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Baltimore Sun

The moment of truth -- and consequences

The prosecutor called his star witness to the stand.

Charlie Wilhelm, flanked by FBI agents, rose from his seat in the back of the cramped Towson courtroom. Dressed in a crisp business suit, his graying hair neatly trimmed, Charlie wore a resolute expression that belied his fear and exhaustion. This was the day -- Oct. 30, 1997 -- he had dreaded for more than two years, the day he would face his best friend in court and accuse him of murder.

Charlie's decision to end his own life of crime and become an FBI informant had brought him to this moment. For five months, he had used a hidden tape recorder to document the crimes of his former friends. His work had put old cronies in jail for drug dealing and loan sharking and had led to the guilty plea of a secretary in the U.S. Justice Department for selling confidential information. But this trial represented Charlie's crowning achievement: the prosecution of William R. Isaacs for first-degree murder.

The body of Mark Schwandtner, a 22-year-old construction worker, had been discovered in the Gunpowder Falls on June 10, 1978. Now, 19 years later, prosecutors would present no witnesses to the murder, no motive, no weapon, no bloody clothes and no fingerprints. All they had was Charlie Wilhelm.

Jurors would not be allowed to hear the surreptitious recording Charlie made of another man describing Schwandtner's murder at the hands of Billy Isaacs. That tape was considered inadmissible hearsay in this trial.

But they would hear testimony placing Billy and two other men at a Hampden bar the morning Schwandtner's body was found, talking about the murder. And they would hear Charlie describe Billy's instructions: "Nobody talks; everybody walks."

To convict Isaacs, the jury would have to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, the testimony of a former thief, bookmaker, loan shark, drug dealer and arsonist -- a man who helped three accused killers dispose of their bloody clothes.

It would be Charlie's word against Billy's.

Would you state your full name and give your current address?"

"My name is Charles Henry Wilhelm. I decline to give my address."

It wasn't safe to say exactly where he lived.

Relatives in Baltimore had received death threats, and there was a contract out on Charlie's life.

For the last year, Charlie and his family had lived 800 miles away in Decatur, Ala., and had gone by the name of Williams. The FBI had relocated them for their protection. They had also supported the family on $2,500 a month, a fact Isaacs' lawyers would suggest as a motive for the story Charlie was about to tell.

Charlie had known Billy Isaacs for nearly 20 years, he told the jury. They were best friends, and together they had operated a crime syndicate that ranged from Hampden to Little Italy to Dundalk. Charlie told the jury that Billy had been closer than family; he was the best man at Charlie's wedding and godfather to his youngest son.

Dressed in a dark suit and seated just a few feet away, Billy listened stoically as Charlie detailed their illicit businesses: the illegal lottery, the drug deals, the loans made at exorbitant interest rates. By the 1980s, Charlie told the jury, he grossed $7,000 a week.

It was a lucrative lifestyle. Why would Charlie choose to leave it behind? Assistant States Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. hoped to answer that question for the jury by exposing the growing tension between Charlie and his partner. He asked about a meeting they had in January 1995, when Isaacs was in prison.

"Did something happen that caused you to become concerned?" Gentry asked Charlie.

"Yes," answered Charlie, explaining that Billy had patted him down. "He was making sure that I wasn't wearing a wire."

"Had he ever done that before?" asked Gentry.

"Never," said Charlie.

"Did that concern you?"

"Yes."

At that time, Charlie had not yet gone to the FBI. But he was contemplating trying to break away from Isaacs. A raid on his house later that year would spur him to act.

Gentry asked Charlie about that raid on Aug. 21, 1995. "Why did that make a difference?"

"When they came in the house and everything," Charlie said, "my youngest son ..."

"How old was he?" asked Gentry.

"He was [7], and he was sitting there crying."

"After the raid of your house, where your son was crying, did you start to think about your life?"

"Yes."

Charlie choked up and his tears prompted snickers from the back of the courtroom, where Isaacs' entourage packed the benches. They looked like actors from central casting for a movie about aging mobsters -- balding, paunchy men wearing gold chains and pinky rings, with nicknames like Racetrack Joe, Fat Tony and Mousy.

As Charlie regained his composure, Gentry went on: "Tell the jurors what you were thinking about during that time."

"I just was tired," Charlie replied. "You know, you can't win. You can't win at all, and I just wanted to get out."

What Charlie was prevented from telling the jury was that he had reason to believe Isaacs might kill him.

According to Charlie, while Isaacs was in federal prison he had asked Charlie to kill two men. The request was a test of loyalty, Charlie felt. If he refused to follow Isaacs' orders, he might get killed himself.

