Black Mafia: a legacy of violence, terror

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alexander Morrison Jr. died just after midnight on May 28, 1992, when a young man walked out of 131 Aisquith St., a Housing Authority high-rise in East Baltimore, and fired a volley of shots into the pickup truck where he was sitting.

One bullet pierced his aorta and settled in his spine. A second perforated his liver. The third entered his right arm and a fourth his right leg.

On its face, the death was just another statistic in the city's rising tide of senseless, drug-related violence.

But the murder was anything but senseless to police. It reflected a grim business calculation by the Jamaican Black Mafia, a violent gang that has extracted millions of dollars from Baltimore's deadly fascination with heroin.

The gang stunned police with its penchant for carrying violence directly to law enforcement officers. Gang members killed Mr. Morrison because they believed, wrongly, that he was an undercover officer.

"I've never seen a group that specifically targeted police like they did," said Sgt. David D. Adams of the city Housing Authority police. "These are the only guys who ever made me fear for my life."

Four leaders of the group were convicted Monday in U.S. District court of an array of offenses related to drug dealing and murder.

Extensive trial testimony, court documents, investigative records and interviews with police and prosecutors provide a detailed look at the economics and culture of a murderous drug trade that fed off the estimated 20,000 heroin addicts in the Baltimore area.

The architect of the Jamaican Black Mafia was Adewale Aladekoba. An iron-fisted drug leader with a sharp business mind, Aladekoba used bizarre and ruthless methods to discipline underlings and to terrorize enemies. Some wayward gang members were forced to eat dog food, and others were stripped, beaten and paraded around the housing projects at gunpoint. Murder loomed as the ultimate punishment for anyone who ran afoul of Aladekoba.

Aladekoba's group had no connection to Jamaica beyond its name, which he chose to capitalize on the violent reputation of Jamaican drug dealers. The boldness of the gang's strikes through the spring and summer of 1992 in part reflects the amazing economic opportunities in Baltimore's flourishing drug trade.

The Nigerian-born Aladekoba pioneered significant changes in the way drugs are sold in Baltimore's housing projects. His gang introduced powerful weapons and innovative drug packaging.

Taking over what had been fragmented and unsophisticated neighborhood drug shops, the gang created high-volume, high-profit businesses. Other gangs have since modeled themselves on the Jamaican Black Mafia, increasing the scope and danger of drug trading in the projects.

Aladekoba was convicted in Baltimore in the late 1980s on federal charges of wholesaling heroin and spent three years in prison. He quickly made his presence felt after he returned here as "Jamaican Jay" early in 1991.

The place he chose to start his business was 131 Aisquith St., an 11-story faded red brick building of more than 100 apartments in the Lafayette Courts projects.

Before Aladekoba, a typical drug shop in the high-rises had a staff of four: two lookouts, a guard in the stairwell and the seller on the steps. There were often multiple dealers in a building, and crews carried revolvers or small-caliber pistols.

Jamaican Jay's operation was huge by comparison. Besides positioning lookouts in front and back of the building, he employed guards in the lobby and stairwell, a gun carrier, a drug carrier, a lieutenant to oversee the operation and a lookout on the upper floors. His crews sold heroin for $10 a capsule in a shop open 24 hours a day.

He equipped his crews with an intimidating arsenal: Uzis, AK-47s, Intratec 9-mm semiautomatic pistols fitted with laser sights, sophisticated guns that can hold large amounts of ammunition and be fired rapidly.

With such numbers and firepower, Aladekoba quickly forced out competitors and achieved a monopoly in the building.

His innovative heroin packaging has since been copied by many other dealers. Instead of selling the drug in the customary glassine bags, he offered it in easy to carry jumbo gelatin capsules.

The heroin in the capsules was of such high quality that up to 75 people at a time packed the lobby to buy it. Struggling to control the crowds, his crew members sometimes fired their weapons in the narrow, cinder block hallways. They disappeared into designated safe houses at the first sign of police.

The 'duck walk'

The crew recognized a distinctive boss in Aladekoba, who delivered the salary that had been promised on the day it was owed. The lowliest lookout made up to $500 a week, and his key people earned several times that.

