On the run and living scared

Sun Staff

Part 3 of 4

There is a contract out on me.

On March 29, 1996, Charlie Wilhelm made this entry, his first, in a journal that would document his two-year exile from Baltimore. Relocated to a small town in Alabama and living under a phony name, Charlie learned in a phone call from the FBI that he was the target of two hired killers. His work as an informant was paying off for the agency. But the price for Charlie was an all-consuming fear:

There is the fear ... of someone recognizing you, the fear of someone finding out who you really are. There is the fear [of] the people who are out to kill you, kill your kids or your wife just to prove a point. The fear ... of being followed ... that every time you approach your car -- is there a bomb in it that is going to explode when you turn the ignition switch? The fear ... [that] they throw a Molotov cocktail in the window and it lands in your child's room. ... The fear ... they do a drive-by shooting. The fear, every time it rains at night, [because] you know from experience that's a perfect time to whack you.

For nearly five months, Charlie had worn a concealed tape recorder to gather evidence against cronies in his crime ring in Baltimore. He'd caught drug dealers on tape and a secretary in the U.S. Attorney's office offering to sell confidential information. But his most impressive case involved the 1978 murder of a young construction worker. Charlie had taped a man describing the crime and implicating himself and two others -- including Charlie's former partner, William R. Isaacs.

The FBI had moved Charlie and his family to Decatur, Ala., for their protection. But once the arrests began, word spread quickly on the streets of Baltimore: Charlie was the snitch. With the murder suspects free on bail, any sense of safety the Wilhelms felt quickly evaporated.

In Baltimore, Charlie's grown son from a previous marriage found cheese on his doorstep. Charlie's brother and in-laws reported being followed through Hampden by neighborhood thugs who called them "cheese eaters."

Another word for rat, Charlie noted in his journal.

Even more ominous was the drawing Charlie's son and mother-in-law found in their mailboxes.

The picture showed a person slicing another person's throat. The blade of the knife was inscribed "Wilhelm." And the killer in the drawing said: "Death becomes you."

Worried that his 7-year-old son and teen-age daughter could be hunted down in Alabama and made targets, Charlie phoned the principals at their new schools.

[I told them] that I had given my children a code name -- Warlock. That if anyone came to the school to pick them up, unless they used this name they weren't to release them.

"Warlock" had been Charlie's FBI code name. Now, 800 miles from home, he made it his safeguard against kidnapping.

Charlie Wilhelm's move to a little town in the Bible Belt was like Don Corleone of The Godfather showing up in Mayberry.

The man who lived in a Formstone rowhouse with no front yard in noisy Hampden now found himself with a yard to mow in a quiet town near a wildlife refuge.

There are more wild animals here than I've ever seen in my whole life. Cottonmouths, alligators, bats, brown recluses.

The town of 54,000 rolled up every night by 6, and on Sunday, it seemed Charlie and his family were the only ones not in church. Suspicious neighbors thought his Lincoln Continental, with its red leather seats, looked like a "pimp mobile."

His desire for a "normal" life after 20 years as a career criminal had led him here, and now he struggled with the consequences of his decision.

In his journal, which would grow to 960 pages, he reminisced about his exciting life as a "wiseguy" and obsessed over the future. Charlie's children didn't understand why they were uprooted from their home without warning. His wife, Gina, missed her family in Baltimore. Charlie was desperate to find a job, to make his family feel safe, to cling to his belief that he had done the right thing. Keeping a journal was an effort to stay sane.

Despite the urging of the FBI, the Wilhelms had refused to go into the federal witness protection program. It would have provided new legal identities -- birth certificates and Social Security numbers -- but also would have meant ceasing contact with friends and relatives. "It would be like being buried without a funeral," Gina said.

Instead, they used the last name Williams. The FBI changed the children's school records, but otherwise Charlie and Gina had no identification bearing their assumed name. That made job-hunting nearly impossible

The FBI paid them $2,500 a month, but Charlie knew the flow of money would end soon. How would he support his family then? He had no identification he could use -- his birth certificate, driver's license and Social Security card would give away his real name -- and no legal work history to put on a resume.

When nosy neighbors inquired about his past, Charlie invented careers: He was a train engineer, a contractor, a sub-shop owner. He told one man he was retired from the government and handed him a cap emblazoned with an FBI logo.

The fabrications seemed necessary not only to protect their identities, but to avoid a paper trail that would lead an enemy to their door. When his son fell from a tree, Charlie couldn't even answer a nurse's simple question in the emergency room: What's your Social Security number? He gave her the phone number for the U.S. Justice Department instead.

If the false identity complicated daily life, the arrest of Charlie's old friends triggered a full-blown identity crisis.

Which was worse -- that he'd ratted on his cohorts, including his best friend and young son's godfather, Billy Isaacs? Or that Isaacs now knew of the betrayal and was free on bail? Charlie was simultaneously afraid of his old friends and racked with guilt for turning them in.

