One man shot to death and left in dog feces. Another killed by a bullet to his face, knocking out his teeth. Yet another shot outside his grandmother’s house. He staggered inside and died as she screamed.
All were victims of the gruesome street violence that grips West Baltimore. Federal prosecutors say the men and others — as many as seven others — fell victim to a ruthless drug crew whose street name meant seasoned killers: “Trained to Go.”
“TTG terrorized a section of West Baltimore known as Sandtown for years,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Hanley told a federal courtroom in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, prosecutors concluded their case against eight men they have accused of a slew of crimes: murder, witness intimidation, robbery, kidnapping. The men allegedly made as much as $10,000 a day selling potent heroin in bundles known as “Vicks” and “onions.”
“This case is about more than Vicks and onions,” Hanley told the jury. “It’s about the bullets they sprayed and blood they spilled all over West Baltimore.”
During the five-week trial, prosecutors presented phone call recordings, packages of heroin and marijuana, surveillance photos and videos of undercover drug buys. They want to convince jurors that brothers Montana Barronette and Terrell Sivells ran the murderous crew for years in Sandtown-Winchester. Yet, they anchored their case on testimony from a parade of admitted drug dealers, gangsters and killers.
More than 30 people have testified as government witnesses, many in hopes of leniency for their own crimes or cash payments — sometimes more than $15,000 — to move away from Baltimore and into witness protection. These witnesses, prosecutors acknowledged, came with baggage.
“Which, I submit to you, is like saying the Titanic had a little bit of a slow leak,” defense attorney Michael Lawlor told the jury. He represented Barronette, the alleged boss.
“The government’s case rests on people who are liars, sex traffickers, murderers, kidnappers and obstructors of justice,” Lawlor told the jury. “These witnesses are not believable.”
The brothers and six other men are on trial for federal charges of racketeering and drug trafficking. All eight men face life in prison. Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has called Barronette the city’s “No. 1 trigger-puller.”
The trial has proceeded with startling revelations. A ranking member of the Black Guerilla Family street gang testified to recruiting neighborhood boys as young as 13 to work heroin shops in West and South Baltimore. And a police informant was gunned down after his name was leaked onto the streets.
Inside the courtroom, tensions have escalated. One day, two women began fighting in the gallery. Midway through the trial, U.S. marshals began searching the shoes of all spectators. Officials declined to say what caused them to stiffen security measures. They restricted spectators to only two rows of seats in the gallery. One defense attorney called for a mistrial.
Defendant John “Binkie” Harrison has remained in handcuffs during the proceedings — a break from the standard protocol.
In a city ruled by a code of “no snitching,” there have been murmurs, even gasps, from the gallery at the appearance of neighborhood men who testified as government witnesses.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Gardner said the eight defendants were packing the courtroom to intimidate witnesses. One person in the gallery, Gardner said, lifted up their shirt to show off their tattoos — an apparent act of intimidation. Some witnesses, such as Tyree Paige, appeared upset with their eyes downcast. They had to be repeatedly asked to speak up.
“Mr. Paige hasn’t looked up at all from the microphone,” Hanley told the judge. “He’s been threatened. His family’s been threatened.”
Prosecutors say the “Trained to Go” gang was formed by Barronette and Sivells. The brothers allegedly climbed from street-level drug dealers years ago to lead a powerful crew that sold heroin and served as guns for hire.
Their potent “sweet dreams” heroin attracted eager addicts, prosecutors say, some buying $1,000 worth a day. They say Barronette drove a red Honda with a trap door to hide a gun or drugs. They say the men carried masks and guns with extended magazine to kill rivals or those who robbed them.
They showed the defendants’ Instagram pages, where the men allegedly posted photos of themselves with stacks of cash and guns. “Run the city,” one wrote, “#snipergang.”
Hanley played one recorded phone call in which Barronette allegedly warned off a rival drug dealer.
“Barronette threatens to open him up like a fire hydrant,” Hanley told the jury.
Prosecutors put a woman on the witness stand last week who broke down when she told how she found Dominique Harris shot up and crawling in the street.
“This man died in my arms,” she said, sobbing. “I got to sit up here and relive this? I can’t … I can’t.”
Lawlor mounted his defense against the allegations of violence.
“No one here — you especially — is going to leave this experience without a little PTSD,” he told the jury. “Put aside the gore, the terror, the pictures and the blood — and focus on the evidence.”
He walked over to Barronette, a boyish-looking 23-year-old in a black shirt and gold eyeglasses.
“What he represents to each and every one of these witnesses is a get-out-of-jail free card,” Lawlor said.
He noted inconsistencies by the witnesses. One man claimed a murder happened in 2014, but it was actually 2015. Another witness just happened to turn off his hidden camera before he supposedly bought drugs from Barronette. Yet another had been convicted of sex trafficking.
His voice rising, Lawlor came to witness Donte Pauling.
“He was high on the witness stand. Not a little high — really high!”
Closing arguments are to continue Wednesday.