Federal authorities said yesterday that they have dismantled a tightly run, highly profitable marijuana ring on Baltimore's west side, indicting 32 people and seeking forfeiture of some $52 million that investigators say the group made over the past five years selling top-grade pot.
The charges announced by the U.S. attorney for Maryland Thomas M. DiBiagio reach every level of the organization, from its suppliers in New York to its alleged local leader, Tyree Stewart, his top lieutenants and legions of street workers - a complex structure reminiscent of Baltimore's most-sophisticated heroin rings.
A 20-count indictment unsealed yesterday alleges that Stewart's operation conducted its own counter-surveillance efforts by employing a former Baltimore police detective and a guard at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, both now charged with obstructing justice. Also named as defendants were Stewart's mother and girlfriend, who are accused of helping launder illegal drug profits.
"We've gone in and we've wiped them out," DiBiagio said at a news conference. "This was a career for them, and what we did was dismantle their organization, piece by piece."
Stewart, 31, was taken into custody at his home in suburban Joppa amid a wave of searches and arrests carried out yesterday and Wednesday by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and city police. According to court records, Stewart has ties to West Baltimore and a string of prior drug charges.
Agents seized more than $90,000 in cash, a number of handguns and four luxury vehicles, including a Cadillac Escalade, an Acura, a Lexus GS and a Mercedes CL that authorities said was worth $100,000 and was driven primarily by Stewart.
"He was making a lot of money, and he lived very well," DiBiagio said. "It was a very nice business for him, but it's over."
Stewart, who has used various aliases, including the street names "Blickie" and "Shorty," made an initial appearance yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Authorities said 14 others named in the case had been arrested by early yesterday, and five other defendants were expected to be transferred from state to federal custody.
The remaining defendants were being sought as fugitives.
Stewart was charged under a federal statute with operating a "continuing criminal enterprise," a charge that can carry a sentence of life in prison.
Also charged under the statute were his alleged top lieutenants, Damon "Lil' Dick" DeShields, 33; Melvin "Skip" Coleman, 25; Robert "Boo Boo" Smith, 26; and Corey "Shakey Doodle" or "Doodles" Smith, 27, all of Baltimore.
The alleged organization, as described by officials and in federal court records, was striking in both its scope and sophistication. The operation allegedly sold 100 pounds a week of high-quality marijuana known on the street as "Arizona," which can bring a retail price of $2,000 per pound.
According to authorities, the marijuana was distributed through informal shops in the 1800 and 1900 blocks of W. Lanvale St., at the corner of Edmondson and Fulton avenues, and along the 700 block of Kirby Lane. As in some of the city's most notorious heroin and cocaine rings, Stewart's alleged marijuana ring demanded loyalty and protected its turf with ruthless violence, court records show.
The indictment alleges that Stewart and Corey Smith paid an unnamed co-conspirator $10,000 for the contract killing of 21-year-old Terry Cheeks on May 14, 2002, in retaliation for the slaying two days earlier of Albert "Elkie" Dunbar, 22.
The relationship between Stewart and Dunbar was unclear yesterday; however, court records identified Stewart's mother as Mary Lou Dunbar.
Stewart's girlfriend, Shanai Dunmore, 25, is accused along with his mother of money laundering violations.
Theresa R. Stoop, special agent in charge of the ATF's Baltimore field office, said the pattern of violence led federal authorities to uncover the broader activities of the organization.
"The violence in West Baltimore is well-documented, and it led back to Tyree Stewart," Stoop said.
Authorities say the organization was cunning in its efforts to avoid detection and arrest. The indictment alleges that the group put on its payroll Jeremiah Kelly, 43, a former sergeant in the city's Northern Police District, and Nicole "Ceecee" Moorer, 27, a correctional officer at the city jail, to help conduct counter-surveillance against local investigators.
Kelly, a 13-year police veteran, was not working for the department during the period that authorities allege he aided Stewart's organization. He was fired from the city police force in February 2001 after he was accused of signing off on a false police report, said police spokesman Matt Jablow.
Kelly's firing was reversed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and he had been expected to return to work, but his reinstatement was in effect blocked by the federal indictment.
Moorer was working at the Central Booking and Intake Center during the period she is accused of providing information to Stewart's group. Her employment status yesterday was unclear.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said it was disappointing to learn that a former officer had been charged in connection with the drug ring, but he praised the wide scope of the federal prosecution and efforts to seize the cash, cars and homes that came from the business.
"We will pursue everyone - everyone who wants to make money in this business," Clark said. "We will wipe out everything they ever got with their ill-gotten gains."