Before promotion to Gun Trace Task Force, Baltimore detective was ensnared in $11,000 theft case

Baltimore Police Det. Jemell Rayam has pleaded guilty in federal court to years of robbing suspects and civilians as a member of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force.

But before he was promoted to that elite unit — and years before the crimes for which he has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges — Rayam was caught in an internal affairs investigation of the same sort of allegations.

A Baltimore man reported in 2009 that officers had taken $11,000 from him during a traffic stop near downtown, confidential internal affairs records obtained by The Baltimore Sun show. Rayam acknowledged to internal affairs investigators that he took part in the stop, but claimed that he didn’t know Michael Sylvester, the officer who was accused of taking the money.

Rayam would later admit to investigators that the officer was a classmate and friend from the police academy, the records show. Cellphone records showed the pair had communicated nearly 500 times in a four-month period around the alleged theft, including 34 times on the day — as well as before and after the internal affairs interview where Rayam denied knowing Sylvester.

Sylvester, the target of the investigation, would agree to resign in lieu of termination. Rayam, charged internally with making a false statement, would be cleared by a police trial board, returned to duty and promoted.

But the allegations from June 2009, and their similarity to the more recent crimes for which Rayam has pleaded guilty, raise new questions about the ability of the Baltimore Police Department to police itself, and about its controls for preventing the promotion of problem officers.

Rayam is one of eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force indicted this year on racketeering charges. They are accused of shaking down criminal suspects and innocent civilians, writing false police reports and taking unearned overtime pay.

Rayam and four others have pleaded guilty. The other three are fighting the charges. They are scheduled for trial in January.

Rayam has admitted conspiring with drug dealers to find targets to rob while helping them avoid law enforcement. He faces up to 20 years in prison. He is cooperating with authorities.

At the time of the alleged theft in 2009, Rayam was at the center of a different controversy. Three months earlier, he had shot a man to death in a Northwest Baltimore alley. It was the third time he had shot someone in a span of 20 months, an unusual cluster that prompted state legislators and the NAACP to call for an independent investigation. No such independent investigation was undertaken.

Rayam was cleared by prosecutors of criminal wrongdoing in all of the shootings. One became the subject of a civil lawsuit that the city settled for $100,000.

He won a departmental award for another.

In his plea agreement in the gun task force case, Rayam said he conspired with a ninth, unnamed and unindicted officer to commit robberies. Sources with knowledge of the case say Baltimore police were told by federal prosecutors that the unnamed officer was Sylvester.

The 2009 case should have been a “teachable moment” for Rayam, said an attorney familiar with the case who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“He should’ve taken that opportunity to set himself straight,” the attorney said.

Rayam is in federal custody. His attorney declined to comment for this article. Sylvester, who ultimately left the police department and now works as a clerk in Baltimore City Court, also declined to comment.

A police spokesman declined to comment on the 2009 investigation because it predates the current department leadership. Spokesman T.J. Smith said police now have better processes in place to flag problem officers and intervene.

One former internal affairs supervisor who worked the 2009 investigation agreed. Retired Sgt. Chad Ellis said it came at a time when officials were ramping up efforts to detect wrongdoing, but lagged behind where they needed to be.

Internal affairs was “ill-prepared and inexperienced in the area of their alleged expertise — from top to bottom,” Ellis said. He went on to help form the FBI’s public trust task force that helped bring down the Gun Trace Task Force.

The Sun was given hundreds of pages of internal affairs records from the case by Joshua Insley, a local criminal defense attorney.

Insley has brought lawsuits against the police department in other cases. He is involved with a political action committee formed to oppose State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. He was not involved in the internal affairs investigation or in the case against the Gun Trace Task Force.

Insley ​​​​​said he obtained the file from a “whistleblower” who wanted it to be publicized. The Sun does not know the identity of the whistleblower.

“The Baltimore Police Department and State’s Attorney’s Office have shown no intention of coming clean about the history of this rogue unit, and how much they knew for so long,” Insley said.

In Maryland, internal affairs records are tightly guarded. The records include internal memos that detailed official actions and findings, transcripts of interviews, photo lineups and results of lie detector tests.

Gary Brown was driving with a passenger on Eutaw Street just north of State Center at around 4:30 p.m. on June 8, 2009, when he was pulled over by unmarked vehicles, investigators wrote. The officers told him they had stopped him for not wearing a seat belt, Brown told investigators, and put him on the curb in plastic flex cuffs.

Rayam and his then-partner Jason Giordano, detectives assigned to the Northern District, were driving a black Mazda 626 outside of their assigned area. Michael Sylvester, in a separate vehicle, was not on duty at all, records show.

The officers asked Brown if there was anything illegal in the car, he told investigators. He said no.

Sylvester said he would check, Brown told investigators.

Brown told investigators that Rayam and Giordano searched the vehicle. In the trunk, they found $11,000 in rolled-up bundles inside a brown paper bag.

Giordano removed the bag, looked inside, and placed it on the ground, Brown told investigators.

