Baltimore Police corruption trial reveals deep reach of city's drug economy

One target drove a Mercedes and lived in a waterfront condo on Boston Street; another was homeless, essentially living out of a storage unit where he kept his money balled up in a sock. One lived with his extended family in a house he bought with a lead poisoning settlement; yet another had a half-million-dollar home on two acres of land in Westminster.

The circumstances of the people who were targeted for robbery by the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force ranged widely, according to witnesses in the federal trial of two of its former members. The sums allegedly taken went from three figures up to six.

But the unifying factor, as so often is the case in Baltimore, was drugs.

The focus of the sweeping racketeering case was corruption. Eight former members of the elite unit robbed citizens under protection of their badges and claimed massive amounts of overtime for unworked hours. Six pleaded guilty; a jury convicted the other two on Monday.

But the case also provided a window into the pervasive reach of the drug economy in Baltimore.

The dealers or suspected dealers robbed by the officers ranged from those selling nickel or dime quantities on the street for $5 or $10, to those who moved kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine or heroin higher up on the drug chain.

The picture that emerged in testimony was of a Willie Sutton logic — the cops robbed drug dealers because that’s where the money was.

Defense attorneys made much of the fact that many witnesses were admitted drug dealers who were serving or have served prison time for their crimes.

Prosecutors countered that the dealers weren’t the ones on trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, speaking of one witness, said robbery is robbery, whoever the victim.

“It doesn’t matter whether he made money,” the prosecutor said, “from selling drugs or selling Girl Scout cookies.”

The Gun Trace Task Force trial has ended. What is Baltimore doing to prevent future police corruption? »

Kevin Shird served 12 years for drug trafficking, and now is a full-time writer and author. He said no one should be surprised by the testimony about police and drugs.

“There’s a large population of people who rely on the underground economy to survive,” Shird said.

Shird blames persistent poverty, inadequate schools and a broken criminal justice system for luring young people into the drug trade and keeping them there. He made bad decisions himself as an impoverished teenager, he said, selling dime bags of heroin in the 1980s. That led to “the scarlet letter” of a criminal record, with each subsequent arrest making it harder to get any job that paid more than minimum wage.

“How do you feed your kids?” asked Shird, 48. “How do you keep a roof over your head?”

While he eventually made his way out of that life, he said the same underlying problems remain in much of the city today, providing a steady stream of new recruits into the drug trade.

Prosecutors say the gun unit members preyed on the vulnerability of dealers, who might be reluctant to report to police that their drugs or their illegally earned money was stolen — especially by police officers.

Sergio Summerville testified that he was accosted in September 2016 by a group of officers as he left his storage unit near the Horseshoe Casino.

Summerville said that the officers claimed they were DEA agents and that they had a warrant to search the unit. He acknowledged keeping drugs and money there — thousands of dollars, he said, that he had balled up in a sock.

But when an officer came out of the unit with the sock, Summerville said, “I noticed it was flat.”

He did not report the theft.

“I was concerned I could be charged for drugs,” he testified. “That’s why I didn’t make a complaint.”

Witness after witness testified that officers robbed them, seizing money they carried or kept in their homes, sometimes turning a portion of it in as evidence but pocketing the rest. Several of the officers who pleaded guilty and testified in the hopes of getting reductions in their sentences admitted on the stand to taking money rather than submitting it to the department.

It wasn’t only cash. Drugs were also taken, and sometimes made their way back into the market, witnesses testified.

Donald Stepp, a bail bondsman and cocaine dealer, testified he partnered with former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins to resell the drugs the officer seized.

Jenkins pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, but did not testify in his former colleagues’ trial.

Stepp said Jenkins provided him with “over-the-top amounts” of all manner of drugs — some he didn’t even know the name of — at all hours of the day and night, including two big bags of pills looted from city pharmacies on the night of the 2015 riot following the death of Freddie Gray.

“I’ve got an entire pharmacy,” Jenkins said, according to Stepp.

Stepp took to leaving the shed at his Middle River house unlocked so he wouldn’t have to wake up for the latest middle-of-the-night shipment. Once, he testified, Jenkins called him to a house he was going to rob, saying he had a “monster” of a target: one of Baltimore’s largest kingpins.

At the scene, Stepp testified, he saw Jenkins emerge with what he thought might be 10 kilograms of cocaine, stuffed in his vest.

“He come out the door looking like Santa Claus,” Stepp testified.

He said Jenkins dropped the names of multiple alleged local drug kingpins, but the names didn’t mean anything to him. Among them was Kenneth “Kenny Bird” Jackson, who helped inspire the Stringer Bell character on “The Wire.”

Stepp said Jenkins identified Jackson as the owner of a silver Acura that they broke into, stealing up to $19,000.

The testimony drew a rebuke from Jackson, who bristled at the suggestion he was “selling drugs at 60 years old.”

The local felon-turned-businessman was alleged in federal court affidavits in 1985 to be a lieutenant in the Baltimore drug ring headed by Melvin D. "Little Melvin" Williams, and was convicted of manslaughter and weapons violations. He told The Sun he never owned a silver Acura or had that amount of money stolen.

“I’ve never been robbed, especially by some rat punk like” Stepp, Jackson said. “The government should cancel his deal and send him to prison with no breaks.”

Jackson became known over the years as a particularly well-connected businessman: He managed a strip club and made political contributions and developed ties with local politicians. In 2000, then-City Council President Sheila Dixon, Comptroller Joan Pratt, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks all spoke on his behalf in a dispute over demolishing the club for redevelopment.

“Yes, I have matters in my past from over 30 years ago that I will never shy away from because I recognized my errors and have worked steadily to regain my family’s proud name,” Jackson said.

Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the University of Maryland, said the fact that some of Baltimore’s big-name dealers remain well known in town speaks to the role drugs play in the city.

“I’ve always thought of Baltimore as the big city with the big heroin problem,” he said. “The fact that these are well-known people who have continuing careers — I think that’s unusual,” Reuter said.

Still, he said, it’s hard to point to why drugs have such a long and continuing grip on the city.

“Baltimore has a lot of problems, but it’s no worse than St. Louis or Detroit,” Reuter said. “I do think there are cultural norms that develop in the drug trade all the time that have long-term effects.”

Baltimore native Gary Tuggle began a 30-year career in law enforcement as a city police officer. He headed the DEA office here before leaving in 2015 to run the agency’s Philadelphia office.

He said his hometown is now several decades deep into a crisis that other parts of the country have begun to experience only more recently.

“The problem is bad across the country, but Baltimore is unique in that it has a history of generational drug use,” he said. “We haven’t done a good job in reducing demand.”

Tuggle grew up on the east side of Baltimore, in a family where some fell into addiction. He said drug dealers are sometimes “idolized” in their communities.

Young people grow up seeing drugs as the ticket to the kind of material wealth beyond what they could otherwise make in a legitimate career, he said. And yet those dealers “end up dead or in prison.”

“I’ve never seen a truly successful drug dealer,” Tuggle said. “If you look at the price they’ve had to pay, the time spent in prison, the loss of the family structure, I would say they were abject failures. They not only poisoned their own communities, they lost so much that they could have had.”

And yet, young people continue to follow their elders into the business.

“You have older generations in the household who became drug dealers,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to see younger generations get involved with drug trafficking.”

That’s something Shird, the former dealer, has seen firsthand. He knows one such family, a man who has seen his son and grandson follow in his footsteps of heroin addiction, and heroin dealing.

“We’re talking about,” he said, “generations of pain.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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