By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
5:55 PM PST, March 5, 2012
When Antonio Malone needed $15,000 to pay off the assailants who stormed his West Baltimore rowhouse and demanded money and heroin, a gang leader told him exactly where to go. Police say he was sent to a 12th floor apartment at The Redwood, the home of Felicia "Snoop" Pearson.
The building on South Eutaw Street, within walking distance of the Inner Harbor and featuring a large ninth-floor deck and a 'round-the-clock fitness center, seems appropriate for an actress on the much-acclaimed HBO series "The Wire."
But for authorities describing an alleged criminal enterprise in more than 300 pages of recently filed court documents, Apartment 1207 was a storehouse for heroin and its proceeds — one stop on a drug trail that wound through premier city addresses as well as desolate dope corners in East Baltimore.
The lucrative trade centered, according to federal prosecutors, at East Hoffman Street and North Milton Avenue — a world away from Pearson's apartment — where kids hustled "Black and Blue" heroin that was brought by a trafficker from New York in 10-kilogram quantities.
It was a world in which Pearson had grown up and seemingly escaped, going on to portray a ruthless enforcer on television. Her arrest, along with 62 others in March of last year, part of a investigation dubbed "Operation Usual Suspects," raised questions about whether she had returned to her old life — or had ever really left it.
The documents filed in connection with 29 defendants in U.S. District Court in Baltimore provide the most detailed look at Operation Usual Suspects and Pearson's role. The filings also give a rare glimpse into wiretaps and the raw dialogue of the city's drug trade, which were staples of the HBO series.
Authorities said high-level dealers directed people who needed help, such as Malone, to Pearson to get money. Federal agents said in court documents that in January 2011 they overheard Pearson using code and street slang to buy drugs, speaking with the New York trafficker in a conversation conducted in a "guarded fashion."
"I'm [expletive] up in the head man I can't even get to the jungle or nothing," she tells a New York supplier, and she admitted in court to letting the old friend stay at The Redwood and store heroin in her apartment. "I'm trying to get me some 'ew-we.'"
Prosecutors said the dealer apologized for sending someone in his place to handle the transaction:
"Naw, cause I was trying to tell this [expletive] to get to you," the dealer says, according to the transcript in the court documents. "But I ain't even want to go through that for real, for real."
"Yea, those, yea I'm glad you didn't go through for real," Pearson answers. "Aight, just hit me."
Pearson and her attorney have repeatedly said that she got caught on the edges of the drug gang, and the court documents filed recently against other defendants don't dispute that. Though she pleaded guilty in state court to conspiracy to sell heroin, receiving a suspended seven-year prison sentence and probation, she maintains she's guilty only of bad judgment — letting old friends crash at her apartment.
One of those friends, Shawn Johnson, was the New York supplier, the main target of the undercover investigation.
"If she was a major player in this case, [prosecutors] wouldn't have agreed to a suspended sentence," her attorney, Benjamin Sutley, said. "She wouldn't be on probation if she was anything but a periphery player."
Federal prosecutors said 21 defendants, including Johnson, have pleaded guilty to selling drugs, and seven have been sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. Johnson faces life in prison when he is sentenced in May. Many others have pleaded guilty to drug charges in state court.
Authorities, who declined to comment because some cases are still pending, spent two years with confidential informants, making drug buys, pulling over cars, eavesdropping on phone conversations and keeping surveillance on drug corners, rowhouses and apartment buildings.
The court documents describe in intricate detail a drug organization with tentacles reaching into New York and Pennsylvania, suburban neighborhoods and drug stash houses throughout the city. Heroin was packaged and distributed to dealers all over East Baltimore, with the corner of Hoffman and Milton — about 10 blocks northeast of Johns Hopkins Hospital — as the hub.
Prosecutors said Johnson collected tens of thousands of dollars from a spot near the valet stand of the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel at the Inner Harbor. He was arrested in October 2010 leaving a condominium in the White Marsh area in a gold Chevrolet Trailblazer.
Police said the main drug stash and meeting house — the group's headquarters, so to speak — was a nondescript business-front rowhouse on Hillen Street near Old Town Mall, a strip of long-dilapidated shops north of downtown.
The location now bears the name of A.R. Lounge, but court documents say the dealers called it the "Star Lounge."
In one exchange caught on a wiretap, prosecutors said an organization leader urged a street-level dealer to make the heroin "a little stronger" by improving its purity, telling a street dealer the "black and blue" product was selling so well that he didn't want to "let the cash get away."
Authorities said that one of the dealers doubled as a rap artist and called himself "King of the Hill," a reference to Hoffman and Milton, on the edge of the Broadway East neighborhood. "I beat a body or attempt every [expletive] year," is one lyric cited by prosecutors to highlight the violence. Another says: "When my trigger finger starts to itch, somebody got to bleed."
Police have said the raids cleaned up the drug trade on this corner and others just east of Collington Square Elementary School, though residents near Hoffman and Milton are more circumspect, pointing to a corner anchored by a dilapidated liquor store, grocery and carryout.
"I don't want anyone to think that because the police came through here, that it got better," said Nathan Tyrone Ward, who has lived near the corner for 13 years. "Everyone has to hustle. ...
"The cops come through and arrest the dealers, and then new dealers come. Then the cops grab them and the old ones come back."
Ward, 57, said he's gotten out of the drug business, which had led to at least a dozen arrests — a figure backed up in court records that show busts for selling drugs, assault and guns. His last criminal case, more than a decade ago, brought an eight-year sentence for dealing drugs.
