The Block raid: Worth it? SPECIAL REPORT: THE BLOCK RAID

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state police raid on The Block was perfect for prime time.

With television news cameras rolling, 500 troopers -- one-third of the force -- descended on the string of tawdry downtown Baltimore strip parlors on Jan. 14. They burst into 24 clubs and carted off scores of criminal suspects.

Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer braved the near-zero temperatures to take part in the raid. "We saw drugs. We saw prostitution. We saw liquor," he proclaimed to the crush of reporters summoned in advance by state police to record the sweep.

But two months later, serious questions are being raised about the conduct of undercover officers who infiltrated the East Baltimore Street clubs, the way the raid was carried out, and the quality of the resulting criminal cases.

Three officers in the 13-member undercover squad are being investigated by state police internal affairs detectives. Another officer is being investigated for firing his pistol while raiding the Middle River home of a Block bartender.

According to court filings, police records, search warrant affidavits and nearly three dozen interviews:

* In one of the bars under investigation, an undercover trooper paid a prostitute to have sex with him as a birthday present, and another undercover officer tipped her $100, witnesses say. Police never arrested the woman, who says the sex occurred in the bar's basement -- just days before the raid.

* Another undercover officer spent the night in a Rosedale hotel with a female bartender, who was married to the owner of a bar targeted in the investigation. The bar owner -- who says he caught the couple -- has filed for divorce, naming the officer as his wife's suitor.

* Undercover officers spent lavishly, showering dancers with thousands of tax dollars for drinks, tips and spending money. One dancer says she used the cash to retrieve a fur coat from storage and to buy a baby boa constrictor.

* During the raid, police handcuffed bar owners, employees and customers, even though many were never charged with crimes. They searched many people not named in warrants, prompting prosecutors to drop at least one case because the evidence was improperly obtained.

* Some panic-stricken bar workers and customers thought they were being robbed by gun-toting thugs. In the chaos, a pregnant dancer fell down a flight of stairs in one of the bars and suffered a miscarriage.

* Police confiscated 56 rifles and handguns from the Middle River home where the officer fired his pistol, displaying some of them at a news conference with contraband seized from The Block. But the weapons, including a John Wayne commemorative Winchester rifle, were part of a collection once owned by the homeowner's father, who died last April.

* Police claimed that they broke a major drug ring, resulting in 87 arrests. While officers made four large drug distribution busts, 95 percent of the arrests involve misdemeanor drug possession charges, cases for low-level drug buys and warrants on unrelated charges.

State Police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver said some of the claims are being examined.

"We have an internal investigation going on," Colonel Tolliver said in an interview last week. "As soon as we get an allegation, we look at it very thoroughly." Still, he said he is proud of the drug probe.

"I think this was a very good investigation," he said. "This is not just about prostitutes by any stretch of the imagination. This goes into organized drug rings."

The undercover officers named in this article did not return phone messages or respond to certified etters and other requests seeking their accounts of what happened. A state police drug squad major and spokesman said they contacted the officers, and they declined to talk to The Sun.

Risque reviews offered

Once, The Block was part of the social fabric of Baltimore.

In its heyday, about 70 clubs and theaters -- some boasting more than 1,000 seats -- offered risque burlesque reviews.

Comedians such as Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason graced the stages. So did strippers Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Senators and congressmen came up from Washington. Sailors strolled over for the shows. Orioles' victory parties packed the clubs.

And famed stripper Blaze Starr held parties for wounded Vietnam veterans at the bar she owned, the Two O'Clock Club. Some of her guests: former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro III and then-City Council President William Donald Schaefer.

Today, barely two dozen clubs remain. The Block's veneer of respectability is gone.

What's left is a two-block strip of bars, peep shows and triple-X video stores. Once-famous theaters such as the Gayety have been cannibalized, transformed into dark, narrow night clubs.

Outside of bars called the Pussycat, Mouse Trap and Glass Slipper, doormen bark at passersby, promising hot girls and cold beer. Inside, young women wearing pasties and panties stand on stage, gyrating in the darkness to deafening rock and rap beats. Others seductively approach men at the bar, angling for drinks costing $20 apiece.

These days, The Block attracts bored businessmen and lonelyhearts, panhandlers and petty thieves.

