Baltimore Sun

How Itchy Man beat the rap

Solothal Deandre Thomas, known as Itchy Man, speaks with his lawyer Catherine Flynn after an arraignment in December on charges related to a shooting at the Royal Casino.
Second of three parts

To his lawyer, he is a caring father, a gentleman unfairly targeted by police.

To police and prosecutors, he is one of the most violent inhabitants of the city. In the past six years, he has been charged repeatedly with assaults and shootings, including two killings and 12 attempted murders.

To jurors in four trials, he is a man not guilty because police and prosecutors failed to convince them.

His name is Solothal Deandre Thomas. On the street, he's called "Itchy Man."

He is a startling example of the problems that beset the criminal courts. His case shows how one man, repeatedly indicted for serious crimes, has been freed time after time by faulty and insufficient police investigations, prosecution missteps and frightened witnesses intimidated into silence by a culture of drugs and violence.

He has plenty of company. Between Jan. 1, 1997, and the end of last year, 1,449 people were murdered in Baltimore and more than 1,000 of those killings went unpunished or resulted in a light sentence for the accused. Indeed, in about half the cases, police couldn't even find anyone to charge.

Thomas is also a symptom of a wider problem confronting Baltimore.

Freed by a porous judicial system, these men have returned to neighborhoods ravaged by crime and violence for more than a decade. The Sun's computer analysis of homicide cases shows that 83 men who beat murder raps were subsequently rearrested and charged with serious crimes. In all, 24 were accused of another killing or of attempted murder.

"It just builds and builds and builds and snowballs," said Maj. Laurie A. Zuromski, head of the Police Department's homicide squad, describing the escalation of violence that results from a failure to imprison gunmen.

Most of the crimes attributed to Itchy Man occurred within a few blocks of the dusty construction site that was once the Murphy Homes, his address before the West Baltimore public housing project's demolition in 1999.

If there's a thread running through those crimes, it is brutality.

Alfonzo Rogers took a blast from a sawed-off shotgun after complaining that he was sold counterfeit drugs. Raymond Fortune's lower lip was ripped off and one eye knocked out in a beating with a ceiling fan and a baseball bat. Ellis Johnson was shot four times; Antiwan Lowe and Latrol Gross, six times each; Lewis Middleton, 10 times. One girlfriend's jaw was broken; another suffered a broken cheekbone.

Itchy Man once astounded police by scaling a public housing high-rise to elude capture, climbing from balcony to balcony until he disappeared into a vacant seventh-floor apartment.

For five hours, 50 officers and FBI agents searched the 14-story Murphy Homes building that November afternoon in 1996. They shut down nearby U.S. 40 and Martin Luther King Boulevard during the search.

Somehow, Itchy Man slipped away. A detective says he later claimed he hid in a trash chute. He was arrested Nov. 27, 1996, in Prince George's County on dozens of charges.

That arrest began an unusual sojourn in the criminal justice system. He would spend more than five of the next six years behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving a brief sentence. During that period, he would be tried four times and win four acquittals after juries heard cases rife with police missteps and reliance on lone witnesses who disavowed their identifications of him as the gunman.

His only conviction came in a January 1998 plea agreement that netted him a brief sentence and flushed away dozens of charges, including nine attempted-murder counts. That deal came three months after a jury had quickly acquitted him of attempted murder when Lowe refused to identify Itchy Man as the man who shot him.

"I've talked to him quite a bit, and I think he's been innocent in every single case," Margaret Mead says of Itchy Man. She's a veteran defense lawyer representing him in his latest encounters with the law.

"This is a classic case of persecution, not prosecution," she says.

Another run-in

By September 1998, Itchy Man was back on the street. It wouldn't be long before he and the police crossed paths again.

Two nights before Christmas, Baltimore was gripped by subfreezing temperatures and partially paralyzed by light snow, sleet and freezing rain.

Ellis Johnson, a lanky 16-year-old, was roaming the 1400 block of Argyle Ave., around the corner from his home, peddling $5 hits of crack cocaine.

