Dressed in a maroon jail outfit and limping into court with the help of a cane, Nathan Barksdale did not look Wednesday like the notorious heroin dealer once sentenced to 15 years in prison for the torture of three people in a West Baltimore public housing development.
As he sat at the defense table, Barksdale waved to two women who walked into the room. One blew a kiss before they sat down. It was light moment for the aging criminal before a federal judge would send him back to prison for the next few years.
Over the past decade Barksdale, 53, appeared to have left his past behind. He avoided any further criminal trouble and tried to milk his residual notoriety, releasing a DVD in which he claimed to be the model for the Avon Barksdale character in the HBO show "The Wire."
But last year he got into trouble again, caught on a DEA wiretap organizing a heroin deal and accused of being a senior member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang. He pleaded guilty in January to a heroin distribution charge and agreed with federal prosecutors to a 42-month sentence.
"I did exactly what they accused me of doing," Barksdale said Wednesday. "And I accept responsibility."
He had been working for the anti-violence group Safe Streets, and the charges — along with separate allegations against a colleague — led to a brief suspension of the program, which relies on reformed criminals to mediate disputes.
Still, Barksdale said he thought he had more work to do in the community.
"I did some good," Barksdale said. "I'd like to think I saved some lives."
U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III accepted that Barksdale had done a lot to turn his life around, but reminded him of his violent criminal past.
"You paid back, but you took a lot," the judge said. "So you still owe."
Barksdale said he had lapsed back into heroin addiction and had been running a scam to feed his habit. He said he would try to get samples of heroin, promising to pass them on to big-time dealers, but instead would use the drugs himself.
At one meeting in the parking lot of a Rite Aid just west of downtown, Barksdale placed a call, according to court documents, and agents listened in as he worked the scheme. He pleaded with his supplier, Suraj Tairu, to give him a larger sample.
"Please give me that, 'cause I have not had nothin'," Barksdale said, according to court documents. "You know I really haven't. If you trust me that I will pay."
Tairu, who met Barksdale through work they did on a real estate project, according to court documents, also pleaded guilty in the case. He is due to be sentenced next week. His lawyer declined to comment.
The judge told Barksdale that he needs to get his life in order; otherwise, he faces being killed by the next dealer he tries to scam or more prison time.
Barksdale's health has caused problems since his arrest — he said he was unable to get a clean catheter in jail and contracted a serious bacterial infection — and Russell said he might not survive a long stint behind bars.
"You can't physically afford to keep getting incarcerated, or you're going to die in prison," Russell said.