The man who knew too much

Charlie Wilhelm was a drug dealer, a thief, an arsonist, a loan shark and a bookmaker. He beat people up - and he helped cover up a murder. But at 40, the career criminal had a change of heart. The only question was: Would he live to tell about it?
Charlie Wilhelm was a drug dealer, a thief, an arsonist, a loan shark and a bookmaker. He beat people up - and he helped cover up a murder. But at 40, the career criminal had a change of heart. The only question was: Would he live to tell about it? (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
Part 1 of 4

Just after dawn on the day Charlie Wilhelm decided to come clean, he heard car doors slam outside his Hampden rowhouse and knew this time his nightmare was real. As he bolted from bed and pulled on a pair of pants, detectives burst through the unlocked front door.

In the living room, Charlie restrained his barking Rottweiler while upstairs, his wife rousted their frightened children from their beds. Police, guns drawn down at their sides, told Charlie they had a search warrant: They were looking for evidence of bookmaking.

Charlie volunteered to give the city detectives what they were after. He didn't want them ransacking his house, especially his son's and daughter's rooms.

From his pocket, he pulled a wad of cash - $800 collected from his illegal businesses while out bar hopping the previous night in his Lincoln Continental. Next, he directed police to the sock drawer in his dresser, where another $4,000 was stashed. Then he led them to a safe in the basement.

It was August 21, 1995, and weeks earlier a "dirty" cop had tipped Charlie off about the raid. He'd hidden his master list of bettors at a friend's house. But as he pried open the safe with a crowbar (he'd forgotten the combination), he was surprised to see more numbers slips inside. He laughed out loud at his carelessness.

Forty years old and an impeccably neat man with closely cropped blond hair and chiseled features, Charlie was a career criminal. Except for brief stints as a carpenter, he'd spent his adult life chasing and threatening people. He peddled drugs and fenced crystal and other goods stolen off the docks at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. He torched cars for insurance money and beat people up to collect payments on illegal loans. For 20 years, he'd managed to run a lucrative crime ring and escape conviction, except once - for drug dealing.

At home he never bothered to lock his door - even the neighborhood thieves worked for him.

Charlie felt good about how well he provided for his family. He spent $100,000 renovating and decorating their Formstone home on Keswick Road. He left his wife bundles of cash, meticulously organized by denomination, in a fruit bowl in the kitchen. He bought cases of Power Ranger toys for Halloween trick-or-treaters, cocaine for his friends, anything his kids desired.

But now he could see the price his family paid for his crimes. Huddled together on the living room sofa, they looked shell-shocked as police took their photographs. Charlie watched helplessly from a seat at the kitchen table, where he was guarded by two detectives. He felt like a tired man who knew too much.

He knew 200 thieves, bookmakers, loan sharks and drug dealers - all part of his crime ring that ranged from Hampden to Little Italy to Dundalk.

He knew a "leak" in the U.S. Department of Justice, a secretary who offered to sell confidential information.

And he knew the secret to an unsolved murder.

It was one thing to know about a murder, to protect cronies with your silence for 17 years. It was another to commit one. Charlie had never crossed that line. But a crime boss was pressuring him; he wanted two men dead, and he wanted Charlie to do the job.

He feared what would happen if he refused. Would he be killed instead? In his business, loyalty was everything.

The pressures of his criminal life were closing in on him - the lies, the secrets, the deals and drugs he did until dawn. The old thrill of keeping one step ahead of police was gone. That was a young man's game.

For the first time, Charlie was thinking about giving it up. That spring he had met with a former neighbor, now an FBI agent, pretending to seek advice for a "friend" who was in trouble and wanted out.

Charlie knew he might miss the money from his numbers and loan-sharking rackets - several thousand a day, tax-free. But he yearned for what normal people have: an honest dollar and a job they can tell their children about.

Charlie's kids knew only that their father operated a bar - Joe's Tavern, in Dundalk. And though his wife, Gina, understood that he ran a numbers racket, she did not know the extent of his criminal involvement, or how much it weighed on his conscience. She had no idea he was covering up for murderers - or that he was being pressured to commit murder himself.

But Gina could see how much Charlie was on edge. The sound of slamming car doors had awakened him many nights and dawns before this one.

While police continued their search of the house, the Wilhelms' 7-year-old son began to cry. Charlie assured him everything would be all right, but detectives prevented him from going to his side. Gina put her arm around the boy while his father watched in frustration.