Shortly before 9 p.m., he was at the corner of Argyle and Lafayette avenues when four guys approached him. He recognized three of them -- Itchy Man, Samuel "Sambo" Warren and Karlos Williams, a former classmate at Booker T. Washington Middle School and Itchy Man's nephew.

In a taped interview with police, Johnson said Itchy Man grabbed him by the jacket and pressed a gun to the back of his head. The unidentified man went through his pockets and pulled out money.

"Yo, he only got $9," Johnson recalled him saying.

At that, Johnson added, "Itchy Man said, 'Where's the stuff?' and said, 'Take me where it's at.'"

Johnson said he led Itchy Man and Warren halfway up the block to a trash-filled cardboard box on the sidewalk and pulled out a brown paper bag containing about 40 green-top vials of crack cocaine -- "ready," he called it.

Itchy Man wondered aloud if Johnson would snitch, then shot him in the left leg three times. After Johnson fell, he took a fourth round in the right foot. As the wounded teen crawled toward the steps of a nearby house, Itchy Man "walked down the street and started laughing."

The group then headed to Lafayette Avenue, and on toward Fremont Avenue.

"There was a dude" on a pay phone at the corner of Fremont Avenue and Lanvale Street, Karlos Williams later told police.

It was a convicted drug dealer, Carlos Rodriguez, who was known to Baltimore police and prosecutors as Lewis Middleton.

He was talking to his mother in New York.

Francis Bernard Smith was nearby and heard a command to Middleton: "Kick it out."

Middleton handed over money.

"Itchy shot him like twice," Williams told police. "The dude fell to the ground. ... Itchy stood over top of him and shot him some more" -- another four or five times, he recalled. The trio fled to a house several blocks away.

A break for police

Catching Itchy Man would take some time and would result from a combination of good police work and luck.

Several weeks after the two shootings, Officer James Schuler was assigned to interview about two dozen shooting victims. One of them was Johnson.

It was early on a January morning. Johnson was at home nursing his gunshot wounds when the 19-year veteran of the Central District knocked on his Mosher Street door.

"He told me that he was robbed, that Itchy shot him and Sambo and Karlos were there," Schuler later testified. "He said, 'They shot me,' and he said, 'They ran right around the corner and they murdered a guy.'"

From the nicknames, Schuler said, he knew the identities of the three. He immediately drove downtown to the homicide office and gave the information to detectives.

Ten days later, Johnson gave a detailed statement to homicide detectives and then picked Itchy Man, Williams and Warren out of photo lineups.

The night before that interview, detectives got a break. One of the trio, Williams, was arrested with the gun used in both crimes. He later gave a detailed confession to detectives and identified Itchy Man as the gunman in both crimes.

More than a year would pass before the events of Dec. 23, 1998, would be taken before a jury. By then, the seemingly strong case had been sliced and diced -- pulled apart and crippled.

First came strategic decisions that weakened the case long before a jury was picked. Then evidence problems muddied the waters for jurors. In the end, the three were acquitted of all charges.

A single trial

Prosecutors planned on a single trial for the shooting of Ellis Johnson and the murder of Lewis Middleton. But Randi Lifson, the prosecutor who handled the case, missed a deadline for seeking a judge's permission for a single trial. While Lifson didn't get a chance to argue for a consolidated trial, two judges involved in the case said that mixing the crimes together in a single trial would be prejudicial to the defendants.

In an interview, H. Gregory Martin, one of the defense lawyers, nonetheless acknowledged the importance to prosecutors of one trial. "There's a better chance of being found guilty if they are tried together," he said.

The confession

Some of the most damning evidence came from Itchy Man's nephew Karlos Williams, who was arrested with the murder weapon and said he was present when the shootings occurred.

Williams tape-recorded a detailed statement. He also put it this way in writing: "I Karlos saw Itchy kill a man on Freemont. He had shot the man on the phone. He shot him. The man fell to the ground and Itchy shot him a gin."