The officers asked Brown who the money belonged to, where he was headed, and where he lived, he told investigators.

“They was telling me they could get a search warrant to search my address,” Brown said in a recent interview with The Sun.

Rayam asked him if he had any information about illegal activity in the area, Brown told investigators. He said Rayam asked if Brown could get him a gun. Brown said no.

Then one of the officers pulled out a knife and broke the flex cuffs off. Sylvester picked up the money and put it in the back seat of his vehicle, Brown told investigators.

“You can pick this up from [evidence control],” Sylvester said, according to Brown.

Brown reported the incident to internal affairs.

Brown knew he had interacted with police. They wore plain clothes and drove unmarked cars, but they displayed ID badges. Still, he didn’t have names, and the incident hadn’t been logged by anyone working that day. Brown wasn’t given a “citizen contact” ticket as required. The only evidence was the pair of plastic flex cuffs the officers left behind.

Investigators determined Rayam and Giordano were involved. The detectives were interviewed by internal affairs investigators separately on June 16, 2009, about a week after the incident. Both said they had stopped to back up an officer who was unknown to them.

“He was pointing to his badge and pointing to the car and to assist with it,” Giordano said, according to a transcript of his interview.

Giordano said he followed the unknown officer’s directions. He didn’t know what, if anything, was recovered.

“When he said he was good … we went ahead and left,” Giordano said. “Like, he was OK with, done with the car stop I guess.”

Rayam also said he didn’t know the officer.

“We … observed another car … pull next to ours and ask us if we could help. And we wound up pulling this car over,” Rayam said.

“And who was operating it?” asked internal affairs investigator Det. Barbara Price.

“Another officer,” Rayam said.

“He didn’t really identify you or give you his name or anything?”

“Like I said, we really didn’t ask. We just assumed or I just assumed that it was plainclothes drug work and we assisted,” Rayam said.

“And you said you didn’t know that officer’s name?”

“No,” Rayam said.

Rayam was shown a lineup of six officers, which included Sylvester’s picture. He picked four of them, including Sylvester. He said they all looked like the officer he saw.

In March 2010, almost a year after the alleged theft, Rayam sat for a second interview with internal affairs, this time with a lawyer. He was being compelled by the department under the state Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to talk about the incident. Under LEOBR, what he said couldn’t be used against him in a criminal investigation.

He was asked again to identify the officer involved in the car stop.

“Michael Sylvester,” Rayam responded.

“Did you know his name at the time?” Price asked.

“Yes. Yes,” he said.

“Why didn’t you provide his name to me if you knew it?” she said.

“I was answering the questions that were asked,” Rayam said.

What about the photo lineup, where Rayam had picked out four of the six officers? He said it was black and white, and hard to see.

As it turned out, Rayam and Sylvester had been in the same police academy class — a six-month program in which officers forge career-long bonds. The officers were friends, and spoke regularly.

Phone records subpoenaed by investigators showed Rayam’s phone contacted Sylvester’s phone 474 times over a four-month period around the alleged theft. They’d also had five contacts, including one that lasted seven minutes, just two hours before Rayam first spoke with internal affairs.

But Rayam still maintained he didn’t know whether anything had been taken. He said he didn’t know why the car had been pulled over.

“I can speak for me personally, when I assist anyone ... they’re doing their job and I really — excuse me for saying it — but I really don’t care,” he said. “I care, but I respect them I guess, that they’re doing a job and nothing is going on.”

Later, Rayam’s attorney discouraged him from talking too much.

“Don’t guess at things. Don’t try to help,” attorney Martin Cadogan said, according to the transcript. “Just answer her questions. If it calls for yes or no, it’s yes or no, and don’t try to help.”

Sylvester had already become a target of the investigation. Brown told The Sun that investigators asked him to wear a wire and participate in a sting against Sylvester.

“It was like movie s---,” Brown said. “They were going to stage some kind of big drug thing, and have it so he was the one who came. They wanted me to get him to admit he took my money.”

Brown said he declined, out of fear.

“If he robbed me like that in broad daylight, then he wouldn’t have a problem shooting me in my face,” Brown says.

Internal affairs investigators pushed forward with a sting to see if Sylvester was dirty.

The effort in September 2009, three months after the alleged robbery, was described in documents provided by prosecutors in response to a Public Information Act request.

Investigators outfitted an undercover police academy cadet wearing a wire. They put $260 in his pockets and $135 in his vehicle’s center console.

The bills had been marked using ultraviolet light with the letters “IID,” for Internal Investigations Division.

Investigators sent the cadet to Northwest Baltimore. Dispatchers directed Sylvester to check out a suspicious person.

Sylvester found the cadet, investigators said in the prosecutors’ documents. He directed him to get out of the car, to empty out his pockets and to place the contents on the passenger seat, investigators said. Sylvester’s partner that night, a rookie officer, shined her flashlight in the cadet’s eyes as Sylvester rifled through the vehicle, including the trunk.

After Sylvester had searched the car, investigators said, $70 was gone.

