The witnesses

To win such a sweeping case, prosecutors will rely on witnesses who can describe the connections among defendants. Who those witnesses are — and what they know — is the largest question looming over the case.

Authorities say they have good reason for not disclosing the identities. "Multiple witnesses who have been interviewed have expressed fear for their safety," prosecutors wrote in a court filing. "Multiple other potential witnesses have refused to cooperate with detectives in this investigation because of their fear of violence at the hands of members of this specific regime of BGF."

Affidavits — sworn by police officers tracking the gang for years — refer to informants who laid out roles of senior gang figures and describe the seizure of gang documents from an Odenton home. Other documents show that prosecutors' intend to call gang experts from the Baltimore Police Department to make some connections.

But the filings do not explain how authorities linked all of the defendants to the BGF.

And as the investigation neared its climax last fall, the surveillance offered a view of the BGF's violent tactics, while highlighting the potential limits of linking individuals to the gang.

In October, police arrested Kenneth Jones, who they believe is a BGF enforcer known as K-Slay. Authorities say he is implicated in attacks on three other people the gang suspected of talking to investigators.

Jones had been charged with shooting a man on East 24th Street and in an interview with detectives he tried to figure out who might have identified him, investigators wrote in the wiretap affidavits. "Jones specifically asked the detectives whether the victim of the shooting had identified him as the perpetrator of the crime; the detectives declined to answer."

From jail a few days later, Jones called a woman and asked her to connect him with Michael Robinson, a senior BGF leader with the power to authorize hits, according to the documents.

Jones told Robinson who he thought might be snitching on him. With a quick few words, Robinson said it would be taken care of.

"Yo, yo, lets talk about something better, cause that's done," Robinson said, according to the documents.

On the morning of Nov. 2, police found a man near the suspected witness' mother's house, sitting asleep in a car with a gun in his hand, a hood over his head, and a mask on the back seat. He was arrested and convicted on a federal gun charge.

Yet investigators acknowledged in the documents that they knew of no connection between the suspected gunman and the BGF.

Kennedy, the city police consultant, who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there is great value in targeting a whole gang. Prosecuting individual members of a gang allows the broader organization to find someone else to fill the role of hit man or enforcer; as a result such cases have "next to no impact on the violence."

Rounding up everyone at once stands a chance of stemming violence, he said. In the past six months there have been no homicides in the territory that police say the gang controlled.

Still, Lawrence E. Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University in California, questioned whether the strategy will ultimately reduce violence in Baltimore's neighborhoods, even if prosecutors win in court.

"Can you convict them all? Yes there are plenty of examples in which the whole hierarchy of a gang is sent to jail," said Rosenthal, who worked on crime control efforts in 1990s Chicago.

But he said the only consistently effective strategy in lowering violence is to suppress it by stopping and frisking people on the street in search of guns and drugs.

He added: "If you take out today's dominant gang you're just creating an opportunity for tomorrow's violent gang."

At a recent meeting for residents in Charles North, detective Will Farrar, a veteran gang investigator with the city police department, struck a similarly pessimistic tone.

He said that gangs remain "very" active in areas such as Greenmount West — despite arrests.

"When they take these guys off the streets, the BGF has another bubble waiting to take their place," Farrar said. "They just move another bubble in there."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.