HAGERSTOWN -- His mother says she sent him to this Western Maryland town as a teenager to escape the drugs and violence of their Bronx neighborhood. Instead, this is where he cut his teeth as a criminal.
Now 28 years old, Steve Lamont Willock has lived all but six months of his adult life behind bars. His home for the past four years, the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, is even farther from Baltimore - a place in which he might never have set foot. Yet authorities say they believe Willock commanded one of Baltimore's largest and most violent gangs, a set of the Bloods called Tree Top Piru.
From his prison cell, according to a federal racketeering indictment last month, Willock enforced the gang's rules and oversaw its activities, including violent initiations, witness intimidation and five murders. Twenty-seven other alleged gang members were indicted, including Willock's girlfriend, Diane Kline, a Hagerstown woman who relayed his messages to the streets of Baltimore, authorities say.
Willock could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the racketeering and drug conspiracy charges he faces. His defense attorney, Thomas Crowe, declined to comment on the specific charges but said his client "maintains his innocence" and will plead not guilty at an arraignment scheduled for March 21.
Authorities have not explained how they believe Willock ascended to the top of a Baltimore gang even as he remained behind bars in Cumberland. But the snippets of jailhouse letters and recorded phone calls included in the indictment portray him as a fearsome leader who called himself "Kanibal Lecktor." He instructed members, authorities said, to defend the Bloods' honor through violence.
"Understand that it's a violation to side with ... another set over Tree so make sure that y'all fully understand that anyone who does carry out that sort of violations will be sanctioned," he wrote in a letter to a gang member in Baltimore, according to federal prosecutors.
That gang lord persona comes as a surprise to those who knew Willock as "Chu," a seemingly low-level crack-cocaine dealer in Hagerstown - a small city that has become a magnet for big-city drug dealers. He was so nondescript that police officers who arrested him testified later that they couldn't remember him.
"Our relationship with him was pretty basic," said Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael, who secured an 18-year-prison term for Willock in 2004. "He came here from New York, we arrested him, he went to prison. He got out, we arrested him, he went to prison. He got out, we arrested him, he went to prison."
Born April 11, 1979, Willock lived in the Bronx until he was about 16. His relatives could not be located for this article, but letters from his mother and sister to a Washington County judge offer some shadings of his early years.
Dolly Campbell said she was a single mother raising Willock and four other children. She described him as "very caring, respectable and friendly" and said she sent him to live with her sister in Hagerstown "to escape the violence and drug-infected neighborhood."
She said she didn't realize that her sister was a drug addict, and that her sister's children, around Willock's age, were "involved in drugs activities."
Willock fell into addiction at age 18, Campbell wrote, and never received any treatment. Natasha Campbell, Willock's sister, also wrote that he "has a drug problem, and he really should be getting help for his condition."
In the half-dozen or so letters he has written to Judge W.P. Kennedy Boone III, who sentenced him in 2003, Willock also repeatedly calls himself a drug addict. He sold drugs, he claimed, only "to support my habit."
The prosecutor isn't so sure.
"Aside from all his whining about drug addiction," Michael said, "there's no indication he was ever anything but an enterprise criminal."
For this modest Western Maryland city, Willock appears to be part of an unlikely migration of dozens, if not hundreds, of young men from New York City. Many of those who relocated during the past decade and a half were involved in the drug trade, according to authorities.
"His story is repeated over and over and over again," said Michael, who was prosecutor of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force for 10 years before becoming deputy state's attorney in 2004. "Like lemmings, they're drawn here."
Hagerstown, founded in 1762, has a population of about 40,000 and a low rate of violent crime. At the intersection of two major interstates - I-70 and I-81 - it's known as "Hub City." And with three state prisons six miles outside of town, it's often a first-stop for the newly paroled.
Michael said he has interviewed dozens of the New Yorkers that he has convicted and asked them bluntly: "Why the hell do you come here?"
Their answers are consistent, Michael said, and his successor, prosecutor Brett R. Wilson, separately offered the same opinions.
Drug dealers can make far greater profits, as the price of crack can be five times higher in Hagerstown than in New York; they were safer from gang warfare and turf battles in Hagerstown, particularly in the mid-1990s; and there's no shortage of local women who have sheltered the out-of-towners, they said.
Regardless of why Willock came to Hagerstown, his criminal record makes clear that he quickly established himself as a drug dealer.
In 1997, by age 18, he was selling crack cocaine on Jonathan Street, at the time an open-air drug market just a few blocks from the historic downtown.
His first arrest, May 9, 1997, would set a pattern for his next two: Each time, he was brought down by a criminal informant in a simple sting operation.
The police had been looking at street-level dealing at Jonathan and North streets and sent in an informant to make a buy. Willock sold the man two small pieces of crack for $40.
He was arrested and convicted of drug distribution charges, but served almost no jail time.
