East Baltimore

East Baltimore (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun / May 29, 2014)

A surveillance camera near the East Baltimore murder scene spied a group from the Black Guerrilla Family gathered to congratulate a gang member on a job well done — a long-time rival was dead and a prior killing avenged.

Henry Mills had been a BGF target since the gang started to take over the drug trade along a stretch of Greenmount Avenue years before, and he was suspected of murdering a senior BGF figure, authorities say.

By 2011 Mills' insistence on running a freelance heroin operation on gang territory was too much to tolerate. A BGF enforcer named David Hunter took on the job, gunning Mills down at Greenmount Avenue and 24th Street, according to police affidavits obtained by the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore prosecutors have chronicled that vendetta in a sweeping set of gang indictments, rounding up nearly 50 alleged BGF members who are accused of crimes ranging from murder to drug dealing. The strategy — using conspiracy and gang laws to draw together eight years of criminal activity — is extraordinary for its breadth of charges and for the level of violence cited.

Authorities hope to deliver a blow to what they portray as a ruthless gang with a hand in 19 homicides since 2006. The BGF, the driving force in the drug-and-sex scandal that implicated more than a dozen corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center, is prevalent in a wide swath of the city, operating in segments called "regimes" or "bubbles," authorities say. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has called it "Public Enemy No. 1."

State's attorney Gregg L. Bernstein declined to comment on the ongoing case, but said the investigation fits with his office's broader strategy. "In neighborhoods throughout the city, we are employing the most sophisticated investigative and prosecutorial tactics to eliminate entire gang sets and drug crews, from top to bottom, with the objective of reducing the violence and drug dealing on our streets."

Details about the gang — including references to a drug operation in an apartment building across North Avenue from the city school headquarters — are laid out in hundreds of pages of affidavits in support of wiretaps. Other documents also include photos of gang tattoos, such as a flaming "276" splashed across Hunter's back, a reference to the letters B-G-F.

But defense lawyers say the cases, which are now being argued in pre-trial motions, have flaws. Some killings ascribed to the gang have collapsed in court before, they note. And some defendants are accused of committing relatively minor crimes on behalf of the gang — only 11 of the four dozen defendants are accused of shooting or killing someone.

MAP: 20 homicides near North, Greenmount avenues connected to BGF between 2005 and 2013

Defense lawyers also take issue with the high level of secrecy surrounding the case — prosecutors want to keep the names of some witnesses under wraps until shortly before a trial date is set, because they fear retaliatory attacks from the gang.

Now, more than six months after the indictments were unsealed, a number of defense attorneys say they are guessing about the evidence against their clients.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever gone through," said Jane Loving, whose client, Gerald Johnson, is accused of being the gang's commander and one of those caught on the surveillance camera celebrating Mills' slaying in 2011 "It's just very ethereal."

Hunter, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to go on trial on June 12.

Prosecutors are now faced with having to prove the links among the crimes and defendants. If they can, their strategy of bringing a broad indictment holds the promise of driving down the city's murder rate by locking up killers who have long evaded authorities.

David M. Kennedy, a criminologist consulting for Baltimore's Police Department, favors the approach, especially in places like Baltimore where witnesses are sometimes reluctant to come forward and winning individual murder trials is hard.

"It can be extremely difficult for law enforcement to bring successful prosecutions even when they do know what's going on," said the New York-based Kennedy, who is not involved in the BGF cases. "The way you clear homicides is to bring this kind of group-focused, very hard-hitting investigation."

The territory

Local and federal authorities have long pinned much of the Baltimore's serious crime on the BGF, but a detailed description of the gang's role on the street has only recently come into view. In the affidavits and court documents, police outline the inner workings of a BGF segment that allegedly gunned down witnesses and cornered the drug trade in about a dozen blocks northwest of the intersection of Greenmount and North avenues.

The area includes tidy streets of two-story rowhouses and long stretches of vacant buildings and empty lots, busy commercial sections of Greenmount Avenue lined with liquor stores and carry-outs, as well as trash-strewn back alleys. Those blocks were the setting for the numerous acts of violence prosecutors have attributed to the BGF.

Multiple gigabytes of recorded calls, captured by investigators over eight tapped lines, cover the final few months of a conspiracy said to date back eight years.