The fraud scheme — hiring homeless people to steal rent checks and deposit them in fake bank accounts — made a million dollars for Tavon Davis before one of his associates was caught on the job. Panicked at the notion that his man might flip, he ordered Isiah Callaway killed.
Davis thought he might go to jail for decades for fraud, according to court records, and Callaway, 19, was dead before Davis realized the penalty for operating the scheme would have been much less.
Davis, who now faces a likely 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder-conspiracy charges, told a friend that his decision to order the killing made him the "schmuck of the year," according to court filings.
The exchange surfaced in court records last week as a federal judge refused to throw out the conviction of another Davis accomplice, in a case that involved gangs of homeless people whom the conspirators called "fiends," an alleged tipoff from a Pikesville lawyer and a tough-guy triggerman.
Davis, 25, Frank Marfo, 28, and Callaway operated a scheme that involved stealing rent checks and depositing them in fraudulent bank accounts, according to filings in the case. A fourth man was granted immunity in the case because he assisted in the murder investigation.
A federal judge threw out a final attempt by Marfo's attorneys last week to have his conviction overturned on the grounds that prosecutors had insufficient evidence to tie him to Callaway's murder. He was convicted on murder-conspiracy and bank-fraud charges in August.
"I can't second-guess the jury," Judge Marvin J. Garbis said Tuesday.
Things began to spiral out of control in December 2010, when Callaway was arrested as he tried to open fraudulent bank accounts. Davis was worried that Callaway would cooperate with police and, court records say, his lawyer told him he could face two decades in prison. By April 2011, Davis figured there was only one way to save himself: have the 19-year-old murdered.
He hired Bruce Byrd, 27, for the job because, according to Byrd's plea agreement, Byrd followed the "gangster code," refusing to tell police who shot him in the face during a 2006 robbery.
On April 11, 2011, Byrd shot Callaway at close range while the teenager was sitting in a Toyota Camry in the 1700 block of Crystal Ave., according to the plea deal.
It was only after the killing that Davis consulted another lawyer, who told him the more likely penalty for the fraud was three or four years behind bars.
Davis pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire and witness-murder conspiracy charges in June.
"Killing that kid was the stupidest thing in the world," Davis told his associate Michael Copeland, according to court documents. Copeland recorded the conversation as part of his cooperation with the investigation. Davis' attorneys in the case declined to comment.
Byrd pleaded guilty to using a gun in the murder in July and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
"He was genuinely remorseful and expressed his remorse to the court at the time of sentencing and has accepted responsibility," said Charles Curlett, Byrd's attorney.
Callaway's role in the scheme was to set up corporations and recruit the "fiends." Callaway would give them identification documents so they could open fraudulent bank accounts in which Davis could deposit the stolen checks, according to the filings.
Callaway was arrested by Baltimore County police on Dec. 29, 2010, at an Essex branch of TDBank. Davis became convinced, according to court filings, that "should Callaway cooperate, [Davis'] life was over."
Davis arranged for Callaway to be represented by attorney Larry Feldman. Court documents say Feldman called Davis just minutes after he was contacted by an assistant U.S. attorney to tell him investigators were interested in talking with Callaway.
Feldman has not been charged with a crime. In a recent filing, prosecutors wrote that "the evidence did not support prosecution of Feldman."
Feldman declined to comment, referring questions to his lawyer, David Irwin, who also offered no comment.
In December 2011, Feldman told The Baltimore Sun that "in a million years, I never thought anything would lead to Isiah's death."
The investigators got a break in the case when Copeland, 33, came forward to tell them about the fraud scheme. Copeland and Davis had a long history together, running one scheme that involved using the same sort of "fiends" to rent high-end cars at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and ship them out of the country, according to court filings.
Copeland's attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Copeland was not implicated in the killing, but Davis had told him enough about it to help prosecutors build their case.