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With Impunity

Jose Morales Has Earned a Reputation For Being Above The Law. Who's to Say He Isn't?

Baltimore City firefighters shot these undated photos of a 13-alarm fire at 2825 Carroll St., owned by Jose Morales.
Frank Klein
Robert Long, working with Jose Morales' crew at 234 S. Chester St. in August 2006. Police would seize scaffolding from the property a few weeks later. Long was found dead on March 24, 2008, 13 days after he told police that he had stolen that scaffolding at Morales' behest.
Jose Morales leaves Baltimore City Circuit Court on April 17, after his theft and assault cases were postponed for the fifth time.
George Arias bailed Morales out after Morales was charged with burning a girlfriend's Lincoln Navigator. By that time, Morales had already used Arias' identity (above) to buy a house in Pasadena.
The City Paper Digi-Cam™
Keisha Rice at the Pasadena home that she bought from Morales, who used the name George Arias: "My thing was, lock his butt up, 'cause he cost me money."
Frank Klein
A new house stands on the lot at 2825 Carroll St., where a house owned by Jose Morales burned to the ground
Frank Klein
2507 James St., Jose Morales' childhood home.
The City Paper Digi-Cam™
Scaffolding rusts in the back yard of Jose Morales' Severn Home, now subject to foreclosure proceedings.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 6/11/2008

Climbing up the construction scaffolding on the corner of Preston and Calvert streets, carrying an aluminum baseball bat, Jose Joaquin Morales Jr. delivered a practiced message. "I am going to fucking kill you!" he yelled at Warren Lumpkin.

It was Dec. 21, 2006, about quarter after 10 a.m., according to a police report of the incident. Lumpkin, a pasty, skinny dude with a weak chin and strong hands, scrambled down and then back up the cold steel tubing as Morales swung the blue bat. Ditching his heavy work gloves while steadying himself on a narrow wooden plank, Lumpkin pulled a three-inch buck knife.

"Come on down here," Morales yelled from the ground, Lumpkin recalls in a recent interview. "You try to come up here and I'm cutting you," Lumpkin says he replied. Morales retreated to his pickup and blasted down Preston Street as someone dialed 911.

Lumpkin had ratted out his former boss, and, somehow, Morales knew it.

In the 18 months since that alleged attack in midtown Baltimore, Jose Morales has been arrested five more times, on charges of passing bad checks, theft, assault, and witness intimidation--the latter charge for another alleged attack on Lumpkin. Morales' right-hand man, Robert Wayne Long, shared many of the same charges, and caught one of his own, too, for auto theft. Morales' construction businesses--Mason's Unlimited and ABR Construction--petered out with the housing bust, and his spacious Severn home fell into foreclosure. As usual, Morales' court cases dragged on and on, through delay and postponement.

The three current Baltimore City Circuit Court cases against Jose Morales and Robert Long--involving the alleged theft of construction equipment and subsequent alleged assaults and threats against Lumpkin--have been easy to overlook. There were no drug sales alleged, no murders, not even an injury.

Then on March 24, Long was found near the railroad tracks at the elbow of South Stricker and Cole streets with at least one bullet lodged in his brain.

At that moment, the case against Morales got more complicated. And Long's death may--just may--have brought new attention to Morales' 14-year adult criminal career of unsafe construction, violations of building and zoning codes, theft, assault, drug dealing, and fire setting.

When he died, Long was not just a crack junkie and a habitual thief. He was not just a sloppy mason with a bald head and a bad attitude. Less than two weeks before his untimely death, Long agreed to serve as a witness against Morales.

"He was?" Morales exclaims on May 28, trying to sound surprised over the telephone a few hours after blowing off his scheduled trial on his pending charges. Of Long's murder, he says, "I don't know nothing about that," adding, "He was in a bad neighborhood. Drugs will do it."

Lumpkin says Long "told everybody," including Morales, that he planned to testify. But Lumpkin says he doesn't think Morales killed Long. "He's got no friends," Lumpkin says. "Can't get nobody to do nothing for him anymore."

Arrested more than 30 times and convicted of five felonies since 1994, Jose Morales, 32, is the picture of the successful career criminal. In more than a decade of allegedly threatening people and setting fires, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of vehicles and construction machinery--and even the identity of a fellow drug dealer--Morales has spent less than 24 months in jail and prison, records indicate. Although cops who have dealt with him and people in his old neighborhood whisper that Morales is dangerous and politically wired, close business associates, a neighbor who is a Baltimore City councilman, and even his own father profess ignorance of his criminal habits.

At a court appearance last July, Morales promised to talk to a reporter in detail, but more recently says he's changed his mind, declining an interview for this article. His lawyer, Stanley Needleman, likewise declines to say much about his client's behavior. "Why are you so interested?" Morales asks after an April court appearance.

