The suspects had gathered under the Jones Falls Expressway in Hampden around lunchtime with the intention of committing a robbery, authorities said. But as federal agents closed in, one suspect attempted to run down an officer and was shot as a quick-response team threw stun grenades to disorient the others.
The sting Thursday that led to six arrests was one in a series of area operations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that have used robbery ruses to take suspects into custody just moments before they allegedly planned to strike. Two of the three recent incidents have erupted in gunfire.
In similar cases, suspects have met federal informants at Penn Station and a Baltimore YMCA to discuss home invasion holdups, according to court records. The supposed targets were Latin American drug cartels. The take was to be kilogram quantities of cocaine.
The ATF won't discuss such cases in detail because of their sensitive nature. The tactics echo those used by federal agencies to catch would-be terrorists, including a Woodlawn man who met with undercover FBI agents and took what he thought was a bomb to an Army recruiting center.
One defense attorney says they "smack of entrapment."
"Case law really favors the government," said Gerald C. Ruter, a defense attorney and former prosecutor representing a man charged in one of the recent ATF stings. "What you find is the government concocting a drug dealer who doesn't exist, who possess cocaine that doesn't exist, and recruit people for a robbery, which isn't going to happen. All they want is the participants to say is, 'Oh yeah, we'll do that.'"
ATF officials said those charged have demonstrated the willingness and the means to commit violent crimes, and said the agency takes steps to protect the public from harm.
"When we get information about groups that want to commit violent crimes, we'll initiate an investigation into it," said Michael Campbell, a spokesman for the ATF. "Our focus is on violent criminals, and so we're going after the worst of the worst. You have to be creative when you investigate these types of criminals."
It's unclear whether the cases are part of a national initiative, but at least one similar sting has been used in Texas. Details from the Baltimore cases are laid out in court documents filed in two pending cases.
In November, Dawron Kip Mason met at a YMCA parking lot with an informant who asked if Mason would be interested in committing a robbery at a home where large amounts of cocaine were being stored. In recorded phone calls and meetings, undercover agents outlined the scheme and discussed scenarios with Mason, who said he "had a couple dudes that will go straight in there, knock them off."
They later convened at a meeting location on Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore and again went over the scheme. This time Mason had six other men with him, who had guns, according to legal documents. "During this meeting, the [agent] gave all of the subjects an opportunity to recuse themselves from the conspiracy, which none of the individuals chose to do."
When the agents moved in, Mason attempted to flee by driving a white Ford Explorer into a moving van being used by police, then through a 6-foot-high chain link fence, and through a parking lot where he crashed into a bystander's vehicle, agents wrote in court papers. The Explorer continued across four lanes of traffic but crashed into a telephone pole. The bust also included an exchange of gunfire.
In a case in January, agents set up a robbery beginning with a conversation at Penn Station. According to court documents, Edward Neal Ellis was recorded telling an informant: "We grind, we buy and sell coke. That's where we get our money. This [robberies of drug traffickers] is just some extra [expletive]."
Later, an ATF agent asked Ellis and Corey Brian Barnes how they intended to commit the robbery, and they said they planned to appear to be Baltimore police and order everyone to the ground.
They met at a Hampden 7-Eleven on Feb. 2, where four men were taken into custody after a foot chase. A search of their vehicle turned up ski masks, gloves, duct tape, zip ties, and a loaded .38-caliber revolver and a 9 mm handgun, according to court records.
On Thursday, Hampden was again the setting for another operation. In the 3300 block of Clipper Mill Road, near the defunct Kolper's Tavern, a pornography distribution warehouse and several stone-front homes, authorities moved in to arrest the six suspects. Federal charges were pending, officials said Thursday.
Marino Vidoli, the acting special agent in charge of the ATF's Baltimore field office, said his agency had been conducting a joint investigation with police for about three weeks and determined a group of suspects was planning to commit an armed robbery.
One of the agents fired one round from his service weapon, striking the driver of the vehicle in the right shoulder, Vidoli said.
The vehicle continued, ramming two police vehicles. According to witnesses at the scene, the men attempted to flee and were apprehended after police threw "flash grenades" to disorient the suspects. Those in the area reported hearing crashes that sounded like "bombs going off."
The wounded man was taken to an area hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. In all, six people were taken into custody. Recovered from the scene were six weapons — five handguns and a long gun — and a ballistic vest.
"These were very violent individuals who intended to do some serious harm today, and agents and officers should be commended for their efforts," Vidoli said.
Witnesses, who declined to give their names, said they heard the commotion and thought it was a crash on Interstate 83. They saw men in Army fatigues — members of the ATF's special-response team — spill out of a rental truck, and men being grabbed by officers.
Ruter, a former prosecutor, said he found the cases "distasteful" because they involve crimes that might have not been committed if not for the government's proposal. "There's also no doubt that the possibility of danger is just astronomical," he said.
Campbell, the ATF spokesman, said public safety is "number one."
"What this shows, day in and day out, these agents and officers are putting their lives on the line to get these violent criminals off the street," he said.