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How heroin overdoses in the suburbs exposed Baltimore's corrupt police squad, the Gun Trace Task Force

They slipped away in cars parked down rural roads, in suburban apartments and fast-food restrooms, overdosing on heroin wherever they found a quiet place.

Detective David McDougall Jr., a Harford County Sheriff’s deputy, suspected the heroin came from a rising drug crew in Northeast Baltimore. Worse, rumors swirled about these drug dealers. Some power protected them. As McDougall heard it, they were untouchable.

So began an investigation in early 2015 that would lead him to a startling discovery: a million-dollar heroin ring protected by a crooked Baltimore cop. That discovery would help the FBI catch a renegade city police squad, officers who prowled the streets for cash and drugs — the Gun Trace Task Force.

“I’m still floored … I never thought these things actually happened,” McDougall said. “It’s something you would see in a movie.”

Now, eight Baltimore police officers are headed to federal prison for the racketeering conspiracy. Some of them face as much as 60 years.

These officers brazenly robbed drug dealers. They pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also policed Baltimore’s streets for years, compromising potentially thousands of arrests. Little did McDougall know his suburban drug case would expose one of the biggest corruption scandals in Baltimore history.

“It’s really a testament to local police work,” acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning said.

The case began three years ago. As the heroin crisis flooded into Harford County, the deputies shifted their focus from addicts to suppliers. They drove to overdose scenes once left to medics. Who’s your dealer? they asked.

McDougall heard the street names “Brill,” “Black” and “Twan.” These men seemed to sell dope with impunity, in plain sight yet untouched.

“The best way I can describe it is like this fog,” McDougall said. “Why are these guys not arrested? These guys had free rein on Northeast Baltimore. It was out of control.”

Timeline: Baltimore police corruption case »

The detective combed through old overdose reports, searching for the names, for some way to anchor his case.

He found Jaime.

McDougall read her file from 2011. Page after page revealed the tragedy. The 19-year-old had left New Jersey to get better, not to die.

They found her in Bel Air, slumped over a couch, barely breathing, in a man’s filthy basement. A deadly dose of heroin coursed through her petite body.

Her family has asked that their names not be used. They want to retain their privacy.

At 5-foot-3, Jaime had brown eyes, summertime freckles and medals from the balance beam. On weekends in the Catskill Mountains, she would streak down the ski slopes. Her father called her “Jammer.”

The troubles began in high school. Jaime was caught smoking pot. She quit gymnastics and skiing, and it crushed her father. He tried being firm; he tried gentle. When she sneaked out, he found her sleeping in his truck. She graduated high school without college or career plans, but with an addiction to pain pills.

Twice, she tried rehab before counselors suggested Maryland Recovery in Bel Air. Jaime moved there in early 2011. She attended sobriety meetings and worked at the mall. Before the holidays, she relapsed.

Kenneth Diggins was almost twice her age, divorced and laid-off as an insurance adjuster. He texted her again and again. Don’t forget, I got a Christmas present for u.

Two days after Christmas 2011, Jamie went to his Bel Air rowhome with a friend. Diggins phoned in an order of six grams for $720. They bought the heroin in Towson and snorted it at his home.

Jaime passed out on the couch in his basement. Her breaths came slower and slower. She never woke up.

In an eight-hour interview with police, Diggins broke down, crying, and confessed. He gave up his dealer and pleaded guilty to distributing heroin in a death. A judge sentenced him to a decade in prison. The case was closed.

But tucked inside the file was the name of his dealer, “Twan.”

McDougall recognized the name from the spate of recent overdoses. Now, the detective had the confession, witnesses and text messages — evidence to charge “Twan.”

“A great mound of evidence,” McDougall said.

The 30-year-old detective had worked a decade in the sheriff’s office, often buying drugs undercover. He learned to look the part too, wearing dirty clothes and wrapping his long hair in a bun.

