5 convicted, 3 acquitted in Baltimore jail corruption trial

A high-profile Baltimore jail corruption case ends with five guilty verdicts, three acquittals.

A federal jury convicted five people and acquitted three others Thursday in a Baltimore jailhouse corruption case, ending a two-month trial that saw a parade of inmates, disgraced corrections officers and law enforcement officers describe an "upside-down world" where criminals were in charge.

The verdicts brought the total number of people convicted in the case to 40 — 24 of whom were corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Only eight defendants pleaded not guilty. Their trial began in November and featured testimony by Tavon White, the alleged ringleader of the Black Guerrilla Family gang inside the jail. The case attracted national attention in part because of the lurid disclosure that White fathered four children with corrections officers while directing drug dealing and extortion operations in the jail.

"This case exposed rampant crime and corruption inside jailhouse walls, which spawns more crime in the streets," U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said. "Continued vigilance will be needed to make sure that jails help prevent crime instead of facilitating it."

Steve Vogt, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office, called the case "a template for what we can do when we work together," and said the Black Guerrilla Family remains a top target for police.

But defense attorneys attacked the government's case as built largely on unsubstantiated rumors, and jurors acquitted three corrections officers — Riccole Hall, 27, Clarissa Clayton, 25, and Michelle Ricks, 45.

"The government's case was a house of cards built on a foundation of Tavon White's lies," said Hall's attorney, David Solomon. "My client has maintained her innocence from the beginning, and I'm happy for her that she was acquitted."

Ricks, a sergeant, had been accused of pledging allegiance to the gang by reciting its oath. "A lot of the things the government tried to do, the jury saw through," said her attorney, Edward Sussman.

The first wave of indictments was handed down in April 2013. Officials framed the case as an example of a proactive crackdown but came under fire for the breadth of the sordid allegations revealed.

At the time, Gov. Martin O'Malley called the case a "positive achievement" in the fight against gangs as legislators formed a task force and held hearings.

Wendell "Pete" France, who oversaw the state-run jail for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, testified at the trial that disciplinary actions against corrupt staff had been futile, and that the facility's technology and procedures were outdated and easily subverted.

He said he reached out to federal law enforcement in 2011 because previous efforts to crack down on corruption had been thwarted.

"We had spent a lot of time trying to manage the problem … but it just didn't seem to slow down the tide," France testified. "It became clear to me that we needed additional help."

Witnesses alleged in court documents that as many as three-quarters of about 650 officers at the jail were involved in contraband smuggling.

State officials, however, maintain that corrupt officers do not represent the majority of the staff.

Stephen Moyer, the new secretary of the state corrections agency, said that phone-jamming technology designed to render contraband cellphones useless has been successful, along with new surveillance cameras and policies designed to clamp down on smuggling.

Moyer also plans to examine the hiring and background check process. As one of his first actions, he promoted France to deputy secretary of operations.

"The few employees who are compromised will be vigorously prosecuted for the sake of the men and women of integrity who make up the vast majority of the [agency] workforce," Moyer said in a statement.

On scores of wiretapped phone calls from inside the jail, inmates and staff could be heard flirting, gossiping and talking business. White, whose two hung juries on attempted-murder charges made him a long-term detainee at the jail, could be heard laying out his rise to power for an admiring corrections officer, Adrena Rice.

"That's what's up," Rice cooed.

His declaration in another call that "this is my jail" made national headlines.

A key mechanism for the gang's influence, prosecutors said, was taking over the "working man" posts within the jail. Those slots are supposed to go to inmates displaying good conduct. They are given greater freedom to perform tasks such as cleaning and distributing food.

Instead, prosecutors say, the Black Guerrilla Family, or BGF, persuaded staff to put gang members into the positions, which helped facilitate the smuggling of drugs and cellphones.

The gang collected dues from members and levies from nonmember inmates, funneling money to gang leaders on the streets. The money was passed around through prepaid debit cards, with a "minister of finance" keeping track of the accounting.

"This is part of the broader gang problem," Rosenstein said Thursday. "If we're going to solve the problem of the gangs on the streets, we have to solve the problem of gangs in the jails."

The case was not the first to spotlight corruption in the state's penal institutions. A 2009 case, for example, showed a BGF leader had shrimp, Grey Goose vodka and champagne smuggled into his cell at the Metropolitan Transition Center, which is located in the same complex as the city jail.

Corrections officials and prosecutors announced in November that a volunteer yoga instructor had been caught trying to smuggle phones into the Chesapeake Detention Facility, and a correctional officer and food service employee at the jail had been charged with trying to deliver tobacco and other contraband to detainees.

Authorities say the City Correctional Task Force, led by a city assistant state's attorney, continues to investigate gang activity in jails and corrupt corrections officers.

One of the defendants in the 2013 indictment was murdered shortly before the indictment was unsealed. All but eight of the remaining 43 defendants pleaded guilty.

Inmates Joseph Young, 32, and Russell Carrington, 34; corrections officers Ashley Newton, 31 and Travis Paylor, 27; and kitchen worker Michelle McNair, 24, were convicted Thursday.

Newton was accused of having sexual relationships with two BGF inmates, smuggling drugs for a high-ranking gang leader on a near-daily basis and facilitating a beating by opening a cell door.

Young, a rival of White, was accused of having a marijuana dealing operation that brought in $1,050 per ounce, while McNair was accused of using her position in the kitchen to transport contraband between facilities.

Defense attorneys said in opening statements that the corruption was so widespread it amounted to state-sanctioned activity.

McNair's attorney, Carmen Hernandez, said her client was a young woman thrust into a "very difficult situation," while other attorneys said that raids at their clients' homes netted little or no illegal material.

After more than two months, the trial was nearly upended when prosecutors disclosed one day into jury deliberations last week that jurors had been provided incorrect instructions to determine guilt in the case. Defense attorneys asked for a mistrial.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz allowed the case to proceed, and jurors were given the correct guidelines Monday. Jurors deliberated for another three days before reaching the verdict.

Newton, Paylor, Young, Carrington and McNair were convicted of participating in a racketeering conspiracy and drug conspiracy, which bring a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Young, McNair and Newton also face 20 years in prison after being convicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges.

Many others who were convicted have yet to be sentenced. White worked out an agreement with prosecutors in which he will serve a total of 20 years between the jail case and the attempted-murder case that landed him in jail in the first place.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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