Charlie Wilhelm felt bad enough for ratting on his old friends. Gathering evidence against them by working as an informant for the FBI would be even worse, but it was his only safe option: It would be better if they were in prison for their crimes than free to retaliate against a snitch.
One day in September 1995, the FBI gave Charlie directions to a "safe house" in the Baltimore area. There he met Thomas J. McNamara, the agent who would become his "handler," boss, protector and conscience. McNamara laid down the rules:
No more cocaine snorting. No more drug sales -- unless it was part of an FBI sting. No beating people up. No fencing stolen goods. No loan sharking.
He could continue running an illegal lottery to make members of his crime ring think nothing had changed. But in reality, McNamara and another veteran agent, Stephen D. Clary, would control Charlie's every move.
He signed papers agreeing to have his phone tapped, to hide a tape recorder in his car, to conceal another in his pocket, and to have his house in Hampden bugged. He received a pager and a code name -- "Warlock." He could page McNamara and signal who it was by punching in 520 -- the number of the hotel room where Charlie had sealed his fate by meeting with the FBI.
In the beginning, Charlie pretended to go about his business as usual, cruising around town in his flashy white Lincoln Continental with red leather seats, setting up drug deals. But eventually a more important, and dangerous, mission would preoccupy him: trying to get his best friend, Billy Isaacs, to admit to the murder of a young construction worker.
For 17 years, Charlie told the FBI, he had protected Isaacs and two other men involved in the killing by keeping silent. Now Charlie hoped to right that wrong by capturing a taped confession.
Nearly every morning at 8:30, McNamara or Clary paged him and put him to work. For a career criminal used to staying out all night and sleeping until noon, the schedule was an adjustment.
On Halloween, his assignment was a drug deal. After taking his son trick-or-treating, Charlie met agents in the parking lot outside Greetings and Readings off Loch Raven Boulevard. They patted him down to make sure he wasn't carrying any drugs of his own, then followed him to the Super Fresh at Harford Road and Taylor Avenue. In the parking lot, they handed him $2,400, and watched from their cars as he bought 5 ounces of cocaine.
Nine days later, he taped an old associate selling cocaine from the false bottom of an Ajax can outside Finn's Bar and Grill near Fells Point. And on Dec. 1, he pursued a man the FBI was eager to catch -- Frank Tamburello, a convicted drug dealer who had been caught in 1986 selling cocaine through a drug syndicate with Charlie and 24 others.
Charlie arranged to meet Tamburello on a stretch of highway outside Ocean City. It was nearly midnight when Charlie, tailed by Agent Clary, followed Tamburello off U.S. 1 and into the parking lot of a convenience store.
Tamburello got out of his car and went inside the store. He emerged a few minutes later with a mentally retarded man he called Roy in tow. Roy appeared to have no idea what was going on as Tamburello put a 10-ounce bag of cocaine in Roy's hand, then forced his hand inside Charlie's car, where he left the bag on Charlie's lap.
It was like using a kid to sell drugs, Charlie thought. Tamburello made Roy his courier. But the little game wouldn't protect him. Charlie got the transaction on tape.
In the days and months ahead, Charlie would rarely have a conversation that wasn't recorded, whether he was sitting in his Lincoln, on the phone at home, or eating dinner with a drug dealer in Little Italy. And he was hardly ever alone. Agents followed him almost constantly.
Even knowing he was being watched, Charlie found it hard to give up his old life. One day, he recalls, McNamara opened the trunk of Charlie's car to find it filled with imported crystal stolen off the docks in Baltimore. "Tommy said, 'What's this?' I said, 'It's crystal. I'm going to sell this stuff.' And he says, "Oh, no you're not. You've got to give it back.'"
Helping keep Charlie in line was Kevin Bonner, the agent assigned to be his undercover partner. Charlie introduced Bonner to his crime buddies as a fellow thief and drug dealer. He respected Bonner's calm manner, quick mind and instincts. But his disguise? Pathetic.
