Probe of Baltimore violence grows wider

Terrell Allen and three other men, two of whom died, were shot in front of the Allen family's appliance store.
Terrell Allen and three other men, two of whom died, were shot in front of the Allen family's appliance store. (Baltimore Sun phoot by Amy Davis)
The abduction of two Catonsville brothers last year - which police believe triggered a wave of retaliatory killings and other violence, including the shootings of 12 people at a cookout Sunday - was orchestrated by members of a heroin organization who believed their supplier was cheating them, authorities allege in court documents reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

The documents, filed in U.S. District Court last month, shed new light on last year's kidnappings, which prompted an Amber Alert for the teens but was quietly resolved without criminal charges. The documents claim that the reputed heroin supplier, Steven "J.R." Blackwell Jr., 25, paid $500,000 to free his younger brothers. The documents also link additional deaths to last year's string of violence that have not previously been publicly connected.

In the wake of the cookout shooting, in which Blackwell was wounded along with a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old girl, city police are now exploring possible links to a slew of crimes committed over the past two months in the McElderry Park and Madison-East End neighborhoods, including four homicides and 11 nonfatal shootings, according to law enforcement sources.

The court documents also suggest, however, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and city police knew more than a year ago what was driving the violence, arresting two key members after acting on tips from a confidential informant. On Monday, both Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Mayor Sheila Dixon expressed frustration that the investigation apparently stalled.

Dixon noted on Wednesday that the federal investigation had been going on for two years.

"They've got to step up," she said. "The weight can't just be on our police."

The documents draw a connection between the April 2008 kidnappings of Blackwell's younger brothers and a string of apparently retaliatory acts. Authorities believe the abduction was carried out by Terrell Allen, 35, Omar Spriggs, 27, and Demetrious Rich, 29, all of Baltimore.

Six weeks later, authorities say, gunmen took revenge with a quadruple shooting outside the Allen & Family Appliance store, a mom-and-pop business that sells $99 washing machines and other discount appliances. Spriggs and Allen's father, Tony Allen, 52, were killed. Terrell Allen was one of two men injured.

Detectives investigating the crime scene, in the 1800 block of N. Gay St. near the Baltimore Cemetery, followed a blood trail leading from the street toward a four-drawer file cabinet inside the store, which contained a .44-caliber Taurus revolver with five spent shell casings.

Alleged cheating
ATF Special Agent Noah Slackman wrote in an affidavit to search for the gun that a confidential source relayed that Terrell Allen was the head of a drug organization that had been receiving heroin from Blackwell. But they got into a dispute because Allen believed that Blackwell was cheating on the weight of heroin while raising the price, the affidavit says.

The source said it was that disagreement that triggered the kidnapping of Blackwell's younger brothers.

Baltimore County police said at the time that six masked gunmen forced their way into the home at 3 a.m., bound and gagged 10 occupants and held them at gunpoint for hours. A woman was sexually assaulted. Blackwell arrived at the home as the kidnappers were leaving and was shot at but not struck.

The source said Allen and Spriggs were paid approximately $500,000 as ransom for the release of the brothers, according to documents. No criminal charges were ever filed in connection with the incident.

But after the quadruple shooting, ATF agents raided the appliance store and Allen's Essex home, recovering the revolver, boxes of ammunition and nearly $8,000 in cash.

Allen, who has prior manslaughter and drug convictions, has been charged with being a felon in possession of a handgun and is awaiting an August jury trial.

Allen's attorney, Gerald C. Ruter, said his client "categorically denies" that he has been involved in any illegal activities and questioned whether the informant actually existed.

"He has worked for a lengthy period of time at his family appliance store and has been living a law-abiding life," Ruter said. "The allegation that he was somehow involved in the kidnapping of the Blackwell family, those two youngsters, is something either invented by the Police Department or this informant.

"It really is a travesty at a personal level. His father is killed right in front of him … and he's the person who ends up being on trial," Ruter added.

On Wednesday morning, employees at Allen & Family Appliance store said no members of the Allen family were available to speak to a reporter. The store sits on a corner in an old brick Monumental Life building, where several young boys were cleaning refrigerators and washing machines lined up in two rows on the sidewalk.

