A federal jury in Baltimore found a group of area men guilty yesterday of using nightclubs and other businesses as fronts for a violent crime ring, marking the first time in recent history that U.S. prosecutors have dismantled a city drug gang under the same racketeering laws that helped bring down Mafia figures elsewhere.
The trial, which stretched over seven weeks and featured testimony about the ringleaders' ties to former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell Sr. and boxer Hasim S. Rahman, could become an important test case for prosecutors as they weigh whether to bring similar organized crime charges to fight Baltimore's loosely structured drug trade.
"I think that what we've done is we've sent a message ... that we're going to bring the full federal hammer down," U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said. "This group, they weren't just involved in a conspiracy to commit one crime, like drug trafficking. They were a criminal enterprise, and this was a business."
Jurors deliberated over 2 1/2 days before convicting James E. "Stink" Gross Sr., his adult son, James E. "Man" Gross Jr., and two other men on racketeering charges. A fifth man, James D. "Turkey" Wilkes, was found guilty of shooting one of the gang's former leaders, Louis W. Colvin, after his ties to the group eroded in 2001.
Colvin, who survived the shooting, also was charged in the case in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. He pleaded guilty to a single racketeering count last fall and as part of a deal with prosecutors became a key witness in the case against the elder Gross, who had been his friend and crime partner for two decades.
Defense attorneys had portrayed Colvin as a skilled liar and argued that jurors should discount his testimony detailing a crime ring fueled by money from heroin and cocaine sales and disguised by seemingly legitimate business fronts, including the Baltimore County nightclub Strawberry's 5000 and a downtown bar that operated as Intellects.
As part of yesterday's verdict, jurors convicted the Grosses and a third man, Ronald "Chicken" Eddie, of destroying Strawberry's in a January 2001 arson.
The men were acquitted, however, on a separate count of burning the nearby Club Fahrenheit a few weeks earlier in what authorities had described as an attempt to thwart competition.
Jurors also reached a split verdict for James E. Feaster, who had served as the liquor license holder at Strawberry's. Feaster was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and one mail fraud count, but acquitted on a count of racketeering and two other mail fraud charges.
"There's definitely going to be an appeal," said Richard C. Bittner, a Glen Burnie attorney who represented the elder Gross. "I think part of it, too, is there's a partial acquittal here -- you either buy it, or you don't. How can you partially acquit on the testimony of the same witnesses?"
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz set a May 9 sentencing date for the men.
The Grosses each could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison. Colvin and the three other defendants who stood trial are expected to receive lesser terms along with a fifth man, Michael "Dirt Bike' Randolph, who also pleaded guilty to racketeering before trial.
Before they were charged in the racketeering case, Colvin and the elder Gross had agreed to work as government witnesses; Gross' agreement with authorities was abruptly ended in January 2001, however, after he was charged in the rape of a 12-year-old city girl at Strawberry's. He pleaded guilty in that Baltimore County case.
Jurors in the federal case did not hear any evidence about the rape case against the elder Gross. But they did convict the father and son on two witness-tampering counts -- one connected to the rape case and the other connected to the arson that destroyed Strawberry's.
The jury also heard mentions of some well-known Baltimore figures.
Colvin and another witness who had worked as a promoter at Strawberry's testified that the elder Gross relied heavily on the advice and connections of Mitchell, the former senator, to keep their businesses running smoothly.
Colvin also testified that after his partnership with Gross dissolved in a dispute over profits at their last joint venture -- the nightclub Intellects -- Colvin forged a new partnership with Rahman, the former heavyweight boxing champion.
Colvin testified that he used a $100,000 investment from Rahman to reopen Intellects last spring as Emineo, which was shut down after a series of liquor board violations last summer.
Rahman has denied having an ownership interest in the club.
Mitchell also sought to distance himself from the federal case. His attorney said that Mitchell had no dealings with the elder Gross or Colvin and had no knowledge of any criminal activity.
When federal prosecutors prepared to call Mitchell as a witness, however, his attorneys told Motz that Mitchell would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if questioned broadly.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert R. Harding and Christine Manuelian had planned to call Mitchell to the stand as a way to introduce a legal document -- kept by Mitchell in his own files -- that outlined the later-disputed ownership interests in Strawberry's.
Jurors still saw the document, obtained under a federal grand jury subpoena. But they didn't hear about it from Mitchell, who made a brief appearance at the city's federal courthouse during the trial, but never was called to the witness stand.