And last September, it started to attract a dozen undercover drug officers working for the Maryland State Police.

Posing as drug users and dealers with big bankrolls, the officers assumed street names such as "Hank," "Rick" and "Tommy." They began hanging around bars, making friends and buying $10 and $20 bags of cocaine and marijuana from dancers, doormen and bartenders.

The investigation lasted nearly four months.

Now, three members of that undercover squad are under investigation themselves -- two for buying sex from the prostitute and another for spending the night in a hotel with the female bartender, witnesses and police say.

First episode

In the first episode, a customer known as "Tommy" showed up in early January with his friend "Nick" at the Harem, a club on Custom House Avenue.

"Tommy's" real name: Trooper Gary Manos, an undercover drug agent, a 10-year veteran.

"Nick's" real name: Trooper Gus Economides, an intelligence officer assigned to the team.

Around 11 p.m., the officers, who were investigating drug activity and prostitution, solicited a dancer to have sex, according to the woman and the Harem's owner.

The two officers asked the bar owner if he could provide a prostitute.

"Tommy said: 'It's Nick's birthday today. I'd like to get him a nice girl,' " Harem owner Paul Battaglia said in a recent interview.

The owner called to one of his dancers, J. Lyn Waibel, 23. He

said he introduced her to the men, and told them it would cost $250 to have sex with her -- $150 for the bar, a $100 tip for Ms. Waibel.

Trooper Economides paid the $150 and Trooper Manos paid the $100 tip, the bar owner and the prostitute said. She said "Tommy" handed "Nick" five $20 bills, which he gave to her before the two had sex in a basement room.

A half-hour later, Ms. Waibel and "Nick" came back to the bar.

"He was telling Tommy details," Ms. Waibel said. "Tommy knew we had sex."

Ms. Waibel said she didn't know the men were officers until after the raid.

Neither Ms. Waibel nor Mr. Battaglia have been charged with any wrongdoing. Ms. Waibel said she has since been interviewed by State Police internal affairs detectives, who asked her to identify photographs of the man she knew as "Nick."

State police guidelines are specific about sexual misconduct.

"It is the policy of this agency that no trooper will engage in any sexual contact or sexual act during any investigation involving prostitution, lewdness or any other vice crime," the patrol manual states.

While internal affairs investigates the case, Trooper Economides has been assigned to a desk post, and Trooper Manos remains in the drug unit. Both declined to comment.

Another claim studied

Internal affairs detectives are examining another claim of misconduct.

In that incident, a sergeant working with the undercover team was caught in the Susse Chalet hotel in Rosedale with the wife of Mr. Battaglia.

The Harem's owner has since filed for divorce, saying Sgt. Warren Rineker committed adultery with his wife, Mahala Battaglia, court records show.

Sergeant Rineker is a 22-year veteran, with 20 of those years spent in drug investigations.

Mrs. Battaglia said she met Sergeant Rineker while he was investigating the Harem, but didn't find out who he really was until the raid. She said they were just friends and denied they had sex at the hotel.

"We had our clothes on the whole time," she said.

Months before the raid, Mr. Battaglia said, he became suspicious of his wife, a bartender at the Harem. On Feb. 12, he decided to follow his wife.

That night, Sergeant Rineker, Mrs. Battaglia and one of her friends went to a comedy show in Baltimore. Later, they dropped the friend at her Rosedale apartment and drove to a pay phone. Mrs. Battaglia said she called her husband to say she was staying with her friend.

Sergeant Rineker and Mrs. Battaglia then drove back to the Rosedale apartment. She says the icy road had suddenly become impassable.

"Sergeant Rineker said: 'I'm staying nearby. Why don't you stay with me?' " she said. "I didn't see any harm in it. We weren't having a sexual relationship."

A short time later, Mr. Battaglia said, he pulled into the apartment complex where his wife's friend lived. He said he had no trouble driving up the road, and that he didn't see his wife's Thunderbird outside.

Searching for a pay phone, he wound up at the nearby Susse Chalet, where he spotted his wife's car next to a Buick. In the lobby, he said he learned the Buick belonged to Warren Rineker.

