For more than a decade, Louis W. Colvin and James E. Gross Sr. have been linked by crime. They were arrested together in 1990, each carrying a loaded handgun as they climbed into a new, white Lincoln Continental where police found dozens of tiny bags of heroin stuffed into a Pepperidge Farm cookie bag.
They were convicted together on drug and gun charges. They served nearly identical prison terms. And when they got out, court records filed by U.S. prosecutors last spring alleged that Gross and Colvin soon were reunited, running a violent Baltimore crime ring that reached well beyond routine drug dealing into arson, insurance fraud, witness intimidation and attempted murder.
Yesterday, that long-standing partnership appeared to come to an end. Colvin, 43, of Abingdon, pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering charge, agreeing as part of his deal with prosecutors to provide information and testimony in the high-profile organized crime case that could help convict Gross and five other men, including Gross' son.
The deal is so sensitive that the prosecutor and defense attorney handling the case took the unusual step of asking U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz to seal the details of the plea agreement, a document usually made public in federal court records.
"We're concerned, because of the nature of this plea agreement, about the safety of Mr. Colvin," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert R. Harding said.
In court yesterday, a beefy Colvin wore a black T-shirt sporting the rapper Jay-Z's Rocawear logo and said little, beyond acknowledging his decision to plead guilty. His attorney, Flynn Owens, declined to comment outside of court.
Gross, 43, also of Abingdon, along with his son, James E. Gross Jr., and four other men are fighting the charges, and are expected to challenge the government's evidence against them at a suppression hearing today in federal court.
Colvin's gradual split from the group traces to at least a year ago. He and Gross have been battling over profits from their last joint venture, the now-closed downtown nightclub Emineo, in a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court. As part of the federal racketeering case, prosecutors have charged that the younger Gross and another defendant, James D. Wilkes, tried to kidnap and kill Colvin in September of last year.
Until their falling out, authorities have said Gross and Colvin ran a feared and effective crime business from Baltimore-area bars and nightclubs, legitimate businesses that disguised the group's criminal enterprises.
At the time of their 1990 arrest, the men operated the Stardom Lounge in Baltimore County, and court records show that detectives suspected that the two men might be connected with the killing of Anthony Douglas, a young man found shot in the head that year.
Gross and Colvin never were charged in Douglas' killing. Instead, authorities tagged them with drug and weapons charges after finding the handguns tucked in waistbands, the heroin in the Lincoln and drugs, cash and paraphernalia in an apartment in Baltimore County that the two men said they rented as a place for club employees to hang out after work.
Both men were convicted after a July 1990 jury trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. They served similar prison terms - 111 months for Gross; 123 months for Colvin.
Out of prison in the late 1990s, federal authorities allege that Colvin and Gross were soon back in business. They launched a club on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale, Strawberry's 5000, which investigators said became the base of operations for a range of criminal activity.
Colvin admitted yesterday his role in an arson fire in January of last year that destroyed Strawberry's as part of an insurance fraud scheme. A federal indictment charged that the group also was responsible for another arson fire set in December 2000 to thwart competition at the now-defunct Club Fahrenheit in Southeast Baltimore.
Court records show that with the insurance profits from Strawberry's, Gross and Colvin invested early last year in a new club in downtown Baltimore, the Emineo. The club at 10 S. Calvert St. promised high-end entertainment and drew some high-profile promoters, including boxer Hasim S. Rahman.
Like the other clubs linked to Gross and Colvin, the Emineo quickly found its doors closed.
In June, city liquor commissioners ordered the bar to immediately suspend its operations and transfer its liquor license - held by Colvin's father, Julius E. Brockington - as a result of violations of selling drinks after hours and allowing lap dancing without an adult entertainment license.
In court yesterday, Harding offered a glimpse of the evidence against Colvin. He described use of a network of cooperating witnesses, wiretapped conversations and undercover agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration to build a case under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) laws that have been rarely used in Maryland.
Colvin is the only one of the seven defendants in the case to plead guilty. He could receive more than 10 years in federal prison for his plea to a single racketeering count, but under the plea deal he could receive a break at sentencing for providing assistance against his co-defendants or information in other criminal cases.