This was part of the pressure Charlie felt when he made his decision to go to the FBI. But Isaacs denied the allegation, and his lawyers had won a motion barring Charlie from testifying about the request. All the prosecutor could do was raise the matter indirectly.

"Did the defendant make a request of you that concerned you?" Gentry asked Charlie

"Yes."

"Did you honor that request that he made of you?"

"No, I did not."

"After he made that request of you, did you become concerned?"

"Yes, I became concerned."

Next Gentry turned to the morning of June 10, 1978, when Charlie saw Isaacs and two other friends at Benjamin's Tavern in Hampden.

"Did you have a conversation about a murder with Billy Isaacs?" asked Gentry.

"Yes I did . . . There was John Derry, Billy Isaacs and Ronnie Rogers in the back, playing pool," Charlie recalled. "They were back there giggling, and I believe it was Billy come over and said, 'Should I tell him?' I knew they had been up to something."

Isaacs, Charlie testified, said: "We killed a guy last night."

The description of the murder was cold, matter-of-fact: "They took the guy to [the] Gunpowder. It was a river or something, and they had the guy on a bridge and John hit the guy in the head with a bat, and Billy said that John hit the guy so hard. ... They threw the guy in the water, and then Billy said he actually had to step on the guy's head to drown the guy."

What had become of the weapon?

Isaacs said Derry had "gotten rid of the baseball bat," Charlie testified. "Apparently he had taken it to the Jones Falls." Charlie admitted helping the men dispose of their bloody clothes by driving to Greenmount and 33rd Street, near Memorial Stadium, and stuffing them down a storm drain.

"You didn't have to come here today and testify, did you?" Gentry asked Charlie.

"No, sir."

"Are you doing this for money?"

"No, sir."

"Why are you sitting in this chair, testifying?

"I am remorseful," Charlie said. "I am sorry. I mean, I was a slime bucket, and I just tried to change my life and even to this day, if I had to do time on this, at least it would be over."

When the prosecutor completed his questioning, the judge ordered a break for lunch. For Charlie, the easy part was over. Next, he would face Isaacs' lawyers.

Charlie's credibility was on trial.

If the jury didn't believe him, they would free Isaacs. It was that simple.

Isaacs had hired a consultant to help pick a sympathetic jury, a private investigator to interview witnesses, and two aggressive defense lawyers, Clarke Ahlers and Donald Daneman.

Charlie had hired Daneman himself in 1987, when Charlie was charged with selling cocaine (and later convicted). Now Daneman was on the other side, and he would dredge up every crime, every act of indiscretion, Charlie had ever committed.

"Now, you certainly wouldn't consider yourself to be a violent person, would you?" he asked Charlie.

"Yes, at times I can be violent. Yes."

Charlie admitted he once was arrested for assaulting his wife. And yes, he had an illegitimate child and was sued for not paying child support.

"Now, you admitted that you used drugs, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were a drug dealer?"

"Yes, sir."

"A thief?"

"Yes, sir."

"Now let me talk to you about the arsons that you confessed to."

"Are you talking about the arsons me and Mr. Isaacs did or me and Mr. Joe Deems did?"

To each question, Charlie responded like a Catholic at confession. "We are quite surprised at his candor," Ahlers whispered to Judge Christian M. Kahl during a bench conference.

Arson, thievery, adultery, flimflamming, money laundering, drug dealing, bookmaking, loan sharking -- Charlie admitted to all of it over the next several hours.

When he left the witness stand, Mark Schwandtner's brother thanked him on behalf of the family. "They didn't need to thank me," Charlie later wrote in his diary. "I owed them and myself this for almost 20 years."

Agent Thomas J. McNamara, Charlie's FBI handler, was called to the stand next. Ahlers hammered at the FBI for never charging Charlie with even one of his many crimes.

"Here is a man that comes in, said, 'I have committed a lifetime of crimes, hundreds and hundreds of crimes,' most felonies." And yet, "Charles Wilhelm has not been charged with so much as a parking ticket."

Instead, Ahlers told the jury, the FBI paid Charlie handsomely -- $2,500 a month for nearly two years, plus a $55,000 lump sum the month before the trial began. With expenses, the amount totaled $140,000.

Charlie Wilhelm was such a good con man, Ahlers suggested, he had even fooled the FBI.

But McNamara said Charlie had been "very truthful since he has come to the FBI." The agency, he testified, was able to confirm his veracity through several sources. "He came to us saying he wanted to change his life. He certainly has."

While Isaacs' lawyers put on their defense, Charlie flew home, where he would wait for the verdict. He wasn't in the courtroom to see Isaacs take the stand.

His old partner calmly admitted to a career in loan sharking and bookmaking. As for murder, he said, "I had nothing to do with anybody being killed, nothing."

