Richard Byrd went from a Park Heights stickup boy to a multimillionaire nightclub impresario, a business fueled by his cross-country marijuana distribution ring.
And he did it, he said from the witness stand Wednesday, with the guidance of his longtime Baltimore attorney, Kenneth Ravenell.
Maintain dedicated phone lines, Byrd said Ravenell told him. Conduct countersurveillance. Use “mature,” preferably white, drug couriers less likely to be stopped. Set up legitimate businesses, ones that deal in large amounts of cash, to launder the money through.
The tips “enabled me to be successful, to stay ahead of the government and make more money,” said Byrd, who is now 48 years old and serving a 26-year federal prison sentence.
Byrd is the key witness against Ravenell, long considered one of Baltimore’s top lawyers and who is on trial in U.S. District Court facing charges of racketeering, money laundering, drug conspiracy and obstruction of justice, based on allegations that he took part in his client’s crimes. He faces life in prison on the drug charges alone.
Byrd spent his first hour on the stand Wednesday explaining how Ravenell was key to helping him devise new ways to avoid getting caught by law enforcement.
But he did get caught, and Ravenell’s attorneys say Byrd is a documented liar who is hoping to reduce his sentence.
Holding up a dollar bill to the jury in opening arguments, Ravenell attorney Lucius Outlaw said the government will be unable to prove his client reaped millions for aiding a drug crew.
“With all these resources and people dedicated to investigating Mr. Ravenell ... for so long, how come they can’t find one cash dollar of the drug proceeds to show you?” Outlaw told jurors. “As Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. said in ‘Jerry Maguire’: ‘Show me the money.’”
The investigation simmered for years, with authorities raiding Ravenell’s law office in 2014 and not bringing charges until 2019. Along with Ravenell, his former attorney, Joshua Treem, and private investigator, Sean Gordon, are charged with obstruction of justice.
Byrd testified that he was a stick-up boy, robbing drug dealers, growing up in Northwest Baltimore. He met Ravenell in the early 1990s when Ravenell represented Byrd on gun and drug charges, and separately on a murder charge. Byrd was acquitted of murder and got five years in a guilty plea for the other case. He said Ravenell gave him a “lecture” about staying away from dealing hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, and instead focus on marijuana, and to avoid guns and violence.
Byrd would develop a wholesale cross-country marijuana operation, importing product from the Mexican state of Sinaloa and having it shipped through freight companies from Arizona to Baltimore, where it was sold up and down the East Coast. He estimates he moved tens of thousands of pounds, and made millions of dollars.
Along the way, he steered clothing businesses as well as nightclubs and events, which dealt largely in cash and could be used to disguise the drug money. He held major events in cities like Houston, with musicians and star athletes as headline guests. Money moved through Ravenell’s law firm at the time, Murphy Falcon Murphy, according to prosecutors.
“The Murphy Firm was able to give me the cover I needed,” Byrd testified.
Between the two ventures, after his conviction in 2017, he was ordered to forfeit $20 million.
Byrd testified Ravenell was giving him tips on how to stay ahead of police and was paid for his help. He said Ravenell helped him develop a more secure way of packaging the marijuana for shipment, storing it in plastic containers that were locked. In addition to sharing tactics, Ravenell would meet with witnesses and co-conspirators and “take them off the board” by getting them to sign false statements, he said.
Byrd had no pending criminal cases at the time; instead, he said, he considered Ravenell part of the drug operation.
“Me and Mr. Ravenell used to have these meetings where we’d discuss the nuts and bolts of everything, and structure of how we’re going to operate to make sure that the government is not alerted to what we’re doing or how we cover our tracks,” Byrd said. “You’d have to look at him like a Bill Belichick and me like a Tom Brady — he draws the plays up, and I run them.”
Outlaw, Ravenell’s attorney, told jurors that Ravenell is “not guilty if he was negligent” in taking drug money, but that the government has to “prove he actually knew it at the time.”
Nevertheless, the government has no proof that Ravenell received such money at all, Outlaw said, saying there would be no pictures of boats, jet skis, fur coats or a Caribbean condo. In fact, he implied Ravenell is strapped for cash, noting that his team of defense lawyers are handling the case pro bono.
Outlaw said defense attorneys are supposed to figure out who is cooperating against their clients and find and interview them.
“Defense. Attorney. That is the job,” Outlaw said.
Outlaw said Byrd and others who will testify are documented liars, who lied to each other, to the government and to Ravenell himself. They are looking for “get-out-of-jail-sooner cards,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise confirmed that though he signed no cooperation agreement, the government has filed for a reduction in Byrd’s sentence. The judge overseeing the case, Liam O’Grady, ultimately will decide whether Byrd should receive such a reduction.
Prosecutors said Byrd decided to come clean about Ravenell’s role in his drug operation after Byrd was unable to recoup a $2 million investment he made through Ravenell in the MGM National Harbor casino. Outlaw said there’s no proof of such an investment at all.
Byrd also wore a wire for federal authorities during a September 2017 meeting in jail with Ravenell’s former lawyer, Treem, and Gordon, the private investigator. In the meeting, Byrd said that Ravenell was involved in his drug operation, but he would lie about it if he could recoup the casino money.
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Treem and Gordon are charged with obstruction of justice, for sending a letter to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in which Treem reported that Byrd had tried to blackmail Ravenell and falsely stated that Byrd had cleared Ravenell of wrongdoing. Gordon signed an affidavit asserting the same.
Treem’s attorney, Robert Trout, said that Treem has 50 years of experience as a lawyer and had a “pre-eminent” reputation.
“The evidence will show at all times, Josh Treem was doing what a lawyer is entitled to do, and more than that, he was doing what a lawyer was obliged and expected to do,” Trout said. “At all times, the evidence will show, he was lawfully and in good faith providing legal representation.”
Trout said that the government surreptitiously recorded the meeting even though they had no reason to suspect Treem was doing anything wrong, and that they coached Byrd on what to say. When Byrd called Gordon saying he needed his money or he would go to the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick was sitting next to Byrd, Trout said.
“It was another setup by the government,” Trout said.
Treem “may be fairly accused of being a senior citizen with less than a photographic memory, but he is not guilty of obstruction of justice,” Trout said.
Gordon’s attorney, Virginia federal public defender Geremy Kamens, said Gordon committed no crimes, either, because “he did what defense investigators are supposed to do: seek out legitimate evidence that helps a client.”