Desperate to unburden himself, he called St. Ann Catholic Church in Decatur and made an appointment to see the priest.

I told him ... I hadn't made a confession or Holy Communion in 24 years, Charlie later wrote in his journal, but that I did believe in God. He said I could make a confession to him right then. I told him I would be there 'til next year making a confession of every sin I had committed.

Father Joe Culotta recalls the meeting clearly: Charlie was overwhelmed. "He's in a city where he doesn't know anyone. His wife is struggling. [And so is] his conscience."

Charlie wondered if he was really any better than the men he had helped to arrest. After all, he had hurt people with his actions, just as they had.

When you try to do good, the priest told Charlie, there are often consequences. His old cronies caused pain by stealing, selling drugs to addicts, beating and killing people. But the pain brought by Charlie's actions was different. It came from righting a wrong.

He told me as long as I knew what the sins were and wanted to be forgiven for them, that God would forgive me if I was remorseful, and I was.

It was Holy Week, and Father Culotta noted the serendipitous timing of Charlie's visit.

He said Christ had risen from the dead and started a new life. And basically I was doing the same.

Before Charlie left the church, the priest gave him a copy of "Prayer for Trust and Confidence," by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

"My Lord God," it begins, "I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end."

Charlie slipped the prayer into his wallet.

I try not to think about the past by trying to think about the present. But there is not much going on in the present. Then, if I start trying to think of the future, that seems even gloomier.

The future held the next test in Charlie's journey to legitimacy. He would face his old friends in court.

Every few weeks, Charlie's handler, Agent Thomas McNamara, paged him with word of new arrests and instructions to pick up his plane tickets. He was met at the airport in Baltimore, escorted to his hotel, registered under a false name, and cautioned not to leave his room for his own safety.

Inside courthouses, he testified before grand juries and at pretrial hearings. Outside, a raft of prosecutors and detectives exploited his knowledge of the underworld.

Vice detectives wanted to talk to him about illegal gambling, the state prosecutor's office inquired about corrupt liquor inspectors, the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office needed more information about the 1978 murder for which Isaacs was arrested.

For a while, the attention was flattering. After every trip, though, Charlie returned home to the same old problems: Where were the new identity papers the FBI promised so he could get a job? He began to second-guess his decision to go to the FBI without a lawyer or the promise of immunity.

I wonder, who are the biggest cons -- the wiseguys or the FBI?

He fell into a depression and argued frequently with Gina. They talked about splitting up. She felt living with Charlie compromised her safety and put their children at risk.

Gina was terrified of Billy Isaacs. She'd always hated the way he controlled Charlie. And she'd witnessed Billy's violent temper -- she once saw him render a man unconscious with a single blow. Now she knew he was capable of murder.

How had it come to this? she asked Charlie.

She said Billy is running around. He is having a good time; he is with his family. She says, where are we? We are 800 miles away, afraid to talk to our family. We are the ones who have to hide and be ashamed. We are the ones who are being treated like we are wrong. The ones who are wrong still have their freedom.

It was an untenable situation: An accused murderer walked free while the man responsible for his arrest had to hide from two hired killers. Charlie suffered panic attacks -- and worse.

I'm at the state of mind right now I just don't care what happens to me. It's 3 a.m. ... I've looked for a bottle of painkillers ... but I can't find them. If I could find them I would eat every last one and end everybody's misery. Or else if I had a gun, I'd put it right in my mouth without hesitation.

Charlie exhibited the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychiatric condition afflicting many war veterans. He startled easily, had trouble sleeping and suffered flashbacks. He made a joke of it in his journal: I wonder if there is such a thing as Post Criminal Syndrome?

By July, the Wilhelms learned of plans to get Isaacs locked up. The FBI would present a grand jury with evidence that he had conducted his loan-sharking business from prison.

Once again, Charlie returned to Baltimore. At the federal courthouse on Lombard Street, he used a blackboard to explain the complicated interest rate system of loan sharking to the grand jurors. He told them about Isaacs' black book containing names of customers and the amounts they owed. And he described how he pressured clients and collected "juice" for Isaacs while he was in federal prison, turning the money over to Isaacs' girlfriend.

When he was through testifying, Charlie went home to Alabama to await the grand jury's decision. Two more months passed with Isaacs free. On Sept. 26, an indictment was returned.

For the first time since going into hiding, Charlie could breathe easier: Isaacs was off the street. Instead, Charlie felt a mixture of emotions.

I was relieved they finally got Billy. But there was a part of me which was hurt. I thought, 'What a way for the two of us to go down after all we have been through together.' We were closer than family. Now we are total enemies.

When Isaacs pleaded guilty to the loan-sharking charges and received 2 1/2 years, Charlie complained to Agent McNamara that the sentence wasn't stiff enough.

I said, 'Tommy, you guys just keep sending him to college. In other words, Billy will learn by his mistakes. The whole [time] in prison, he is going to be thinking of how to find me.'

