It was—or looked like, on the video—an epic prank. Striding confidently up to the idling police SUV, the man reached through the open driver's side window, snatched the keys and sauntered on, heading east on Wilkens Avenue.
The keys were never recovered."He threw them on the roof,"says Maria Moses, whose house is right in front of the crime scene—and bristles with video cameras.
Police Officer Benjamin Zero had left the keys in his running police cruiser while he chased an unrelated trespass suspect on foot around the block, then returned to find the keys gone. He retrieved the video from Moses's camera system and hit pay-dirt. In his affidavit for Brandon Wilson's arrest, Zero said he recognized Wilson's face and build—and his lime-green sneakersin the video footage. He said he remembered those shoes from a previous arrest,"and I am in possession of photograph(s) of Wilson wearing those shoes at that time."
On the day of his trial, Wilson finds it all absurd."He wrote that he saw my shoes,"he says in the hallway outside the courtroom on August 12."Like I'm the only one in the neighborhood with those shoes. He had pictures of me in his phone."
Brandon Wilson is 30 years old, of medium build, handsome, with a firm handshake and the confident manner of a youth center director. He lives with his grandmother in Gwynn Oak, in Baltimore County. But he has been a fixture in Mount Clare, the neighborhood west of Pigtown, hemmed by the railroad tracks in south Baltimore. The neighbors there say Wilson—with his older brother, Jamel—heads a crew that deals drugs on the 1600 block of Ramsay Street. They want him gone, and his theft of the police keys, nearly a year ago on September 5, may be the key to that.
Wilson denies taking the keys before pleading guilty in exchange for a one-year suspended jail sentence and one year of supervised probation. The plea agreement bars Wilson from Mount Clare—a provision the judge says troubles him.
"I will impose it but I would have to be presented with legal authority for enforcing that provision before I would ever entertain violating his probation based on that,"Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Michael DiPietro says from the bench. "You understand, Ms. Moses? I'm concerned about whether I have the legal authority to effectively banish someone from the neighborhood."
The "Wilson Twins"—as Brandon and Jamel are known—exemplify what Baltimore police are called to handle every day in rough neighborhoods like Mount Clare. Neighbors say they have been a large part of the disorder and violence in an area that has seen a horrific stabbing, a hammer attack and at least two murders this year.
Wilson is"selling drugs in our neighborhood every day with his associates,"Nancy McCormick, president of the New Southwest-Mount Clare Community Association, wrote in a letter that was read at Wilson's sentencing."We are trying to rid our neighborhood of the drug trade." On August 16 Wilson is arrested again charged in a warrant with punching a woman in the head and stealing her purse a block from where the cop's keys were stolen.
Wilson's lawyer denies he's a drug dealer, but Moses claims Wilson is violent.
"He spit on me with ice. He said'fuck you.'He said he was gonna set fire to my house,"Moses says in an interview.
In the circuit court hallway, hours before he pleads guilty, Wilson says the key case is unjust."You riding around trying to humiliate me,"he says of Zero, who arrested him and kept photos of Wilson—and his special shoes—in his phone."Why you want to carry it like that?"
In District Court last month Wilson said he was going to get a private lawyer to handle the matter, but when the trial date arrived he was still without counsel. He's been in court before, with guilty adjudications on drug dealing, trespass and a weapons charge amid other arrests.
Wilson says police target him for no reason. He has little sympathy for police department's loss of a set of car keys.
"Is it standard procedure to leave the car with the keys in it and walk around the block?"He smiles.
The real trouble in Mount Clare is Moses, Wilson says:"I looked up her record. She had gun charges in 2008."She had charges going back to 1988, he says. "She is a drug dealer, and so how is she going to have a gun?"
(The gun case was dropped, along with the associated assault charges. So too with several theft and forgery charges Moses faced after that. Moses's last criminal case was in 2013, when she was charged with theft. The case was placed on the inactive docket).
"She lied and said I was gonna arson her house,"Wilson says of Moses."I beat those charges. I was on a hundred thousand dollar bail."
As Wilson explains it, the arson-threat charge stemmed from a conversation on April 28, the day after the riot. Wilson says was talking to people about the riots and fires when Moses walked up, apparently having mis-overheard something, and said"you threaten to burn my house down! I'll burn YOUR house down!"
"How'd she get my name,"Wilson asks."The police must have gave it to her. No one knows my name in that neighborhood except the cops."
Wilson says he isn't missing work to be in court, but is missing a chance to scout a site for a used car dealership he is planning to open with a friend."You need a lot before you can get a dealer license,"he says."You need a business name."
He says he's thinking about what to call the business.
Mount Clare is not an obvious place for an unemployed man to spend his days. There are many prostitutes, quite a few drug dealers, and members of several gangs wandering the streets. There are no employment centers. The nearest public library branch is about a mile away on Washington Boulevard. Wilson says he has a girlfriend in the neighborhood. He says a"cousin actually owns a salon on the corner of Fulton."
In the spiel he gives every defendant who takes a plea deal, Judge DiPietro tells Wilson that by pleading guilty, he is losing the presumption that he is innocent of the crime. Wilson hesitates before agreeing to the exile, asking if the salon is"in that box,"and for more time to pay the $165 court costs and do his 20 hours of community service. The judge agrees to 30 day extension on word of Wilson's business ambition."You are trying to open a car dealer lot?"he says."OK. I will give you 60 days."
On the way out of court Wilson denies, again, that he took Zero's keys, saying he pleaded guilty only because he did not think the jury would be fair.
"They showed the video,"he says."The guy looked like me, you know? I have a twin brother."
He says the twin brother (who is actually 15 months older than he) didn't do it either.
"I'm not down there a lot."
Four days later Wilson is arrested on a warrant, issued on the day of his guilty plea in the theft case, which charges him with attacking a couple, chasing off the man and stealing the woman's purse on August 7. The arrest affidavit says Wilson took a swing at the man, who fled, then "struck the female victim in the left temple with a closed fist," dropping her to the ground as the rest of the crew swarmed in and grabbed her computer bag ("containing an HP Sleekbook") and her purse, which held $425 in cash, a bunch of gift cards and her social security card, learner's permit and birth certificate.
Wilson was not done, according to a hand-written addendum to the charging statement. The day after the assault and mugging, the affidavit says, "Brandon Wilson called both the female and the male victims and stated they better not'…take a warrant out'on him or his brother because he has her identification and knows where they both live. Brandon Wilson also stated that if either victim'did anything dumb'he would'get that shit straight.'Both victims are extremely fearful of both Brandon and Jamel Wilson, and believe they intend to harm them."