He dressed like a cross between a biker and a construction worker, Charlie thought, and never had much money. He was appalled when Bonner used a credit card to pay for dinner with a drug dealer in Little Italy. Charlie's cronies carried wads of hundred-dollar bills and wore diamond pinkie rings and $200 shirts. Couldn't the FBI give Bonner the clothes and money he needed to look like a respectable drug dealer? Charlie expected his fellow criminals -- he called them "wiseguys" -- to see through Bonner.
But the ruse succeeded -- both Bonner's and Charlie's -- and Charlie met agent Clary in parking lots in Baltimore to turn over tapes, often several times a day. While Charlie collected evidence -- eventually he would hand over 110 tapes -- the FBI held off on indictments and arrests to keep from blowing his cover. He was shaping up to be a valuable informant.
Charlie nonetheless expected his life undercover to be short-lived. You're either a good guy or a bad guy, he thought. How long could he pretend to be both?
One afternoon, shortly after Charlie began wearing a wire, Billy Isaacs turned up at Charlie's house on Keswick Road. Free after five years in federal prison for loan sharking and witness tampering, Isaacs ordered Charlie into his car and drove several blocks north to the Rotunda shopping center.
The account of what happened next, inside the Rotunda, is drawn solely from Charlie's memory, though an FBI agent confirmed that Charlie described the same events to agents at the time. Isaacs' version of the incident could not be obtained; he declined repeated requests for interviews.
Inside the Rotunda, Isaacs directed Charlie to a public men's room and motioned for him to keep quiet. Then he ordered Charlie to strip.
Charlie pretended to be surprised and outraged by Billy's distrust. He pulled down his pants and lifted his shirt, grateful he'd removed the tape recorder from his coat shortly before Isaacs picked him up. Then he feigned his own doubt and asked Billy to strip, too. Billy laughed and refused.
When Billy dropped Charlie off at his house, he rushed to page the FBI.
Don't get in the car again with Isaacs, no matter what, Clary told him. Charlie's panic was palpable, and the agents tried to calm him. But they also weighed the real danger of the situation and asked, was he ready to quit?
Charlie wasn't about to stop his undercover work yet. "I told them, 'I ain't got Billy.' "
That opportunity would come later, when he arrived home one evening to find Isaacs in the kitchen, talking to his wife, Gina, while she made dinner. Because he wasn't wearing his tape recorder, Charlie volunteered to go to the store for a can of gravy --giving him a chance to put on his long coat with the tape recorder tucked in the pocket. When he returned, he sat down at the table.
Charlie kept waiting for Gina to leave the kitchen. But Gina was paralyzed. She was afraid of Billy -- Charlie had told her about the murder -- and afraid of what Billy would do if he discovered the tape recorder.
Gina thought Charlie was being reckless. Didn't he realize wearing his coat in the warm kitchen looked suspicious? She was afraid if she left, Isaacs would pat her husband down. "I'm going to choke him," she thought. "If Billy doesn't get him, I'm going to."
On Nov. 17, after two months undercover, Charlie was in the safe house when FBI agents and federal prosecutors began talking to him for the first time about the federal witness protection program. Soon, arrests would be made based on Charlie's work, and his old friends would learn he had set them up. To ensure their safety, Charlie and his family might have to leave Baltimore and assume new identities.
Charlie was wary. If he entered the program, would his real name show up in the Justice Department's confidential records?
When the answer to that question was yes, Charlie knew his answer had to be no.
He would not enter the program, he told the agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Welsh. It couldn't protect him. "I said, you got somebody dirty in your office, and she knows everybody that's going into these programs." She might give his enemies the information they would need to find him.
At first, Welsh and the agents didn't believe Charlie. But then he went on to identify the woman as someone named Pat -- he couldn't remember her last name -- who had offered to sell him confidential information.
Charlie said, "I know what I'm talking about, and that girl's dirty."
The agents were incredulous. Charlie was describing a veteran secretary in the U.S. Attorney's victim witness unit, Patricia Ann Wheeler.