Words painted on the windows tout beds, and washers and dryers sold for $99. Inside, additional appliances wrapped around a small room, where more young children mopped the floors.

According to law enforcement sources, police believe the feud revolves around two rival drug organizations: One is allegedly run by Blackwell; another consists of the Rich and Allen families and a gang known as the Old Chapel Hill Boys, a reference to a now-defunct low-income apartment building.

Blackwell has not been charged with a crime since he was 17 and has never been charged with drug dealing, according to court records.

Police say he is believed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in the city but is savvy, remaining at arm's length from the criminal activities.

"He's the Avon Barksdale," said one law enforcement source, referring to the drug kingpin character from The Wire.

Blackwell could not be reached for comment.

In 2001, when he was 17, Blackwell was charged with attempted murder after a stabbing victim identified him through a photo array, but the case was dropped. An earlier attempted murder charge, from 2000, was handled in juvenile court; the records and disposition aren't public.

Meanwhile, Blackwell's father, Steven Blackwell Sr., is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence after police recovered 160 grams of raw heroin, $25,000 in cash, and a handgun from his residence. He was convicted in 2006.

Several others believed to be connected to Blackwell's organization were killed in last year's violence, including Donell Rogers and Quinton Hogan. Sunday's cookout was held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of their deaths.

Many criminal records
Many of the key players identified by police as associated with the Rich-Allen organization have long criminal records, including murder charges, and some are incarcerated. Records show that the appliance store serves as a shared place of employment for some members of both families, though their relationship was unclear.

Terrell Allen, in addition to the pending gun charge, was arrested in February 2006 along with a man named Andre Kirby after allegedly leading police on a chase, driving a red Mazda through stop signs and red lights.

They were eventually caught after abandoning the car, which contained suspected marijuana and numerous shotgun shells, documents say. Allen claimed to be part owner of the appliance store and said he made $500 per week, documents say.

Demetrious Rich, who the ATF's confidential informant claims helped Allen organize the abduction of the Blackwell brothers, said he sold appliances at the Allen family store, a job he said paid $70,000 a year. Rich was sentenced to five years in prison in October 2008, four months after being arrested with a stolen handgun by police acting on a tip from the ATF's confidential informant.

Demetrious Rich and another associate, 34-year-old Otis Rich, have both been charged in connection with multiple killings but were repeatedly acquitted.

Otis Rich and Demetrious Rich were both charged with crimes related to the murder of Lamont Dingle in the 900 block of N. Chester St. on Nov. 17, 1999, inside the Brothers East Cut Rate Liquor Store, and the murder of Rene Graham in her blue 1993 Mazda, which was parked in the 1100 block of Ashland Ave., hours later.

Police believe Graham had been operating as a hack and had transported Otis Rich that night from the 900 block of Chester.

At the time, Dingle was listed as a witness in a drug-related trial scheduled in federal court, and according to court records, federal informants had informed authorities that a contract had been out on his life to prevent him from testifying.

Demetrious Rich was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in that case, which was dropped by prosecutors. He also was charged with the Oct. 31, 1999, murder of Earl Brown, which was also dropped, and he was acquitted at trial of a nonfatal shooting.

In 2001, Otis Rich was again charged with murder after gunfire erupted on a Little Italy parking lot in December after a party for 100 people thrown by a drug dealer about to go to prison. Police reported that witnesses said one of the defendants, Otis Rich and another man were firing guns when Rich was wounded and Sidney Joyner, a guest at the party, was killed.

Rich jumped into a car with the three other men and was driven to the hospital. Rich and one of the men were arrested at the hospital, while the other two were arrested when their car crashed as they fled police.

In a 2002 Baltimore Sun article, one of the homicide detectives on the case described the challenges in making the charges stick. Ballistics tests showed that four guns were fired, but none was recovered. The only cooperating witness was a restaurant employee, who didn't see much. Detective Gordon Carew said at the time that Otis Rich was detained in hopes of curbing additional violence.

"If I was to let them go and continue to investigate, there was the possibility that the violence would continue," Carew said. "We tried to make the case and couldn't."

Otis Rich was sentenced in January to more than 15 years in prison for distributing between 3.5 and 5 kilograms of crack cocaine.

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.