More than an hour after the raid began, detectives handed Charlie a receipt for the money and evidence they'd confiscated, and told him they'd be back. All over Baltimore, police were invading the homes of more than a dozen members of Charlie's gang. For some, the police searches were merely the price of doing business. But for Charlie, the raid on his home that morning in August would become a galvanizing event. He could not wipe from his memory the frightened, helpless expression on his son's face.

"What kind of father could I have been," he would later ask himself, "to allow my son, or any of my children, to go through that type of ordeal?"

Charlie's desire to become an honest man - and an honorable father - would spark an extraordinary midlife crisis, sending him on a six-year odyssey that would force him to flee the only city he'd ever called home. His decision would endanger his life and the safety of his family.

Police at the Keswick Road rowhouse that morning left behind a shaken man. And Charlie Wilhelm knew exactly where to go.

On the train to Washington, Charlie's hands were sweating, and it wasn't because of the heat. He had always considered himself a "stand-up guy" with his extended crime family, a "wiseguy" other crooks could trust. But he was about to rat out his cohorts, maybe even send some of them to prison.

It was 2 1/2 weeks after the raid on his house, and Charlie headed to a meeting with the FBI.

Gazing out the train window, the trees and houses racing by, Charlie was reminded of the pace of his own reckless life. All the years ran together in a blur - except for the past six months. Those were marked by serious contemplation and by events that had finally led Charlie to this day. He was about to become one of law enforcement's most important tools - the informant.

To make cases against organized crime syndicates, police have three crucial instruments: wiretaps to eavesdrop; undercover agents to infiltrate; and informants, or "cooperators" to identify, inform on and testify against their fellow criminals. But using informants can be like making a deal with the devil. Often, they try to manipulate police and prosecutors to get lighter prison sentences. Sometimes they exaggerate their criminal involvement, or manufacture evidence against rivals. Their actions must be watched, their information corroborated.

On this day, Charlie's credibility would meet its first test.

His initial contact with the FBI the previous spring had been made through his brother, John.

John's best friend was an FBI agent named Bruce Hall, with whom the Wilhelm brothers had grown up in North Point Village near Dundalk. Though their father had been a Baltimore City police officer for 10 years, Charlie was in trouble by the time he was a teen-ager. After dropping out of high school, he stole cars and worked for bookmakers. At 17, he tattooed his left hand with a small cross, known on the street as the "mark of a thief."

More than two decades later, Charlie knew too many corrupt cops to trust just anybody. But he had always trusted Hall. At the Wharf Rat in Fells Point, Charlie had told the agent that a friend was in trouble and might want to turn himself in. He still remembered Hall's reply: "You go back and tell this guy if he ever needs help, I'm still here."

Now, with his brother beside him on the train, Charlie was ready. Arriving in Washington, the two headed for the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 9th and E streets. Around his neck Charlie wore a gold piece studded with 48 diamonds. It was just one of the many extravagances the fast life afforded him, and to which he would have to say goodbye.

On the walk to the FBI building, Charlie tried to remain calm, despite second thoughts. Turning on his partner, William R. Isaacs, would be the ultimate test of his resolve to change his life. There was no one Charlie loved and feared more than Billy.

They had worked together for nearly 20 years, busting up barrooms, chasing down debtors. In their early days, after meeting in Hampden, Charlie taught Isaacs how to make money grow: They'd loan out $20, charge 30 cents on the dollar, and make $6 by week's end. Their loan-sharking and bookmaking business was small-time then. But with Charlie's ambition, quick mind and aptitude for math, the operation flourished and, with it, their friendship.

Isaacs was Charlie's best man and, later, his young son's godfather. By 1995, Charlie had grown closer to Isaacs than he was to his own family.

In fact, because of Isaacs, Charlie had been estranged from his brother until recently. For five years, they had barely spoken because John disapproved of Charlie's association with Isaacs and their criminal activity.

Isaacs stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 225 pounds, with a thick neck, a large head and outsized facial features. If his appearance alone wasn't threatening enough, he studied martial arts and didn't hesitate to use his feet and his fists.

If Charlie needed to collect late "juice" on a loan, mentioning Isaacs' name would get him a prompt payment. Not that Charlie wasn't threatening on his own. He had a wicked temper and would take a pool cue or a baseball bat to the head of anybody who dared cross him.

"Charlie was feared," said James Cabezas, a former undercover city cop who observed Charlie in his heyday. "He was an enforcer. He liked to fight. He had quick hands. You know that song, 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown'? That's Charlie," said Cabezas, now the state prosecutor's chief investigator.

Together, Charlie and Isaacs were a formidable pair.

