A Baltimore special education teacher caught by police with several pounds of cocaine in his car continued to teach for a year after he pleaded guilty to the charges in federal court, right up until he was sentenced yesterday to seven years in prison, his lawyer and school system officials said.
City school system administrators would confirm only that Martius Harding, a former wrestling champion at McDonogh School, had taught at Govans Elementary School since 2002 and that his status was in doubt because of the court case.
The state said it had no record of a teaching certificate for Harding, a 28-year-old father of five who drove a Mercedes and oversaw a character-building club for boys called Govans Gentlemen.
The city school system said it had applied for a certificate for him 14 months ago and received word only this week that the application had been denied.
System officials would not comment on whether anyone knew about the teacher's drug conviction as he continued to work with a class of emotionally disturbed fourth- and fifth-graders.
But prosecutors and Harding's defense lawyer, Lawrence B. Rosenberg, said a principal had sent a letter supporting the teacher to the judge handling the case. That letter has not been made public.
The Govans principal, Edith Jones, could not be reached for comment last night.
State education officials said they did not understand how Harding had been able to stay in his job.
"It would be very surprising with a crime like this that the person would continue to be in employment," said Ronald Peiffer, deputy state school superintendent.
Harding's colleagues at Govans expressed shock at the news that he was involved with drugs. They said he had a good relationship with his pupils, though he frequently arrived at school late because of obligations with his young children. His daughter just completed kindergarten at Govans, which Harding also attended.
"He's very easygoing, very pleasant," said David McFadden, a school psychologist.
Michael Longinaker, a second-grade teacher at Govans, said Harding just bought a house in Aberdeen and didn't plan to return to his job next school year.
In federal court yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett sentenced Harding to seven years in prison. Court documents show that he pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine.
He was arrested Feb. 15, 2005, after a traffic stop on Interstate 95 in Cecil County. Police found 2.3 kilograms - a little more than 5 pounds - of cocaine during a search of Harding's car.
According to court documents, Harding, known as "T," conspired with several others to distribute cocaine from late 2003 to early 2005.
Local police and federal authorities found that Harding had received supplies of cocaine almost weekly from a source in New York.
Harding then cooked the powder cocaine into crack or had others convert the drug, according to his plea agreement.
He distributed the drugs to customers in smaller, multi-ounce quantities, court documents said. Prosecutors said the customers resold the drugs on the streets of Baltimore, largely in the North Avenue area of West Baltimore.
Under federal law, Harding faced up to life in prison with a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years. He also could have been fined up to $4 million and put on probation for five years after his release.
By cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office, he was able to get the mandatory prison time reduced, said office spokeswoman Marcia Murphy. His sentence also includes four years of probation a $10,000 fine.
In Harding's plea agreement, he agreed to report all criminal activity he knew about, serve if needed as an undercover informant and testify for prosecutors at trial.
A standout wrestler in high school, Harding caused a small ruckus in the sport in 1993 when he transferred from Paul Laurence Dunbar High, a public school in East Baltimore, to McDonogh, a private school in Owings Mills, according to articles in The Sun at the time.
His mother, Stephanie Mack, said then that the move was made to improve her son's academic environment. At age 16, Harding was the city's "highest-placing state tournament wrestler and its best potential champ," The Sun reported.
Mack told the newspaper that her son's father had been in prison for several years. Harding's attorney said yesterday that while his client was growing up, he had little or no contact with his father.
Harding's role model was a relative who graduated from McDonogh and became as a doctor at Good Samaritan Hospital. He said as a teenager that he wanted a career in surgery.
Harding later attended the University of Virginia, where he wrestled, and graduated from college in West Virginia, Rosenberg said.
In August 2002, Harding was hired as a special education teacher at Govans, said school system spokeswoman Edie House. But Peiffer, the deputy state superintendent, said Harding's name does not appear in the state's database of teachers who are certified or working toward full certification, something that is unusual for full-time school staff members.
State law says that a teaching certificate should be suspended or revoked if a teacher pleads guilty to a "controlled dangerous substance offense." But Peiffer said Harding didn't have a certificate that would have allowed such an action.
In addition, state regulations say that a school board "may" suspend or dismiss a teacher for grounds including "immorality."
"Drug possession and intent to distribute would very easily fall into the immorality clause," Peiffer said.
Rosenberg said Harding's descent into drug-dealing was prompted by his need to pay lawyers in a protracted custody dispute with the mother of his 8-year-old daughter.
"He's been on a crusade just for visitation, and he pays child support," the lawyer said, adding that Harding has a good relationship with his four other children. "He's really a great father."