Detective Maurice Moore, the lead police investigator on the case, helped persuade Williams to make his statement. But he knew it wasn't easy for Karlos to turn on his uncle.

"When Karlos confessed -- before he confessed -- he told us, 'If I tell you all this, make sure my uncle goes to jail because he will kill me,'" Moore said in an interview.

The statement was a key development, but to be most effective, Williams would have to repeat it in court under oath. Hoping to ensure that, prosecutors offered him a plea deal.

When he refused to plead guilty, prosecutors faced a quandary. To use the confession, they would have had to try Williams first and then call him as a witness -- perhaps a hostile one -- against Itchy Man and Warren.

"I can't imagine he was willing to testify against his uncle," Lifson said in an interview.

Instead, prosecutors decided to forgo the confession and to try the trio together. This left them without an eyewitness to the Middleton murder who could identify the gunman.

"After looking at the totality of the circumstances and after reviewing the case with my supervisor, the strategic decision was to try all three defendants together," said Lifson. "That was the strongest case we had."

Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck would not let Lifson discuss the plea negotiations. Nor would they discuss the detailed analysis that led to the decision to drop the confession.

Moore says the lack of a confession sank his case.

"The biggest part that I think crushed my case was the fact we got a confession from one of the defendants and you can't use it," said Moore, who is now a Police Department firearms instructor.

In general, Circuit Judge John N. Prevas says, juries usually don't believe co-defendants.

"They just tend to not like snitches and not believe snitches," said the veteran of 30 years as a prosecutor and judge.

Indeed, eight months after Itchy Man's acquittal, prosecutor Lifson lost another case when two murder defendants made plea deals and testified against a co-defendant, the alleged gunman. The jury took less than an hour to acquit him.

The other suspects

Losing the sole eyewitness to the Middleton murder wasn't the only prosecution problem. What initially appeared to be quick police work eventually handed defense lawyers powerful ammunition to argue that police got the wrong guys.

Within minutes of the crime, police had briefly detained and questioned three other men before concluding that they were not involved.

When shots rang out that pre-Christmas night, two police officers, Sgt. Michael McDonald and Officer Mark Polk, were in the neighborhood and they quickly drove toward the gunfire.

Gary Jones, too, heard the shots from the upstairs of a house nearly a half-block away. He rushed to the fogged-over front window, wiped it clean and looked down the block.

He saw his friend Middleton sprawled on the sidewalk under the glow of a streetlight. Four guys were standing over him.

"The only way I know it was him by his boots," Jones told police.

He charged downstairs and ran to the corner. The four guys were gone. The policemen had just pulled up.

Jones told them, "The dudes done ran around the corner and should be going down ... Arlington." McDonald drove off to search while Polk got descriptions from Jones and broadcast them.

Three blocks away, McDonald spotted two men "exactly fitting the description." They were held while police took Jones to eyeball them.

"The witness positively identified the two men as the black males that shot the victim," McDonald said in a report that became a key piece of defense evidence.

The men were Francis Bernard Smith and LaGant Byrd. They were handcuffed and driven separately to the homicide office at police headquarters. Jones, too, was taken to homicide. There, crime lab technicians photographed all three and swabbed their hands for gunshot residue, the microscopic particles that firearms emit when fired.

Then, detectives interviewed them. Byrd and Smith were treated as suspects. They waived their right to counsel and agreed to talk. They said they had been nearby and fled when shots were fired.

For his part, Jones acknowledged that he had not seen the shooting from the house up the street, just the aftermath.

"I made the determination that he did not identify the shooter," Detective Moore later testified. And, he said he had been told on the night of the murder that "Itchy Man may be involved."

In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve, detectives freed Jones, Byrd and Smith.

Prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers of their role in the investigation until November 1999, nearly 11 months after the crime.