"When Charlie and Billy walked into a barroom," Cabezas said, "the climate changed."

The chemistry between the two men changed, too, after Isaacs went off to federal prison to do time for loan sharking and witness tampering in 1990. Charlie began to lose his taste for the fast life and, on his trips to see Billy in a Pennsylvania prison, he could sense his partner growing suspicious. On a visit early in 1995, Charlie remembered, Isaacs had patted Charlie down, presumably looking for a tape recorder. Now Billy was out of federal prison, living in a Baltimore halfway house.

Charlie and Isaacs lived in a warped society - a subculture with its own code - and more than once Isaacs had reminded Charlie of its key tenet: "Nobody talks, everybody walks."

What Charlie had to tell the feds could put Isaacs back in prison for a long, long time.

In Bruce Hall's office, Charlie confirmed what the agent had suspected all along - that Charlie was the "friend" in trouble. Hall took notes, positioning the paper so Charlie could see what he was writing, and warned: "This is on the record."

As Charlie recounted his story and named names, Hall walked the line between encouraging his honesty and making clear its implications: Charlie might go to prison.

When it was over, when Charlie left Hall's office and headed home, he felt a mix of guilt and relief. He'd snitched on men for whom he'd once felt complete loyalty. But he thought about what Hall had said: "Put yourself on a ship with all the guys. There is only one lifeboat." Only one man could escape.

No matter what happened next, Charlie knew, the meeting marked a new beginning.

At home, Charlie waited in a state of paranoia. He had more to worry about now than city police following him. There was the possibility that the FBI would arrest him, or that his cronies would learn of the betrayal.

Charlie's wife couldn't understand why he'd turned to the FBI. A pretty, dark-haired woman 10 years younger than Charlie, Gina yearned for an honest life, too. But why did he have to risk arrest, turn in his friends and become a target for their revenge? "Why can't you just walk away?" she'd asked him. "Just get out."

For Charlie, going to the FBI was a strategic choice. The toughest part of coming clean would be weaning himself from the thrill of the hustle and the chase. He was an "adrenaline junkie" and to shake his addiction, he had to act definitively. Talking to the FBI ensured there'd be no turning back.

He knew he might go to prison. He might even have to start paying taxes.

Several days passed before Hall called with instructions. Charlie was to meet him Sept. 14 at the Hampton Inn near the BWI airport, in Room 520.

On the way there, Charlie made U-turns in his car, afraid he was being followed. At the hotel, he circled the parking lot several times before going inside. As he knocked on the door, voices in Room 520 fell silent. Hall answered, and inside Charlie met his longtime enemies, three Baltimore FBI agents - Stephen Clary, Dan Dreibelbis and James Orr.

The agents were suspicious. What did Charlie want? Criminals who turn themselves in almost always negotiate for a shorter prison term. But Charlie came with no lawyer. He wasn't under arrest, so he wasn't there to beg for leniency. He didn't ask for money or immunity. In fact, records showed he wasn't even under FBI investigation.

One agent noted Charlie's nervousness. It was a good sign.

Charlie's mouth was dry, and he could barely get a word out in the beginning. But soon he was recounting for the agents everything he'd told Hall. Over the course of the next few hours, Charlie talked about his betting operation, about the loan sharking and drug dealing. He talked about fencing stolen goods, about laundering money through a tavern in Dundalk, about a "dirty cop" in the city police department who alerted the gang in advance of raids.

And he talked about a murder.

A young Towson construction worker named Mark Schwandtner had been beaten with a baseball bat and thrown off a railroad trestle into the Gunpowder Falls near the Harford and Baltimore County lines. The crime was 17 years old and unsolved.

The agents were unfamiliar with the case, and leery of this man who claimed insider knowledge, a crook with a colossal "Bawlmer" accent and a phenomenal mind for numbers, places and names.

What was his angle? Why was he ratting out his friends? Was it for revenge? Or simply to clear his own conscience?

Charlie told the agents he'd helped three men dispose of bloody clothing the morning after the murder. And he named the killers. One was Billy Isaacs.

When the meeting ended, when the agents told Charlie they'd be in touch, he was flabbergasted. He couldn't believe they didn't arrest him, that he was still a free man.

But the FBI had something else in mind for Charlie. They didn't know yet if his information would check out, or whether his resolve to become an honest man would last. But they knew who Isaacs was, and at least one of them had drawn a conclusion about Charlie's motive:

Charlie knew too much. He was scared to death.

And soon, he would trade one dangerous life for another.

  • Continue on to Part 2
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