Two officers charged in Baltimore’s biggest police corruption scandal in memory go on trial Monday in U.S. District Court.
The case started with the drug overdose of a 19-year-old from New Jersey in Harford County in 2011.
Authorities worked to find out who provided the drugs to the woman. The search led to a Northeast Baltimore drug crew supplying Harford and Baltimore counties.
It was during an investigation into that crew that federal task force officers realized that a Baltimore police officer was an active participant in the crew’s activities.
[ Notable testimony from the Gun Trace Task Force case ]
That led authorities to Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force — and the federal indictment of eight members of the elite unit on racketeering charges. They were accused of executing searches without warrants, invading private homes, robbing suspects and innocent citizens of cash and reselling drugs on the street.
Six have pleaded guilty, and four are cooperating with the government. They are expected to testify in the trial, which could last three weeks.
The proceeding in U.S. District Court in Baltimore trial is likely to add new details. Among the lingering questions: How did the officers’ conduct go unchecked for so long? Who else knew of their activities? And who tipped the unit off to an investigation into their crimes?
Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor have pleaded not guilty. Both are fighting charges of racketeering conspiracy, robbery, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence. They have been held pending trial.
In court filings and a hearing earlier this month, Hersl’s attorney has indicated that he plans to argue that the alleged robberies were isolated incidents in a long career spent pursuing drug dealers and gun-wielding criminals.
Attorney William Purpura is also arguing that as a police officer, Hersl is allowed to seize money from a person when he has probable cause to suspect the person has committed a crime. Seizing money legally and then keeping it for for himself would be theft, he says, not robbery.
“Detective Hersl while on the gun task force and prior to being on that particular gun task force has been engaged in Baltimore City, ridding the city [of] guns,” Purpura said at a motions hearing. “There's been hundreds and hundreds of guns which he's personally taken off the street. And what we have here from 2014 through 2016 is a handful, maybe five, maybe six incidents out of all those hundreds and we consider those incidents not to be good conduct — they are crimes, but the crimes would be a theft crime and not a robbery and/or an extortion type of crime.”
Federal prosecutors say he should not be able to make such arguments.
Taylor is charged in five incidents from 2014 to 2016. His trial strategy is not clear, and his attorney did not return messages seeking comment. They filed motions last week seeking to get the case thrown out.
The indictment alleges breathtaking corruption as the U.S. Department of Justice was conducting a civil rights investigation of the Police Department.
Taylor is alleged to have taken part in what may have been the largest robbery: a March 2016 incident in which his squad took $6,500 from a man during a traffic stop, then went to his home and took $100,000 out of a safe.
Using Taylor’s cell phone, the officers created a fake video depicting the officers finding the money. In reality, half the cash had already been removed.
After the search, the officers went to Taylor’s house, where Det. Wayne Jenkins gave at least $20,000 each to the other officers.
The other officers involved in that allegation have pleaded guilty.
Christopher Ervin, who founded the re-entry group The Lazarus Rite, said the Gun Trace Task Force allegations are “shocking for people who don’t live in those communities.”
“In the black community, this is not shocking at all,” Ervin said. “You get a chorus of, ‘We’ve been saying that.’ ”
While individual officers have been arrested for corruption over the years, the Gun Trace Task Force case stands out in its scope and in the seriousness of the charges.
“These officers are 1930s-style gangsters,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said last year. “They betrayed the trust we’re trying to build with our community at a very sensitive time in our history.”
Davis was fired Friday.
In 2011, 50 officers were implicated in a kickback scandal involving a towing company; some were federally charged and convicted.
In the early 1970s, a Baltimore officer named Llewellyn Dykes went undercover to help expose officers who were taking payoffs to allow gambling rackets to flourish. About a dozen officers were charged in the case.
Dykes wanted to continue his police career, but found himself ostracized by the department. In the midst of one of the trials, he was jumped and badly beaten by men who called him a rat.
Dykes, now an antiques appraiser living in the South, said officers are pressured not to speak out against police corruption.
“You’ve got a very insulated group of police officers who count on each other to live,” Dykes said. “So that insularity of ‘Don’t tell and don’t disagree, don’t rock the boat, don’t say that’s illegal, don’t say stop beating that person, don’t say stop stealing from that person’ is enforced by the need for unity on the streets.
“You have a separation in law enforcement circles of those who are susceptible, and those who are not. Those who are susceptible continue to gravitate towards illegal activity unless there’s something to prevent them from doing so.”
Michael Dowd, a former New York police officer, was one of those officers who gravitated toward crime. In the early 1990s, he ripped off drug dealers, took money to shield others, and raced to crime scenes to steal drugs before other officers arrived.
He was convicted of narcotics conspiracy and served 12 years in federal prison.
He described corruption as a “process.” In his case, he said, it started with his department dissuading him from making drug arrests.
“You can justify it each step of the way,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “You begin to forget why you’re there. Who was I taking from? From convicted, or what should be convicted, drug dealers. The mentality was, ‘I run the street. Not you. This is my street.’ ”
Questions have also been raised about city prosecutors. Federal authorities have said that a city prosecutor tipped off the gun unit to the federal investigation.
The office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby will not say whether it knew the identity of that prosecutor or has attempted to find out. The office has referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Federal authorities continue to probe the Gun Trace Task Force. Prosecutors told the court recently that there are additional targets, and multiple current and former officers have provided information. The Police Department says it is being largely kept in the dark by federal authorities about what has been uncovered and where the investigation might be headed.
The role of supervisors remains an open question. In the agency’s chain of command, front-line supervisors have the most contact and most responsibility to oversee officers. Two of the officers who have pleaded guilty were sergeants who ran the Gun Trace Task Force.
Lt. Gene Ryan is president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
“The fact that the sergeants were involved, that’s definitely a buffer to the next step up,” he said. “If I’m a lieutenant and I’ve got no reason to doubt my sergeants, I’m not going to follow behind them. … A lieutenant is supposed to monitor everybody underneath them. But they can’t do it all the time.”
Davis demoted Lt. Col. Sean Miller, a high-ranking commander who oversaw key crime-fighting efforts citywide, after the task force officers were indicted. Davis would not say why he removed Miller. Miller now serves as a lieutenant in the Southern District.
Breaking News Alerts
The Gun Trace Task Force’s supervisor above Jenkins, Lt. Marjorie German, was moved back to patrol in the Central District.
No public allegations have been made against German or Miller.
Davis also said he believed one officer linked to a drug-planting allegation had been cleared and restored to full duty. Sgt. Ryan Guinn was quickly suspended when allegations of police planting drugs in 2010 appeared in a new indictment against Jenkins in late November.
In that case, prosecutors say, Jenkins told Guinn to call a sergeant who had “the stuff” in his car. Prosecutors say Guinn, identified in the indictment as Officer No. 2, was later told by Jenkins that drugs had been planted in the arrestee’s vehicle.
Davis says the FBI informed him that Guinn was not involved in any wrongdoing and has reinstated Guinn.
“I am completely confident that there are no administrative sanctions to pursue on Officer No. 2,” Davis said. “And if there was, he’d still be suspended.”
A department spokesman would not make Guinn available for comment.