Ward said he now has a wife, two children, a dog and a turtle, but no job. "If the street is going to change, then we have to change."
Pearson's arrest turned the sweeping drug case into national news — where "The Wire" seemed to overlap with real life.
That Pearson would be arrested by the same police tactics that targeted her gang on television — and served as the series' title — heightened the drama of a street thug who appeared to have escaped her criminal past.
She had been born to crack-addicted parents, dropped out of school, witnessed a fatal shooting at the age of 11, started dealing drugs at 12 and fatally shot another girl at 14. But her success and critical acclaim on "The Wire" led to questions of failed redemption once images captured her being led out of The Redwood in handcuffs, flanked by drug enforcement agents.
The newly filed court documents mention Pearson often, and describe in more detail her involvement with the enterprise. At one point, a confidential informant, using Pearson's stage name, told an undercover detective that Johnson was "at times a source of heroin for a female known as Snoop."
Police say in the documents that Pearson — known as "Dogg" on the street — was the go-to person for those in trouble, including Malone.
Authorities said they caught him calling the New York supplier and pleading for help four days before Christmas 2010. The call came just after police said enforcers for a rival gang crashed into his South Mount Street rowhouse, took his 47-gram heroin stash and held his girlfriend and son hostage.
"I said I need to hold like, 10 real quick, like it's an emergency," Malone said, according to a transcript of the wiretap. Calling from the alley behind his house, he quickly upped the amount from $10,000 to $15,000. "I'm good, I mean I'm good but I need it. I need 15."
But the New Yorker appeared skeptical. "What? Somebody grabbed you?" He then told Malone that "I don't even have that on deck," code for not having the money. He told him he had $7, meaning $7,000.
"Just bring that then yo," Malone said.
The New Yorker told Malone to see Pearson: "Yo but this is what I'm trying to tell you, listen to what you gotta do." Malone interrupted, saying, "Wait a minute, wait … Just, just bring that yo, ASAP. Just bring it ASAP yo."
The answer came back: "Aight, listen to what I'm saying though you gotta go through … Doggy."
It's unclear if the money ever got paid. The court documents show that Malone came to Pearson's apartment building, accompanied by the gunman, and at one point they were roaming around inside.
"Yo, he's still in the building! He's still in the building! He's still in the building!" the New Yorker shouted on the phone at Malone, referring to the gunman.
Malone said in his guilty plea that he was able to sneak in a call to police, and the abductors ran away before authorities arrived.
Pearson's lawyer, Sutley, said the actress denies any knowledge of this account involving Malone. The scenario was not detailed in her plea agreement with state prosecutors, who at the time only hinted that a kidnapping suspect had stopped by her apartment to collect his ransom.
Malone is serving six years in prison after pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges.
Undercover police detectives said in the court documents that they had Pearson under surveillance, including the next day, when she talked with a man holding a gun near her apartment on Eutaw Street, outside the Hippodrome Theatre.
As in "The Wire," police said they watched the man holding the gun make a cellphone call that was being recorded as part of the wiretap investigation. Undercover detectives followed both Pearson and the man as they drove off in separate cars.
Pearson did not respond to requests for an interview. Outside the courthouse after her sentencing in August, she told a reporter she had two movie contracts, with one to be filmed in Baltimore. She also said she was moving to Los Angeles.
"I'm not a criminal," she said then. "Don't make me into one. I pleaded guilty, but that doesn't make me guilty. I made a decision in my life to do what was best for me without involving or implicating anyone else. ... Let me move on."
In an interview published in Rolling Stone magazine in January, Pearson described her struggle to build a new life while maintaining old ties. Her apartment at The Redwood is only a few minutes' drive to the drug market at Hoffman and Milton, and she saw herself a target in either neighborhood.
"I'm getting away, man," she told Rolling Stone. "I cutting everybody off, man, everybody, even down to some of my aunts and uncles. Because I'm from here, people keep judging me from my background. … Everybody gonna try to lock me up."
Her attorney, Sutley, described her as "a character" and said she pops into his office from time to time, most recently earlier this month. "She's as pleasant as can be," he said. "She's got some things she's working on professionally. Life seems to be going good for her."
Notable figures in the drug conspiracy
Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, 31. Grew up dealing drugs in East Baltimore and at age 14 killed a youth in a fight. On HBO series "The Wire," played an enforcer for drug organization. Arrested last year as part of a drug sweep and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin. Put on probation with a suspended sentence.
Shawn Johnson. New York drug supplier described by Pearson as an old friend. Pleaded guilty to being the drug network's main supplier, trafficking in 10-kilogram heroin shipments. Also caught on police wiretaps talking with Pearson — once about buying heroin, prosecutors say. Faces life in prison when sentenced in May.
Kevin Jackson, 29, of Baltimore. Described by police as a street lieutenant in the drug organization. Doubled as a rap artist and has a CD to his name. Pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges and is to be sentenced March 23.
Gerrard Mungo Sr., 46, of Baltimore. Pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges and faces 12 years in prison; sentencing has not been scheduled. Admitted in plea agreement that he helped set up drug buys between middlemen, and in one intercepted phone call urged making the heroin "a little stronger."
Antonio Malone, 33, of Baltimore. Pleaded guilty to buying drugs from Johnson and distributing heroin to street-level dealers throughout East Baltimore. On Dec. 21, 2010, prosecutors say, rival drug dealers raided his rowhouse, stole 47 grams of heroin and demanded $15,000. Called Shawn Johnson, prosecutors said, who referred him to Felicia Pearson. Serving six years in prison.
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