Sitting in a federal courtroom Friday in a jail-issue jumpsuit, the diminutive Jean Brown stood accused of beating a member of an international drug ring, which she allegedly ran, so hard that one of his eyes was dislodged from its socket.
Prosecutors say Brown ran a $1 million-a-month conspiracy and ordered the murder of Michael Knight, the man she is accused of beating. Brown maintains her innocence and the case is headed for trial this year.
"I did not kill nobody," she said, according to a tape of a police interview. "God knows the truth."
She appeared in court as her attorneys argued that key evidence against her should be thrown out because it was obtained through a combination of improper policing and incompetent legal representation. The judge did not rule Friday.
Brown is accused of operating in a triangle between Arizona, the alleged source of her marijuana; Baltimore, her alleged distribution hub; and Jamaica, where she supposedly squirreled away millions of dollars in profit each year. The case has shed light on the inner workings and downfall of what authorities describe as a violent international drug ring.
Also in court Friday were Julio Carlos Meza-Mendez and Gabrial Campa-Mayen, two alleged marijuana suppliers, as well as Dmytro Holovko, who is accused of being a driver who aided Brown's organization. All maintain their innocence. The involvement of Holovko, a Czech national, has brought representatives from his country's embassy into U.S. court to help his defense.
The three men have not been charged in Knight's death.
Baltimore County police began to suspect that Brown was linked to Knight's December 2009 killing a few months after he died, and investigators traveled to Miramar, Fla., to speak with her. She appeared in a bathrobe and agreed to talk to them outside her spacious home, one of the detectives testified Friday.
After that interview, prosecutors say, Brown and Carl Smith, her sometime boyfriend and alleged partner in the smuggling, fled to Mexico to regroup. Meza-Mendez, then an official at the Mexican consulate in Tucson, Ariz., used his diplomatic status to get the pair across the border, federal authorities claim in court filings.
In Mexico, Smith considered leaving the crew, prosecutors say, and he was soon killed. He was killed in Tijuana in April 2010, the filings say, and Meza-Mendez allegedly called Brown to confirm that the deed was done.
The crew found a new marijuana supply in California, according to the filings, and were sending it east in tomato cans. But federal prosecutors charged Brown that July with giving Knight and two other couriers more than half a million dollars to take to Jamaica.
Brown pleaded guilty to a single count of bulk cash smuggling in October 2010. She agreed to cooperate as a witness as Baltimore County homicide detectives investigated Knight's death.
The detectives did not believe much of what she told them, prosecutors wrote in court filings. In a video of one interview, shown in court Friday, Brown suggested that police were looking at her as more than a witness.
"You going to prosecute me then?" she asked. "It seems like here there's a case where you're going to prosecute me then."
Two detectives interviewed her numerous times throughout the fall of 2010, but her attorney, Sebastian Cotrone, who was based in Florida, was not present.
In the first interview, Brown appeared breezily confident, eating a fast-food dinner and chatting with the officers — all the while shackled by her ankle to a wall. After one interview, the detectives drove Brown past the White Marsh apartment where they believe Knight was killed. It was an attempt to rattle her, Detective Carroll Bollinger testified in court.
"As we got closer and closer to the address I watched her. … She got visibly nervous," Bollinger said. "We got our point across."
Prosecutors say it was at that apartment that Brown had violently beat Knight, in a rage over $250,000 she suspected he had stolen. When Knight did not say where the money was, Brown ordered two members of her crew to kill him, federal attorneys said in court filings. His body has not been found.
In court motions, Gary E. Proctor and Thomas L. Crowe — now Brown's attorneys — argued that those interviews were improperly conducted.
"It is patently obvious that Mr. Cotrone was asleep at the wheel," the lawyers wrote in one motion.
Federal prosecutors argued that Brown voluntarily waived her rights and because Cotrone was available by phone, she still had access to a lawyer. Cotrone denied in court that he had not properly represented Brown.
"I think Ms. Brown was going to say what Ms. Brown was going to say," he told Proctor.