On Dec. 19, 1998, Willock was in the same area, near Jonathan Street, when a man walked up and asked for $40 of crack.
Burned by his first arrest, Willock - wearing a New York Yankees cap and a gray Tommy Hilfiger jacket - asked the customer, "You the police?" The man said he wasn't.
"You testify to that?" he asked, before exchanging the drugs and money.
The police closed in, and after a brief chase he was in handcuffs. He gave a fake name, Lamount Willcock, but was quickly discovered after he signed his real name to his waiver of rights.
Willock pleaded guilty, was sentenced to eight years in May 1999, and by December 2002 had been granted work release from the Maryland Correctional Training Center prison in Hagerstown. He worked in the kitchen of a nearby Sheraton on U.S. 40.
Prison officials gave the local police a heads-up that Willock "was getting out, and that he was going to be back in the drug business," prosecutor Michael said.
"He had an association with local people," Michael said. "It was all set up for him to be back in business right away. It was child's play."
Also at the Sheraton with "Chu" on work-release was Tareq Yarbrough, a fellow Bronx native known as "Freaky Ty" and "Bloody Ty."
A woman who befriended Yarbrough and Willock in late 2002 said the men met in the Maryland prison system, not in New York. The woman asked not to be named because of the gang ties alleged against Willock.
The woman said she doesn't condone criminal behavior, "but I guess maybe I know a different side to Chu."
"He's very true, very honest," she said. "He has a great, very loving, personality. They have made him out to be a monster, but he's very kind. He has been my emotional support at times."
She added, "What a lot of people don't understand with these gangs is that these boys are a product of their environment. A child growing up in inner-city New York - that's a very different world than a child growing up in Hagerstown."
Court records show that Yarbrough and Willock worked together as crack dealers, occasionally selling in the Sheraton parking lot.
Michael said police targeted Willock not long after he left prison in 2002, and within five months had set up a sting using a criminal informant.
The informant arranged to buy "an eight-ball" - one-eighth of an ounce of crack - for $170. At 4:30 p.m. April 25, 2003, the informant met Willock in the hotel lot.
Police continued to monitor Willock and Yarbrough. Both were arrested in May.
At his court hearing, Willock was despondent. "My life is finished," he told Judge Boone. "It's done. Let's just get it over with. Let me plead guilty."
Willock did catch a bit of a break: Although he was a third-time drug offender, making him eligible for a sentence of 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole, officers from his first arrest testified that they could not remember him.
Instead, he was sentenced to 18 years. Yarbrough, also a third-time offender, got the lengthier sentence. Both men were sent to Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland.
Michael said he is certain that Willock's connection to Baltimore was fostered "entirely through the prisons." Whether it was at Western or a prison from an earlier sentence is unclear.
The federal indictment alleges that Baltimore's Tree Top Piru set was born in the Washington County Detention Center nine years ago - about the time Willock was there awaiting trial in his second case.
Wilson, the current drug task force prosecutor, said the reason an imprisoned gang leader can hold onto power is simple: "Everyone involved in drugs knows they will end up in prison at some point. Prison is bad enough without ticking a gang leader off. That's what keeps them in line."
Willock ruled his gang with "an iron fist," as one alleged member put it in a letter quoted in the federal indictment. His Tree Top Piru members fanned out from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, with the core in Baltimore, according to federal prosecutors. Authorities could provide no estimate of the number of its members, but city prosecutors have called it the largest and most violent gang in the city.
In telephone calls and letters flowing in and out of prison, federal prosecutors said, Willock discussed murders and assaults and planned ways for Tree Top Piru to buy and sell firearms and drugs for a profit. He wrote of his plans to purchase a kilogram of cocaine for $17,500 and resell it on his release from prison.
Willock discussed his power - and theorized why he was such an effective leader - in an Aug. 21 letter to Kline, his girlfriend.
The city "is a gold mine and them dudes is [too] geographical to do what I can. They on [their] east side, west side [expletive], but they all trees. Being I'm from the outside and I am who I am, only I can put everyone on one page and when money is involved, everyone listens!"
Letters that Willock wrote to Boone, asking for a sentence modification that would permit drug treatment, portray him as turning his life around.
"I am not a violent person," he wrote July 4, 2004. "I am a drug addict who has made many bad decisions to support my habit. I am tired of messing my life up, hurting my family and being alone."
Another letter to the judge, written Sept. 12 of last year, strikes a more hopeful tone.
"I have given my life to the lord. Recently I completed a 19 month mail in course to become an ordained minister. I am hoping to use my achievement to mentor the youth and start an anti-drug and anti-gang program."
But quite a different image emerges through letters federal authorities allege he wrote to Bloods members - including one dated Sept. 12, the same day he wrote to the judge.
In that one, the indictment alleges, Willock promoted a member to "Top Young Gangster" but told him earning rank in the gang is not easy. The young man, Willock allegedly wrote, must enforce the gang's right to be given respect by other gangs.