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Officer acquitted, but bosses deny return to patrol Drug allegations leave doubts among commanders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Baltimore police officer exonerated by an internal trial board of drug trafficking is being denied his gun and badge by department commanders who say they doubt his credibility and claim he has admitted in the past to dealing cocaine.

In fact, police commanders say they may never return him to patrol.

Officer Eric D. Paige, who has been answering non-emergency telephone lines since the charges surfaced in 1997, said he was vindicated at a public hearing Nov. 20 and he wants his old job back. "Definitely, I deserve it," he said yesterday. "I am an innocent man."

A member of the trial board that found Paige not guilty, Lt. Osborne McCarter, called his own department's investigation "shoddy."

"None of the charges could be substantiated," McCarter said. "They didn't really have anything."

But top police officials point to FBI documents in which Paige admitted to dealing drugs two years before he joined the force and say he was handcuffed and questioned by federal agents investigating a drug gang with yearly proceeds topping $1 million.

Gary May, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, said he was "bewildered" by the board's ruling. "It was contrary to the rules of law and the evidence that was presented," he said.

May said Paige's arrest powers will remain suspended indefinitely until a "further review" of the case.

That could prompt an unusual confrontation -- pitting an officer who has been cleared of wrongdoing against his bosses who say they don't want him on the force.

A dozen street officers and supervisors interviewed this week in the Southern District where Paige had worked said they did not want to serve with him because of his recent troubles. The officers declined to be identified.

"This is the first time I've ever heard from the rank and file that they were upset about an officer not being disciplined or fired," May said.

Paige's lawyer, Robert L. Smith Jr., said his client should be returned to duty: "It was clear from the trial board that these allegations were unsubstantiated.

"He went through the process according to the law," Smith said. "The evidence was presented. It was assessed and he was acquitted. It is unheard of that they would want to object to a not guilty finding."

Paige, 31, had been accused of being a member of the Keith Goodie drug organization in Cherry Hill, which was targeted in 1990 by the FBI under the code name "Flexible Flier."

Fifteen gang members -- including two suppliers from New York who sent 20 kilograms of cocaine onto Baltimore streets each month -- were convicted of drug and racketeering charges and sentenced to a combined 125 years in federal prison. Goodie served 30 months; Paige was never criminally charged.

Paige was hired as an officer in 1992. Colleagues accused him last year of using his clout as an officer to supply drugs to two rival Cherry Hill gangs -- the Hillside Boys and the Veronica Avenue Boys.

A second Southern District officer who worked with Paige also has been accused by the same colleagues of helping the Cherry Hill dealers, but department officials would not comment on his status. He has not been charged, either criminally or administratively.

Serious concerns

The Southern District commander, Maj. Elmer Dennis, said he has serious concerns about Paige's returning. "I don't know what we can do with the guy," he said. "Even though a trial board says he's not guilty, you still have these lingering doubts."

The initial tip came from a Southern District police officer who talked to a teen-age drug dealer who detailed schemes that included $1,000 payoffs to get drug charges dropped. After an internal investigation, detectives filed a sweeping administrative corruption case against Paige.

Department officials would not say whether they considered a criminal investigation of Paige. Internal affairs detectives can file criminal charges against fellow officers, but the standard of proof is much lower at administrative hearings.

Investigators charged the officer with 18 counts of violating the department's rules -- misconduct that included alleged bribery, drug dealing and giving criminal suspects warning about raids.

But the young drug dealer, a key witness, could not be found to testify at the hearing Nov. 20. The prosecutor for the administrative charges, Bernard Ilkhanoff, was forced to drop seven charges related to drugs and corruption.

The remaining charges, which centered on how he filled out his job application, were heard by a three-member police panel, which, if it had found Paige guilty, could have allowed the police commissioner to fire him.

The trial board panel -- a major, lieutenant and an officer -- threw out or acquitted Paige of the other charges, despite the testimony of a police detective and several FBI reports.

He was found not guilty of lying to Detective Jeremiah Kelly in a 1997 interrogation when he said he did not live at a Glen Burnie apartment on Centennial Circle prior to 1992. He had listed the address on his job application, writing he lived there from 1989 to 1991. The FBI raided the apartment in a drug sting in 1990.

He was found not guilty of lying on his job application when he checked 'no' to a question asking whether he had been a suspect "in any crime or incident."

In the 1990 raid, Paige was handcuffed, advised of his rights and questioned for two hours by an FBI agent and other members of a task force to investigate the Goodie drug organization. The FBI said Paige was not charged because the only drugs found at the time of the raid were in his roommate's car.

He argued at his Nov. 20 hearing that his answer was truthful because he was never formally charged with a crime. He said he thought the FBI only wanted him to provide names of drug organization members.

The panel threw out charges that he lied when he said on his job application that he never used, sold, purchased or transported illegal drugs.

According to an FBI report, Paige admitted after the raid that $3,500 seized from the apartment was "proceeds of drug trafficking on his part."

Despite the acquittal, Officer Gary McLhinney, the union president, said the department is under no obligation to restore Paige's police powers or return him to street patrol. "They have wide discretion in assigning personnel," he said, "as long as they pay him and give him benefits."

Two of the trial board members, Maj. James L. Hawkins and Officer Charles Robinson, could not be reached for comment. McCarter, a supervisor in the Southeastern District, said the decision to acquit was unanimous.

He said Paige had a sound explanation for his various addresses and had reasonably felt he was not a suspect in the FBI investigation because he had been led to believe he was only being questioned for information.

McCarter noted that "the department is the one that dismissed most of the charges." He said the panel reviewed the FBI reports, but did not give them much weight because they contained unsubstantiated allegations.

The lieutenant also said the board could not resolve contradictions in what Paige told the FBI about his involvement in drug dealing in 1990 and his subsequent denials seven years later.

The department's administrative investigation was poor, said McCarter, who would not say whether he believed the charges to be true. "The allegations are very serious. We have officers who have been accused of a lot of things."

Smith noted that the FBI agent, James M. Fitzsimmons, was not called to testify about the documents describing Paige's alleged drug connections. He questioned why his client was not charged with any crime in 1990.

"If he was an admitted drug dealer involved in an organization as deeply as they allege that he was, why would they simply release him?" Smith said.

Statements in interview

In an interview with internal affairs on Aug. 18, 1997, Paige said he lived with his mother, but had rented the Glen Burnie apartment for a friend and only used it himself for trysts.

He said he remembered the raid Dec. 5, 1990, at the apartment, but he repeatedly told Kelly he didn't recall what police were searching for or what the outcome was. Asked if any of the money seized from the apartment was his, he answered: "No."

The interview then turned to drugs:

Kelly: "Did you sell drugs at the time?"

Paige: "No."

Kelly: "Do you recall on that same evening, telling any investigators that you obtained cocaine from a person named Petey who was from New York and resided in Hampton, Virginia?"

Paige: "I don't recall, I don't recall."

Prosecutors had another witness, a police officer who had grown up with Paige in Cherry Hill who was a member of the FBI task force that raided the Glen Burnie apartment in 1990.

Baltimore Police Detective Bernard White told Kelly that he thought the appointment of Paige "was strange," but he did not report knowledge of the officer's "involvement in narcotics activity because he assumed that he was cleared by the personnel division when he was hired."

In 1991, White gave the FBI "criminal associates of subject Goodie." Paige's name is fourth on a list of 20 names.

Paige angrily denied the accusations yesterday and referred questions to his lawyer, who said his client "would like to clear his name and continue his career. He was not guilty."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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