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The Block cases end with rare victory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What began on a frigid January evening more than a year ago with the state police raid of The Block ended quietly in a Baltimore courtroom last week when prosecutors won a conviction in case No. 194012010.

Drug dealer Freddie Eugene Weaver, arrested as part of the sweep of the tawdry dance bars in downtown Baltimore, pleaded guilty to selling two ounces of crack cocaine to undercover troopers. Sentenced as a drug kingpin to 20 years in prison, he will not be eligible for parole until 2005.

For the Maryland State Police, it was the best news about The Block investigation in months. But beyond the conviction of Weaver, the agency has few reasons to celebrate the results of the troubled operation.

With the investigation all but closed, the final tally is in:

Prosecutors dropped or shelved every one of the misdemeanor drug cases, court records show. They dismissed nearly a third of the felony cases. Five of the 87 defendants were sentenced to a year or more in jail. And the agency has closed its investigations into the club owners and claims of conflicts of interest at the Baltimore Liquor Board.

At state police headquarters, the investigation has taken its toll. The supervisor of the operation and a top undercover officer have resigned. Two troopers face disciplinary hearings for claims of misconduct in the case. And nearly every supervisor and officer assigned to the operation has been transferred in a reorganization of the narcotics bureau, according to the agency.

The state police spent at least $318,604 in tax dollars to investigate and raid The Block -- an average of $3,662 for each of the 87 suspects arrested. But prosecutors dismissed more than half of those cases because of weak evidence, police misconduct, or both, records show. The cost doesn't include the salaries of the undercover officers, the bill for jailing suspects before their court appearances or the money prosecutors spent handling the cases.

State police supervisors defended the operation last week.

"Our investigators were sent in there to do a job and they accomplished that task," said state police spokesman Lt. Greg Shipley. "I think if you look around at other drug cases, dismissing charges is a common occurrence. A drug kingpin getting 20 years is a significant sentence."

It was Jan. 14, 1994, when close to 500 state troopers cordoned off East Baltimore Street and began hauling drug suspects out of the nude dance clubs under the glare of the television camera klieg lights. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods invited the state police to investigate The Block -- which occupies one of the last pieces of valuable real estate in a plan to revitalize downtown Baltimore.

The night of the raid, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer braved the subzero temperatures to proclaim to news crews and the public that the operation was a success. He claimed that the troopers snagged scores of dangerous drug dealers, prostitutes and big-time gunrunners.

That's far from what happened. The troopers didn't make a single prostitution arrest. They did arrest one bartender from The Block after discovering a cache of guns at his home. But it turns out the guns were part of a family collection, left in a will by the man's deceased father, records show.

Troopers did make 87 drug busts. But of the 27 misdemeanor drug possession charges, the Baltimore state's attorney's office dismissed 26 and placed the 27th case on the inactive court calendar, according to A. David Copperthite, the lead prosecutor in the case.

19 felony cases dismissed

Of the 60 felony distribution cases, prosecutors dismissed 19. Most of them were dropped because they involved troopers who were later accused of misconduct during the investigation, according to prosecutors, defense attorneys and court records.

Sgt. Warren Rineker resigned from the force after it was revealed that he spent the night in a hotel with the wife of a Block bar owner he was supposed to be investigating, according to court records and interviews.

Internal affairs detectives also sustained misconduct charges against two undercover troopers for allegedly paying a dancer for sex in one of the nightclubs, police said. Department &L; hearings for Cpl. Gus Economides and Cpl. Gary Manos are set for June.

The conduct of some of the troopers was a gift for defense attorneys looking for ways to win their clients' cases.

In one case, lawyer Nathaniel Hoff tried to convince a judge that he had evidence showing that one of the troopers had a sexual liaison with a dancer from The Block.

Even though the jury never heard that testimony, and the case ended in a mistrial for an unrelated reason, prosecutors decided to drop the charges after listening to the allegations against the trooper in open court.

Mr. Hoff said he wasn't impressed by many of the cases he handled.

"They were not very good," he said. "Most of these people were drug addicts. They were not dealers. But because of the involvement of the state police, they became dealers. If you give someone a joint or some crack for $20, you're a dealer. That's what happened in these cases."

In the cases that survived the prosecutor's ax, 36 defendants pleaded guilty to felony drug distribution charges. Nineteen of the defendants had their jail sentences suspended and received probation, prosecutors say. Fifteen received jail terms -- most them sentenced to time already served in jail while waiting for hearings, or to a few weeks or months behind bars.

Two of the defendants received one-year terms. Two defendants received 18-month terms. And then there is Freddie Weaver, the man sentenced to 20 years. With a long record for drug trafficking, the sale Weaver made to undercover state troopers allowed prosecutors to try him as a drug kingpin under a tough new state law.

Liquor Board review ended

State troopers also have closed out their review of the Baltimore Liquor Board and records seized from the nude dance clubs the night of the raid, said Lieutenant Shipley, the state police spokesman.

Shortly after the raid, troopers said they and a grand jury were examining the Liquor Board to determine if any employees held a financial interest in the clubs. They also said they were examining club records to determine whether bar owners understated earnings to avoid paying taxes and whether they were using the clubs as fronts for criminal enterprises.

Lieutenant Shipley said he was not sure if any other law enforcement agency is examining the clubs. He also said he didn't know if the grand jury still was investigating the Liquor Board.

Aside from one pending trial and four outstanding warrants, The Block case is over. These days, defense attorneys say they are preparing lawsuits against the state for false arrests, assaults and other claims of misconduct against the troopers and their supervisors.

Lawyer David Weinstein represented three suspects charged in the case. Prosecutors dismissed two of those cases: one because of questions about the evidence; the other because it involved one of the officers who faces a disciplinary hearing. In the third case, his client accepted a plea deal that kept her out of prison.

Mr. Weinstein said he has since notified the state that he plans to file claims against the state police on behalf of the two suspects whose cases were dismissed.

"I'm glad that the charges against most of my clients were dismissed," Mr. Weinstein said. "I'm sorry they were ever brought in the first place."

At least two lawsuits have been filed in Baltimore Circuit Court. In one case, a dancer claims she had a miscarriage after falling down the stairs at a club during the raid. In the other case, a bartender says she was wrongly arrested for possessing a prescription drug -- when all she says she had in her pocketbook that night was Unisom, an over-the-counter sleeping pill.

"The whole thing was just outrageous," said Jeff Messing, an attorney representing both women. The suits, which seek more than $1 million in damages apiece from the state police, are scheduled for trials next February.

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