Now, he was after big-time heroin suppliers to the Baltimore suburbs. He partnered with Baltimore County Detective Scott Kilpatrick. Baltimore County police declined to discuss the case.

The detectives identified “Black” as Aaron Anderson, who later would admit to selling heroin on The Alameda and near the mall in Towson. They hid a GPS tracker on Anderson’s car. In October 2015, they prepared to raid his Pikesville apartment, but found the door kicked-in.

Robbers had burst into the apartment, pulled a gun on Anderson’s girlfriend, and stolen a bundle of heroin worth nearly $100,000. Anderson was hiding in Room 207 of the Red Roof Inn in Timonium, with a handgun behind the headboard. Police arrested him there.

When detectives retrieved their GPS from his car, they noticed a second hidden tracker. Someone else was following Anderson, but who?

McDougall checked for other police investigations. None.

Suspecting the robbers, he subpoenaed the GPS company for the purchase order. An email came back with the name off the credit card: John Clewell.

Was Clewell a rival drug dealer? McDougall wondered. He typed the name into the state database of court records. Hundreds of cases appeared; McDougall froze.

Clewell wasn’t a defendant. He was an arresting officer.

“I’m like, holy sh—,” McDougall said. “This guy was a city cop.”

He called federal prosecutors and the FBI. “We got a serious problem.”

Soon he met with an FBI agent who once had investigated Mexican cartels, but now pursued corrupt Baltimore officials.

The case split in two, with FBI agents following Clewell, while McDougall and Kilpatrick trailed the suspected drug dealers.

The detectives arranged undercover buys and flipped informants. They identified “Twan” as Antoine Washington. And four years after Jaime’s overdose, they arrested and charged him with her death. A federal jury convicted Washington in October; he faces as much as life in prison.

The detectives also tracked phone calls from the suspected drug boss, Antonio “Brill” Shropshire. And the records showed Shropshire regularly called a cop.

Their break came in March 2016. Shropshire discovered the detectives’ tracker hidden on his car, and he called a confidant for help: Baltimore Police Detective Momodu Gondo.

“You definitely gotta get rid of it, alright?” said Gondo, who later would admit to the call.

With the call, investigators convinced a federal judge to grant a wiretap on Gondo’s phone. Agents bugged his car, too — and everything spilled out. The squad plotted to shake down drug dealers and cheat on their overtime pay.

“I’m certainly hopeful they would have been caught. If not by us, by someone else,” Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said. “There’s no way to guarantee that.”

But McDougall heard the FBI investigation was leaking out. Someone tipped off the rogue cops. He knew these men were capable of robberies, but what else?

He drove different routes home to his wife and children. He noticed the cars in his rearview mirror. Once he pulled over, just to wait. Was he being followed?

By the end of 2016, the detectives had broken up the heroin ring. Four men were jailed awaiting trial. A fifth drug dealer — Gondo’s boyhood friend — would be arrested later. They all would be convicted and are now headed to federal prison.

McDougall was promoted and sent to run patrol in the northern expanse of Harford County at midnight. For a detective who had pursued corrupt cops and heroin bosses, these were long, dull nights. He asked to go back, if just for one day. The takedown was coming.

The FBI agents had widened their net to ensnare Gondo’s squad, but not Clewell. Federal prosecutors say Clewell unwittingly loaned Gondo the GPS tracker. The agents planned to lure in the squad and arrest the other seven officers. They devised a ruse: The sergeant was up for promotion; his men would be unarmed. The plan was set for March 1, 2017.

That morning, McDougall was back on the case. He staked out an apartment building in an unmarked car, watching for the final drug dealer, Gondo’s friend, to show and waiting for the agents to call.

Whatever happened, he felt relief. For two years, working nights and weekends, he had followed the trail of heroin from the hills of Harford County into the underworld of Baltimore, where he learned a police officer could protect drug dealers, cops could become robbers, and nothing was unbelievable anymore. He had reached the end, the takedown.

When his cellphone rang, the message was brief. They got them.

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