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Federal authorities indict alleged gang members, jail guards

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A cabal of corrupt corrections officers and members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang enjoyed nearly free rein inside the Baltimore City Detention Center, federal authorities allege, smuggling drugs and cellphones into the jail and having sexual relationships that left four guards pregnant.

An indictment unsealed Tuesday names 25 people — including 13 women working as corrections officers — who face racketeering and drug charges. Twenty of the accused also face money-laundering charges.

It alleges that Tavon White, an inmate known as "Bulldog," took control of the prison gang soon after his arrival in 2009 on an attempted-murder charge.

White appeared in Baltimore City Circuit Court Wednesday on that charge, hustled into a court room under heavy guard by state and federal officers. His case was postponed until this summer.

Creston P. Smith, White's attorney in the state case, said he knew nothing about the federal allegations.

But in the documents unsealed Tuesday, White is accused of building a network of corruption inside of the jail that both enabled a smuggling operation and allowed White to manage gang activity on the city streets.

"This is my jail," White said on an intercepted phone call, according to the indictment. "I'm dead serious. … I make every final call in this jail … and nothing go past me, everything come to me."

The indictment and a related affidavit provide new details about the alleged activities of the Black Guerrilla Family, which Baltimore police have blamed for a spike in drug-related violence on city streets. The documents also list several oversight and security lapses at the detention center.

Stephen E. Vogt, the special agent in charge of the Baltimore FBI office, said at a news conference that "Tavon White effectively raised the BGF flag over Baltimore City Detention Center."

"Once a violent offender is sent to jail, law enforcement's hardest work should be behind it," said. "This is not the case in Baltimore City."

Gang leaders allegedly relied on guards and inmates to grow their operation at the city jail. White had informal agreements with jail officials who asked him to maintain order in exchange for their turning "a blind eye" to some of his activities, the affidavit said.

White is also accused of imposing discipline on his subordinates and retaliating against inmates who would not submit to the gang's authority. With the guards, White allegedly cemented relationships by allowing them to use cars including a Mercedes and giving one a diamond ring.

The result, according to the court documents, was a lucrative operation. White said in a recorded conversation that he made as much as $15,800 in a single month selling contraband in jail, and gang members once boasted they could turn $1,000 in profit on an ounce of marijuana.

The indictment alleges that White used his power to maintain a steady supply of smuggled cellphones, marijuana and prescription medications inside the jail. Money also flowed freely into and out of the jail, according to the indictment, transmitted through prepaid debit cards.

By this spring, White was confident of his supremacy in the jail, according to summaries of intercepted calls included in the affidavit.

"I hold the highest seat you can get," he told another alleged member of the gang. "So regardless of what anybody say, whatever I say is law. Like, I am the law. My word is law."

White had sexual relationships with numerous prison guards and got four pregnant, prosecutors allege. Two of the guards had his name tattooed on their bodies — one on her neck and another on her wrist, according to the indictment.

"These sexual relations cemented the business ties and the association of the corrections officers with the enterprise," prosecutors wrote in the indictment.

Two trials in White's state case have ended in hung juries, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said. He has a trial date scheduled for Wednesday.

No attorney is listed in court records for White or other defendants. People who answered the door at two addresses listed for White in public records said they did not know who he was.

The indictment charges alleged gang members both within and outside of the jail. One remained at large Tuesday, and another was shot and killed in a separate incident before the grand jury returned the indictment.

Some of the corrections officers were motivated by money, according to the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein. Others were drawn into the gang's orbit because of their personal relationships with its members.

The indictment alleges that the officers were easily able to smuggle contraband, thanks to lax security and light penalties. The guards were able to enter the jail through certain entrances without any security screening, and they had a number of ruses for passing undetected through the main entrance, according to the indictment.

"The procedures and personnel [at the main entrance] were completely inadequate to prevent smuggling," the indictment says. 'The chances of being searched effectively were remote."

Officials with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the detention center, condemned the alleged violations and said internal investigations will move forward now that the federal indictment has been unsealed.

"Everything that happens in this department is my responsibility," department secretary Gary D. Maynard said. "It's totally on me."

"We're looking at the policies that affect the jail and the detention center," Maynard added.

A spokesman for the department said 13 correctional officers have been suspended without pay. The department is recommending that they be dismissed, the spokesman said.

Maynard said the department had commissioned an outside audit of the jail in a move not connected to the federal investigation, and was reviewing its recommendations. He declined to release the findings of that audit.

State legislators said the allegations show the need for reforms to the state jail system.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican who sits on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, called the level of corruption at the detention center "shocking."

"I'm pleased the department is working with federal authorities. Those folks need to be held accountable to deter others," he said.

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is supportive of "anything that would eliminate the transport of contraband … into the prisons."

"We have to make sure appropriate training takes place and we are paying our corrections officers to make sure they are not engaging in negative behavior so they don't feel they need to take risks to help them out financially," she said.

Archer Blackwell, a senior staff representative with the union that represents the jail's officers, said the management of the detention center should do more to screen and prepare workers.

"The administration really doesn't do a good job of hiring quality people," he said. "They need to do more psychological examination, they need to do more in the academy to actually train and discipline people."

The Black Guerrilla Family, a gang with roots in California prisons, has been the dominant gang at the detention center since 2006, prosecutors wrote in the indictment. Baltimore police and federal law enforcement have brought a number of cases against alleged members in recent months.

As officials were laying out the allegations at a news conference, some of the defendants were appearing in federal court across the street. Most were released on their own recognizance and were escorted by law enforcement out of the courtroom. Their lawyers declined to comment.

One of the women appeared before a magistrate judge still wearing her corrections uniform.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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