In this exclusive excerpt from Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s book, “We Own This City,” coming Tuesday from Random House, investigators from Harford County working a city drug case stumble onto possible corruption within the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. The FBI establishes enough probable cause to get a wiretap of an officer’s phone.
The FBI’s nascent investigation of the Gun Trace Task Force case took a sharp turn on the afternoon of May 9, 2016.
Special Agent Erika Jensen was in the wire room in the FBI’s Woodlawn field office, listening to Baltimore Police Det. Momodu Gondo’s phone calls over headphones. Gondo made calls to an informant about busting a planned drug sale; it was one of Jensen’s first chances to hear Gondo at work.
“We gonna be able to do that thing this week, yo? [With the] white boy?” Gondo asked the informant.
“Yeah, but the issue is I gotta get some [Xanax] bars first,” the informant said, before correcting herself: “Oh, no I don’t.”
“Right,” Gondo said, “because he ain’t gonna make it to you.”
They discussed how the informant was to “set up” a 25-year-old Harford County man named Nicholas DeForge. Gondo said he wanted the informant to ensure that DeForge would come to the meeting with a gun so that the officers could arrest him with it. When the informant called back later, she said the plan was in motion.
FBI Task Force Officer Sgt. John Sieracki was out on the streets on another investigation around midday when Jensen asked him to make a pass-by and conduct surveillance. It was pouring rain, and Sieracki set up a couple of blocks away to watch. From his perch, the encounter looked like any normal traffic stop. But over the wiretap, Jensen was hearing a different sequence of events play out.
[ Cops and Robbers: Part One ]
DeForge and his girlfriend drove his gray 2011 Scion through West Baltimore, following Gondo’s informant to a meeting location.
The informant worried that DeForge knew he was being followed by police. “You need to just get them,” the informant told Gondo.
Gondo, along with Detectives Jemell Rayam and Daniel Hersl, and their sergeant Thomas Allers, finally pulled their car over near Coppin State University.
Gondo called the informant.
“It’s a gun in his right pocket, his jacket,” the informant said.
“You saw that s---?” Gondo said.
“Yeah, he carry it every time he come because they come with so much money and they be scared. Cause he should have like six or seven hundred dollars on ‘em too,” she said. “He be thinking he gonna get robbed, so that’s why he comes every time with it [a gun].”
But as officers checked, Gondo said, they weren’t seeing a gun in a jacket. He didn’t even see a jacket; DeForge was wearing a T-shirt.
“It’s in there,” the informant insisted. “He’s not gonna come without it.”
“He’s shaking his head, saying he ain’t got nothing,” Gondo said, referring to Hersl searching the car.
“It’s in that car, he never comes without it.”
“They searched him. It ain’t in his pocket.”
“Well, search the car, look under the seat.”
The gun — a two-shot .22 caliber pistol — was eventually found in a backpack, and DeForge was arrested. The conversation between Gondo and the informant had sounded strange to Jensen, particularly how long they had gone back and forth about officers not being able to find the gun. She later pulled the statement of probable cause that accompanied the arrest. It didn’t read anything like the encounter Jensen had listened to.
The officers said that they had conducted a traffic stop on DeForge for following another vehicle at an unsafe distance and that upon approaching DeForge’s car Hersl had “observed DeForge reaching from his right pants pocket, placing a small caliber firearm into a camouflage backpack.” As the wiretapped call showed, Hersl had made no such observation, as the officers had had great trouble locating the gun at all. What they had described in the statement of probable cause for the arrest on the gun charge was a clean sequence of events that justified the officers’ actions.
For federal investigators, the encounter revealed not only that Gondo was working with drug dealers but that he and his squad were lying about their police work. But there was another twist to come.
The federal team next decided to pull phone calls DeForge had made from jail, including one between DeForge and his girlfriend not long after he was booked. They speculated that they had been set up by someone they knew and said the officers had lied about the traffic violation that had led to them being pulled over.
Then DeForge’s girlfriend asked, “What happened to your money?”
“The police said they gave it to you,” DeForge replied.
“No. That’s a downright lie,” she said. “They gave me my wallet with the money that was [already] in my wallet. Your wallet was completely ransacked. They never gave me anything.”
“I don’t keep it in my wallet, it was just in my pocket in a money clip.”
“I didn’t see any money clip.”
DeForge had brought cash for the drug buy, as the informant had told Gondo he would, but it wasn’t accounted for in the court paperwork. The informant told Gondo that DeForge would have $700 on him; DeForge’s mother later said her son had at least $1,500. The court papers didn’t mention any money being seized.
Jensen was in constant contact with Leo Wise, the federal prosecutor who was now overseeing the investigation, and gave him the update.
