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Police paying high price for Block raid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Women wearing tight skirts and cowboy boots strut outside the tacky, neon-lighted nude bars in downtown Baltimore.

Doormen plead with passers-by to "take a peek" inside, where dancers in negligees prance on stage to the delight of bored businessmen and lonely hearts at the bar.

Nearly six months after a small army of state police troopers stormed the clubs in a prime-time drug bust, there have been fewer changes on The Block than at the police agency that carried out the Jan. 14 raid.

"The Block is still here," said Paul Battaglia, who owns the Harem club.

Though business has dropped off, most of the veteran dancers and doormen are back. Sex is still for sale in some clubs. The drugs that state police officers tried to curb during their four-month investigation continue to flow between the streets and the bars, according to state police and Block employees.

But at the state police drug bureau, the changes keep coming.

In recent weeks, the supervisor of the drug bureau has been demoted. The major who ran the undercover operation has been transferred. The captain in charge of the raid has been moved to an administrative post.

And state police said Friday that internal affairs investigators sustained claims of misconduct against three undercover troopers assigned to The Block operation -- two for paying a dancer for sex, the third for sharing a hotel room with a woman who was a potential target of the investigation.

The drug bureau has had other woes.

Two key drug prosecutions -- which state police had touted as evidence that The Block raid was a success -- have run into trouble. In one case, prosecutors have dropped the charges against a man suspected of smuggling drugs from New York to The Block. In the other, a suspected cocaine trafficker awaiting trial has jumped bail and vanished.

Those developments compound the problems state police supervisors already were facing in court. Two months ago, prosecutors dropped nearly half of the criminal cases stemming from The Block investigation -- citing weak evidence, poorly executed search warrants and police misconduct.

Still, state police officials say they're proud of The Block )R investigation.

'Accept criticism'

"We accept the criticism regarding the policy infractions of three troopers," Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver said Friday. "However, we continue to stand behind what the investigation ++ accomplished, and what it is continuing to accomplish."

Colonel Tolliver and other state police officers say the remaining criminal cases are solid and troopers have developed new information that could lead to more drug busts. They also say they're sifting through corporate records seized from the clubs -- records that could show that the bars are nothing more than fronts for drug dealers and prostitutes.

"The Block cannot exist without drugs and prostitution, and that is facilitated by their liquor licenses," said Maj. John Cook, who ran the undercover investigation. "That's the path we're following."

He said state troopers also are investigating the city Liquor Board. According to search warrant affidavits, troopers developed information that some Block bars paid protection money to inspectors, and that a liquor board employee maintained a silent partnership in one of the clubs.

"Something is very wrong when you have a block long of bars with that level of drugs and prostitution," Major Cook said. "We want to know why they were allowed to get away with these things. We'll have the answers when the investigation is over."

While the department investigates, Colonel Tolliver continues to shuffle the command of his 187-employee drug bureau. Among the recent moves:

* Lt. Col. Thomas H. Carr, chief of the drug bureau, was demoted to captain and transferred.

* Lt. Charles "Tom" Bowers, one of Captain Carr's aides, was transferred to a communications post.

* Major Cook, supervisor of The Block probe, was transferred but will continue to oversee The Block and liquor board investigations.

* Capt. Steven Geppi, who helped supervise the raid, was transferred to an administrative post.

The changes came amid an internal probe into the drug bureau and members who were accused of misconduct during the undercover investigation. Internal affairs officers have sustained the allegations against three troopers, and now will draw up administrative charges and schedule hearings to determine whether two of them should be disciplined or even fired.

The troopers involved:

* Cpl. Gus Economides, who, in December, paid a dancer $150 for sex in the basement of one of the clubs under investigation, witnesses say. He has been reassigned.

* Cpl. Gary Manos, who paid a $100 tip to the dancer who says she had intercourse with Corporal Economides, according to witnesses. He has been reassigned.

* Sgt. Warren Rineker, who spent the night in a hotel with the wife of the owner of a Block bar he was investigating. Because Sergeant Rineker, a 22-year veteran, resigned in May, the state police agency will not pursue charges against him.

Shortly after The Sun first reported problems surrounding the investigation in March, Colonel Tolliver took several steps to shore up the image of his agency. He launched an internal audit of the undercover drug probe and ordered financial investigators to examine the entire drug bureau.

