The drug ring was taking in $14,000 a week selling cocaine and heroin in East Baltimore Street's strip club district, but court documents say Monica McCants, who ran the gang with her son, had grown concerned about one of the dancers in her network of dealers on The Block.
Cherrie Gammon, who worked at Club Pussycat, owed money to gang members, and they suspected she was feeding information about the operation to police, according to prosecutors. Police found Gammon near Leakin Park on Dec. 12, 2010, suffering from five gunshot wounds. She died in the hospital.
The 42-year-old McCants pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering conspiracy and drug distribution charges in federal court, in a case that has accused McCants and her son, Donte Baker, of running a violent drug organization that conspired to harm Gammon. McCants denied any knowledge of plans to kill Gammon.
The case's allegations of witness intimidation evoke the "stop snitching" culture that has dogged Baltimore law enforcement for years.
In August, four men were indicted in connection with the 2011 killing in Lochearn of an unlicensed cab driver who saw a man arrested, then turned down a bribe to give false testimony. And 10 years ago this month, Angela Dawson, who had called police on drug dealers on her block, and her family were killed.
Neither Baltimore police nor federal prosecutors would say whether Gammon was aiding an investigation.
Baker and two other members of the gang — Tyrone Johniken, 30, and Gary Cromartie, 23 — all face racketeering, drug dealing and murder conspiracy charges in the killing of 25-year-old Gammon.
The three men and McCants allegedly began to suspect that Gammon was talking to police after a package of drugs that had been given to her on credit went missing. A few weeks before the murder, McCants told the men that she thought Gammon was a "snitch," court records show.
McCants told her son to recoup the lost money, using violence if necessary, according to filings in the case, which quote her issuing obscenity-laced commands.
"Let them know you ain't playing," she said.
Court documents recount a phone call between Baker and McCants in the weeks after Gammon's death. McCants said she believed somebody had informed law enforcement that Gammon owed them money.
In court filings, McCants is portrayed as the tough-talking leader of the gang, who went by the nickname Money and instructed her son to beat up Gammon. But in person Wednesday, wearing a white pullover and blue jeans with her hair drooping down the back of her neck, she cut a rather different figure.
At one point McCants swung around in her chair to face a man and a woman sitting in the third row of the court gallery and burst into tears. She rose to address the judge, a box of tissues next to her on the stand, quietly uttered "yes, sir" to his questions and entered her guilty plea.
Prosecutors recommended that she serve 15 years in prison; her attorney said he will seek to reduce that to 10.
"She's obviously emotionally distraught," Gary Ticknor, the attorney, said after the plea hearing. "She's an older woman and she's looking at 10 to 15 years in prison."
While McCants said in her plea agreement that she told Baker he might need to get rough with Gammon to make her a pay her debt, she denies having any knowledge of the killing before it happened.
"The government does not think that she directed the murder," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Kaul conceded.
According to her plea agreement, McCants and Baker's gang employed runners and junior members, including Cromartie and Johniken, who allegedly sold drugs to customers on The Block. The organization operated seven days a week, according to the agreement.
Robert Walden, Johniken's attorney, said he's confident the government can't prove its case against his client. Baker's attorney declined to comment, and Cromartie's lawyer could not be reached.
Gammon sold drugs on behalf of the group — sometimes at Club Pussycat — and bought them for herself, according to the agreement.
During the afternoon shift at the club Wednesday, a manager who would identify himself only as Will said he did not know anything about the murder or any drug dealing. Generally, he said, the club has no trouble. William G. Wantland, Jr. who is listed on the club's liquor license, could not be reached for comment.