The issue of safety would not diminish with Isaacs behind bars. In fact, in February 1997, agents learned just how dangerous the world remained for Charlie and his family.

Another pretrial hearing required his appearance in Baltimore, and Charlie hoped to stay with his brother John. But the FBI nixed the idea and registered Charlie in a hotel under an assumed name.

On the evening of Feb. 3, the day after Charlie had concluded his testimony, a security guard knocked on the door of Charlie's room. He had a message marked "urgent." It said Charlie should call his brother.

When John Wilhelm answered his car phone, he was standing in the parking lot of an Exxon station, frightened and angry. He'd been driving near his home in Harford County when two men pulled up next to him. The man in the passenger seat had rolled down his window, pointed a handgun at John and said, "I have something for you and your brother."

John had sped away before the stranger could fire.

Charlie alerted McNamara to the trouble, then phoned Gina in Alabama and his grown son in Baltimore to check on their safety. Finally, he took his own precautions. If his brother was being followed, he thought, then the wiseguys might know his location. John had visited him at the hotel the night before.

His room on the first floor, with a huge window overlooking the parking lot, made an easy target. Charlie took the covers and pillows from the bed and fixed a place to sleep under the window, out of the line of fire.

I said a prayer, he wrote later in his journal, asking God if something happened to me, would he take care of my family.

Days later, shaken by the threat to John Wilhelm, the FBI pressed Charlie and Gina to enter the federal witness protection program. But the couple remained resolutely against it. They knew now that they'd never be able to live in Baltimore again. But the intimidation tactics only strengthened their refusal to be robbed of everything familiar to them, especially their ties to family. They felt they could endure until the murder trials began. They'd just have to be extra careful.

Charlie spent the next eight months doing what he had done since arriving in Decatur: searching for a job and obsessing over the prospect of facing Billy. He was proud he had turned his life around but found the emotional consequences of betraying Isaacs almost unbearable.

I wish I could talk to him and tell him I just wanted out. He was the one to push me to do what I have done. I couldn't live that lifestyle any longer.

The bright side is I never killed anybody. But it was just a matter of time before I would have had to prove my loyalty. I know from being on the streets that the hard part isn't killing. The hard part is not killing. Because once you cross the line, it becomes easy, especially if you get away with your first one.

Isaacs' trial for murder was finally scheduled to begin in Towson on Oct. 28, 1997. Charlie expected the courtroom to be packed with members of his crime ring. His biggest fear was that Isaacs would win acquittal -- and then come after him.

I didn't sleep very well. You can imagine the jitters I have, Charlie wrote in his diary. I [am] so nervous about testifying. The stares, the laughs, the intimidation that [will] be used against me. You might as well say I am fighting for my life.

The day before Charlie was scheduled to take the stand, he went to lunch near the courthouse with his brother, Agent McNamara and Bruce Hall.

Hall was the FBI agent and childhood friend to whom Charlie had first confessed his criminal life. They had grown up together in North Point Village, a post-World War II neighborhood near Dundalk. Charlie had fond memories of playing football with Bruce in the yard of Battle Grove Elementary School near Bear Creek. But he also remembered a tough childhood with alcoholic parents -- now long dead -- and little money.

While Charlie had dropped out of Sparrows Point High School in 10th grade, Bruce had gone on to earn a bachelor's degree from Frostburg State University and a master's degree in business from the Johns Hopkins University. He became an FBI agent, and later a forensic mineralogist. Now he is a unit chief in the FBI's lab in Washington, where he supervises the testing of materials from crime scenes around the world.

Charlie blamed no one but himself for the path he'd chosen. Except for a few stints doing carpentry, he'd spent his entire life mired in criminal activities. In Bruce, he saw the man he felt he could have been -- a guy from the old neighborhood who had made something of himself.

During Charlie's months working undercover, Hall had often left his lab in Washington to visit Charlie in the FBI safe house. His was a reassuring voice later, too, when Charlie called from Alabama. Hall spent hours talking him through panic attacks, or assuring him he had a future. So it was not unexpected that Hall would have a few words of comfort to embolden Charlie for his day on the witness stand. The agent knew how hard it would be for Charlie to walk into that courtroom and face his past.

The life of crime has no rewards, he told Charlie. His old cronies were miserable guys who never knew what the next day would bring. Would their houses be raided? Would they end up in jail? One day, they made a score; the next, they were broke.

But the life Charlie had chosen just two years earlier was a life of honor.

The person who gets up on that witness stand tomorrow, the agent told Charlie, is a different person than the one he met in his FBI office in 1995.

Charlie listened attentively. He was nervous; there was no denying that. But he felt ready.

I said, 'Bruce I'm not afraid of facing all the guys any longer. I'm just embarrassed about the person I once was.'

Charlie didn't know it, but whether he could reclaim that part of himself -- and confess to it in court -- would determine whether Billy Isaacs walked free.

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