A federal jury has convicted five men of running a million-dollar heroin ring in Northeast Baltimore and dealing drugs for years under the protection of a rogue city police detective.
One of the drug dealers, Antoine Washington, was also convicted of selling the heroin that caused a teenager to overdose and die in a Bel Air basement two days after Christmas 2011.
The jury read the guilty verdicts Tuesday for Washington, 27, Antonio Shropshire, 31, Alexander Campbell, 29, Omari Thomas, 25, and Glen Kyle Wells, 31.
Shropshire — the drug boss, prosecutors said — shook his head at the verdict. Campbell slumped back in his chair. Some girlfriends, mothers and grandmothers of the five men cried in the gallery.
The jury found all five guilty of conspiring to sell heroin. Each man faces a maximum sentence of 40 years or more. Their sentences will be handed down in February, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake said.
Their convictions end a 10-day trial in federal court in Baltimore during which prosecutors anchored the case on accomplice testimony — the word of convicted police officers, rival drug dealers and recovering heroin addicts. Defense attorneys urged jurors to discard the testimony, saying these criminals-turned-government witnesses couldn’t be trusted. The jurors apparently disagreed.
“Who else could be called in a trial about heroin distribution? The archbishop? Pillars of the community?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise asked the jury Monday. “If you want to know what happened in hell, you can’t call angels to testify.”
Kenneth Diggins told the court how he texted a 19-year-old again and again in the days before she died, tempting her with the heroin she craved.
Prosecutors read Diggins’ text messages in court.
“U need to come over so I can share some of this holiday joy … if u want to join in on the Christmas party, it’s on me … don’t forget I got a Christmas present for you.”
Diggins testified that he bought heroin from Washington and snorted it with the woman. Then he took cellphone photos of her body as she overdosed and died on his couch. Now he’s serving a decade in federal prison.
“Defendant Washington touted the overdoses; he used them as a marketing tool,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines told jurors last week.
Hines read a text message Washington sent the year after the teenager died describing the overdose of another customer.
“Somebody overdosed yesterday and sh— was crazy. That’s how good the sh— is I got. So hit me up.”
Hines told the jury, “Death was good for business.”
Washington’s attorney, Robert Bonsib, said his client was disappointed in the verdict and will appeal.
More than 60 people overdosed and 15 of them died from heroin tracing back to the drug dealers who operated around The Alameda, police said.
Witness after witness testified to buying heroin from the men. Days of their testimony revealed the workings of Baltimore’s heroin trade, an urban business that relied on middle-class customers from the suburbs: Towson, Perry Hall and Bel Air. One gram of heroin cost $80 at wholesale and sold for $120 on Baltimore’s streets.
A widow who cleaned houses broke down in court, telling how she spent her husband’s death payments on heroin. There was a gymnast who became hooked on prescription painkillers after an injury. One young man said his path to addiction began by taking his parents’ cancer pills. Then came an auto-parts dealer, the girlfriend of a dairy farmer, a man with multiple sclerosis. They told how their use of prescription painkillers such as Percocet and Oxycontin led to a cheaper substitute of heroin.
For some, their addiction cost as much as $1,000 a week. They worked two jobs, borrowed money from their parents and maxed out their credit cards with cash advances — all driven by the relentless need to stave off the sickness of withdrawal.
Federal agents began their wiretap investigation into the heroin ring more than a year ago. Their pursuit of the drug dealers led them to a rogue Baltimore police detective who plotted to protect the men from arrest and from corrupt cops who would rob them. Former Detective Momodu Gondo, 34, pleaded guilty to his crimes and is now facing up to 60 years in prison.
The investigation shifted to Gondo and soon ensnared his partner, Jemell Rayam, 37. Rayam admitted to robbing civilians and drug dealers for years. He faces up to two decades in federal prison. Both officers testified in hopes of lenient sentences.
“It will be interesting to see what sentences the police officers who testified in this case will end up with,” said Bonsib, the defense attorney.
The wiretap investigation widened further to reveal an allegedly criminal unit within the Baltimore Police Department. Federal prosecutors said officers in the elite Gun Trace Task Force robbed people of drugs and cash. Four officers, including Gondo and Rayam, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy. Four more officers head to trial next year.
The girlfriend of a Baltimore drug dealer — a rival of the five defendants — told the court she woke to find a masked man in her bedroom. Rayam said he was the robber that night in October 2015.
She didn’t know he was a police officer, not when he drew his gun.
“He told me he was going to kill me,” she said, her voice trembling, “if I didn’t tell him where the money was.”