Steven "J.R." Blackwell, the leader of an East Baltimore drug conspiracy linked to a yearlong street warwith rivals, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison Friday as part of a guilty plea he struck with prosecutors last fall.
Though he was not charged with any acts of violence, authorities believe Blackwell's organization is tied to a wave of shootings touched off by the abduction in April 2008 of his then-teenage brothers. But Blackwell, 27, still faced up to life in prison after being charged with overseeing a multimillion-dollar heroin conspiracy and laundering the proceeds through gambling winnings in Las Vegas and state lottery tickets.
"Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working together to target drug dealers whose criminal organizations foment violence," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "Federal drug and tax charges will keep Steven Blackwell in prison for two decades and make the streets of Baltimore more safe."
In contrast to his plea hearing, where the only spectators were federal law enforcement agents, family and supporters packed the courtroom for his brief sentencing hearing. Blackwell's court-appointed attorney, Harry Trainor, said his client lamented the pain he caused his family.
"He accepts responsibility for what he's done," Trainor told U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz. "He wants to thank [his family] for their unconditional support."
Blackwell's girlfriend, Joy Edison — the mother of their young child — was also convicted in the case, along with a second woman, Tahirah Carter, who prosecutors say helped deliver drugs and money. Carter is appealing her conviction.
Blackwell joins his father, Steven Blackwell Sr., in federal prison; he was sentenced to 10 years for heroin distribution in 2005. The younger Blackwell's prison term begins as his alleged rival, Terrell Allen, was recently released after serving a sentence for a conviction of being a felon in possession of ammunition.
As part of his plea, Blackwell admitted buying heroin from a New York supplier and selling it in the Pimlico area of Northwest Baltimore and Patterson Park Avenue on the east side, among other places. To launder $400,000, records show, he gambled drug proceeds at the Venetian, Caesar's Palace and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and bought lottery tickets from winners to disguise his income as legitimate winnings.
Police seized eight of his properties, including seven dilapidated city rowhouses and a spacious spread in Cecil County where he lived with Edison.
Blackwell's downfall traces back to a dispute with a former business partner, officials say. Authorities threw the resources of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration into the investigation.
Federal agents wrote two years ago in court papers that Blackwell was selling heroin to Allen, the head of a drug ring referred to as the Rich-Allen Organization or Chapel Hill Boys. But the two fell out because Allen believed Blackwell was cheating on the weight of the drugs while raising the price, the records show.
On April 25, 2008, authorities said in court papers, Allen was among six masked gunmen who forced their way into a Catonsville home, bound and gagged 10 occupants with duct tape, and held them at gunpoint for eight hours.
Allen's attorney in 2009 "categorically denied" that Allen was involved and said the police information was "invented."
Blackwell arrived at the home as the kidnappers were fleeing in a Chevy Suburban with his two brothers and was shot at but not hit, police said. The abduction prompted an Amber Alert for the brothers, Stephon and Sterling, but was quietly resolved without criminal charges.
A source told federal agents that Blackwell paid $500,000 for his brothers' release, and they were returned three days later without incident. On Friday, family members said the Blackwell brothers were in attendance at the sentencing.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wrote in court papers that six weeks after the abduction, gunmen took revenge with a quadruple shooting outside the Allen & Family Appliance store, a mom-and-pop business that sells discount appliances in East Baltimore. Two men, including Allen's father, Tony Allen, 52, were killed, and Terrell Allen was injured.
Allen, according to court papers, was grilling hot dogs and hamburgers outside the store when the ambush took place, and told a court-appointed psychologist that he provided food, money and other support to people in his community.
Allen suffered gunshot wounds to his abdomen, bowel, bladder and legs, and the injuries required extensive surgery. "The defendant's total experience surrounding the shooting, deaths, personal injuries and medical treatment have caused mental and psychological trauma to him," according to court papers.
Over the 15 months after the kidnapping, as many as 27 people may have been shot, according to court documents and sources; most of the shootings targeted Blackwell's associates.
Though Blackwell's family declined to comment, relatives of his girlfriend said after the sentencing hearing that he was a "good guy."
"He's not the monster they made him out to be," said Tonya Milligan, 45, who identified herself as Edison's aunt.
As he was led out of the courtroom, Blackwell saluted the supporters in the gallery.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.