As Tyrone Brown sat in his jail cell at the Baltimore County Detention Center late last year, awaiting trial for the murder of a man in a Towson Town Center parking garage, he kept busy in part by smoking marijuana and memorizing contraband writings of the Black Guerrilla Family — the same gang prosecutors say he killed to become a part of.
Meanwhile, Frank Williams, who helped Brown plot the 2011 mall attack and was arrested with a group of alleged gang members in the case, had quickly gotten to work conducting BGF business at the county facility. Within months of his arrival, he was shaking down weaker inmates for their commissary money, telling one man not to "snitch" because BGF members could "get to him in any section" of the jail.
Both accounts, which mirror recent allegations of BGF corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center, were outlined in county corrections records obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public information request in the Towson murder case. In that case, Brown, Williams and a third man were convicted of killing 19-year-old Rodney Pridget in what prosecutors described as an act of gang retaliation.
The scope of the gang's reach is one reason — along with assassination-style murders and ruthless drug-dealing methods — that it has become one of Maryland's most feared gangs
Deborah Richardson, director of the Baltimore County corrections department, said confronting and punishing gang activity is an ongoing battle at any corrections facility, and her department has taken strides to ensure that the BGF and other gangs don't acquire power at the county jail. In the past five years, eight corrections officers have been fired or resigned for bringing in contraband or fraternizing with inmates, some of them BGF-affiliated, she said.
"We can't keep the gangs out of here, but we can be proactive when they are here," Richardson said at the county facility. "We're letting the inmates know, 'You have no territory here. This is our territory.'"
Richardson pointed to continuing initiatives to separate gang leaders from other inmates, to immediately erase gang insignia on jail walls, and to ensure that corrections officers don't have gang ties.
Still, the violations of county jail rules are a clear indication that the hallmarks of the BGF's operations — access to drugs, the ability to intimidate others, promulgating a gang culture — are not limited to the city detention center.
At the Baltimore jail, a federal indictment outlined a startling degree of corruption, despite similar efforts to combat gang activities. The indictment against 25 people, including 13 corrections officers, on drug, money-laundering and racketeering charges was shocking not only for the alleged audacity of gang members but for the complicity of those paid to keep them in check.
But the BGF already had a high profile in Maryland.
In 2007 and 2008, the first years on the job for Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard, the state agency compiled a "Gang Intelligence Guide" reviewing the BGF's 1966 founding in California, its ties to black empowerment groups and its increasing presence in state facilities.
The guide, marked "Law Enforcement Only," was also obtained by The Sun in the Towson case. It notes that BGF documents were first discovered in the state at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction in 1997, but that those documents indicated that the gang had been active in the state corrections system for much longer.
Inmates unaffiliated with the gang were already telling officials they were afraid of BGF members, and the guide gave a stark warning: "The lack of a well organized structure may have decreased the group's overall ability to disrupt security at a division wide level, but the danger they present at an institutional level should not be underestimated."
The gang's power has since only grown. From courtrooms to street corners to jail cells, members have sought to gain influence in both subtle and violent ways for years, court records show.
In April 2009, a federal indictment and related court papers detailed the surprisingly comfortable life BGF members led in state prisons. With the help of corrupt officers, they feasted on shrimp, drank vodka and smoked cigars while using contraband cellphones to run gang operations.
In 2010, a Baltimore man pleaded guilty to a witness intimidation charge related to the killing of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris, in whose death the man's cousin was charged. According to court documents, Christopher Kemp approached an officer at the Northwood Shopping Center in 2009 and said he would "deal" with the officer and his family if he found out the officer had provided information in the gang-involved case.
"Our guns are bigger than your guns," Kemp allegedly warned.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has called the BGF "public enemy No. 1" and blames the gang in part for a spate of murders at the end of 2012. He said his department has been "relentless" in combating the BGF and has plans "to screw the cap down so tight that we're going to cause them to pop."
Local police and prosecutors acknowledge that the gang has a presence across the region, not just in Baltimore.
"In the early years, they were mostly prison-based," Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said. "Now that they're in the communities, obviously that creates more problems for us."
Officials in counties where the gang doesn't have a strong presence — including Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard — say dozens of BGF members are nonetheless tracked. In the past five years, for example, Howard County police have identified 18 BGF members living in the county, but a police spokeswoman said they don't represent "an organized crime element" there.
Such numbers pale in comparison to reports in Baltimore, where 100 alleged members were found meeting in Druid Hill Park in 2009.
The recent federal indictment outlined a scheme involving smuggling drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the state-run city jail. Tavon White was the jailhouse leader of the BGF, according to the indictment unsealed in late April. He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges; he is also awaiting trial on state charges related to a 2009 shooting.
Bradley Barthlow, 66, who retired from the city jail as a captain in 2007 after more than 30 years in the corrections system, said part of the problem is that corrections officers "don't want to snitch."
"Every person I ever talked to told me it was the supervisors' job to find the person who is doing wrong," he said.
Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the state corrections department, said efforts to identify gang-related corruption are elaborate and extensive at the city detention center. Richardson, the Baltimore County corrections director, said the same about efforts at the county jail.
Still, some question the immense amount of attention paid to BGF since the city jail indictment.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the council's public safety committee, said Batts is right to target gang activity, but the approach can't simply be a series of crackdowns with no follow-up initiatives.
"It creates a vacuum," he said of investigations that take down gang hierarchies. "If we're not prepared, as a neighborhood first but then as a city and state, to replace that vacuum with positive stuff, then the next group is going to come along."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.
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