Basketball star Carmelo Anthony might have provided celebrity appeal in Stop Snitching, a witness-intimidation DVD for sale on the streets of Baltimore.
But the character at the focus of the profanity-laced production has his own type of fame, one intertwined with West Baltimore's drug rings, their violence and law enforcement's efforts to crush them.
He is Tyree Stewart, the man prosecutors say once ran a $50 million marijuana ring, now in prison under the U.S. Marshal's custody. His story gives a glimpse into the city's world of drugs, violence, prosecution and street culture.
Stewart is the target of many of the anti-witness rants on the recently released DVD - the seventh "Skinny Suge" production to hit the market. The reason for the outrage, according to lawyers and law enforcement officials, is that Stewart is informing - and not in just any case.
Stewart is believed to have helped federal authorities indict Solothal Thomas, or "Itchy Man," alleged by police to have been one of the most violent "enforcers" in the city.
Thomas has been acquitted of two murder and 12 attempted murder charges in state court. But several months ago, he was indicted on federal conspiracy charges that could carry the death penalty.
"They're saying that Solothal Thomas and his brother did a murder-for-hire for Tyree Stewart's drug organization," said defense lawyer Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, who is representing Thomas.
Stewart might be the main witness.
To understand the intrigue, one has to go back to the late 1990s, when Tyree Stewart - also known as "Black" and "Blickie" - ran one of the city's largest, and most profitable, marijuana rings.
He sold "Arizona" marijuana that he obtained from suppliers in New York, prosecutors said - a high-quality form of the drug that sold in Baltimore for about $2,000 a pound.
At "shops" throughout the west side, managed by Stewart's "lieutenants," workers packaged the drugs for retail sale. Stewart also sold wholesale, prosecutors said.
According to authorities, Stewart protected his territory. His enforcers intimidated potential rivals and protected his turf with violence - including murder, prosecutors said.
In court papers, prosecutors say Stewart paid $10,000 for the 2002 killing of 21-year-old Terry Cheeks - retaliation for a killing of one of Stewart's associates. Stewart also used Thomas as an "enforcer," they said.
But, by the early part of this decade, authorities were onto Stewart and his operation. Confidential informants had tipped off detectives. They watched drug transactions during surveillance operations at some of Stewart's shops, according to court papers.
In March 2003, investigators installed a closed-circuit television camera and an audio interception device in the kitchen and living room of the shop at 1809 W. Lanvale St. They also started monitoring Stewart's cell phones.
Over the ensuing months, investigators gathered evidence against the organization - including Stewart's conversations about countersurveillance techniques. Authorities called it "Operation Arizona."
In August 2003, a federal grand jury indicted Stewart and 31 co-defendants for their alleged involvement in the drug trafficking enterprise. Agents also seized more than $90,000, handguns and four luxury vehicles - including Stewart's $100,000 Mercedes-Benz CL.
"It was a huge case," said Anthony Barksdale, acting chief of the city's organized crime division, who spearheaded Operation Arizona.
Almost right away, according to court papers, Stewart began cooperating.
In one court motion, a federal agent details how, the day he was arrested, Stewart made a call to an associate, trying to get him to drop off money and a gun to an undercover officer.
Court documents suggest this wasn't a new gig for Stewart.
For instance, one defense lawyer noted in a motion that the Police Department had previously "handled Tyree Stewart as a confidential informant" - the type of "snitching" the men on the DVD call unacceptable.
Prosecutors and police have known for years the pressures that push potential witnesses into silence.
Just last month, a federal grand jury indicted Deandre Whitehead, who prosecutors say tried to put out a contract on a 10-year-old girl who testified that she had seen him kill her father. During the Lexington Terrace trial this year, federal prosecutors detailed gang members' methods of witness intimidation, including murder.
Almost as frustrating to law enforcement as the violence is the pervasive street attitude that "witnessing" is poor behavior - a sentiment clearly demonstrated in Stop Snitching.
In one scene, men sitting on the steps of a rowhouse express dismay after being asked about "Tyree" by someone off camera.
"Word is, they rats," one man exclaimed. "They got our hood so [expletive] up, where [people] think ratting is cool."
"Black changed the norm," the first man said, referring to Stewart by his street name. "Black made the [people] think it was cool to rat and get some money. That's why we got federal penitentiaries ... all across the country, where people say them Baltimore [people] rat."
In the scene involving Carmelo Anthony, the basketball player refers to Black and laughingly says that he might put some "money on his motherf-- brains."
It is unclear whether Anthony is talking about Tyree Stewart or a freestyle rapper in the DVD, who, in the preceding scene, seems to makes fun of the professional ballplayer. But many others in the DVD are clearly talking about Stewart.
"We see this group still concerned about a case that we took down a year and a half ago," Barksdale said. "They still feel this case. It still has a huge impact."
Beating the rap
One reason for that is Itchy Man.
Solothal Thomas is well known to Baltimore prosecutors. They say they believe he has gotten away with violence again and again. In 2002, The Sun featured him in articles that examined flaws in the city's criminal justice system.
Thomas' lawyers have said he has been persecuted by the judicial system. He has been acquitted of nearly all charges against him, although in January 2003 he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a bulletproof vest.
But early this year, about a month after he finished serving his prison time for the vest conviction, Thomas was arrested again. This time he was charged with a federal crime, accused with three other men of being a violent enforcer in an unnamed marijuana organization, and of sharing $10,000 for the killing of a man in Baltimore County.
The indictment also says that Itchy Man and the others - including his brother, Danta Thomas - were enforcers for the West Baltimore organization. The charge carries a possible death sentence. But U.S. prosecutors in Maryland have not made their recommendation to the Department of Justice as to whether the federal government should seek capital punishment - a first step in a federal death penalty case.
The lawyers involved have been waiting to see what would happen with Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio before they discussed the issue, said those associated with the case. DiBiagio announced his resignation Friday.
Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.