At that point, the gunshot residue swabs taken from them on the night of the murder had not been analyzed. When the analysis was completed, it showed that two of the three men -- Jones and one of those he had identified as Middleton's assailants -- had the telltale residue on their hands soon after the murder.

By this time, Jones was in Georgia, refusing to return to Baltimore. The other two could not be found.

Defense lawyers were outraged.

They claimed that the belated disclosure prevented them from interviewing the three or calling them as witnesses. They asked Judge Marcella Holland to dismiss the murder indictments on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to provide promptly, as required, information that might point toward the innocence of defendants.

After Lifson argued that the disclosure was timely, if belated, Holland turned them down.

Nevertheless, the defense was now armed for a relentless attack on police credibility when the case went before the jury.

The first volleys were fired minutes after the murder trial opened on April 20, 2000.

Referring to the defendants, Martin, an assistant public defender, told the jurors, "The reason these gentlemen are here and the only reason they are here was the delay by the Baltimore City police in going after the correct people. They had 'em, but because they didn't do what they were supposed to have done, they let 'em go, and now they're nowhere to be found."

Added Jai Bonner, Itchy Man's attorney: "That is not a good enough reason to put somebody's liberty in jeopardy -- because you made a mistake, because you did sloppy police work and you want to cover it up."

At the end of the trial, Martin drove home the point: "You've spent, ladies and gentlemen, this entire trial focusing on us trying to prove the guilt of three gentlemen and the state trying to prove the innocence of those three exact gentlemen. Those three gentlemen are LaGant Byrd, Francis Smith and Gary Jones."

The argument resonated with the jury.

"That was very crucial," said Nancy N. Vaughn, one of the jurors who acquitted the defendants of the Middleton murder.

"We just couldn't get over the thing that they had arrested someone for this murder, found gun residue on his hands, then let him go," she said in an interview. "Our feeling was that it made them look so bad, they had to do something."

Victim changes his story

Relying on Ellis Johnson to identify his assailants also turned into a major problem for the prosecution.

Long before the attempted-murder trial began on May 18, 2000, Johnson had given police two versions of the robbery.

On the night of the shooting, he said a lone black male in an Army jacket had robbed him of $175. There was no mention of selling drugs.

The next month, Johnson told police that Itchy Man, Warren and Williams robbed and shot him.

When the case went to trial, he changed his story yet again, saying he had made a mistake in the taped interview and photo identifications.

"That kid was scared," Lifson, the prosecutor, said in an interview.

The various versions allowed defense attorneys to cast doubt on Johnson's identification of the defendants.

The jury also heard starkly different descriptions of the day Johnson spent at the homicide office when he taped his account of the shooting and picked the defendants out of photo lineups.

Detective Moore said he was cooperative.

"His demeanor was upbeat," Moore testified. "He appeared to be happy-go-lucky, as if he wanted to be there. ... We openly joked to one another. He never complained about anything. ... He was like a dictionary almost. He just spit the information out with no problem. There was no duress. He just wanted to tell us."

Johnson had a different story. He testified that he was forced to go to homicide and to identify Itchy Man, Williams and Warren.

"I told them I ain't want to go," he testified, saying he went because he feared arrest.

"They was trying to make me do something I didn't want to do," he testified. "They was telling me what to write."

Johnson testified, "I told them somebody named Itchy Man ... robbed me. ...

"It was a mistake."

His mother testified he was taken to headquarters over her objections. "They was going to lock him up," said Debra Calaman.

Most jurors either accepted Johnson's courtroom version or decided his conflicting statements left them with reasonable doubt that prevented conviction.

"They didn't have a strong case at all," said Lois K. Bailey. "He said himself they weren't the people who shot him. That alone to me was reasonable doubt."

Added Alyscia D. Smith, another juror, "Evidence just wasn't there."

She said, "They could have forced the man to say they shot him. I think so -- a lot of us think so -- that they forced the man to say who shot him."

Joseph C. Staab is an exception.