We're interested because Morales seems to exemplify what can go wrong when city and state regulators, police, and prosecutors are uncurious about triple building collapses, stolen earth movers, arson, drug dealing, and seemingly endless scams. Perhaps because Morales' crimes straddle four jurisdictions, and because many of his victims have rap sheets of their own, no law enforcement agency (with the apparent exception of a couple of cops on the regional auto theft team) has made him a priority, and so he has developed a reputation for impunity.

As of deadline, Morales was at large with a bench warrant issued for his arrest for skipping court. No suspect had been named in Robert Long's murder, but Warren Lumpkin, who has not been contacted by homicide detectives, says Long tried to call him on the night he died and left a phone message five days before claiming that Morales had threatened to bash his head in with a bat.

Some colleagues overlooked Morales' criminal tendencies, at least until recently. "He's a young guy, he's a little bit tempered," John Elder, an engineer who has often worked for Morales, said in 2006, shortly after Morales came to City Paper's attention for allegedly terrorizing the 200 block of South Chester Street ("Building a Case," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 16, 2006; "Missing Property," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 23, 2006). Elder defended the young contractor, claiming "he does responsible work," and that "I know he's licensed" by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Both of those claims were false.

Elder professed ignorance of Morales' criminal history, just as city officials who had worked for years with Elder during and after his own time as a city employee professed ignorance of Elder's criminal history. "I heard some rumors that somebody said [Morales] had stole some construction equipment," Elder allowed two years ago. "I'm a little surprised he would steal something like big construction machines."

Morales' father says the same.

"He went to good schools," Jose Joaquin Morales Sr. says of his namesake son.

Jose the younger is a muscular 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, but the elder Morales, sitting at a table in his nearly empty Arizona Bar and Grill on a Friday afternoon in May, is a trim 5-foot-9, with wisps of white hair trailing like smoke from the sides of his balding head. His eyes twinkle in a kindly way, but he has little information for a reporter asking about his son. "You're taking me by surprise right now," he says, almost apologetically. "I did not know he was in trouble."

Jose Morales Sr., 58, came to Baltimore from his native Colombia in the early 1970s. He says he served in the U.S. Navy as part of an "exchange" program.

In 1984, Morales Sr. moved with his wife, Mary, to Morrell Park in Southwest Baltimore, settling into a two-story detached home with a garage at 2507 James St. Their son Jose had just turned 9. He would grow into a fine third baseman, his father says.

By 1990, Morales Jr. had withdrawn from Cardinal Gibbons School (he attended only eighth and half of ninth grade, according to the school's records). According to a police source who spoke on condition of anonymity, he had also graduated from stealing bicycles to stealing cars and dealing drugs. He was arrested for battery on Oct. 18, 1993, three weeks after his 18th birthday. The charges were dropped.

Young Jose moved out of the house right around his 18th birthday, his father says, and he kept catching criminal charges: He was arrested in the city four times in 1994, on charges of assault, deadly weapon, malicious destruction, disorderly conduct, and theft. The theft case would eventually stick, costing Morales Jr. $176 in restitution and a one-year jail sentence.

But first, Morales would fight the charges in court for 22 months.

Morales was arrested six more times in 1995. Charges included theft over $300 (several instances), removing a vehicle's serial number, arson, malicious burning, malicious destruction, battery, and possession of a deadly weapon with intent to injure. On April, 19, 1996, Morales began serving his one-year sentence for the 1994 theft case.

He apparently spent all or most of 1996 in jail. On Dec. 11, 1996, Morales was found guilty of felony theft and sentenced to five years in prison, with three years and nine months of that suspended.

Morales caught a break, common in Baltimore, according to Page Croyder, a former assistant state's attorney for Baltimore City. The strange length of his prison sentence--one year, three months, and 19 days--indicates that he was sentenced to "time served" for the new crimes, she says. So for the theft case, plus new guilty pleas on Feb. 21, 1997, for malicious burning, theft, and malicious destruction, Morales was set free on two years of supervised probation.

"It's what I call a package deal," Croyder says, and since her January retirement from the prosecutor's office she has criticized the practice. In a column for the Center for Emerging Media, radio host Marc Steiner's online home, Croyder also attacked State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy and her spokeswoman, Margaret Burns, for hobbling the so-called "war room," a special unit created in 2004 that Croyder headed, which was supposed to make sure violent repeat offenders got special attention when they violate their terms of release.

