Prosecutors say Johnnie Butler ran a violent and well-organized heroin operation on Baltimore's east side. Its members were able to sneak drugs into prison, get tipped off by courthouse staff when they were being sought on warrants, circumvent the application process to acquire guns, and get released from jail by posting a fraction of the bail imposed by judges.
Last week, some of those who authorities said helped run the operation made their first appearances in court: a man enrolled at the city fire academy, a woman who worked for the state's attorney's office and attends the University of Baltimore, a Johns Hopkins Hospital nurse's assistant and a student on scholarship at St. Mary's College.
"Many people deal drugs as a last option and don't have the means to do anything else," said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Studdard. "In this organization, these individuals have intelligence and have the means to get out of a drug gang, but instead they choose to deal drugs. ... What's more dangerous?"
Nine people were indicted this month in Baltimore City Circuit Court on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin, part of a wiretap investigation into the organization, which was broken up in September. A series of raids throughout the city led to the seizure of drugs, guns and thousands of dollars, and many of the high-level players were indicted in federal court.
Authorities have said Butler, 32, is linked to at least two killings, though neither he nor anyone in his organization has been charged with such offenses. They think he had been dealing New York-bought heroin and cocaine in Baltimore since at least 2002, clearing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash each month and maintaining flashy cars - including a 2008 Mercedes-Benz supposedly purchased for $117,000 from Pittsburgh Steelers star Hines Ward, according to federal court documents.
Prosecutors said this month's indictment offered a look at the lower-level members of the organization, many of whom did not have the violent pedigree and previous brushes with the law as their federally indicted counterparts. Each was accompanied by as many as a dozen concerned family members who said the charges were unfounded.
After a scolding, Judge Sylvester Cox ordered those facing state charges to be released on personal recognizance or a five-figure bail - a relatively low amount - despite pleas from Studdard that their release could set off behind-the-scenes scheming, witness intimidation and concealing of assets that remain unaccounted for.
Those released included Brandon Ferebee, a 20-year-old who was arrested Monday at the Baltimore fire academy during an advanced paramedic class. He was described as a former point guard at Reginald F. Lewis High School whose family includes several current and former city firefighters. In one month, he was to join them as a graduate from the academy.
"He spends nine hours a day in class, and when he gets home he is studying," said his defense attorney, Karyn Meriwether. "How would he ever have the time to do what's alleged?"
Federal court records indicate that authorities believe his mother's Harwood home was used as a stash house, and he is allegedly recorded on a wiretap helping to facilitate a drug transaction between Butler's organization and a contact incarcerated in Jessup.
The woman accused of smuggling the drugs into the prison, 23-year-old Latoya Benston, has "never been arrested in her life" and worked for seven years at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a nurse's assistant, according to her attorney.
Studdard told Cox that "the fact that she would take drugs into a correctional facility is just incredible. She's that brazen."
Studdard also described Danara Ashe, 24, who he said was discussed in wiretaps with the nickname "Peaches," as part of Butler's network that would mobilize when trouble arose.
"Whenever met with a challenge, it was like a spider web, and all facets mobilized to deal with the problem," Studdard told Cox.
Ashe is the sister of twin brothers Davon and Daron Ashe, who have also been charged. A TEC-9 semiautomatic handgun was found in her master bedroom closet during a September raid, and one of her brothers, who often stayed in the basement of the home, told authorities where to find 150 gel caps of heroin and a .32-caliber revolver.
Danara Ashe's attorney said that she is a mother of three who works as a general accountant for the state and is a full-time accounting student at the University of Baltimore. He said she doesn't even go by the name "Peaches." She was terminated as a clerk for the state's attorney's office in the domestic violence unit after the raid.
"This is final exam week," defense attorney Richard V. Patton III pleaded in asking for her release.
Studdard said that the suspects had contacts with bail bondsmen who would help them get freed from jail on 2 percent or less of the amount imposed by the court. Cox seemed to scoff at the notion that that was possible, even though such cut-rate deals have been a source of ire for prosecutors, politicians and some in the bond industry.
"Not if I say it's 10 percent," the judge said.
Another suspect allegedly caught on wiretaps with Davon and Daron Ashe was Adam Harris, 20, who was described as a street-level manager of one of the heroin shops. Gunshots can be heard in the background of one call recorded from his cell phone, though Studdard said Harris' voice was not overheard on the call.
Harris' attorney said he has re-enrolled for the spring semester at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, where he attended for two years on a partial scholarship and studied computer science before dropping out for financial reasons. His mother posted her house as a property bond for his release. He has no prior criminal record.
Cox scolded Harris, noting St. Mary's idyllic campus and top-notch sailing team. "You can't have it better. ... I don't get it, son, but that's for another day," Cox said. "Ain't a lot of people [who] look like you get an opportunity down at St. Mary's College."