Recently unsealed court records provide new insight into the long-simmering investigation into Baltimore powerhouse attorney Kenneth Ravenell, who is currently on trial in U.S. District Court for racketeering conspiracy and money laundering.
A 2014 search warrant for Ravenell’s law office at the time shows that the Drug Enforcement Administration had a cooperator within the drug organization of Richard Byrd, a longtime Ravenell client who was trafficking marijuana across the country.
The cooperator was Lamont Wanzer, the longtime friend and business partner of “Just a Friend” rapper Biz Markie. Wanzer is not identified by name in the search warrant affidavit, but in transcribed conversations he is repeatedly called “Monty,” which is his nickname, and is asked about BizMont, a company he ran with Biz Markie.
Wanzer and Byrd ran a marketing and events company called Loc Marketing that Byrd testified last week was a front to launder Byrd’s drug proceeds.
Markie was not implicated in the criminal case, and he died from complications of diabetes this past July at a hospital in Baltimore.
Wanzer died at the age of 45 in November 2014, after what a relative described on Facebook at the time as a long battle with cancer. It’s unclear whether his death contributed to the five-year gap between when prosecutors raided Ravenell’s office and when they ultimately brought charges.
Byrd later found out that Wanzer was recording his conversations.
“Lamont Wanzer was wearing a wire into those meetings the whole time. There’s a lot of s--- the government picked up that maybe they can’t use now,” Byrd said in a recorded 2018 meeting with Ravenell’s attorneys, referring to Wanzer’s death.
In the intervening years, prosecutors continued working to get convicted members of the drug organization to cooperate against Ravenell, successfully flipping at least four of them who are testifying at the attorney’s trial, including Byrd. Another convicted co-conspirator who is out of prison agreed to testify under partial immunity and took the stand Monday.
Ravenell has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction of justice. His attorneys told jurors that he did not knowingly accept drug proceeds, and that other actions he took for the Byrd organization were part of his job as a defense attorney.
Prosecutors called Ravenell’s assistant of 20 years, Deborah Ness, to testify about money from Byrd that flowed through Ravenell’s law firm, but she testified Monday that she never saw him do anything improper
“He is a very honest, hard-working, dedicated-to-all-his-clients, Christian man, and I have the utmost respect for him,” Ness said on cross-examination.
The 83-page search warrant from 2014 for Ravenell’s then-office lays out information law enforcement had gathered at that point, and its efforts to tie Ravenell to the drug organization, which would not culminate in charges until 2019. Among them were financial transactions that flowed through Ravenell’s law firm.
The cooperator — now known to be Wanzer — began to record conversations with members of the Byrd organization in May 2013, DEA Task Force Officer David Phillips wrote in the Aug. 26, 2014, search warrant. Byrd had been indicted in April 2014, and is serving 26 years in prison.
Phillips wrote that the cooperator “has first-hand knowledge about the business dealings and practices of Loc Marketing” and that he had advised Phillips “that the Byrd [drug trafficking organization] used Loc Marketing to launder large amounts of currency that [he] believed were the proceeds of narcotics sales.”
Phillips wrote that it was his belief “that Ravenell’s relationship with Byrd is such that Ravenell is aware of his client’s participation in the drug business.”
Wanzer recorded multiple conversations, including at least two with Ravenell that Philips described in the search warrant.
Wanzer repeatedly expressed frustration with the management of Loc Marketing’s funds, saying that Byrd was not being careful and that it was drawing attention of authorities — at one point prompting Wanzer’s bank accounts to be shut down.
One of Wanzer’s recorded calls with Ravenell occurred in June 2014 when Wanzer was in a hospital bed recovering from cancer-related surgery.
“I didn’t understand. I kept on telling them, like you got to let me know. You just can’t do that stuff,” Wanzer told Ravenell on June 17, 2014, referring to money being wired out of the company accounts in a way that could arouse suspicion.
“Where was the money going?” Ravenell asked.
“Some of it went to you. Or Murphy, Falcon, & Whatever,” Wanzer said.
“Right,” Ravenell replied.
Ravenell criticized the way Loc Marketing was using its money but did not appear to make any incriminating statements about drug money being co-mingled.
“I saw these contracts where you guys paid out all this money to these artists. If you’re paying out all this money to the artists and you’re not making money ... you’re stupid,” Ravenell told Wanzer during the June 2014 call. “I mean, Diddy, and all these other guys, you guys gave them a lot of money so if you’re paying out all that money it would be the worst kind of money laundering where you take all the money and give it to somebody else.”
In conversations recorded by Wanzer, there were discussions about getting together to straighten out paperwork with Ravenell and a Maryland attorney who specializes in accounting, Edward Leyden.
Leyden took part in meetings with members of the conspiracy and was recorded on several occasions but has not been charged in the case. Leyden declined to comment last week, referring questions to an attorney who did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
Several members of the drug conspiracy eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick continued to pursue them about cooperating, according to testimony at Ravenell’s trial.
Jerome Castle, who controlled East Coast operations for the drug organization, flipped in April 2016 and testified Monday.
“[Warwick] said he would like my help, and am I willing to help. I said yeah,” Castle said on the stand.
Byrd said Warwick courted him as well, visiting Byrd in prison in June 2017, and again over three days in August 2017, when Byrd agreed to cooperate. Both men said prosecutors have filed for a sentence reduction in exchange for their testimony.
Richard Drummond, who helped make money runs and was caught doing so in Ohio in 2013, testified under limited immunity Monday.