To flush the couple out of the hotel, Mr. Battaglia said he called a friend and asked her to phone the room where the man was staying. Minutes later, the couple appeared in the lobby. It was 5:30 a.m.

"I started to yell, 'Hey, Mahala,' " Mr. Battaglia said. "She turned white and froze. The man started to run down the hallway. I yelled, 'Are you sleeping with my wife?' "

The man fled out a side door, hopped in his car and sped away, said Mr. Battaglia.

Mr. Battaglia turned to his wife.

"Who is this man?" he asked.

"He's a friend," she said.

The night clerk told Mr. Battaglia said that the man was a state police officer.

Later that morning, Mr. Battaglia said he phoned state police headquarters. Sergeant Rineker returned the call.

"He said, 'It's strictly a friendship,' " Mr. Battaglia said. "I couldn't believe it. This is the same guy who busted the bar, and he's with my wife?"

Officers arranged deals

Mr. Battaglia filed an internal affairs complaint. Sergeant Rineker, who has been assigned to a desk job, declined to comment.

During the investigation, undercover officers spent most of their time hanging around bars on The Block, spending money, making friends and arranging drug deals.

It's not clear how much the officers spent on drinks, tips and drug buys. But they used close to $201,000 in state and federal tax dollars to fund the investigation, according to state police.

State police administrators defend the price tag.

They said officers were instructed to spend large sums of cash -- maintaining their covers while developing sources that could lead them to drug couriers. They said it was not unusual for each officer to drop $300 and $400 a night.

"That was one of the problems with the case. It was expensive," said Maj. John Cook, the drug squad supervisor. "If you're going to hang around down there, you've got to spend money. You've got to tip."

"If you don't spend money, you're a cop," he said.

Club dancers say they were delighted to have the extra money.

At Chez Joey, dancer Sheryl Burshiem met a customer named "Rick" around Thanksgiving.

His real name: Sergeant Rineker.

"He always laid a couple hundred dollars on the bar," said Ms. Burshiem, 31.

The undercover officer told her he was thinking about buying one of the clubs and led her to believe he was a big drug user. Still, she said, he was charming.

"He was the neatest customer," she said. "Any subject you talked about, he knew."

In late November 1993, Ms. Burshiem said, the officer gave her $100 so she could get her red fox coat out of storage. She considered it a gift between friends.

A short time later, the sergeant asked if she had retrieved the coat. She said she did, but had one more in storage. Ms. Burshiem said Sergeant Rineker handed her another $100.

She said she also told the sergeant she owned pet snakes and was going to a reptile show the next day. At the show, Ms. Burshiem used the second $100 to buy a 22-inch Colombian boa constrictor.

A few days later, she said, the sergeant asked if she went to the reptile show.

"I looked down, and he said, 'You got the snake, didn't you?' I said yes, and he just smiled," she said.

Ms. Burshiem said the sergeant never asked if she could provide drugs, and he never filed charges against her.

The peach-colored snake now shares a 55-gallon tank with two other boas in her bedroom.

Major Cook, the drug squad supervisor, said Sergeant Rineker had infiltrated Chez Joey and was posing as someone interested in buying the bar. He defended expenditures that did not result in criminal charges. "We were trying to put ourselves in a position to buy the clubs."

Dynasty Lounge dancer

Down the street is the Dynasty Lounge, where Barbara Jean Hendrickson, 21, worked as a dancer. She said she fell for one of her customers, known as "Hank."

With long hair and a build from the pages of Playgirl, she said "Hank" looked like country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. His real name: Trooper James Pyles, a five-year veteran.

Ms. Hendrickson, a lonely single mother of three, is like many dancers on The Block. She took to the stage at an early age and never broke from the fast life and easy money.

There was another reason she stayed.

"I was always the ugly duckling. When I got to The Block, I found out that I was good-looking," Ms. Hendrickson said.

"Hank," she said, made her feel special.

He caressed her at the bar and gave her his beeper number, she said. He bought her at least five $20 drinks each time he visited, knowing the bar would give her a $10 bonus for the fifth round.

"I was all goo-goo eyed," she said.

Soon, the conversation changed to drugs. She said he started to ask her for small amounts of marijuana. Ms. Hendrickson, who had never been convicted of a crime, said she resisted at first.

