It sounded like nonsense. But it was a sentence of death.
"If yergy don't dergy tergy, tell mergy to get them two nergies little dergy and werwergy, you know what I'm sergying?" Anthony Jones said on the federal prison telephone in Allenwood, Pa., in February 1997.
"That nergy jergy gotta get wergy tergy."
Less than a week later, two enforcers from Jones' ruthless East Baltimore drug organization stormed into the home of a federal witness and shot him dead.
They were acting on Jones' coded orders from the phone call.
Translated by a federal prosecutor who spent nearly 100 hours unscrambling taped conversations, the message actually read: "If you don't do it, tell Moo to get them two n--- Little Dinkles and Woo Woo, you know what I'm saying? That n--- John gotta get whacked tonight."
That message and others Jones issued in code to his loyal lieutenants became the main thrust behind prosecutors' attempts to put Jones to death for running the most murderous drug gang in Baltimore history.
Jones, they told a jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week, will stop at nothing to kill -- even if it means dreaming up a whole new language.
"It's like nothing we'd ever heard before," said Jamie M. Bennett, a veteran assistant U.S. attorney who cracked the Jones code.
"Once we had the code, it opened the door for us into a very chilling world he had created."
Prosecutors say that the death penalty is the only way to guarantee that Jones' cryptic orders will stop. The jury, which convicted him of running an elaborate drug organization responsible for more than a dozen murders, will begin deliberations tomorrow on whether he should become the first person ever to be executed for a federal crime in Maryland.
And there are indications that Jones and his violent henchmen are still using code to communicate with each other and arrange contract murder.
Just last month, federal agents intercepted a remarkably elaborate coded letter -- so intricate that the symbols in it resemble hieroglyphics -- sent from Maryland's "SuperMax" prison by Jones' chief enforcer, Jerry "Black Jerry" Williams.
Part of the letter has been decoded by investigators, although they are unsure to whom Williams was mailing it.
"I miss my militant comrades," said Williams, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for his role in Jones' ring. "I send my salute and thug love. That cat Cory Henry, he got to go."
Target of a hit
Cory Henry is a former member of the Jones gang who cooperated with federal agents and testified against the gang in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Federal authorities said they have taken steps to ensure his safety in light of Williams' letter, which they said commissioned "a hit" on Henry.
The roots of coded communication in Jones' violent East Baltimore drug world apparently began as street slang and gradually evolved into secret language, cryptic symbols and bizarre telephone banter.
The son of two highly intelligent, doctorate-holding Nigerian immigrants, Jones, 25, used cunning to devise a language he hoped would stump the authorities who have tracked him so fervently for seven years.
"Tergy deyergy to gergy them nergys like, you know what I'm saying, thergy dergys a pergy," Jones told Williams in another phone call recorded while he was at Allenwood. The translation: "Tell Di to give them n---, like, you know what I'm saying, thirty dollars apiece."
The order relates to the payment of $3,000 each to Little Dinkles and Woo Woo, the nicknames of two 17-year-old hit men in the Jones organization who killed federal witness John Jones in February 1997. John Jones, a father of three and the foster brother of Anthony Jones, was killed at his East Baltimore home because he had begun cooperating with federal authorities.
Prosecutors said the young assassins followed Anthony Jones' coded instructions to the letter, even knocking on the door -- "knergy on the dergy," as the drug lord put it -- before barging in to do the killing.
Tapes without meaning
Prison authorities at Allenwood, at the request of federal investigators, taped Jones' conversations. But the words meant nothing to anyone at the time.
"My major concern was, 'Who is in danger and what can we do to protect them?' " said Bennett, the federal prosecutor in Baltimore who began analyzing the language in the tapes.
"We had a witness killed. There's nothing that focuses a prosecutor's attention more than that."
On the face of it, Bennett, 44, is about as far removed from the East Baltimore drug culture as anyone. She grew up in the quiet hills of the Hudson Valley in New York, and her spare time is usually devoted to gardening and sailing the Chesapeake Bay with her husband.
