Baltimore Police Det. John Clewell worked nearly two years on the department’s gun trace task force — an elite unit that raided homes throughout the city searching for firearms in an effort to quell historic rates of violence.
We’re “the ‘make stuff happen’ police,” Clewell told a Northeast Baltimore couple whose apartment he raided in April 2015, according to his own account of the incident in charging documents.
Now Clewell is the only member of the task force who has not been indicted on federal racketeering charges.
The rest of the unit has been accused of robbing suspects, filing false paperwork and committing overtime fraud. Seven members were indicted by a federal grand jury in March; an eighth was indicted in August.
Clewell, a 32-year-old former Marine who joined the Baltimore Police Department in 2009, has been suspended, with pay, while the unit remains under investigation.
Clewell’s attorney says his client did not participate in the unit’s alleged schemes. Attorney Chaz Ball says Clewell is a witness, not a suspect, in the federal investigation.
“He’s sort of a Boy Scout among them, frankly,” Ball said. “He was in that unit for a good amount of time, and he’s somebody who just wasn’t involved in any of the negative things that happened there.”
Police commanders created the gun trace task force a decade ago to zero in on gun offenders. Current police Commissioner Kevin Davis has called that approach a key element of his plan to reduce the years-long surge in homicides in the city.
Now eight members are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from suspects from 2014 through late 2016. Some are also accused of conspiring to defraud the department of thousands of dollars in unearned overtime.
Sgts. Thomas Allers and Wayne Jenkins and Dets. Momodu Gondo, Daniel Hersl, Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward have been charged. Hendrix and Ward have pleaded guilty. The rest have pleaded not guilty. Gondo and Rayam are scheduled to be re-arraigned later this year. Trials could begin in January.
Davis dissolved the task force in March. City prosecutors have dropped more than 75 cases handled by its officers, and are reviewing scores more.
Prosecutors declined to answer questions about the investigation or Clewell’s role in the case.
Clewell worked frequently with Allers, the eighth officer charged. Allers was indicted by a grand jury late last month on charges of stealing more than $90,000 from suspects from 2014 to 2016.
Before Clewell and Allers joined the gun trace task force in late 2014, they worked together pursuing illegal guns and drugs on the Southern District operations squad. Both left the gun trace task force in the summer of 2016 to work with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as city police task force officers. They were working in that role when the first indictments were filed.
Allers’ attorney Gary Proctor said at Allers’ detention hearing that he and his client had been given advance notice that Allers would eventually be indicted — “that it was a question of when he would be charged, not if.” Ball says he’s received no similar indication about Clewell’s fate.
Warren Brown, Gondo’s attorney, said his client is cooperating with authorities. Brown said he was unfamiliar with Clewell’s name from those discussions.
Public defender Deborah Levi, who leads a new initiative to track, oversee and litigate allegations of police misconduct, said she, too, was unfamiliar with Clewell.
Clewell declined, through his attorney, to be interviewed for this article.
His mother said he has always shown strong character. He grew up just north of the city in Towson, she said, and was raised in the Episcopal church. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout and served with the Marines in Iraq.
“He values discipline and honor,” Anne Clewell wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “He’s a solid young family man. He takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s the guy you want standing watch.
“We have always challenged our children to keep God close and ‘remember your good name.’ And have not been disappointed.”
Marine officials confirmed that Clewell served in the Marine Corps Reserves as a rifleman from 2004 to 2010, and was deployed to Iraq for six months in 2006 and 2007.
“John has never chosen the cushy path,” his mother wrote. “We are proud of the man and father he has grown into. Now he teaches us.”
Clewell appears in some of the documents filed by prosecutors as “J.C.” But he is never implicated in any illegal activity.
In a typical example, an alleged robbery in August 2016, federal prosecutors say Clewell, Jenkins and Hersl conducted surveillance of a suspect leaving a storage facility. The three officers pursued the suspect and arrested him, then brought him back to the storage facility.
Prosecutors accuse Hersl and Jenkins of taking at least $7,000 from the man’s vehicle, but do not mention Clewell in the alleged theft. Prosecutors say Clewell left the scene to prepare a search warrant, and accuse Jenkins of stealing two kilograms of cocaine while he was gone.
Allers’ indictment last month brought new allegations. The initials J.C. appear in three different instances. Federal prosecutors say Allers stole money and approved incident reports written and signed by Clewell “knowing that [the documents] falsely stated” the amount of money the officers had seized. But they do not allege that Clewell knew the information to be false.
“I understand how it is going to look that he was a member of this unit, and that assumptions will be made,” said Ball, his attorney. “But those assumptions would be incorrect.
“Detective Clewell, as an officer and as a person, deserves the same consideration as anyone else before his name and reputation are tainted by the allegations against the other officers in the unit.”
The task force members described their work in the charging documents they filed: Communicating with confidential informants, kicking in doors, seizing guns and drugs. Often, they would use what they had found to negotiate for information about others.
Clewell described one such case in charging documents. The officers had obtained a search warrant and confronted their suspect as he walked outside with his dog in Northeast Baltimore. They entered the home and advised the man and his girlfriend of their rights, Clewell wrote.
“We are going to search the location,” Clewell said he told them. “If there’s anything illegal inside the location we can work around it, but you have to be honest with us.”
Clewell reported that the officers found two loaded handguns and suspected drugs, and the man pleaded guilty a year later to a gun charge. The arrestee could not be reached for comment.
Working on the gun task force increased Clewell’s pay. Records show he made $65,000 in 2014 on a base salary of $59,400. That jumped to $88,150 in 2015 on a base salary of $63,000, and $98,000 in 2016 on a base salary of $69,300. Unlike other members of the unit, Clewell has not been accused of overtime fraud.
Court records show no lawsuits against Clewell as a police officer.
In one police case, in 2011, he faced questions in court about his work.
Allers and Clewell were in a patrol vehicle together in August 2011 when they responded to a 911 report that a man had threatened another man with a gun.
They spotted Anthony Hooks and chased him. Clewell said Hooks pointed a gun in his direction, and Clewell fired four shots at him. The man was not struck.
At trial, Hooks’ attorney accused police of planting a gun on him to justify the shooting. When Hooks was interviewed by different investigators after his arrest, he insisted he never had a gun. Police investigating the shooting failed to retrieve and view CCTV footage that would have captured the incident.
“I just want to know why they shot at me,” he told an interrogator, according to a transcript included in court records. “That’s the only thing, I want to know why did they shoot at me.”
“They could have took my life for nothing, for drugs.”
But the alleged victim affirmed the officers’ account that Hooks had a silver handgun and had pointed it at him. He testified that he had made a mistake involving drug money, and Hooks had been threatening him.
On the stand, Clewell explained why he chased Hooks.
“We want to make sure we find this person and get them off the street, so that no other citizens are hurt,” he said.
Hooks was convicted by a jury of two counts of assault and related charges and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
The case’s outcome is now up in the air. Last month, Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard overturned Hooks’ conviction, saying jurors should have been instructed about the missing CCTV footage.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office is appealing the ruling, and Hooks remains incarcerated.