A federal grand jury indicted 18 alleged gang members on racketeering charges, including a detainee at a state-managed detention center, news that could draw more scrutiny to Maryland's beleaguered correctional system.
Federal officials say the members of the Bloods, most of them operating out of Howard County, broke into houses, stole money and other items, and sold drugs, including oxycodone, ecstasy and marijuana.
Eighteen Bloods members were charged with racketeering, and three others not in the gang were charged with selling drugs, federal officials said.
The federal investigation began in February 2012 with a separate federal indictment of Michael Dominique Johnson, a 20-year-old Columbia man who authorities say ordered the robbery of a confidential informant a few months earlier.
Investigators began monitoring Johnson's communications from jail, leading to the racketeering and drug conspiracy charges against the others.
Officials say Johnson, who went by the nicknames "Ace" and "Bloody Mike," called other Bloods members more than 50 times from the Chesapeake Detention Center to discuss drug trafficking and other "gang business."
Officials say several of the gang members named in the indictment supplied Johnson with prepaid debit cards, known as Green Dot cards, so that he could pay for telephone calls. Investigators believe Johnson had access to marijuana, prescription drugs and a cellphone.
Johnson's public defender could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The indictment follows allegations of widespread gang activity and corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Federal authorities unsealed an indictment last month charging two dozen people — including 13 correctional officers — at the city jail with smuggling in contraband as part of an alleged Black Guerrilla Family conspiracy.
That case, which included allegations that an inmate impregnated four guards, has led to investigations and pledges of reform from Gov. Martin O'Malley and the head of the state correctional system.
The Chesapeake Detention Center, across the street from the Baltimore City Detention Center, is a maximum-security facility used to house death row inmates and those facing federal charges before trial.
While it is a federal facility, all of its staff, including the warden, are state corrections employees.
"This is another example of our continued cooperation with our federal partners," state corrections spokesman Rick Binetti wrote in an email. "We will continue to go after illegal gang activity at any level within the system."
Binetti said the system had a gang task force to root out corruption and identify gang members, and had made other moves to address contraband and gangs.
State lawmakers are looking into the issue, though a hearing planned for this week has been rescheduled for next month, a state delegate said.
"The gang issue is constant within the prison system and that's not going away," Del. Michael A. McDermott said. The Eastern Shore Republican is pushing to increase penalties for possessing cellphones and other contraband in prisons.
Howard County has identified about 400 suspected gang members that live and operate within its borders. Residents of the mostly low-crime suburb who witnessed search and arrest warrants being executed by ATF agents on Wednesday said they were shocked.
"We are realistic and recognize that no community is completely immune to gang and drug activity," said Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for the county Police Department.
The racketeering charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
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