Morales' next arrest was Oct. 28, 1998, for an alleged assault with a handgun. As a convicted felon, Morales is not allowed to have a gun. As a recent re-entrant serving probation, Morales could have seen his probation revoked and his full five-year sentence restored. But that didn't happen, and the charges were dropped. He was charged again in May 1999 after an altercation with a cop, and again in November 1999 with firing a gun. Again, Morales could have lost his probation and been made to serve his full sentence. Instead, those charges were dropped. Morales remained a free man.

In 2000, Morales was indicted on five drug-related counts, pleading guilty on June 28, 2001, in Baltimore County Circuit Court to conspiracy with intent to distribute narcotics. He was sentenced to probation, with urinalysis and other conditions.

Despite violating those probation terms twice and skipping court three times on the probation violation cases, Morales spent only five weeks in jail on the charges, online records indicate. He walked out of court in Towson a free man on Aug. 16, 2004.

Morales' father says he remembers nothing of his son's early criminal history, and knows nothing about any fires. "The drugs I heard about," he acknowledges. "Maybe I was too hard on him."

As his son's criminal career blossomed, Morales Sr.'s economic station steadily improved. In 1996, Morales Sr. bought 245-255 S. Bethel St., a 7,000-square-foot industrial space one block west of Broadway, from Enterprise Electric Co. There was no mortgage recorded on the $58,000 purchase price.

In 2000, Morales Sr. opened the Arizona Bar and Grill at 25 S. Broadway. Between 2002 and '07, undercover police cadets bought alcohol at the bar three times, resulting in small fines each time. The Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners investigators' last visit to the place--just a couple of months after Morales Sr. bought the building for $550,000--is notable.

"What are you doing here?" bar manager Lorena Morales demanded on Feb. 3, 2007. "What is the problem now?"

According to his report to the Liquor License Board, Baltimore police officer John Kowalczyk reminded Lorena Morales, Jose Sr.'s 37-year-old second wife, that he had told her after discovering numerous violations the night previous that he would return that night to reinspect. He and police Sgt. Fred Dillon then found numerous patrons with fake or no IDs, poker machines without the required tax stickers, and, on a shelf above the sink behind the bar, a bag of "suspected cocaine."

"As this officer passed the bag it appeared as though Ms. Morales was attempting to recover the bag," the report says. "Officer Kowalczyk turned and ordered Ms. Morales away from the bag, and then retrieved same." Lorena Morales was charged with drug possession. Those charges were later dropped.

Morales Sr. paid a $400 fine for the underaged drinkers and other violations; the drug charges against the bar were postponed several times, then dismissed on Oct. 18, 2007, when the police officers failed to appear for the hearing.

Besides the Arizona, Morales Sr. is also a heating and air conditioning contractor specializing in commercial kitchens, he says. (Like his son, Morales Sr. is unlicensed, according to Maryland Home Improvement Commission records.) Morales Sr. says he knew his son was a mason, but "I thought he was doing good."

Morales Sr. says he was unaware of his son's current legal troubles, and sees him only rarely. "We never kinda connect," he acknowledges. "Man-to-man or father-to-son." He says all of his children are estranged. They all blame him, he says, for divorcing their mother in 1999.

Jose Morales Jr.'s mother, Mary D. Morales, has signed loan documents for her son's businesses, put his work vehicles in her name, and in 1999 put her name on an Anne Arundel County house that Morales Jr. flipped the following year. For this she has endured police visits and search warrants at her home at 2507 James St.

On the afternoon of May 28, there is a pallet of bricks piled in the front yard, the home's rebuilt brick facade mostly finished but with gaps here and there around the trim and stairs. The doorbell is broken. A knock sets a small dog barking, and a woman who looks a bit like Barbara Bush, but with hair of iron-gray instead of cotton-white, answers.

"No, I don't wanna talk to you," Mary Morales says. "I really don't wanna talk to nobody. OK. Good day." She closes the door.

At first glance, Morrell Park looks like it could be a middle-class enclave. The fan-shaped, square-mile section of Southwest Baltimore straddling I-95 is blessed with an assortment of modest single-family homes with neat yards. DeSoto Park and the Carroll Park Golf Course offer inviting green space; Camden Yards is a mile and a half jog up Washington Boulevard, Morrell Park's main drag.

But the neighborhood has been plagued by crime and grime. There are 11 liquor licenses in the neighborhood--including Good Times, owned and operated by City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger (D-10th District). The bars and their environs are sometimes the site of disorder (as in 2004, when Reisinger got into a fistfight with a drug dealer). The Orioles Nest No. 292--a private gambling club whose members included elected officials and drug dealers--opened in April 2005 at 2930 Washington Blvd. ("Fouled Nests," Feature, November 23, 2005), seemingly immune to police action until it was suddenly shut down in the fall of 2006.

Some longtime residents say the problem is political corruption, directly linked to street crime. In fact, Morales Jr.'s exploits over the past decade have left some people with the impression--whether true or not--he has political ties that make him untouchable.