"I told him I didn't want to get him any drugs," she said.

But his persistence paid off. Trooper Pyles charged Ms. Hendrickson with selling him two $10 bags of pot. She faces up to five years in prison on each count if convicted.

"In one way, he was doing his job," Ms. Hendrickson said, sitting on the floor of her Mount Vernon apartment, surrounded by her kids and their toys. "But he was doing a lot more than his job."

Probe is completed

After four months on the streets, the undercover officers completed their investigation.

They drew up search warrants for 24 bars and planned to hit them on Jan. 14. The cost of the raid: $165,400, according to police, including salaries and $71,000 in overtime.

Squads of officers cordoned off surrounding streets. Tactical teams, carrying riot shields and flashlights taped to their forearms, stormed the clubs. They forced owners, customers and employees to the floor. They cuffed everyone with plastic bands and searched them, even though many were not named in warrants.

"One of the police officers pushed me down to the floor," said Dave Drapkin, 42, a data processor for the federal government who was in The Midway bar. "After that, they put flex cuffs on everybody."

Mr. Drapkin said he was frisked and released without being charged.

The routine was repeated in bars up and down The Block.

"They put guns to our heads and told us to get on the floor," says Louis Barber Sr., a doorman at the Circus Show Bar, who said he was cuffed and released without being charged.

Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and constitutional law expert, said warrants served on public places allow police to detain people, but not handcuff and search them without probable cause. "If you put handcuffs on someone, that would probably constitute an illegal arrest."

Major Cook, the drug squad supervisor, said people were cuffed as a precaution. "We always have to consider officer safety," he said. "Nobody was detained unnecessarily long. When we went in, we had to detain people because we didn't know going in who the defendants were."

When the tactical teams hit the bars a little after 8 p.m., many of those inside thought they were being robbed. The clubs were dimly lit. Spotting the teams of men dressed in dark clothes with guns drawn, bar employees and customers scrambled for cover.

"I was terrified," said Laura Wolff, 23, a dancer at the Mouse Trap.

Mrs. Wolff, then four weeks pregnant, ran to a stairway at the back of the bar. She said the men ordered everyone to the floor, but never identified themselves as police. With the men close behind, she tumbled down the stairs, fracturing her foot in several places.

'Don't kill me'

When she looked up, two men were pointing pistols at her head.

"I said: 'Don't kill me. I didn't do anything,' " she said.

The men identified themselves as police officers.

"I said: 'Thank God you're the police.' "

Mrs. Wolff said troopers cuffed her hands behind her back, searched her purse and helped her hop back up the stairs. The troopers called an ambulance. Paramedics put her foot in a splint while her hands were still behind her back.

Police never charged her with a crime.

At Mercy Hospital, Mrs. Wolff told doctors she believed she was pregnant. Medical records show that a pregnancy test taken at 10:09 p.m. was positive. On Monday, Jan. 17, Mrs. Wolff said, she started to bleed heavily. She called 911 and went to Franklin Square Hospital Center.

There, Mrs. Wolff said, doctors told her she might have suffered a miscarriage. Medical records show a pregnancy test conducted that afternoon confirmed their suspicion. She had lost the baby.

"It was the shock, and pain, and everything I went through," she said.

Her attorney, Jeff Messing, has notified the state that he plans to file a $4 million suit on behalf of Mrs. Wolff and her husband James Wolff, married three months.

The drug squad supervisor said he was unfamiliar with the incident. But he said officers are required to identify themselves, and those assigned to the raid wore jackets that were clearly marked.

"Every state police officer there had "Police" across the front," Major Cook said.

News conference held

Following the raid, troopers tallied up their cases and held a news conference.

Displayed on a table were several firearms, some of them seized from the Middle River home of Adam Larry Woron, who had been arrested downtown on drug charges. He later pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.

State police implied that the weapons were connected to criminal activity on The Block.

But the firearms seized from Mr. Woron's home were part of a family collection that included a John Wayne commemorative Winchester rifle and two antique flintlock shotguns.

They once belonged to Adam Woron, Mr. Woron's father. He died on April 3, 1993, and bequeathed the firearms to his daughter, Bonnie Hilliard, court records show. She said she gave them to her brother.