As Aladekoba cultivated his business reputation, he worked just as diligently to instill fear in those inclined to cross him. Often, discipline meant the "duck walk."

If caught stealing from the gang or making some other misstep, a person was stripped and beaten, sometimes severely. Then, still naked, he was required to quack like a duck while marching around the projects at gunpoint.

"It was a show," said Sergeant Adams, who heard many accounts of the duck walk. "People would come out and laugh. Jay wanted everyone to know who was the man. . . . And he was the man, no question about it."

Aladekoba relied on more than fear, public humiliation and his dependability in meeting the payroll. He also attempted to impress the community with his benevolence.

He gathered the youngsters from 131 Aisquith St. and treated them when the annual neighborhood carnival opened. And he devised a trademark egg roll on Easter Sunday, stuffing brightly colored plastic eggs with cash and hiding them for the children on the building's playground. One jackpot egg reportedly contained $400. The neighborhood talked about it for weeks.

Aladekoba carefully protected his identity. None of the gang members knew Jamaican Jay's real name or where he lived. He could be reached only by his most trusted associates on a pager. And he adhered to no routine, so informants were unable to tell police when or where he might show up.

His efforts to keep his identity a mystery succeeded in part, but police quickly realized that they were looking at a different kind of dealer.

Residents complained that the boys in the stairwells were heavily armed. Reports of gunfire jumped from one or two a week to scores.

"It just got out of hand," said Joan Peterson, a resident in the Aisquith building who described to jurors what it was like to live there. "You just go in the building and you just see lines and lines and lines of people. If you weren't purchasing, you couldn't go up the side of the steps where you lived."

At its peak, the Jamaican Black Mafia pulled $40,000 a day out of two high-rise buildings, the Aisquith Street building and 770 W. Saratoga St. in Lexington Terrace. Some investigators believe the figure actually topped $60,000 a day.

"In my time in the projects, I've never seen anyone move heroin like he moved heroin," Sergeant Adams said.

The trappings of wealth

A startling look at the economics of the trade was offered by James Antonio Williams, a 17-year-old lieutenant in the gang who earned $2,000 a week directing heroin sales in a single building ++ and hired a chauffeur for himself.

Aladekoba and his brother, Victor, also indulged in lavish trappings as their business roots deepened. They leased a luxury apartment in a Crystal City, Va., high-rise, bought a Jaguar XJSC convertible and trimmed it in 14-karat gold, and outfitted a sporty black Porsche 944 turbo with a $15,000 stereo system and a blinding white leather interior. Their stable of cars also included a Mercedes 300e.

Victor, who processed and packaged the gang's heroin, was known to peel off $500 to $1,200 for an evening on the town with his friends in Washington.

That the Jamaican Black Mafia grew increasingly willing to take risks to protect its economic interests is evident. But members' use of violence also suggests just how invincible Aladekoba and his gang believed they had become. The group lashed out brazenly and publicly.

"The reason Jay ultimately came to justice is because his level of violence, his contact with police was such that you could not ignore him," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie Bennett, who prosecuted the case with Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Mimi Raffel Cooper.

With help from informants, Housing Authority police zeroed in on a vacant apartment in the Aisquith Street building that was used for stashing drugs and guns. Officers raided it on May 9, 1992, arresting three crew members and confiscating more than 700 capsules of heroin and an Intratec semiautomatic pistol.

Even as police were inside, an Aladekoba lieutenant outside the building handed cash to young crew members, who ran to a nearby Amoco station for gasoline.

Then they prepared Molotov cocktails and went to work -- in full daylight, in a parking lot adjacent to busy Fayette Street and within view of the apartment being raided. They smashed out the windows of two police cars and threw a firebomb into one, destroying it. An attempt to torch the second car failed.

