BALTIMORE — Federal prosecutors have indicted 90 individuals on gun and drug charges in Baltimore in the past month alone, accusing them of peddling huge amounts of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine as part of underworld drug crews spurring violence across the city.
The defendants were charged in four separate cases, and 51 guns were seized, prosecutors said. Large amounts of drugs and nearly $1 million in cash also were confiscated. In one case, vehicles worth nearly half a million dollars were seized.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur said the indictments, some newly unsealed and disclosed for the first time Thursday, represent a concerted effort between federal prosecutors and their local law enforcement partners to combat the historic pace of killing in Baltimore — which saw a staggering 38 homicides last month, and recorded nearly 200 killings already in 2019.
“We work with our partners to identify the most violent parts of the city, identify those violent groups who are responsible for the most violence in those parts of the city, and do the painstaking work of building federal cases against those people," Hur said in an interview.
On Thursday, Hur’s office held a news conference with other law enforcement leaders, including Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Cekada, and recently appointed FBI Baltimore Office’s Special Agent in Charge Jennifer C. Boone outside the Union Baptist Church in the Upton neighborhood, northwest of downtown.
“These types of investigations focused on neighborhoods in our city that suffer the most do not happen without close partnerships between Baltimore police officers, federal agents and prosecutors,” Hur told reporters.
In the first seven months of this year federal prosecutors have charged 215 people with being involved in violent drug trafficking organizations, compared with 246 similar indictments for all of 2018.
Harrison said he hopes the strengthened partnership, which includes sharing “analytical resources” and intelligence from local investigations, will help identify leaders of the crime groups in hopes of charging them with federal crimes, which typically carry stiffer punishments.
"We’re stronger together than we are alone, sharing intelligence and aggressively investigating cases involving drugs and violence in our community,” the commissioner said. “The goal is to impact high-crime areas, and disrupt, dismantle and eradicate areas of illegal drug activity with violence that often goes with it.”
The emphasis on shifting cases to federal court was not welcomed by everyone. James Wyda, the Public Defender for the District of Maryland, questioned the strategy and its long-term effects.
“When cases are brought to federal court, severe sanctions follow. Thus, we should reserve federal court for those cases and clients who deserve the severe sentences that come in federal court...," Wyda said in a statement. "It seems that if there is one lesson learned over the past few decades of mass incarceration of people of color, it’s that we should be careful about celebrating the number of severe sentences doled out in the name of justice.”
While the four cases hinge on local gun possession and drug distribution charges, prosecutors have alleged connections to murderous violence, as well, including toward at least one federal informant.
They also outlined links to major criminal organizations across the country and abroad.
In one case centered on a drug crew known as LNG — for Liberty and Garrison, a reference to a Northwest Baltimore intersection — prosecutors allege indirect links to a Mexican drug cartel and direct membership of the crew’s members in the powerful and far-reaching Black Guerrilla Family and Crips gangs. The indictment suggests the two larger gangs have been cooperating to push fentanyl-laced heroin in Baltimore — where the extremely-potent drug combination has been linked to a historic spike in deadly overdoses.
In a recently unsealed affidavit seeking a search warrant for various properties linked to the LNG investigation, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent wrote that a confidential source identified one of the defendants, Brandon Crawford, as being involved in the 2015 killing of a barbershop employee named Andre Hunt.
Hunt allegedly identified Crawford to federal authorities as a bulk heroin distributor in an effort to win leniency in his own drug case. Crawford allegedly asked Hunt how his own case was going the same day Hunt was ambushed at the Cut Masters barbershop where he worked.
Neither Crawford nor his court-appointed attorney could be reached for comment.
In addition to the LNG case, in which 21 individuals were charged and more than a dozen guns seized, prosecutors highlighted three others.
In one, 25 defendants have been charged as alleged members of the Montford and OTM drug crew, centered in the McElderry Park and Milton Montford neighborhoods in East Baltimore, just east of Johns Hopkins Hospital in an area targeted for redevelopment by the city. Several homicides and shootings have occurred there this year, including a quintuple shooting in June that killed a 19-year-old man.
The crew is accused of selling heroin, fentanyl, and crack and powder cocaine to individual drug users locally and in bulk to other distributors in the city.
Prosecutors said investigators seized nine guns, more than 14 kilograms of cocaine, about 4.5 kilograms of heroin, 479 grams of fentanyl, nearly half a million dollars in cash and jewelry, and approximately $500,000 worth of cars in that case.
In another case, a total of 38 defendants were arrested and accused of being part of a drug crew centered around West Franklin Street and North Loudon and Normandy avenues, in the West Mulberry neighborhood, south of Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore.
Federal agents seized 17 guns in that case, along with drugs and cash, and court documents alleged links to a May 5, 2018, homicide, an Oct. 16, 2018, shootout, and the robbery of an unlicensed taxi driver.
In a fourth case, prosecutors said six defendants have been charged with working as a drug crew in the area of Frederick and Collins avenues, in the Irvington neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore. A total of five guns were seized, they said, including a Glock pistol modified to fire as a fully automatic firearm.
The cases come as Baltimore again finds itself in the national spotlight after a week of criticisms of the city by President Donald Trump, who in tweets has called the city a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" and alleged without providing evidence that billions in federal funding has been wasted.
Hur said Thursday that the President’s comments have had “absolutely no impact” on the collaboration between the agencies.
He said his office is focused on helping Baltimore recover from its current elevated violence. Asked about the level of federal resources his office has been provided to do that work, he said he "certainly could always use more, but we are working together, we are working hard, we are working smart with our partners.”
In addition to big gun and drug cases, Hur’s office continues to work on even larger, more complex racketeering cases. It has made an effort to host “call ins” with individuals on parole and probation who have been identified as being at high risk of re-offending, reminding them that they are already on the radar of law enforcement and will face steep federal sentences if they break the law again.
Hur’s office also seeks to connect individuals getting out of federal prison with resources, so their re-entry into society is smooth.
“It’s unproductive and unwise for us to simply have those people going back to their neighborhoods and putting them in situations where they are likely to get back into the criminal activity that put them in prison in the first place,” he said.
Hur acknowledged that dismantling entire drug crews at once can lead to problems.
“In some ways we are a little bit of a victim of our own success. Over the years, we’ve dismantled and split up these big gangs into these smaller, neighborhood crews," he said. “There is the potential that when you uproot or indict the entirety of a [drug trafficking organization], it creates a vacuum.”
Still, “we are in a position where the city is seeing elevated gun violence in the city and we have to respond accordingly,” he said. In dismantling a crew he said, “you give that neighborhood a chance to take a breath, and get respite from the violence, and decide, ‘OK, what do we do to move forward?’ "
Hur praised the Baltimore Police task force officers who work with federal law enforcement agencies in the city for their work in investigating the cases that recently landed.
“I really cannot over-emphasize how important it is to have BPD officers working with our agents,” he said.
And he warned would-be drug traffickers in the city, particularly those involved in violence, that the work is ongoing.
“This is work that has been going on for months and it’s led to this steady drumbeat over the last four weeks of these kinds of cases," he said. "This work is continuing. There is more coming.”