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Baltimore crime-fighter resigns over Fast and Furious case

At a community meeting for paroled felons in the East Baltimore, the mother of Bloods gang leader Kevin Gary faced down federal prosecutor Jason Weinstein. She told him to stop harrassing her son, whom she described as "a champion for the downtrodden," recalls former city police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who also attended the meeting.

Weinstein, familiar with Gary's criminal record, did not back down. "I hear you ma'am, but if your son doesn't stop what he's doing he's going to prison with the rest of these guys," he responded, according to Bealefeld.

While in Baltimore, Weinstein prosecuted some of the most high-profile cases of the last decade, and Bealefeld and others who worked with him said he had a mastery of detail and an intimate knowledge of city violence. But he moved on to the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters, and in an agency report last week, Weinstein was criticized for failing to spot problems and rein in a botched gun-smuggling sting that led to the death of a federal agent. He has stepped down from the agency.

Given his work fighting violent crime in Maryland, Weinstein wrote in his resignation letter that he would never have allowed weapons to get into the hands of smugglers and drug dealers.

He echoed that theme in an interview: "I've devoted my career both before I got to [agency headquarters] and since I've been here to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and reducing violence."

In 2009, Weinstein was transferred from his Maryland post to the Washington headquarters, where he approved wiretap applications that were part of Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed guns to flow into the hands of criminals on the Mexican border in an attempt to build cases against drug gang leaders.

A report by the agency's inspector general said Weinstein was the most senior official who could have reined in the program, which federal prosecutors and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona ran "without adequate regard for the risk it posed to public safety." In December 2010, two guns that were supposed to have been tracked under the operation were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry's murder.

Had Weinstein read wiretap requests more thoroughly, the report said, he would have noticed that the ATF was letting suspected smugglers buy weapons and sell them to drug cartels, a strategy known as allowing guns to "walk."

"What we heard consistently from more than a dozen officials ... was that guns did not walk," Weinstein said. Weinstein has said it was standard practice to only review letters for wiretap applications rather than the affidavits themselves.

The report has elicited a show of support for Weinstein. In a response to the inspector general, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described Weinstein's efforts on violent crime as "highly successful."

"The American people are safer because of his work," Holder added.

In Maryland, where Weinstein served as an assistant U.S. attorney for almost seven years, he is credited with bringing the resources — and weighty sentences — of the federal justice system to bear on violent crime and improving his office's relationship with city police.

During Weinstein's tenure in Maryland, the state was dealing with what officials described as a "stop snitching" culture, and several cases that strained the cooperation between the community and law enforcement.

In October 2002 — his first month on the job — Angela and Carnell Dawson were killed along with their five children in a firebombing of their East Baltimore home after confronting neighborhood drug dealers.

Weinstein said he was also influenced by The Baltimore Sun's coverage of Solothal Thomas, a notorious hitman known as Itchy Man who had beaten several murder charges.

"My introduction to Baltimore was reading this article about this guy that everyone knew was the most violent guy in the city but no one could make a case stick against," Weinstein said.

Weinstein started working to tackle gun crime in the city and prosecuted some of Baltimore's most violent criminals, including Darrell L. Brooks, the arsonist behind the Dawson murders. He eventually convicted Itchy Man himself of murder for hire in 2006.

"It was a big moment in helping sending a message to criminals who thought they were untouchable," Weinstein said.

In an emailed statement, Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, praised Weinstein's "superb" legal skills and "boundless energy."

"In addition to spending his days working tirelessly to prosecute Maryland's most dangerous criminals, Jason spent some mornings lecturing to police officers about criminal procedure and quite a few evenings speaking directly to violent repeat offenders," he added.

Those talks — Weinstein met Gary's mother at one — were part of the EXILE program that Weinstein brought to Maryland. It brings together state and federal prosecutors, law enforcement and probation officers to target the worst criminals in Baltimore and the rest of the state.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on a House committee that investigated Fast and Furious, called Weinstein's work on violent crime "legendary."

"Operation EXILE is something I have often pushed for and is something that's very important to me because I see so much violence not only in my city, but in my neighborhood," Cummings said.

Weinstein had a policy of sending letters to uncooperative suspects in state cases, informing them that they would be prosecuted federally unless they pleaded guilty.

Another former police commissioner, Ed Norris, found himself on the receiving end of Weinstein's aggressive style when he was prosecuted for misusing public money in 2004. Norris said he believes Weinstein was overly ambitious, and made more of the case than it was worth because he was determined to prosecute a high-profile target.

"If I didn't plead guilty they said I wouldn't see my son grow up," Norris said. "I would have confessed to anything."

George J. Hazel, a former assistant U.S. attorney, brought some of that style to his new job, chief deputy state's attorney for Baltimore City. The major investigations unit at the office borrows heavily from Weinstein's strategy, Hazel said.

In 2009, just before he left for Washington, Weinstein showed that he was not swayed by Gary's mother's admonishment and made good on his promise to put him in prison: Gary was convicted of a racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to 30 years.

iduncan@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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