"When you get shot by someone, you know who the hell shot you," said the retired telephone technician. "That's my opinion. He was scared. ... If he told the truth, in my opinion, those guys would have come back and hit him."

Nevertheless, says Staab, he went along with the majority in disgust.

Although jurors were not convinced -- and perhaps didn't notice -- Lifson got Johnson to obliquely identify Itchy Man, Warren and Williams as his assailants.

As Johnson repeatedly insisted that the trio didn't rob and shoot him, Lifson questioned him about details of the account he had given detectives when he implicated the defendants. Instead of denying that they were there, Johnson gave answers that suggested they were involved.

For example, Lifson asked what Itchy Man was wearing that night.

"A black coat," Johnson testified. "A black or blue coat" with a hood.

Five minutes later, Johnson again said that the defendants weren't the men who approached him that night.

Lifson asked, "Where was Sambo when Itchy Man grabbed your jacket and robbed you?"

"I don't know," Johnson replied. "I don't remember."

And, she asked, "Did you hear what Sambo said to Itchy Man?"

"No," Johnson responded.

One person in the courtroom noticed the discrepancies -- the judge.

"He really sort of gave himself away," Judge Holland remarked during a whispered bench conference that jurors could not hear. "He would identify them as he would go along and continue in his narration with what they did."

In the end, it didn't matter.

The gun and fingerprints

With the Williams confession gone and Johnson's identification shaky, prosecutors still had the murder weapon as evidence.

But that, too, was problematic.

Three tactical officers looking for "high-risk guns" had encountered Karlos Williams on Pennsylvania Avenue four weeks after the two crimes. He ran and dropped a loaded Taurus 9 semiautomatic handgun that, he later told detectives, Itchy Man had asked him to hold while he and Warren sold drugs.

Officer Robert Taylor testified at the attempted murder trial that he had seen Williams pull the gun from his waist before discarding it.

Williams was charged with possession of a handgun without a permit -- a charge prosecutors would shelve months before the trials. The gun was submitted to the crime lab, which routinely test-fires seized weapons to compare the distinctive marks the firearm leaves on shell casings with shells collected at crime scenes. The tests matched the Taurus 9 to the casings collected at the Middleton murder and Johnson shooting scenes.

But defense attorneys turned the seizure of the gun against the police, using their failure to order a fingerprint check of the weapon to discredit their work.

"Ask yourself why the state has not done anything to explain to you why there's no testing of this gun to see if Mr. Williams' fingerprints are even on it," defense attorney Jonathan Van Hoven said in closing arguments at the murder trial, where there had been no testimony about fingerprints.

Several weeks later, at the trial for the shooting of Ellis Johnson, police were questioned about the failure to have the gun checked for prints.

"I was given no instruction to do so and I didn't see any reason to do it," said Officer Taylor, who had turned in the gun at headquarters. He was not asked why he saw no reason to ask for prints.

Officer Michael Kirschner, his partner, testified that he had made hundreds of handgun arrests and usually didn't ask for a fingerprint check. "It's very hard to get a print off the handle of a weapon," he added.

On cross-examination, Kirschner was forced to concede that there were several smooth surfaces on the Taurus 9 that would yield prints.

"They should have fingerprinted the gun," said Carol Anderson-Austra, a juror in the first trial.

Experts agree.

"I would fingerprint just as a matter of procedure," said Arthur E. Westveer, a retired Baltimore police lieutenant who was once a homicide squad supervisor and now teaches a graduate-level course on death investigations at the FBI Academy. "That should be done all the time."

Added Judge Prevas, a former prosecutor and veteran of 16 years on the bench, "Jurors want fingerprints the way people want good schools and no taxes."

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris has another view.

"We get fingerprints in ... 2 percent of the things that are dusted. So sometimes, if something is seen in someone's possession, you've got the guy with the gun in his belt and you're a witness, you pull it out, you safeguard it, you testify you saw it in his waistband and you don't fingerprint it," he said in an interview.

By checking for fingerprints, he added, police run the risk that the only prints on the gun will turn out to belong to an officer.

