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.
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."
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.
Some recorded conversations are humdrum. In one call, a lengthy exchange focuses on a dispute over a packet of Mentos; in another, a gang member says he can't come out until his shorts are done in the dryer.
But other snippets summarized in court filings outline the day-to-day workings of a lucrative drug operation. In heavily coded conversations, dealers haggle over what they'll pay for heroin or cocaine and at one point talk about slashing prices to stay competitive.
And many conversations deal with violent crime, authorities say. For example, in early 2013, police wrote in the affidavits, gang members scrambled to deal with a man who was cooperating with authorities.
On March 23, 2013, according to court documents, Norman Handy robbed and shot a Bloods gang member. After the victim identified his attacker for police, Handy was charged with attempted murder. The gang decided to have the shooting victim killed.
Within weeks the man, who had left protective custody against the advice of police, was killed in the 600 block of Cokesbury Ave.with a .22 caliber handgun.
Handy was confident the matter had been settled. "There ain't no case anyways, yo is gone," he told an associate in a recorded jail call, according to affidavits filed to obtain electronic surveillance.
Police wrote in the wiretap affidavits that they identified his brother, Wesley Jamal Brown, as a person of interest in the case. They wrote that they believe Brown got a call tipping him off to the shooting victim's whereabouts, and that they saw a car they have tied to him on surveillance footage in the area where the killing occurred.
Brown was not charged at the time, though, and defense attorney Joshua Insley said his client was shocked after learning of the allegations when he was charged with committing the murder as part of the gang case. Insley said he has seen neither evidence tying Brown to the Bloods member's death nor basic information like crime scene photos and autopsy reports.
The charges against Handy, dropped in October, were revived in the November gang indictments.
Loving, whose client is Johnson, the alleged BGF leader, said allegations detailed in the affidavits represent the police's "best-case scenario" rather than a concrete case.
Even with some clients facing life sentences for murder conspiracy, defense lawyers say,
it would be foolish to advise them to make plea bargains without knowing what evidence prosecutors have.
Prosecutors "thought there might have been this rush of people coming to cooperate," Insley said. "Now they're left short."
Frustrated with the pace of the case and the prosecution's strategy of lumping together old cases, some defense lawyers are exploring legal avenues to fight the case before trial.
Thomas J. Maronick, Jr., whose client Anthony Evans is accused of a single robbery for which he already received a year in prison, called it "nuts" for the same incident to be brought back to court for a second time.
"My guy committed an offense, paid his debt to society for it, and now he is accused of essentially the same crime packaged in a different box," he said, adding that the prosecution strategy could be challenged in court.
Maronick came to a recent scheduling hearing prepared to argue for the charges to be thrown out because of the paucity of information provided by prosecutors.
But the judge declined to hear Maronick's arguments because the issues about revealing the identities of witnesses had not been resolved.
After the hearing, Maronick said his client was frustrated.
"He felt the evidence is weak, he felt that he deserved an opportunity at justice," he said. "Instead he sits in jail."
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.