They secured a warrant to search Sylvester’s locker, where they said they recovered the cash and a Ziploc bag containing suspected rock cocaine.

Sylvester was arrested and charged with theft and misconduct in office.

The charges didn’t stick. Prosecutors dropped the case just two months later, saying sloppy errors by the police investigators — an apparent incorrect time stamp on photos, and calculation mistakes regarding the amount of cash taken — had compromised the case.

Sylvester remained an officer, but was suspended as the earlier theft case proceeded through the internal disciplinary process. He submitted to an internal affairs interview in June 2010. He conceded nothing. Rayam had told investigators that Sylvester was the officer he backed up, but Sylvester said it wasn’t him.

Sylvester fought the internal affairs case in court on procedural grounds. He ultimately resigned from the department in 2012 in lieu of termination, according to police.

The dropped criminal case no longer appears in the Maryland Judiciary Case Search database.

He now works for the Baltimore Circuit Clerk’s office, and is assigned to the courtroom of Judge Melissa Phinn. On a recent day, he wore a tan sport jacket with a salmon handkerchief, helping distribute information to jurors in a carjacking case. He declined to comment on the accusations.

Rayam was still under investigation in 2010 when he was promoted into the Gun Trace Task Force. In the fall of that year, he was charged with misconduct and giving false information to internal affairs in the theft case.

Rayam and Giordano had each been administered a “voice stress” examination, a type of lie detector test. The technician reported that both had shown a “probability of deception” greater than 99 percent.

Brown, the alleged victim, passed his test. Investigators wrote that he had “been consistent in his reiteration of events,” and that the accounts of Giordano and Rayam helped corroborate his story. But internal affairs investigators decided they didn’t have sufficient evidence to show that “the dollar amount of $11,000 was actually taken” from him.

Internal police disciplinary cases are heard by a panel of three police officers called a trial board. The board requires only a “preponderance of the evidence” to convict an officer. That’s a lesser standard than the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” required for criminal convictions.

Giordano, charged with three counts of misconduct and one count of misrepresentation of facts, agreed to accept the misconduct charges, according to a confidential prosecutors’ summary report. He was given a “severe letter of reprimand,” was suspended without pay for 30 days and lost 10 days of leave. The misrepresentation of facts charge was dismissed.

Giordano now works as a sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department’s citywide robbery unit. The police department would not make him available for comment.

A trial board acquitted Rayam of all charges in May 2012.

Rayam remained in the Gun Trace Task Force, chasing illegal drugs and guns until March 1 of this year, when he and the other members of the unit were indicted in the racketeering conspiracy.

He pleaded guilty in October.

Rayam has admitted in court to 15 robberies starting in 2014. He said the number was decided by federal prosecutors. He said in his plea agreement that the robberies began “in at least 2009 or 2010.”

“They have 15,” he testified at a drug trial. “I told them everything.”

Among the crimes he admitted to were two home invasions committed while off-duty. In one, he and a drug dealer robbed another dealer at gunpoint. In the other, he recruited two civilians, gave them police gear and helped them steal $20,000 from a pigeon store owner.

But for the most part, Rayam said, he preferred to steal from people during the course of his job, so he could draft paperwork that would help cover up what he had done.

The Sun has pressed the police department for an accounting of how the Gun Trace Task Force members advanced through the agency despite questions raised through internal affairs investigations of at least some of the members, in civil lawsuits and in court cases for those they have arrested.

T.J. Smith said complaints against police are down, as are lawsuits. He said the agency has worked to develop an early warning system that identifies complaints against officers and flags them to review “if it’s a coincidence or a pattern that needs to be scrutinized.”

“People say, ‘When there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ The early intervention system is a smoke detector,” he said.

Smith said most of the command staff’s current leadership was not in place when concerns were raised about Rayam.

A notable exception is Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere, the No. 2 official in the department in charge of operations. Palmere worked plainclothes enforcement and has overseen plainclothes units.

Smith would not make Palmere available for an interview. The Sun was unable to determine whether Palmere was involved in Rayam’s promotion or knew of misconduct questions raised against him.

“Why wasn’t it addressed in a different way at that time? I can’t answer that question,” said Smith, who joined the agency in August 2015. “But I can say if a scenario like that were to present itself today, there is a process in place to recognize that, and hopefully recognize it before it affects anyone.”

Most of the other indicted members were promoted into the unit after Police Commissioner Kevin Davis joined the agency as a deputy commissioner in January 2015.

Ellis, the former internal affairs sergeant, said police leadership in 2009 had a strong desire to improve internal affairs investigations, but struggled to get the right personnel and technology in place. But during that time, police developed a relationship with the FBI that has since resulted in a slew of major corruption cases.

Ellis said it was “a rational point and question to ask” how officers with misconduct allegations nevertheless rose to become part of key agency initiatives such as the Gun Trace Task Force. He said officers were promoted to detective too easily. Their arrest statistics, he said, were given too much consideration.

“The [internal affairs] system was slower than the movement of the rest of the agency," Ellis said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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