Pubdate: Tue, 13 Feb 2018
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2018 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Jean Marbella


One target drove a Mercedes and lived in a waterfront condo on Boston
Street; another was homeless, essentially living out of a storage unit
where he kept his money balled up in a sock. One lived with his
extended family in a house he bought with a lead poisoning settlement;
yet another had a half-million-dollar home on two acres of land in

The circumstances of the people who were targeted for robbery by the
Baltimore Police's Gun Trace Task Force ranged widely, according to
witnesses in the federal trial of two of its former members. The sums
allegedly taken went from three figures up to six.

But the unifying factor, as so often is the case in Baltimore, was

The focus of the sweeping racketeering case was corruption. Eight
former members of the elite unit robbed citizens under protection of
their badges and claimed massive amounts of overtime for unworked
hours. Six pleaded guilty; a jury convicted the other two on Monday.

But the case also provided a window into the pervasive reach of the
drug economy in Baltimore.

The dealers or suspected dealers robbed by the officers ranged from
those selling nickel or dime quantities on the street for $5 or $10,
to those who moved kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine or heroin higher
up on the drug chain.

The picture that emerged in testimony was of a Willie Sutton logic --
the cops robbed drug dealers because that's where the money was.

Defense attorneys made much of the fact many witnesses were admitted
drug dealers who were serving or have served prison time for their

Prosecutors countered that the dealers weren't the ones on trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, speaking of one witness, said
robbery is robbery, whoever the victim.

"It doesn't matter whether he made money," the prosecutor said, "from
selling drugs or selling Girl Scout cookies."

Kevin Shird served 12 years for drug trafficking. Now he heads the Do
Right Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit that mentors and supports the
children of substance abusers.

He said no one should be surprised by the testimony about police and

"There's a large population of people who rely on the underground
economy to survive," Shird said.

Shird blames persistent poverty, inadequate schools and a broken
criminal justice system for luring young people into the drug trade
and keeping them there. He made bad decisions himself as an
impoverished teenager, he said, selling dime bags of heroin in the
1980s. That led to "the scarlet letter" of a criminal record, with
each subsequent arrest making it harder to get any job that paid more
than minimum wage.

"How do you feed your kids?" asked Shird, 48. "How do you keep a roof
over your head?"

While he eventually made his way out of that life, he said the same
underlying problems remain in much of the city today, providing a
steady stream of new recruits into the drug trade.

Prosecutors say the gun unit members preyed on the vulnerability of
dealers, who might be reluctant to report to police that their drugs
or their illegally earned money was stolen -- especially by police

Sergio Summerville testified that he was accosted in September 2016 by
a group of officers as he left his storage unit near the Horseshoe

Summerville said the officers claimed they were DEA agents, and that
they had a warrant to search the unit. He acknowledged keeping drugs
and money there -- thousands of dollars, he said, that he had balled
up in a sock.

But when an officer came out of the unit with the sock, Summerville
said, "I noticed it was flat."

He did not report the theft.

"I was concerned I could be charged for drugs," he testified. "That's
why I didn't make a complaint."

Witness after witness testified that officers robbed them, seizing
money they carried or kept in their homes, sometimes turning a portion
of it in as evidence but pocketing the rest. Several of the officers
who pleaded guilty and testified in the hopes of getting reductions in
their sentences admitted on the stand to taking money rather than
submitting it to the department.

It wasn't only cash. Drugs were also taken, and sometimes made their
way back into the market, witnesses testified.

Donald Stepp, a bail bondsman and cocaine dealer, testified he
partnered with former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins to resell the drugs the
officer seized.

Jenkins pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, but did not
testify in his former colleagues' trial.

Stepp said Jenkins provided him with "over-the-top amounts" of all
manner of drugs -- some he didn't even know the name of -- at all
hours of the day and night -- including two big bags of pills looted
from city pharmacies on the night of the 2015 riot following the
police custody death of Freddie Gray.

"I've got an entire pharmacy," Jenkins said, according to Stepp.

Stepp took to leaving the shed at his Middle River house unlocked so
he wouldn't have to wake up for the latest middle-of-the-night
shipment. Once, he testified, Jenkins called him to a house he was
going to rob, saying he had a "monster" of a target: One of
Baltimore's largest kingpins.

At the scene, Stepp testified, he saw Jenkins emerge with what he
thought might be 10 kilograms of cocaine, stuffed in his vest.

"He come out the door looking like Santa Claus," Stepp testified.

He said Jenkins dropped the names of multiple local drug kingpins, but
the names didn't mean anything to him. Among them was Kenneth "Kenny
Bird" Jackson, who helped inspire the Stringer Bell character on "The

Stepp said Jenkins identified Jackson as the owner of a silver Acura
that they broke into, stealing up to $19,000.

The testimony drew a rebuke from Jackson, reputed to have served as
lieutenant to another legendary Baltimore kingpin, Melvin D. "Little
Melvin" Williams. He told The Sun he never owned a silver Acura or had
that amount of money stolen.

Jackson said "rat punks" like Stepp have to provide testimony on "a
known name to make the story juicy."

If so, Jackson fits the bill. He became known over the years as a
particularly well-connected businessman: He managed a strip club and
made political contributions and developed ties with local
politicians. In 2000, then-City Council President Sheila Dixon,
Comptroller Joan Pratt, State Sen. Joan Carter Conway and State Del.
Nathaniel T. Oaks all spoke on his behalf in a dispute over
demolishing the club for redevelopment.

Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the
University of Maryland, said the fact that some of Baltimore's
big-name dealers remain well known in town speaks to the role drugs
play in the city.

"I've always thought of Baltimore as the big city with the big heroin
problem," he said. "The fact that these are well known people who have
continuing careers -- I think that's unusual," Reuter said.

Still, he said, it's hard to point to why drugs have such a long and
continuing grip on the city.

Baltimore native Gary Tuggle began a 30-year career in law enforcement
as a city police officer. He headed the DEA office here before leaving
in 2015 to run the agency's Philadelphia office.

He said his hometown is now several decades deep into a crisis that
other parts of the country have begun to experience only more recently.

"The problem is bad across the country, but Baltimore is unique in
that it has a history of generational drug use," he said. "We haven't
done a good job in reducing demand."

Tuggle grew up on the east side of Baltimore, in a family where some
fell into addiction. He said drug dealers are sometimes "idolized" in
their communities.

Young people grow up seeing drugs as the ticket to the kind of
material wealth beyond what they could otherwise make in a legitimate
career, he said. And yet those dealers "end up dead or in prison."

Local leaders, activists and organizations react to the Baltimore
Police Gun Trace Task Force case verdict.

Local leaders, activists and organizations react to the Baltimore
Police Gun Trace Task Force case verdict. (Jessica Anderson and Kevin

"I've never seen a truly successful drug dealer," Tuggle said. "If you
look at the price they've had to pay, the time spent in prison, the
loss of the family structure, I would say they were abject failures.
They not only poisoned their own communities, they lost so much that
they could have had."

And yet, young people continue to follow their elders into the

"You have older generations in the household who became drug dealers,"
he said. "It's not uncommon to see younger generations get involved
with drug trafficking."

That's something Shird, the former dealer, has seen firsthand. He
knows one such family, a man who has seen his son and grandson follow
in his footsteps of heroin addiction, and heroin dealing.

"We're talking about," he said, "generations of pain."
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