After three days of testimony, the jury began deliberating. Ten jurors believed Charlie's story and wanted to convict Isaacs. Two held out for acquittal. They thought Charlie had lied for the money.

But the foreman and the majority were adamant. "No amount of money will make you stand in front of all these people. No amount of money will make you put your family in jeopardy," the jury foreman, letter carrier Rodney Cofield, would say later.

After several hours, the foreman passed out a note to Judge Kahl. "We are at a deadlock so therefore cannot render a decision," it said. "What do you want us to do?"

The judge replied on the bottom of the note: "Do you believe your inability to agree is permanent and hopeless?"

The jury never wrote back. And Judge Kahl never shared the note with lawyers in the case, an oversight that would come back to haunt him -- and have repercussions for Charlie.

At 4:55 p.m., jurors went home for the night still undecided. The next morning, they reconvened and after two more hours of deliberation returned a unanimous verdict: Isaacs was guilty of second-degree murder.

One juror later said she believed Charlie had been motivated in part by his son's terror the morning of the raid. "I think your child can make you change if you have any kind of love for him," said Geraldine Day, a retired forklift operator.

At the sentencing, eight months later, Isaacs maintained his innocence -- and attacked Charlie's credibility.

"I don't know Mark Schwandtner," he told Judge Kahl, "and I don't know who killed him. Charles Wilhelm got on the stand and lied."

Of his career as a loan shark and bookmaker, Billy said, "I thought it was OK to lend money. The banks do it. I thought it was OK to have a numbers business. The state does it." He denied ever dealing drugs or being part of a crime ring. "[Charlie] talks about this organization, this syndicate. There was no syndicate."

Finally, Gentry, the prosecutor, read to Judge Kahl from a transcript of the tape that the jury wasn't allowed to hear: the recording of co-defendant John Derry that Charlie had surreptitiously made.

"Billy dropped him over there ... just like a boulder used to drop off a f-- bridge," read Gentry. "He said, I'll f-- make sure he don't wake up. He went down that f-- water ... and then threw him under again."

Judge Kahl said he found Charlie's description of the murder "credible" -- and that he would have been tougher on Isaacs than the jury was. "This was really a case of first-degree murder," he said. He gave Isaacs the maximum sentence allowable under the law: 30 years.

FBI agent Bruce Hall, Charlie's childhood friend, called him in Alabama with the news. Charlie felt relieved, vindicated -- and a little bit safe.

He moved his family back to Maryland, against the protests of the FBI, in the summer of 1998. The agents still thought Charlie's life could be in danger. But the government money had stopped coming, and he needed steady work. Charlie was tired of job hunting with a phony name.

He became Charlie Wilhelm again, not Williams, and quickly found work as a carpenter repairing houses for a city landlord -- no resume required, no questions asked. Gina went to work as a grocery store clerk -- a job with the important benefit of providing health insurance. And for the first time in years, the Wilhelms paid taxes.

Gina didn't miss the fruit bowl brimming with money. She finally had the normal life she'd yearned for: shopping for bargains, buying her children's clothing on layaway. Charlie worked long hours and played ball with his young son. He spent time with his brother and with his new friend, Bruce Hall.

That sense of normality would not last. Two years later, a remarkable turn of events gave Billy Isaacs a chance at going free. Judge Kahl's failure to show lawyers the jurors' note saying they were deadlocked was ruled a fatal error by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. In July 2000, Isaacs' conviction was reversed. He won the right to a new trial.

For the next 14 months, Charlie nervously awaited the day he would go back into a courtroom and, once again, accuse his old friend of murder. That Isaacs might escape on a technicality galled Charlie. But he had learned many lessons on his way up from the underworld. The letter of the law, it seemed to him, could be inadvertently as cruel as the immoral code of the criminal world.

Finally, on Sept 26, 2001, Isaacs pleaded guilty to second-degree murder rather than face Charlie at a second trial. Refusing to admit his guilt (through a face-saving Alford plea), he nevertheless agreed there was enough evidence to convict him. A plea bargain got him a 15-year prison sentence, backdated almost four years to the day of his original conviction.

It was a quiet, routine hearing. Isaacs looked tired and said little. Afterward, his lawyer handed a reporter a statement entitled "Defendant's Press Release." It condemned Charlie as a liar, accused the FBI of hiding files that would prove Charlie's dishonesty, and professed Isaacs' innocence.

State prison officials give his probable release date as 2011, though he could get out earlier with good behavior.

Every day now, Charlie looks over his shoulder for his old friends. He rarely haunts the neighborhoods where he once intimidated entire barrooms of bad guys. The man who left his door unlocked at night now bolts it like the rest of us.

Neighborhood thieves no longer work for Charlie, but he has more reason to fear them than the average man: In the world Charlie left behind, there is nothing worse than a snitch. He can only hope his old friends don't find him.

