On one end of the cell phone line was a veteran of the Baltimore Police Department looking for a way to restore his reputation inside an agency that had fired him. On the other end was a drug kingpin who ran a $50 million marijuana ring and ordered the murders of at least three people.
In between, federal investigators were secretly listening for evidence of a crime.
Based on those wiretaps, Sgt. Jeremiah Kelly now stands accused of participating in one of the city's largest drug conspiracies. Federal prosecutors have charged Kelly, 45, with obstructing justice for allegedly advising Tyree Stewart about ways to avoid surveillance helicopters and Global Positioning System trackers used by federal law enforcement.
The officer, who has been suspended without pay, is on trial in U.S. District Court, where prosecutors and defense lawyers made their closing arguments yesterday. A jury is to resume deliberations Monday.
The two-week trial included more than two days of testimony from Stewart, the prosecution's star witness, who has pleaded guilty in the drug conspiracy in a deal with prosecutors but has not been sentenced. In court, he admitted to ordering the murders of at least three people.
Kelly testified this week that he knew nothing about Stewart's murderous ways; prosecutors said that at the least he turned a blind eye.
"This case is about desperation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Tiao said in his closing arguments. Kelly, Tiao said, was a "former supercop who had lost it all and would do anything to get it back."
Jurors must now answer a critical question about Kelly: Was he a turncoat who grew so excited about getting back into the good graces of the department that he illegally fed a drug dealer sensitive information about police tactics? "He talked about Stewart as his 'ticket to legitimacy,'" Tiao testified, adding that Kelly "crossed the line" into criminality.
Or, as the defense argued, was Kelly simply an enthusiastic officer who was simply trying to turn Stewart back into a confidential informant to help police?
"Jerry Kelly is not involved in this conspiracy at all," defense attorney Gary A. Ticknor told the jury.
Kelly was not working for the department during the period that authorities allege he helped Stewart's organization. He was fired from the city police force in February 2001 after he was accused of signing a false report. His termination was later reversed under appeal, but he was suspended upon his indictment.
The trial has offered a rare inside look into how Stewart - also known as "Black" - ran one of the city's largest, most-profitable marijuana rings.
Prosecutors said he sold "Arizona" marijuana that he obtained from New York, a high-quality form of the drug that sold in Baltimore for about $2,000 a pound. His enforcers intimidated potential rivals and protected turf with violence, including murder, prosecutors said.
In August 2003, a federal grand jury indicted Stewart and 31 codefendants for their involvement in the drug trafficking enterprise. Stewart had been a "snitch" before, and one of Kelly's best confidential informants in the early 1990s. His recent role testifying against dozens of his former workers led to a mention on the notorious Stop Snitching, an underground DVD that warns against cooperating with police.
During his testimony this week, Kelly said he had no idea that Stewart had returned to a life of crime. He said he gave him advice only to help soothe his paranoia that federal investigators were hunting him down.
"Kelly does not know [at the time] that Tyree Stewart has been a killer," Ticknor said.
But prosecutors said Kelly willingly ignored signs that Stewart was dealing drugs again, and was a likely target of authorities. Federal prosecutor Jason Weinstein reminded jurors yesterday that the tape-recorded phone conversations show Kelly giving Stewart specific advice about law enforcement techniques.
Kelly told Stewart that federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms used surveillance helicopters from the National Guard, Weinstein said. He also described what a GPS tracker looked like and how to find one that had been placed on his car.
Weinstein said Kelly confirmed Stewart's suspicions that a drug buyer who approached him was working for police.
Once the buyer's cover was blown, Weinstein said, agents were forced to pull the informant back, a move that disrupted their investigation.
The prosecutor said it was inconceivable that Kelly would be trying to lure Stewart as an informant by revealing the identity of another one.
"Tyree Stewart has nothing to gain by lying and everything to lose," Weinstein said, noting that Stewart could lose his own deal with prosecutors if he committed perjury. But Kelly, he said, "has everything to gain by lying and nothing to lose."