Within two days, Charlie was in his Lincoln bargaining with Wheeler, the hidden tape running. Could she find out if the U.S. Attorney's office was investigating him?
"I will ... I told you I would look for you," she said. She was referring to a barroom conversation they'd had before Charlie went to the FBI -- just after city police raided his house in the summer of 1995.
Now Wheeler said she didn't have direct access to the records, but there were "still ways I can look." She'd get back to him.
Thirteen days later, Wheeler paged Charlie. He picked her up at Buckley's, a bar at 30th Street and Remington Avenue, and this time she brought with her a file bearing Charlie's name. It was the bogus information federal officials had planted naming Charlie as a target in a gambling investigation.
In Charlie's car, with the tape recorder running, the two read parts of the document aloud. Wheeler pointed out a page noting that grand jury subpoenas had been issued for telephone records.
Three more times, Wheeler would bring Charlie confidential files showing other men in his crime ring were under investigation. One was Frank Tamburello. Tell him to stay out of Baltimore and watch himself "on the phones," she advised Charlie. He promised to get money from Tamburello for the information.
Finally, on Dec. 28, Charlie met Wheeler one last time at Buckley's. After they drove around the corner, he handed her an envelope with $1,000 inside.
"You have yourself a nice little Christmas present," he told her.
She was delighted. "Oh, Charlie, you serious?"
The agents now had the evidence they would need to charge Wheeler with bribery. They were stunned that their fledgling informant had not only exposed corruption in the U.S. Attorney's office but made possible such an important arrest. A "dirty" insider could compromise investigations and jeopardize lives. If an informant can be one of law enforcement's greatest assets, a traitor inside the operation can be one of its greatest liabilities.
"This is a graphic example of how important an informant is," said Lynne A. Battaglia, a Maryland Court of Appeals judge who was U.S. Attorney at the time.If it wasn't for Charlie, "I don't know if [Wheeler] would ever have been found out."
Among the FBI agents, the sting gained Charlie a new level of respect.
To get a leak was serious business. It was a feather in Charlie's cap.
The Wheeler sting had proven what every prosecutor who ever worked with an informant knows: There are some cases you can't make without inside help. It was Mafia hit man Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano who helped the U.S. Attorney in New York prosecute 37 mobsters in the 1990s. It was New York City police officer Frank Serpico who was nearly killed by corrupt cops he ratted out in the 1970s. And in 1996, it would be Charlie Wilhelm who would lead the FBI and Baltimore County police to a trio of men who'd claimed responsibility for an unsolved murder.
In February of that year, Charlie tried again to get a murder confession on tape. Only this time his target wasn't Billy Isaacs. It was a Baltimore plumber named John Derry.
Charlie told the FBI that Derry was involved in the 1978 killing along with Isaacs and a third man, Ronnie Rogers. Derry and Isaacs, he said, had told him about the beating and drowning of Mark Schwandtner at a Hampden bar. Charlie even admitted helping them dispose of evidence: He had stuffed the killers' bloody clothing down a storm drain near Memorial Stadium.
On the evening of Feb. 4, Charlie went to Derry's home on West 42nd Street on the pretext of warning him that Isaacs was suspicious. He's watching us, Charlie said, the tape recorder in his pocket running. He thinks we're talking to others about the killing.
To Charlie's astonishment, Derry began to relive the moment that ended Schwandtner's life.
The three had met the 22-year-old construction worker at the Holiday House, a bar on Harford Road on the night of June 9, 1978, and taken him to a secluded railroad trestle high above the Gunpowder Falls near the Baltimore and Harford County lines. There, he was beaten over the head with a baseball bat and thrown into the river.
"It was just me and Billy, right," he told Charlie. Rogers was waiting in the car. "Billy dropped him, he dropped him over there, like, just like a boulder used to drop off the f--ing bridge."
"What'd he, dropped him from, a bridge?" Charlie asked.
"F--ing right. About 25 feet down."
Charlie: "Jesus Christ."