Officer Taylor explained in a letter to The Sun why he didn't ask for a fingerprint check on the gun taken from Williams: "In my experience, fingerprinting a firearm or any other evidence is to identify an unknown suspect involved in criminal activity. There was no question who had the gun on that night."

Prosecutors acknowledge the risk in checking for prints. Nevertheless, Page Croyder, a veteran Baltimore prosecutor, had a brief answer when asked what prosecutors would prefer police to do: "Dust the gun."

In the end, the jury gave no weight to the seizure of the gun, said juror Valerie Mason. Echoing a defense argument, she speculated that Williams could have obtained the gun after the shooting.

"I'm not a criminal, but why would you keep a gun if you used it in a crime?" she said in an interview.

Police reports

The failure of police officers to record key details of their investigation in official reports -- and the failure of an officer to remember a report she had written -- also weakened the state's case.

The first witness called to the stand in the trial involving Lewis Middleton's murder was Western District Officer Jeanette Smith. She had been dispatched to the scene that pre-Christmas night 16 months earlier. Under cross-examination, she was asked if she had talked to a William Daniel Hayes, a man whose name never came up again at the trial. She said she could not recall.

Martin, the defense attorney, then showed her a report that said she had driven Hayes to police headquarters.

"This is a report that I wrote. ... That is my handwriting," Smith testified. But she still could not recall Hayes or even writing the report.

"That was the big thing, one of those big things," said Anderson-Austra, one of the jurors. "Another loose string instead of having things nailed down."

In a recent interview, Smith said that before testifying, she routinely reviews copies of reports that she has, but that she didn't have a copy of the Hayes report.

Asked what training she had received regarding preparation for trial, Smith, a six-year veteran, responded, "It's been so long, I don't recall."

In another instance, Officer Kirschner testified that when he and two colleagues arrested Karlos Williams with the Taurus 9, Itchy Man and Warren were nearby and asked why their friend was being locked up.

Bonner, Itchy Man's attorney, sought to distance her client from the gun. She latched onto the official report of the incident, written by Officer Taylor. It didn't mention that Itchy Man and Warren were nearby as Kirschner had testified.

"Why?" Bonner asked rhetorically. "Because it didn't happen."

In an interview, Kirschner said he had no idea that the three men and the gun would be tied to two crimes.

"If that had been the case, we would have put them in the report," he said. "We just thought they were spectators standing there. There were probably 15 other people there, too."

Even Ellis Johnson's crucial identification of Itchy Man, Warren and Williams as his assailants was undermined because police failed to write a report about that key development in the case.

In the middle of the attempted-murder trial, Judge Holland held a special hearing so skeptical defense lawyers could grill Officer Schuler about Johnson's identification of his assailants. The jury was not in the courtroom.

When Schuler testified that Johnson had given him the names of the three defendants, the lawyers demanded documentation.

"I actually wrote no reports or no interoffice memos or anything," Schuler testified, saying that Johnson was one of 15 to 20 shooting victims he was told to interview.

Two days later, in front of the jury, Schuler was allowed to testify that Johnson had named his assailants, but Holland barred him from repeating the names. He was not asked if he had written a report or had made notes.

Nevertheless, Bonner told jurors in closing arguments: "There's a reason why he claims he doesn't have notes -- because those notes say something that they don't want you to know."

With the evidence in tatters, Itchy Man and his co-defendants were acquitted of all charges.

Assault charges

By the summer of 2000, Itchy Man had put the most serious charges behind him. But he still faced accusations of assaulting two women who, according to court records, are mothers of his children.

Lakeisha Berry's jaw was broken Jan. 22, 1999, about 24 hours after Karlos Williams was arrested with the Taurus 9. Terrell Moneek Moses was choked into unconsciousness and suffered a broken cheekbone six days later.

On Aug. 18, 2000, Itchy Man was brought to trial on those charges. The women were not there, and Lifson, the prosecutor, told Judge Holland they could not be found. So, the cases were shelved and Itchy Man was released.

