believe that much of The Black Book can provide positives,” he writes in an e-mail. “Endorsing the book does not endorse the criminal behavior of Eric Brown.”

To drive home his point, Powers draws an analogy to this country’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Endorsing the messages of those documents, he says, does not endorse “the criminal and genocidal racist actions of those that owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson and others who were involved in authoring these historic documents that called for justice.” He points out that Jefferson wrote that African-Americans “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” yet “Jefferson has a monument in Washington, D.C., and not one president has denounced him—not even our current black president.

“I do suggest that that damage done to Blacks and the ‘Black Community’ of that time by Jefferson was more detrimental than what Eric Brown pled guilty to,” Powers writes. “This does not exonerate Eric Brown, but it does say that his written work can have merit even if he lived a contradiction.” Powers explains that he continues to engage gang members in unorthodox ways in order to get them to stop the violence, and Brown facilitated his ability to do that work.

Powers was “able to have access to gang members via Eric Brown,” he writes, and that fact “may still change the deeds of at least one of them, in spite of Eric Brown.”

Grave Accusations: Dead Prosecutor Luna Dubbed Bondsman Tillman Jr. a “Violent Drug Dealer”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 23, 2008

In May 2002, federal prosecutor Jonathan Paul Luna stood up in a Baltimore courtroom and called bail-bondsman Milton Tillman Jr. a “violent drug dealer,” even though Tillman Jr. hadn’t–and still hasn’t–been convicted of violent, drug-related crimes. Luna was not yet famous; that would come after his violent death in a rural Pennsylvania stream, in December 2003. But Tillman Jr. was and is famous, at least locally, a fact that was part of Luna’s point: In gangland Baltimore, he argued, Tillman Jr.’s role as the patriarch of a drug-dealing family strikes fear in the hearts of other gangsters.

The case at hand was against Eric Lamont Bennett’s drug organization, which had operated in the late 1990s in Baltimore and Westminster, and the crimes Luna was prosecuting included the East Baltimore shooting, in 2000, of Tillman Jr.’s son, Milton Tillman III, nicknamed “Mo.” The violence erupted over a drug deal gone bad, and though Mo survived, two other men were murdered before the night was out.

By May 2002, Luna had won convictions against men held responsible for these and other crimes, including Bennett, Solomon Jones, and Tavon Bradley. The three have since won appeals and Jones and Bradley been reconvicted and resentenced. Bennett was scheduled to be resentenced on April 18, but the hearing was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled.

The three convicts had been part of a team of drug dealers who had sold Mo and two other buyers a bag of baking soda for $3,000 on Jan. 18, 2000. Before Mo and his friends could learn they’d been burned, Bennett’s gang went gunning for them. Luna asserted that, having robbed Tillman Jr.’s son, they figured they were as good as dead unless they struck first.

Luna based his comments on the trial testimony of Damien Simmons, the man who shot Mo three times in the back and became a cooperating witness against Bennett and the others, and on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration memo. That document, dated March 2000, called Tillman Jr. the head of a crime family with a 20-year history in the East Baltimore heroin trade and warned that the then-imprisoned Tillman Jr. appeared to be conspiring to hit back at Bennett and his crew.

The portrait of Tillman Jr. painted by Luna at Bennett’s first sentencing hearing complicates Tillman Jr.’s public persona, which has been forged by years of press coverage. News consumers would think Tillman Jr. is simply a politically connected bail-bondsman, real-estate investor, and nightclub impresario with convictions in the 1990s for attempted bribery and tax evasion. Luna’s statements about Tillman Jr., which have not been disclosed in news reports until now, get at the Tillman family’s street-level reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Baltimore’s drug-fueled shadow economy.

Luna’s focus on Tillman Jr. does not discount the alleged criminal career of at least one other family member: Stanford Stansbury. After Tillman III was shot in 2000 and thought he might die from his injuries, court records show, he told detectives that his cousin Stanford Stansbury would know the last name of “Ericky,” the man Tillman III believed to be responsible for the shooting. Last March, Stansbury and two other men, Harry Burton and Allen Gill, were federally indicted for running a murderous, decade-long drug conspiracy based at the Latrobe Homes housing project in East Baltimore. Today, Stansbury has secured a guilty-plea agreement in which he is a cooperating witness against Burton and Gill, whom prosecutors are seeking to give the death penalty in a trial scheduled for June.

Stansbury’s lawyer, Stuart O. Simms, a former Baltimore City state’s attorney and former secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, did not return a call for comment. Simms, as city state’s attorney in the 1980s, oversaw probes into Tillman Jr.’s suspected criminal activities. In 2006, New Trend Development, Tillman Jr.’s main real-estate company, contributed money to Simms’ failed run for Maryland attorney general.