"I'm sure, in a twisted way within the projects environment, the other criminal elements saw that almost like folklore," said vTC Special Agent Kevin R. Kimm, who entered the investigation later for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "I'm sure there was a lot of personal gratification for Jay in saying 'Hey, I'm untouchable.' "

The murder of Alexander Morrison, the man shot in his pickup truck outside the Aisquith Street building, followed the firebombing by three weeks and drew city homicide detectives into the picture. Aladekoba ordered that killing because he suspected that Mr. Morrison was an undercover police officer. The slaying occurred yards from the site of the firebombing and in view of witnesses. The gunman, Orlando Demon Duggins, later bragged about it publicly.

Housing Authority police saturated the area with foot patrols and installed a police mini-station in the Aisquith Street building, where officers worked eight to 10 hours a day, forcing the operation to shut down.

A joint investigation

Sergeant Adams, alarmed by the violence, approached Agent Kimm and suggested a joint investigation like numerous others they had worked on together.

When they proposed the case to the Safe Streets Violent Crime Task Force, which pools investigators from several agencies under the coordination of the FBI, it was quickly approved. Joining the team was FBI Special Agent Richard B. Hoskins.

Sergeant Adams contributed his connections to a network of informants, Agent Kimm used ATF resources to track ownership of the guns, and Agent Hoskins added investigative skills and the forensic resources of the FBI.

"Working together allowed us to go back and link what initially appeared to be random drug seizures and random acts of violence and put some sense to it," Agent Kimm said. "We were able to sew that thread through all of them."

Although authorities knew the gang's leader was called Jamaican Jay, they were unaware that he was the same person who had been investigated in the late 1980s in a murder-for-hire scheme supposedly crafted from his prison cell.

The target of the alleged scheme was the undercover federal agent responsible for putting Aladekoba behind bars, police were told. Armed with a search warrant, investigators combed Aladekoba's prison cell for evidence. The search was inconclusive, and Aladekoba was never charged. As a precautionary measure, the federal agent was relocated.

By mid-July, police were following several leads, but they had yet to actually see Aladekoba, whose violence was about to turn to members of his own crew.

In midsummer, Aladekoba accused two members of the gang of stealing from him. Several police informants said later that murder contracts were put out on both young men. A $2,000 payoff was offered for the killing of 23-year-old Abdul Jones. For the murder of Patrick Davis, 21, the reward was $3,500.

Abdul Jones was sitting near groups of people byr a garden in Lexington Terrace the night of July 21 when a member of the gang shot him in the abdomen. The murder occurred before numerous witnesses in a tiny park facing dozens of apartment windows on one side and Lexington Street on the other.

Five nights later, another gang member walked up to Patrick Davis in the middle of Watson and Exeter Streets and, in view of several witnesses, gunned him down.

Aladekoba, apparently oblivious to the intensified police investigation, prepared to expand his operation into a building at the Flag House Courts.

He met with crew members the night of Aug. 14 and ordered them to force out the building's existing operator, who was pistol-whipped into compliance. Aladekoba drove off, but a city police officer stopped him minutes later on a report of a suspicious vehicle.

The encounter rapidly turned violent. Aladekoba emerged from the car in an agitated state, then fled. As he crossed the Jones Falls Expressway, he pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and turned toward Officer Vincent Moulter, who responded with four shots that hit Aladekoba in the leg, groin, shoulder and jaw. The officer was unharmed. Aladekoba's injuries left him a paraplegic.

In March, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson will sentence the Aladekoba brothers, Duggins and Shawn Hickman, a lieutenant, for a variety of drug and weapons convictions.

Murder charges in the gang killings, which were dropped in favor of the federal prosecution, could still be pursued.

The stairwell at 131 Aisquith St. has been quiet for some time. An apartment door next to it bears a pasted-on black and orange sign proclaiming that its occupants "have better things to do than drugs."

Yet police worry that the Jamaican Black Mafia left behind an indelible imprint.

"Now we still have all these peripheral dealers who have learned to traffic narcotics like they did," Sergeant Adams said.

A drug lookout from another gang fired two shots at Sergeant Adams this year as he stepped from his car on a routine call to a high-rise.

"Because of this group, the others are much better armed and the weapons have greatly improved," he said. "The violence has definitely increased."

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