A convicted former Baltimore police detective broke down on the witness stand Tuesday when asked about an incident in which the FBI secretly recorded members of the Gun Trace Task Force as they fled the scene of a car crash and spoke of falsifying their time sheets to make it seem that they were never there.
Former Detective Jemell Rayam said the officers had chased the car that got hit.
“It was bad. It was a bad accident,” Rayam said.
Turning to the jury, he said: “It could’ve been any one of us, any one of you; my mother, my father.”
The FBI hid a microphone inside their vehicle, and jurors on Tuesday heard the recording as Rayam returned to the stand on the fourth day of testimony in the federal racketeering trials of fellow officers Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor.
Rayam, who has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, is one of four officers cooperating with the government and testifying in hopes of reducing their sentences.
Rayam’s plea agreement outlined several crimes in the past few years, but in interviews with the FBI and on the witness stand he has admitted that his crimes stretched back at least nine years.
Among them, Rayam admitted Tuesday to receiving money from a robbery of $11,000 in 2009, and then lying to internal affairs, in a case The Baltimore Sun wrote about in December after obtaining the case’s internal affairs file. Rayam had been charged with lying but was cleared of wrongdoing by an internal disciplinary panel and put back to work on the Gun Trace Task Force.
Rayam also told the FBI that his longtime partner, Detective Momodu Gondo, told him he had once gone with an associate to buy a gun that was used in a murder, and had been involved in shootings himself before he became a police officer and had “laid someone out.”
Gondo was shot in 2006 outside his home while wearing his uniform but off-duty, a case in which a man was charged, tried and acquitted. Rayam told the FBI that Gondo told him the shooting was not related to being a police officer, but was “actually in retaliation for drug trafficking,” Taylor’s defense attorney, Jenifer Wicks, said.
Gondo has pleaded guilty to both racketeering and for his role in a drug organization, and is expected to be called as a witness for the government later in the trial.
The shocking disclosures were just the latest to emerge in the trial, revealing allegations of everyday misconduct by the officers as well as brazen crimes. Federal prosecutors have called the officers “both cops and robbers.”
City prosecutors have dropped about 125 cases as of December involving the gun task force officers. Deborah Katz Levi, of the Maryland public defender’s office, said the number should be far higher because the officers handled many more cases and their integrity is compromised.
“Based on the testimony earlier in the week, our numbers grew to approximately 3,000 tainted cases, dating from 2011 forward,” she said. “We anticipate that the number of affected convictions will grow significantly.”
Two men who were robbed by members of the unit also testified Tuesday.
Herbert Tate, an HVAC technician, said he was walking in East Baltimore when Hersl and two other officers, Kevin Fassl and Sgt. John Burns, stopped him and searched him on the street. Hersl began checking nearby staircases and vacant homes looking for drugs before allegedly finding heroin stashed behind a wall. Tate said the drugs did not belong to him. Meanwhile, he said he had about $530 on him, and the officers reported submitting only about $220.
Defense attorney Christopher Nieto questioned why Tate was in the area when the officers stopped him.
“This is not a great neighborhood in Baltimore, is it?” Nieto said.
“To me it is,” Tate said.
Also taking the stand was Dennis Armstong, who admitted he was leaving a storage container where he stowed kilograms of cocaine when he was stopped by the officers. He fled, “throwing snowball-sized chunks of cocaine out of the window, exploding on the street,” Hersl’s attorney, William Purpura, said earlier in the trial.
Armstrong said the officers took $8,000 from him and reported seizing just $2,800. Police destroyed his storage unit, tearing off the walls that separated it from other units, and took two kilograms of cocaine.
Armstrong testified that he never said anything about the missing drugs because he would have faced more jail time.
The car crash recorded by the FBI device occurred on Aug. 31, 2016, near the University of Maryland downtown, Rayam testified. The Police Department could not provide a copy of the incident report Tuesday.
Rayam said the unit’s sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, spotted a car at a gas station and tried to pull it over, but the car sped off. The officers gave chase, despite a policy against high-speed pursuits.
“No lights, no lights,” Rayam can be heard saying on the recording, referring to turning off their emergency lights. The police car’s engine revs in the background.
“S---. Damn!” Gondo says, apparently after the crash.
“Keep going, yo,” Rayam says.
The officers can be heard discussing the likelihood that surveillance cameras captured them giving chase.
Hersl can be heard saying Jenkins wanted the officers to stay in the area, and to listen on the police radio to see if any other officers would come to render aid.
“All we had to do was just get out,” Taylor can be heard saying.
“Hey, we were never down that street,” Hersl says.
Hersl later says, “We could go and stop the [time] slips at 10:30, before that happened. … I was in the car, just driving home.”
“I was being a follower,” Rayam testified. “I should have called it in.”
Jenkins also has pleaded guilty in the case.
In addition to breaking down while recounting the crash, Rayam cried earlier in his testimony when a wiretapped phone conversation with Gondo was played for the jury. Rayam’s children can be heard in the background. Court records show his wife has filed for divorce since he was criminally charged.
Despite cutting corners in his police work, using illegal tactics and lying to justify searches, Rayam said he never planted drugs or guns on anyone. If anything, he said, people he robbed might get a break because they were either let go or faced reduced charges.
He said he was airing everything he knew about illegal misconduct in order to clear his conscience and potentially reduce his sentence.
Hersl’s attorney, William Purpura, asked Rayam if he was in “a bind.”
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Rayam said.