For protection, he sought the help of the FBI when it came time to renew his Maryland driver's license. His address is now listed as 101 W. Lombard St. -- the location of the U.S. District Court.

To date, Charlie's work has resulted in 20 convictions -- for drug dealing, bribery, conspiracy, illegal gambling and murder. But six years after he began his odyssey, he still has testifying to do -- and plenty to lose sleep over.

John Derry and Ronald Rogers -- co-defendants with Isaacs in the 1978 murder -- still await trial, as does Isaacs' sister, Susan Thompson, charged as an accessory after the fact.

Their prosecution was delayed, in part, by wrangling over the tape Charlie made of Derry confessing to the murder. Initially, Derry's lawyers succeeded in having the tape thrown out as evidence because of a technicality: Baltimore county police neglected to glue an identification number to the tape recorder. But after five years of appeals, the tape has been deemed admissible.

In all, Charlie turned over 110 tapes to the FBI. None was as important to him as that one. Even when Charlie's conscience nagged at him for ratting out his friends, for setting up drug dealers and loan sharks, he remained resolute about bringing justice to the family of Mark Schwandtner.

He believed his actions might even prevent other murders.

Had he known that Isaacs' conviction would be reversed, that it would take more than six years for Derry and Rogers to come to trial, would he have done anything differently?

No, says Charlie. "Because I've changed."

Change has its consequences.

Standing on the porch of an old Baltimore rowhouse, his jeans dirty from a morning hanging drywall, Charlie reaches in his back pocket to retrieve his wallet. He flips it open and pulls out a creased piece of paper. It is the prayer a priest in Alabama gave him six years ago.

The paper is worn, and the ink has bled through the back. But Charlie can still read it.

"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 pauses, folds the prayer over and slides it back into his wallet.

"It took me 20 years to get in as deep as I did," he says. " I just hope and pray it doesn't take 20 more years for this all to end."


THE INFORMANT'S CASES

Charlie Wilhelm's undercover work resulted in the arrest of 23 people. Three still await trial.

William R. Isaacs, 49. Pleaded guilty to federal loan sharking charges. Sentence: 2 1/2 years. Fine: $5,000. Convicted of second-degree murder by a Baltimore County jury; conviction reversed on appeal. Pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Sentence: 15 years.

John S. Derry, 48. Charged with first-degree murder in Baltimore County. Trial pending.

Ronald G. Rogers, 53. Charged with first-degree murder in Baltimore County. Trial pending.

Susan D. Thompson, 51. Charged with accessory-after-the-fact of murder in Baltimore County. Trial pending.

Patricia A. Wheeler, 46. Pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. Sentence: 3 years probation, including six months in a halfway house.

Constantine (Gussie) Alexander, 76. Convicted of drug trafficking by a federal jury. Sentence: 5 years.

Michael Bush, 48. Pleaded guilty to federal cocaine distribution charges. Sentence: 10 years.

Frank Tamburello, 50. Pleaded guilty to federal cocaine distribution charges. Sentence: 10 years.

Richard A. Payne, 62. Pleaded guilty to federal cocaine distribution charges. Sentence: 4 years.

Dino J. Matarozza, 41. Pleaded guilty to federal cocaine distribution charges. Sentence: 1 year.

William S. Schulte, 35. Pleaded guilty to federal cocaine distribution charges. Sentence: Four months in a halfway house.

Lewis W. Benson, 44. Pleaded guilty to a federal charge of selling ammunition to a convicted felon. Sentence: 1 year.

Vernon Letts, 67. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 15 months. Fined $30,000. Forfeited $198,000 seized by the FBI.

Augustine C. Tamburello, 62. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 1 year. Fined $10,000.

Nicholas P. Tamburello Jr., 49. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: Five months in a halfway house, five months home detention.

Daniel O'Malley, 51. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 5 years probation, six months home detention.

Terri Elizabeth Foltz, 43. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 1 year probation, six months home detention.

Antoinette Jubb, 50. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 1 year probation, six months home detention.

Michael Scudder, 47. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: Four months home detention. Fined $500.

Jacqueline Letts Raines, 41. Pleaded guilty to federal illegal gambling. Sentence: 2 years probation.

William J. Madonna Jr., 50. Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to thwart state liquor laws, in Baltimore City circuit court. Sentence: 2 years probation. Fined $1,000. Ordered to perform 300 hours of community work.

Anthony J. Cianferano, 49. Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to thwart state liquor laws, in Baltimore City circuit court. Sentence: 2 years probation. Fined, $1,000. Ordered to perform 300 hours of community work.

Sharon Humphrey, 48. Charged with federal loan sharking. One year probation; charges dropped.

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