"Yeah. He said, you think I broke his neck? I said, no, you dumb ass, Billy. You dropped him feet first. I said that mother f---- is going to wake up ... ANd squeal on us. He said you think so? I said yeah. You better go down so he ... went down that f-- water and [shouted], I know [he] is dead ... Then [Billy] threw him under again."
It was an unusually chilling murder -- there seemed to be no motive. Maybe the killers had argued with Schwandtner in the bar. Charlie didn't know.
"Nobody talks, everybody walks," Isaacs had told Charlie for years afterward. And nobody had talked -- until now.
When Derry finished, Charlie hopped into his car and drove around the corner. The tape in his pocket was still running, but he flipped the toggle switch under the steering wheel to activate a second tape recorder, for good measure.
Following FBI instructions, he stated his name, the time and briefly described his conversation with Derry. Then he paged Agent Clary.
They met in a parking lot on York Road where Clary wrote his name and date on the tape and punched the ends to protect it. He would later turn it over to a Baltimore County police detective.
Charlie felt triumphant.
He had caught a man recounting a murder, and he had done everything perfectly for the evidence to hold up in court.
Charlie also believed the tape could be used to implicate Isaacs.
None of it would turn out to be that easy.
Ten days after the meeting with Derry, the FBI decided it was time to move Charlie's family to a safer location. The moving truck arrived on Valentine's Day.
Bewildered neighbors watched as strangers helped Charlie's wife load all their furniture into the truck. They thought Gina was divorcing him.
That first night alone in the house, Charlie wondered when -- or if -- he'd see his family again. Every little innocent sound terrified him. He realized he had hit the lowest point in the most tumultuous year of his life.
When the FBI suggested it was no longer safe for him to sleep in his own house, Charlie went to stay with his brother in Harford County. The U.S. Attorney's office was about to charge Wheeler with bribery and once the word got out in Hampden that he had set her up, Charlie thought, he'd be "dead in two days."
Another two weeks passed, and Charlie decided his time was up. On Feb. 29, 1996, after five months working for the FBI, he called McNamara. Charlie remembers telling the agent he couldn't live a double life anymore. He was scared, and he missed his family. Because he'd never sought immunity from his crimes, he was prepared to be arrested.
But the FBI had good news: They would send Charlie to his family, to their new home in Alabama.
On his way to meet the agents at the local FBI headquarters in Woodlawn, Charlie made a detour to Hollins Market to pick up a few rations for a life away from Baltimore: peanut butter Tastykakes and Utz potato chips.
"I knew we couldn't get any chips where I was going."
In Woodlawn, Charlie got in a car with McNamara and several other agents and headed to Hampden to get his belongings. He had grown close to the agents, especially McNamara, who he called "Tommy," and Clary, who he admired as a father figure. It was a stunning reversal: His friends had become his enemies and his enemies had become his friends.
Outside his rowhouse, the agents drew their guns; one went inside to make sure no one was waiting to ambush Charlie. When he heard the agent yell "clear," he ran in to get his clothes.
In all those years of hustling, Charlie had imagined -- and feared -- the day the FBI would arrive at his house. Now that day had come and they were there not to arrest him, but to protect him.
By the time they returned to FBI headquarters, the hidden tape recorder had been stripped from Charlie's Lincoln. The agents gave him a satellite pager and a cellular phone, and told him they'd be in touch. County police and FBI agents were moving in on Isaacs, Derry, Wheeler and the others. Charlie would be an indispensable court witness in the coming months.
After saying goodbye, Charlie drove to Harford County to see his brother one last time. It was late and snowing when he headed west, stopping in Frederick to stock up on another Maryland specialty: King Syrup.
He drove all night and most of the next day, stopping briefly to sleep in his car. He had $176 in his pocket, enough to buy his son a basketball hoop. The wads of $100 bills Charlie had once carried were long gone, but he didn't care. He had finally done something right.
But nothing about living away from Baltimore would be easy. Charlie would remain a prisoner of his past while accused killers walked free on bail in Baltimore.
Even 800 miles away, he would have reason to fear for his life.