"We didn't that know at the time," Major Cook acknowledged.

He said he is willing to return the guns, but the decision will be made by prosecutors.

When police raided the house, they looked for drugs, guns and other contraband. While running from room to room, one of the officers tripped over a small piece of carpet. His gun went off. One bullet ripped into a glass-framed "Aladdin" poster hanging in a bedroom and exited the house through a wall.

No one was hurt. The bullet cleared a neighbor's shed by a dozen or so yards.

"I said to myself: 'These are supposed to be the people on my side?' " said Mr. Woron's wife, Denise, who was in the house with her 74-year-old mother at the time.

The incident is being examined by state police.

The officers claimed they found three marijuana cigarettes.

Most criminal cases coming from The Block investigation are not prime-time drug arrests.

So far, police have made 87 arrests, with two dozen warrants still outstanding. They seized drugs worth $203,400 and made four big busts -- one in West Baltimore, one in Baltimore County and two in Manassas, Va.

Small-time cases

In those four cases, police said they cracked interstate drug rings that were supplying The Block with cocaine and marijuana.

The two men arrested in Virginia were caught with 115 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $172,500. The men in West Baltimore and Baltimore County were caught with 12 ounces of crack cocaine valued at $16,800 and a pound of cocaine worth about $12,800.

Not all of those drugs were intended for clubs on The Block. But Major Cook, the drug squad supervisor, said the investigation led them to the large stashes of narcotics.

"What we had to do was work our way up to them," he said.

L Most of the remaining arrests involve small-time drug cases.

Nearly 30 percent of the people charged face misdemeanor possession counts. Those cases were made the night of the raid. The suspects and their belongings were searched, even though many were not named in warrants.

A sampling of cases: a bartender charged with possessing Zanax, a prescription drug. A dancer charged with concealing a Baggie with cocaine residue in her sock. A dancer charged with possessing two marijuana cigarettes.

"One of my clients had a pipe in her gym bag," defense attorney Allan Rombro said. "That's it. Big case."

The first possession case to come to trial already has been dropped.

The night of the raid, police searched a purse behind the bar at Club Miami belonging to bartender Karin Lynn Mitchell, 38. Inside, they said they found a pipe containing marijuana residue and three partially smoked joints.

When her case went to trial Feb. 17, prosecutors asked for a postponement. They said police hadn't analyzed the suspected drugs. Ms. Mitchell's attorney, William Purpura, said he was ready for trial and would admit that the suspected drugs were marijuana.

The attorney said troopers had no right to search his client's purse in the first place. Prosecutors dropped the case -- for vTC "evidentiary reasons," according to a spokeswoman for the city State's Attorney's Office.

The remaining possession cases go to trial May 2.

The balance of the cases are for drug distribution. More than 40 people have been charged with distribution, but nearly half of those cases are for drug buys of $50 and less.

State police also paid attention to prostitution on The Block.

They documented 251 episodes of sex-for-money in the investigation; prosecutors will decide whether to file criminal charges. And they seized the bars' business records, which could show that the clubs are criminal enterprises.

"We have serious questions about how they could operate," Major Cook said. "What happens to that money -- money that's derived from illegal activity?"

At state police headquarters, administrators said they are confident in the strength of the cases and are hopeful their investigation will lead to more arrests and even bigger criminal cases.

"I think we've done an excellent job," Colonel Tolliver said. "I think this case will go on a little bit longer before it's finished. It's like an octopus. It's going in different directions."

UNDER INVESTIGATION

Here are the three state police drug officers under investigation by internal affairs:

* Trooper Gus Economides, 28, a seven-year veteran. He provided surveillance for the drug squad. Known as "Nick" during the investigation, he paid a dancer for sex in one of The Block bars, according to the woman and the bar owner.

* Trooper Gary Manos, 33, a 10-year veteran of the force and a drug investigator for seven years. Known as "Tommy" during the investigation, he helped pay the prostitute's fee, according to the woman and the bar owner.

* Sgt. Warren Rineker, 43, a 22-year veteran and a drug investigator for 20 years. Known as "Rick" during the investigation, he spent the night in a hotel with a female bartender who was married to the owner of a bar targeted in the investigation, the woman and the bar owner said.

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