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Murder charges dropped against men accused of operating West Baltimore drug crew

A criminal case against an allegedly murderous West Baltimore drug crew unraveled in city court this week as state prosecutors dropped charges of violent crimes against four of the defendants.

Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Brandon Pride, 37, whom they once accused of being a drug kingpin and ordering the killing of police informants. They also dropped the most serious charges against three of Pride's co-defendants: Antoine Benjamin, 27; Tyron Evans, 41; and Tavares White, 35.

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"They're backing off all these claims," said Josh Insley, Pride's defense attorney. "They were optimistic that some of the other people they indicted would cooperate and confirm some of these rumors for them, and that was not forthcoming."

However, Pride and the three co-defendants still are expected to face drug and gun charges in federal court, according to Insley, an attorney for Benjamin and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore.

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The spokeswoman, Elizabeth Morse, declined to comment further and online records for the federal court did not show any charges against the men Tuesday.

Attorneys for Evans and White could not be reached for comment.

Two years in the making, the case against the alleged "Brick City" drug crew came undone when the trial opened Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court. Two other defendants in the case struck plea deals Monday to lesser crimes.

In August 2015, authorities say a "street lieutenant" for Brandon Pride's west side drug operation got caught with 52 bags of heroin. The lieutenant, 43-year-old Jason Summers, offered to cooperate with police, and later that night helped officers arrest another member of Pride's operation with 230 bags of heroin.

Of the nine people allegedly in the crew indicted last year, three remain on trial this week.

Insley said prosecutors built their case on rumors.

"Was there ever really any meat on the burger?" he said.

In February 2017, prosecutors announced indictments against nine men accused in the drug crew. At the time, they said Pride killed or tried to have killed at least four people he suspected of being police informants.

Prosecutors said the drug crew operated in the area around Harlem Park in West Baltimore. They said some of its so-called heroin shops could make more than $20,000 a day in sales.

In a break from routine, the case was prosecuted by the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. The prosecutors declined to discuss the case, directing questions to a spokeswoman.

Raquel Guillory Coombs, the spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the case "continues to move forward." She declined to comment further.

Davon Coates, 30; Mark Rice, 35; and Ronnie Whitener, 42, remain charged with conspiracy to commit murder and drug charges. Attorneys for Coates and Whitener declined to comment.

Rice's attorney, Nicholas Panteleakis, said his client maintains his innocence.

The trial proceeded with heightened security. Nearly a dozen sheriff's deputies guarded the courtroom Tuesday morning. Prosecutors discussed in court their concerns for the safety of witnesses.

W. Michel Pierson, the administrative judge for Baltimore Circuit Court, had taken the additional step of ordering all attorneys and courtroom staff to pass through metal detectors. Everyone else entering the court already goes through them.

Security concerns arose after family members of one defendant were killed inside their West Baltimore rowhome last week. The killers kicked in the back door of the home on Gorman Avenue and shot Chanette Neal, 43, and Justice Allen, 21, police said.

The two women were targeted, police said. They were family members of Benjamin, who had faced charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Those charges were dropped.

Federal prosecutors expect to charge him with a gun charge, Morse said.

His attorney, Jeremy Eldridge, said he has no reason to believe the killings of the two women were connected to the "Brick City" case.

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