As he often was, 54-year-old drug dealer Robert Neverdon was frustrated. His eyesight nearly gone, his kidneys dead after years of processing heroin and wine, he didn't have time to listen to a worker panic that police were about to raid a stash house.
"Hey, man, tell me, 'cause I, I, you know I get to be at the doctor at 12," Neverdon told his second-in-command -- 61-year-old Douglas E. Donahue.
In the normally young and ruth- less business of heroin dealing, they were old men, dealing $1,000 of heroin a day to a network of fellow addicts, some of whom had depended on each other for a fix for 30 years.
Neverdon began his dance in and out of the criminal-justice system less than 20 years after the end of Prohibition, a quarter-century before gun-toting dealers from New York started hitting the streets here in the mid-1980s. Yet he came from a family that includes a number of accomplished members and has been described as an intelligent man with "many gifts."
Donahue was convicted of narcotics offenses as far back as 1969.
"These guys have been dealing drugs since before we were born," said city police Agent Kelvin Sewell.
Of the 36 people charged when officers swooped down on homes connected with the organization in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore last June, many were users -- the type of worker most drug businesses jettison as too risky and harmful to the profit margin.
Thousands of wiretapped telephone conversations found them high or strung out, talking of aches the drugs first soothed, then made worse. Many had entered their 40s, 50s and 60s, some juggling long-term jobs with an equally enduring habit their paychecks could not cover.
Defense lawyers derisively call them the "old folks' gang," unworthy of a lengthy investigation and weeks of court time. Prosecutors call them criminals not fundamentally different from young thugs peddling poison -- and evidence of the way much drug activity goes on behind facades of legitimacy.
The characters caught in the investigation's web include a 49-year-old woman with the street name of "Big Bloomers" and a Southwest Baltimore grandfather with a 40-year record of larceny and drug convictions, whose chronic illnesses and mild dementia in December delayed his guilty plea. That man, Kemp McCray, will be sentenced June 13 -- his 60th birthday.
Some of the youngest players, too, went against type. A 28-year-old health-care worker from the Eastern Shore, with credits toward a master's degree in nutrition, became the girlfriend of a 60-year-old man who readily supplied the drugs she craved.
Most of those indicted have pleaded guilty. A Baltimore Circuit Court jury decided the fates of the final five alleged participants last week. Two were found guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin; two others only of conspiring to possess it. One was found not guilty.
Neverdon was sentenced to seven years in federal prison May 12 after pleading guilty; a lawyer asked for leniency because of his ailments. His 44-year-old wife, Vondalear, and associates Ray Fields, 54, and Marshall Harold, 64, drew five years each.
"The energy, the time, the resources expended on this particular prosecution of these guys is pathetic," said Eric "Flash" Gordon, an attorney for McCray. Dr. Herbert Kleber, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who has studied drug addiction for over 30 years, said age is no excuse.
"While it's tempting to excuse someone who's old and infirm, where do you draw the line?" he said. "We know one of the ways addicts stop using is criminal-justice pressure."
Timothy Wheelin, a member of the jury in the cases that ended last week, agreed. "I guess somebody has to stop them, or slow them down," said the 40-year-old postal worker.
The arrest of older users and sellers of drugs is not new. Last year's Operation Midway investigation swept up several 50-year-olds with criminal histories in the effort to clean up one of East Baltimore's most drug-infested districts. Some died prior to trial, said Baltimore police Officer Ed Bochniak, a longtime undercover narcotics officer.
But rarely has a sophisticated organization included so many.
The Neverdon case began 2 1/2 years ago, when federal drug-enforcement agents, acting on an informant's tip, raided two apartments in the Fremont Homes, a senior-citizens section of the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex. They found a pound of heroin in the apartment of an associate of Neverdon's, Ray Fields, and smaller amounts in Neverdon's apartment.
Despite his extensive history, Neverdon got off in the 1993 case with probation. But city police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents began watching him closely. Wiretaps were approved for his telephone, and for Donahue's, in early 1994. Investigators learned that the two arranged sales through a sophisticated maze of beeper-to-beeper communications, as well as phone calls full of euphemisms that furthered their business.
Older addicts often continue to deal because they find themselves in a Catch-22, investigators said. The effects of longtime use on the body grow more dire -- but so does the toll that withdrawal exacts when one tries to get clean. Rather than risk dealing with gun-toting strangers, they ensure their own supply.
"These are the survivors," Dr. Kleber said. "The kind of hustling needed to support a habit, the need to raise hundreds of dollars a day, that's a young man's game."
Over wiretapped phone conversations, members of the organization said as much. "Getting too old for this," worker Paul Anthony, 53, complained to his bosses.
"I, I, I, we on . . . fixed incomes," Neverdon, angry at his brother's repeated requests to borrow money, complained one day to Donahue.
Baltimore Police Sgt. Melvin Russell, who worked on the investigation, said the Neverdon organization was trying to bring in younger workers, creating new customers to bolster the flow of heroin for all.
"His business was dying," Sergeant Russell said.
So was Neverdon. He drank three or four pints of wine a day, in addition to the heroin fired regularly into his bloodstream. The veins he exploited are now so collapsed that health workers have trouble inserting a dialysis shunt.
Neverdon came from a family whose 12 children include a legislator, a post office supervisor and a professor at Coppin State College. Family members declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Neverdon.
Though a player in the local drug world since his 20s, the organization's leader has been described as an intelligent man, who read history books to pass the long hours of dialysis that have defined his life since 1986.
McCray, another seriously ailing participant, has five children, 13 grandchildren and convictions dating back to 1953. He has been in and out of drug-treatment programs, with little enduring success.
"Sick or not sick, he was still out there selling," said Agent Sewell.
Severe as their health problems are, Neverdon and McCray have outlived some of their own alleged confederates. Michael A. Donoway, a Salisbury auto mechanic, died last October, several months after being indicted in the conspiracy. The cause listed on his death certificate: Cardiac arrhythmia, with "chronic drug abuse" a contributing factor. He was 48.
Investigators and prosecutors consider the "old-folks gang" an object lesson: Survive the quick death by violence that drug-dealing brings to the young, and you may face a slow, desperate death at your own hands.
"Maybe 30 years from now, those 17-year-old dealers will be like these guys," said Officer Bochniak. "If they make it."