Nickel Boys drug gang members convicted; Six faced variety of charges, including murder conspiracy


Six members of the East Baltimore Nickel Boys gang, which violently protected the lucrative crack-dealing turf it had staked out in the O'Donnell Heights public housing complex, were convicted in U.S. District Court yesterday of several counts of drug conspiracy, murder conspiracy and federal handgun charges.

One battle over turf led to the killing two years ago of Northern High School quarterback Rocco Cash, who was allegedly shot by rival gang members who mistook him for a Nickel Boys enforcer. The two leaders of the rival gang were sentenced in September to life in prison for drug dealing and murder in a separate case.

The six Nickel Boys convicted yesterday could receive sentences of up to life in prison when they are sentenced by U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg at dates to be determined, prosecutors said.

Before the trial began, eight other members of the Nickel Boys -- which took its name from the $5 bags of crack, known as "nickels," the gang peddled in the public complex -- reached plea agreements with prosecutors on a variety of charges. Seven of them, including gang founder and leader Antonio "Big Black" Howell, testified against their former cohorts at the eight-week trial.

Another gang member, who also faced drug charges, was shot to death on the eve of the trial by a Baltimore police officer after a brief chase. The officer was trying to serve a federal warrant on the man, Mardio House, 27, for failing to appear at a pretrial hearing.

Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said after the verdict was announced that she hoped that the convictions of the Nickel Boys and their rivals would reduce drug dealing and violence in the O'Donnell Heights area.

The jury of eight women and four men spent 3 1/2 days sifting through testimony and evidence before returning its verdict.

Convicted were Oloyede Johnson, 24, identified by prosecutors as the gang's "hit man," of drug conspiracy, murder conspiracy and felony possession of a firearm and use of a firearm in drug trafficking; Clarence Hicks, 28, identified as the No. 2 man in the organization, of drug conspiracy; and Owen Robinson, 28, of drug conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute.

Also convicted were William Parros, 29, drug conspiracy; Kendall Schuyler, 31, drug conspiracy and use of a firearm in drug trafficking; and Alfred Cheese, 34, drug conspiracy and felony possession of a firearm.

During the trial, assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Harding and Tarra DeShields painted a chilling portrait of what they called the "inferno" of the gang's operation.

Setting up shop on streets too narrow for police to patrol effectively and using addicts' homes as stash houses, the Nickel Boys grossed $30,000 to $40,000 a day selling drugs in an area they called "the hole," prosecutors said.

To protect their business, prosecutors said, Johnson cold-bloodedly killed two rivals and seriously wounded a third. Prosecutors also alleged Johnson was involved in a a third killing, the 1996 shooting in eastern Baltimore County of the father of another drug rival.

The jury found Johnson responsible in two of the slayings: of drug rival James Brown in 1998 in O'Donnell Heights, who was shot four times in the back; and of the 1996 shooting of John Johnson Sr. in Turner's Station. It also found him responsible for the 1996 wounding of Joseph Pennix, also in O'Donnell Heights, who survived gunshots to the ear, chest and shoulder.

The jury found Johnson not responsible in the slaying of the other drug rival.

Defense attorneys attacked the credibility of gang members who testified at the trial. Flynn Owens, who represented Cheese, told the jury they were "cutthroats and liars" motivated by a desire for a lighter sentence.

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