Colonel Tolliver and his aides also prepared a defense of the drug operation in a document entitled "Block Article Response."

The memo, released to the public, said the investigation was designed to crack organized drug rings and succeeded in uncovering four major operations.

But there are problems with at least two of those four major criminal cases.

In one of the cases, police arrested a suspected drug trafficker from New York. He was highlighted in a state police flow chart vTC and cited by authorities as a major supplier of narcotics to The Block.

But prosecutors have dropped the charges against the man because the star witness against him would have been Sergeant Rineker, according to court records.

In the second case, police arrested Ceovanni Coste Gomez, a suspected cocaine smuggler from New York. He was named in the state police flow chart as a major drug supplier to The Block. Mr. Gomez has fled, jumping his $75,000 bail, his lawyer said. He didn't show up for a June 22 court hearing and hasn't been heard from since.

"I don't know what became of him," attorney Roland Walker said last week.

In another case touted by the agency, police arrested three Virginia men with 115 pounds of marijuana -- Juan Hernan Contreras, Jorge Carlos Requena-Quezada, and a third defendant state police identified as J. C. Requem-Fernandez.

State police troopers said drug traffickers from The Block led them to the men in Manassas. Two of the men have accepted plea deals that do not require them to cooperate with authorities.

In June, Contreras was sentenced to 15 years in prison -- with 10 years suspended. Attorney Rossie Alston said his client should be out of jail in about a year. Requena-Quezada was sentenced to 20 years -- with 10 years suspended. Attorney Bruce Rheinstein said his client should be out in about two years.

The third defendant, Requem-Fernandez, was an illegal alien and has been deported, according to Lt. Gregory M. Shipley, a state police spokesman.

In the fourth major case, police arrested Freddie "Gene" Weaver, a Baltimore man with a history of felony drug convictions, according to court records. His trial is set for Sept. 28.

Many of the smaller distribution and drug possession cases stemming from The Block investigation haven't fared well in court, either. Citing weak evidence, sloppy search warrants and credibility problems with some of the undercover troopers, prosecutors dropped half of the criminal cases that went to Baltimore District Court on May 2.

Of the 47 felony drug distribution cases, prosecutors dropped 13. Of the 27 misdemeanor drug possession cases, they dismissed all but three. Lawyers are now filing notices that they intend to sue the state police, claiming their clients were falsely arrested and wrongly imprisoned the night of the raid.

About 40 drug cases are still pending, according to lead prosecutor A. David Copperthite. The state's attorney's office has already started to offer plea deals in some of those cases.

Assistant Public Defender Chuck Rogers is handling two of the cases. He said prosecutors offered deals in both -- five-year jail terms with four years suspended. If accepted, the defendants would spend a few months behind bars.

Mr. Rogers said he rejected the offers and is preparing for trial.

The Block investigation "was a big waste of the taxpayers' money," said Mitchel M. Gordon, another defense lawyer in the case and a former narcotics officer for the Baltimore Police Department. "A lot of resources went into this, and I don't think they accomplished their objective.

"There wasn't a major drug ring. It was mostly small amounts of narcotics, and they could have gotten much more than that at a 100 different locations in the city."

Baltimore police did just that in one violent section of the city earlier this year.

In January, undercover officers launched a drug investigation in the Walbrook area of West Baltimore, a neighborhood with one of the highest violent crime rates in the city, according to police.

So far, city police have arrested 300 suspects during the investigation dubbed "Operation Trojan" -- 200 them on felony drug distribution charges and 100 on misdemeanor drug possession charges.

By contrast, the state police Block operation dubbed "Operation Retake" netted about 60 suspects on felony drug distribution charges and 27 on misdemeanor drug possession charges.

Tough assignment

State police supervisors say they knew before they began investigating The Block that it would be a tough assignment.

They said they were requested to investigate the nude dance bars by city police officials after a high-level meeting between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"We knew we would be criticized," said Major Cook, supervisor of the operation.

Six months after the raid, state police officers can find solace in one development on The Block.

Business has slowed by as much as 50 percent, club workers say.

"We're hurting. I'm ready to sell this place," said Lou Hershey, who owns the Mousetrap on Custom House Avenue.

Would he open another nude bar?

"No way," he said. "I'd open a crab house in Ocean City. That would be nice."

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