The next month, Detective John Riddick found Berry. In a sworn affidavit, he said that she and Itchy Man were living together on Woodbrook Avenue near Druid Hill Park and that Itchy Man's name, Deandre Thomas, was on the mailbox.

At the time, Riddick was investigating the murder of Latrol Gross, 21, who had been ambushed and shot a half-dozen times on Sept. 9, 2000. Itchy Man and another man were charged with the murder after the victim's cousin told police that he had seen them kill Gross.

Court records show that police and prosecutors believed that Gross had shot Itchy Man in a gunfight two weeks earlier and that the ambush of Gross was a continuation of a feud. Itchy Man had walked into the emergency room at Maryland Shock Trauma Center the night of Aug. 24, 2000, with a graze bullet wound of the chest, claiming he didn't know who shot him at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

About the same time, a 16-year-old boy was shot to death nearby. A homicide detective was in the emergency room investigating. When he learned that another shooting victim -- Itchy Man -- was there, he had the crime lab swab the wounded man's hands for gunshot residue. The test was positive, suggesting Itchy Man had recently fired a gun.

No one was charged in the killing of the teen, although documents suggest that police believed he had been caught in a crossfire and that Gross had fired the fatal shot.

"On Aug. 24, Solothal Thomas was shot by Latrol Gross," prosecutor Paul Budlow told a jury trying Thomas and his co-defendant a year later. "Solothal Thomas got his revenge with six gunshot wounds."

At the trial, Gross' cousin who had named Itchy Man changed his story, leaving the prosecution without a witness or physical evidence to tie them to the murder. Itchy Man and his co-defendant were acquitted.

Another opportunity

Prosecutors still had a slim chance of sending Itchy Man to prison but they didn't pursue it.

A week after the trial, he was brought back to court on charges that he had violated terms of the probation he got in the January 1998 plea deal.

A probation agent had cited him for failing to report a change of address.

Itchy Man faced the possibility that Judge Carol E. Smith would imprison him for the 12 1/2 years she had suspended as part of the earlier plea agreement.

Phillip M. Sutley represented Itchy Man at the hearing. He had been his lawyer a week earlier at the murder trial when Detective Riddick testified that Itchy Man's address was on Woodbrook Avenue, not at the address the agent had.

Nevertheless, Sutley told Smith at the violation-of-probation hearing that Itchy Man had "never moved. He's either lived at East Street or the Baltimore city jail. ... I do have a witness who will testify to that."

Smith dismissed the charge, freeing Itchy Man to complete his probation.

Sutley said later in an interview that he didn't hear Riddick's testimony about Woodbrook Avenue.

"I'm not too alert at times," he said recently. "I don't remember it. I didn't hear it."

Itchy Man's probation ended Sept. 19, 2001. The next night, several patrons at the Royal Casino in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. were robbed and one was shot. Itchy Man was arrested in late October and charged with attempted murder, robbery, assault and several handgun counts for the Royal Casino crimes. A District Court judge released him on $150,000 bail.

Police were outraged that he was back on the street. He was arrested on New Year's Day and charged with two counts of possessing a bulletproof vest illegally. He told arresting officers that he would continue to wear the vest because he had been shot recently, according to a police report.

This month, prosecutors offered him a deal: plead guilty to the vest charges and they would drop the attempted-murder and robbery case. Judge Roger W. Brown said he would sentence Itchy Man to six years in prison.

At the last minute, Thomas turned down the deal even after his lawyer, Mead, told him in open court: "I will tell you, based on my dealings with this court, is that that offer will not be available in the future." He is expected to go to trial soon.

Months ago -- before another lawyer advised him not to talk to a reporter -- Itchy Man said he had been wrongly arrested in the Royal Casino shooting.

Asked why the police seemed so interested in putting him behind bars, he replied, "Because of my past, I guess."

Sun electronic news editor Michael Himowitz and staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.