The Tillman family’s business dealings drew public attention during a trial last year in which a jury determined that Tillman Jr., his son, and the other defendant, Bernard Dixon, did not intend to post multiple bails on properties in order to spring high-bail defendants out of lockup, as state criminal charges had contended. Since March, City Paper has published five articles in which Tillman Jr. was part of the story. Two were about a fugitive drug trafficker (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 12; “One Angry Man,” Mobtown Beat, March 26); one was about a felonious, bounty-hunting minister (“Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy,” Feature, April 16); another covered the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners’ scant control over criminals influencing the city’s bar business (“Creative Licensing,” Mobtown Beat, April 9); and one second-guessed the deaconlike image of a former heroin trafficker (“Redemption Song and Dance,” Mobtown Beat, March 19).

Tillman Jr.’s success in bail bonds and real estate appears to have soared since his release from prison in 2000. His Four Aces Bail Bonds has rapidly put a large dent in the dominance of the Baltimore City bail-bonds market traditionally enjoyed by Fred W. Frank Bail Bonds. “There is no question he has affected our business,” company President Barry Udoff confirms. New Trend Development, related businesses, and Tillman Jr. associates have acquired nearly $10 million in Baltimore-area real-estate holdings since 2000, according to property records. Meanwhile, Tillman Jr.’s political clout has also grown, as measured by the thousands of dollars in donations from Four Aces and New Trend to local politicians since his release from prison.

Luna’s career was cut short by his death in Pennsylvania in early December 2003. His body was found before dawn, drowned in a stream in Lancaster County, midway between Philadelphia and Harrisburg along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He’d been stabbed dozens of times, though not deeply, and his car sat idling close by. He had last been seen late the night before at his downtown Baltimore office. The local authorities deemed it a homicide, while the FBI leaked information to the press suggesting it was suicide, but the case remains unsolved. A book has been written about it, The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna (“Plot Device,” Books, Feb. 23, 2005), and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, continues to press for progress in getting it solved.

The Bennett prosecution was but a piece of Luna’s caseload against violent drug dealers, and it was over a year and a half before Luna died. There is nothing to suggest that the mysteries surrounding Luna’s death are in any way tied to Tillman Jr. or members of his family.

Luna’s insights into the Tillmans in the Bennett case gives the public an evidentiary record that the family was in the drug game. “Let me speak very frankly,” Luna said, according to the court transcript. “It is not news to most people in this courtroom that Mr. Tillman is the son of one of the most notorious drug dealers in Baltimore City history. That is a fact.” Luna also said that “there is no question that Mr. Tillman’s father is a reputed drug dealer, a violent type of guy.”

Underscoring Luna’s contention was a March 2000 DEA memo stating that the agency’s “investigation into the Tillman family has revealed that the family has been active for the past 20 years in the Baltimore, East-side based, heroin traffic. Milton Tillman, Jr., the patriarch, is currently in the last six months of a Federal prison sentence in Butner, North Carolina for tax evasion. Phone conversations made by Tillman, Jr., from . . . Butner to his son and associates indicate that a retaliatory strike against the Bennett organization is imminent.”

The Bennett trial testimony of Damien Simmons, the man who shot Tillman III, also supported Luna’s statements that Tillman Jr. was known as a feared, high-level player in the drug game. The trial transcript shows that Simmons answered “Yes,” when asked if Bennett told him to shoot Tillman III and his associates because of whom Tillman III’s father is. Simmons pleaded guilty to his part in the Bennett organization’s crimes and is scheduled for release from federal prison in 2017.

“Jon Luna wasn’t just relying on the DEA memo when he said these things about Tillman Jr.,” recalls defense attorney Harvey Greenberg, who represented Jones in the Bennett case. “He also had Simmons’ testimony. Luna was trying to be frank about the background of the shooting and what prompted it. He was being open and honest, and telling what he knew to be true with evidence to back it up.”

Tillman Jr. did not respond to detailed messages left at his office and with his attorney, Greg Dorsey. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Marcia Murphy says her agency would not comment about Luna’s statements regarding Tillman Jr., and also would not respond to questions involving the Bennett or Stansbury cases, because “we don’t discuss our charging decisions or prosecution strategy.”

Some of the politicians who have received campaign support from Tillman Jr.’s companies, however, did respond to City Paper‘s inquiries. “I did?!” Baltimore County Circuit Court Associate Judge Mickey Norman exclaims, when told his judicial campaign committee in 2005 got money from one of Tillman Jr.’s companies. “I honestly don’t know about that,” Norman says, explaining that judges’ campaigns are set up so the judges themselves are insulated from the fundraising process and have little, if any, knowledge of who’s supporting their candidacies.

“Did I?” Baltimore City Deputy Mayor and former state delegate Salima Siler Marriott asks when told about Tillman Jr.’s donation to her campaign. She says she doesn’t know the man, either by name or personally. Messages left with nine other politicians–eight of them Democrats, including Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith; House of Delegates Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (45th District); Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot; former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich; and Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (45th District), the chairman of the Baltimore City state Senate delegation–were not returned by press time.

Greenberg, however, is intrigued by City Paper‘s inquiries, suggesting that what Luna had to say about Tillman Jr. is already widely recognized among lawyers, law enforcers, and others familiar with the local crime scene. “Do you find Luna’s comments remarkable?” he asks. “Because I don’t.”

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Anderson And Chris Landers