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Leader of drug ring gets 50-year sentence

A federal judge handed down a 50-year prison term yesterday to the leader of a violent, well-organized Baltimore drug ring that disguised its illegal operations behind nightclubs and other businesses.

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for James E. Gross Sr., whose case marks the first time in recent years that federal authorities in Baltimore have won convictions against participants in the city's loosely structured drug trade under racketeering laws used elsewhere against Mafia crime families.

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U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said the 50-year term was "effectively a life sentence" for the 45-year-old Gross, who continued to maintain his innocence yesterday in courtroom remarks that amounted to a lengthy, rambling attack on prosecutors and his lawyer.

Gross said that observing the five-week federal trial of him and four other men, including his grown son, last winter was like watching a fictional play. He also dismissed testimony against him by his one-time friend and crime partner, Louis W. Colvin, as "nothing but one big blatant lie."

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Motz showed little patience with Gross' claims.

"Mr. Gross Sr., you are a smart man, and you led your son right down the primrose path," the judge said from the bench. "People like you are causing the streets of the inner city to be hell. You think you're smarter than everybody else. You're not."

The elder Gross, also known by the nickname "Stink," was convicted by a federal jury in late February, along with his adult son, James E. "Man" Gross Jr., on charges including racketeering, witness-tampering, fraud and arson.

One of their co-defendants, James E. Feaster, was sentenced yesterday to 30 months for his role as the operation's "front man," whose name appeared on liquor licenses and other business records.

Feaster, 44, of Baltimore also has maintained his innocence. He was allowed to remain out of jail while he appeals his conviction on charges of racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud.

Colvin was charged in the case but avoided standing trial by pleading guilty to a racketeering count last year and becoming a key prosecution witness in the case. He is awaiting sentencing.

Colvin and the elder Gross had long-standing ties, including a Baltimore County nightclub, the Stardom Lounge, that they operated together in the late 1980s until they were arrested on federal drug and gun charges.

The men renewed their partnership when they left prison in the late 1990s, opening the popular Baltimore County club Strawberry's 5000, which was destroyed in a January 2001 arson fire that was part of an insurance fraud scheme.

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The friendship between Gross Sr. and Colvin eventually dissolved in a dispute over profits at their last joint venture, the downtown Baltimore bar Intellects.

At trial, Colvin testified that he forged a new partnership with boxer Hasim S. Rahman and used a $100,000 investment from the former heavyweight champion to reopen Intellects under a new name, the Emineo. Rahman has denied having an ownership interest in the club, which was shut down last summer after a series of liquor board violations.

Gross Sr. and Colvin had one other key link. Before they were charged in the racketeering case, the two men had agreed to work as government witnesses in drug investigations, court records show. Gross' agreement with authorities was abruptly ended in January 2001, after he was charged in the rape of a 12-year-old city girl at Strawberry's.

The jury in the federal case did not hear any evidence about the rape case, in which Gross pleaded guilty in Baltimore County. The jury did hear mention, however, of well-known Baltimore figures. In addition to his testimony about Rahman, Colvin testified that the elder Gross had relied heavily on the advice and connections of former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell Sr. to keep his businesses running smoothly.

Through his attorney, Mitchell denied any close involvement with Gross or Colvin and said he had no knowledge of any criminal activity.


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