“You’re not going to believe what I think is going on here,” she told the prosecutor. “We believe money is being taken.”
The case had now veered from an investigation into one officer’s potential collusion with a drug crew, to potential civil rights violations when they lied on their arrest report about the traffic stop and gun seizure, to what appeared to be officers robbing people.
DeForge’s mother, Laura Slater, remembers her son’s girlfriend calling from the scene while the officers had them stopped. “I think they’re going to arrest Nick,” the girlfriend told her. They had a pit bull in the backseat with them, and the girlfriend said the officers were threatening to take the dog to animal control and impound the vehicle if DeForge didn’t help the officers set up someone else that they could arrest. DeForge’s mother says her son did as he was asked, but his efforts came up short of what the officers had expected, and they charged DeForge for the gun. His booking time for that arrest appears to confirm the account: though DeForge had been stopped at 1:15 p.m., he wasn’t booked until 7:43 p.m.
Jensen, nicknamed “Honey Badger” by her FBI colleagues for her persistence in investigations, decided to take another chance. She asked a source within the department to obtain footage of the stop recorded by city surveillance cameras in the area of the arrest and spent the weekend scouring the tapes. The footage confirmed what she had heard: that the officers had spent a great deal of time trying to find DeForge’s gun and had not made the quick observation relayed in the sworn court papers. She saw Rayam going through his pockets.
The FBI did not yet want to engage DeForge, since they were wary of their investigation somehow making it back to the officers.
They would not get the chance to talk to him: eight months later, DeForge overdosed on fentanyl and cocaine.
Jensen knew they had stumbled onto a potentially deep pocket of corruption inside the GTTF. But she needed more — an isolated case of wrongdoing was never as powerful as demonstrating a pattern, and continued investigation could lead to more serious crimes and additional participants. She and her team weighed their options for moving the case forward. They could introduce a confidential informant of their own to the officers, but they decided Gondo and Rayam would be too guarded. “Even if a confidential informant was successfully introduced, it would be highly unlikely that Gondo or Rayam would trust them and they would have only a small window into Gondo and Rayam’s activities,” Jensen wrote at the time. The same problem would hold for an undercover agent: “In order to introduce an undercover employee into this investigation, a relationship would have to be established with Gondo and Rayam. There also exists a high probability that Gondo and Rayam are familiar with this technique, thereby jeopardizing the investigation and placing the employee in danger,” she wrote.
Then they moved to another option: a sting operation.
The FBI rented a 10-year old, 28-foot Ford Yellowstone motor home and installed video and audio recording devices inside. They planted $4,500 in “bait money,” along with some personal items that would make it appear someone had been traveling using the vehicle. The trailer was parked at a rest stop off Interstate 95 in Southeast Baltimore.
A supervisor from a Harford County DEA team would place a call to the GTTF requesting assistance securing and searching the trailer. The city officers were to be told that the county officers had taken someone into custody who was cooperating and had told them about the trailer and had said the vehicle’s key was hidden under the bumper. The county officers would say they were busy with the debriefing and would remain offsite.
It would just be the GTTF and a motor home full of money. And the cameras would be rolling.
The obvious upside was catching the officers in the act, in an irrefutable way. There was a downside to consider too. For one, if the officers happened to play the case by the book, their defense attorneys could play the tape on a loop at an eventual trial as proof that the officers hadn’t taken the bait after being set up by an overzealous government.
The investigators put the plan into motion around midday in early June. Jensen was listening to the reaction of the GTTF officers over the wire as they checked surveillance cameras and cased the area.
These were not things that officers who had been asked to help out other law enforcement officers would do.
“They, particularly Rayam, were very leery and concerned about what they were walking into. Rayam even questioned on the phone if this was an Internal Affairs setup,” Jensen recalled later.
Jensen worried that the officers might uncover the sting operation.
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The officers’ arrival was now imminent, and she had to make a choice.
If it worked, the sting would provide incontrovertible evidence that the officers were stealing. But it could also backfire and expose their whole investigation.
“We had everything to lose,” she said later.
She pulled the plug.
The Harford investigators waved off the city cops, and the FBI was able to remove the motor home from the travel plaza without the officers seeing.
Jensen resolved to continue to listen to the wires, but the officers’ paranoia that day served as a warning. A planned attempt to have two undercover agents engage Gondo at a D.C. nightclub was scrapped.
There was also another development that caught the investigators’ notice. The day of the sting, Rayam had been the acting supervisor, a title bestowed on an officer when the permanent supervisor isn’t available. It was the first hint that changes were coming to the GTTF — changes that would threaten to upend Jensen’s entire case.