But she found her time dominated by the Jones tapes last year. She listened to the drug lord's fast talk at home, in the office, even on her car's cassette player while she was driving to New York to visit her father, the late James Bennett.
"When I was home, I would listen to the tapes after I finished my domestic chores," says the businesslike prosecutor. "When I was in my office, I listened to them on that," she says, pointing to a slightly worn Panasonic portable boom box.
On one side of her office is a large pastel pink art poster from a New York City art exposition. On the other is a picture of her smiling and holding an Uzi-type submachine gun seized from a violent Baltimore drug gang called the Jamaican Black Mafia, which she helped put out of business in 1993.
It wasn't long before Bennett saw how the "fergy-dergy" language worked. Jones, she realized, was taking the first letter of a word and simply replacing the rest of the letters with "ergy."
The language was a derivation of pig latin and street slang from around the neighborhood where Jones grew up in the 1700 block of E. Oliver St. in East Baltimore.
Wenzell "Moo" Hinton, one of Jones' top lieutenants who later cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea bargain, described a typical sentence to Bennett during trial testimony.
"Can you tell the jury how it works then? Just give us an example," Bennett asked him. "Maybe you could say, 'Good morning, my friend.' "
Hinton replied, "Gergy mergy mergy fergy."
But even knowing the rules of the language didn't afford federal authorities with any deep insight into Jones' taped conversations. A word in the language could have any number of meanings -- "mergy," for instance, could mean "morning" or "my," as seen in Hinton's example -- so prosecutors still didn't have the code cracked.
Jones, meanwhile, was continuing to make phone calls. And the lieutenants in his $30,000-a-day cocaine and heroin ring were continuing to get his orders to kill.
Killings carried out
On Feb. 16, a man who testified before a federal grand jury, Angelo Carter, was shot repeatedly and disabled at a Chinese carryout on North Gay Street by Jones' henchmen.
On May 13, another police informant, Octavian Henry, was fatally shot nine times in the head by a hit man who reported back to the Jones organization that he delivered "nine to the dome."
Prosecutors said Jones also arranged, once again using "fergy-dergy" code, for the killing of an unlicensed cab driver he'd become angry with, Earl Street. But the hit man, nicknamed "Reds," never made fulfilled the contract.
Perhaps most remarkable about the coded communication system was the ability of Jones' underlings to understand their leader's intentions.
With so many words possible from "mergy" and "dergy," the handful of lieutenants who spoke the code relied on a keen sense of Jones' mind and intentions.
Jones himself pointed to the ambiguity of the language when he recently testified in his own defense, saying that prosecutors couldn't know what he was thinking when he spoke in the code and therefore couldn't translate it.
"It's just a slang we use in the neighborhood," Jones told prosecutor Robert R. Harding. "Going back and listening to it later doesn't work. I'd have to know what was on my mind at the time.
"What you have transcribed is wrong. You can't know what I'm saying in bergy dergy wergy."
Telltale bits of English
But Bennett's breakthroughs in the language were confirmed by cooperators from the Jones organization. She began piecing together strings of sentences, aided by the fact that Jones would speak partly in plain English during his conversations.
That enabled Bennett to get a sense of what he was saying based on context of the English phrases.
"It would be a little bit of English interspersed with mergy," Bennett says, recalling a day when a lieutenant of the organization called him to talk about the arrest of a gang member. The arrest had been reported in the newspaper, so Bennett was aware of what the men were talking about.
"Jerry Williams was telling Anthony that they 'went to see some nergy at the bergy sergy detergy cergy,' " Bennett said. "What he was saying was they went to see someone at the Baltimore City Detention Center."
Bennett describes the rest as labor-intensive. Over the course of dozens of hours, she reconstructed the sentences, sometimes running them by cooperating Jones henchmen for confirmation.
In the end, she translated more than 22 hours of fergy-dergy conversations.
"As it took shape, you started to see Anthony Jones with his hair down, in his own words," Bennett said. "It was very creepy."
Pub Date: 6/07/98