"I heard some people who he had problems with disappeared," a man walking on James Street says. "You can't do what he does with impunity" without political connections. He declines to give his name or to elaborate on the supposed political connections.

"You have no idea the heartache that this person caused this community," says another resident, who asks that their name not be revealed because they fear for their safety.

Even some outside the neighborhood say this fear is well-founded: A federal law enforcement officer told City Paper in 2006 that Morales Jr. was suspected of multiple arsons. People in Morrell Park still remember when Morales' house blew up.

"It was just a big explosion," says one neighbor of 2825 Carroll St., which burned spectacularly early one morning in February 2002. Like several others on the street, all of whom declined to give a reporter their names, he remembers that the hydrant in front of the house malfunctioned ("it was vandalized," another witness claims), necessitating a huge response from the fire department. He remembers that several young people had lived in the home, and none of them were in it when it burned.

"It was the worst I've ever seen," another neighbor says. "All I know is I woke up, my son said, `Gimme the keys, I'm gonna move your car.'" She says the flames melted some of the steel siding off the house next door.

According to land records, Morales bought the house on a spacious corner lot with a detached garage on July 31, 1998, for $70,000. He took out a $69,900 mortgage and, as a first-time homebuyer, received an additional $4,600 low-interest loan from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development to cover closing costs.

Both Morales and his sister Herminda used the address, according to public records. Neighbors say that between five and eight people seemed to live there. "There was an abundance of people in and out," a man who lives up the street says. "I stayed as far away from them as possible."

A source close to the investigation says the fire was ruled an arson, though no one was ever charged. Morales' mortgage was paid off by August 2002, and he sold the plot--which he now owned free and clear--in 2003 for $30,000, records show. A new house was built on the site in 2005. In late April, City Paper asked the Baltimore Fire Department to retrieve its records of the fire. Despite repeated phone calls and e-mails to the department's spokesman, Kevin Cartwright, the records were not produced. A captain at the neighborhood fire station says he remembers the blaze but cannot comment about it.

The Carroll Street blaze is not the only one Morales is tied to in the area. In 2004, Nicole O'Brien accused Morales of burning her 1998 Lincoln Navigator, and Morales was arrested.

According to an application for statement of charges that O'Brien filed in Baltimore City District Court, she and Morales "had a confrontation over money" on Jan. 8 and again on Jan. 12, 2004. "He became very aggressive and violent," she contended, and spat on the truck's window during the first encounter. During the second, "he threatened to have me beat up, my truck blown up, my house blown up," O'Brien wrote. At 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2004, the Navigator was destroyed by fire while parked on the 1600 block of Inverness Avenue.

Morales was arrested March 18, 2004, on four counts: assault, arson, threatening arson, and malicious destruction. Added together, the maximum penalty on the charges totaled 43 years and $45,000 in fines.

George Luis Arias bailed Morales out, using a Pigtown house he owned as collateral. He apparently did not realize at the time that Morales had stolen his identity, bought a house in Pasadena using it, was skipping the mortgage payments, and would soon unload it at a big profit, sticking Arias with a capital-gains tax liability.

Attorney Stanley Needleman defended Morales, getting his bail reduced from $150,000 to $50,000 so Morales could get out of jail after one night. A month later, all the charges were dropped.

O'Brien could not be reached for comment, but two sources in Morrell Park say she had dated Morales, and that Morales bought a home using her name in Anne Arundel County. Property records show a Nicole K. O'Brien purchased a Glen Burnie ranch house from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2003 for $109,000. The house sold in mid-'05 for $225,000.

A second witness listed on O'Brien's charging statement is her brother Patrick. He calls a reporter whose business card was stuck in his door, but, like many others whose lives Morales has touched, declines to talk about him. "That was in the past," Patrick O'Brien says. "Nobody wants anything to happen in the future, know what I mean?"

Although Morales' notoriety in his home neighborhood seems complete, it isn't. One prominent Morrell Park merchant professes no knowledge of Morales. And that's interesting, because his bar, Good Times, stands less than 150 feet from the Morales residence at 2507 James St. The two properties are nearly back-to-back.

Asked if he knows Morales, City Councilman Ed Reisinger shakes his head no. "Maybe six or seven years ago, I heard something about him," he says. "Why? What'd he do?"

He did quite a bit, according to court records. But not everybody whose life Jose Morales Jr. touched bothered to go to court.

"I probably paid him close to 65, 75,000 dollars worth of work," says Mike Coster of b4 Design, a company that has produced drawings for hundreds of rehabs and rebuilds in Southeast Baltimore. "And every lead I gave him he burned."

Coster contends Morales produced fake invoices for materials on one job, overcharging by about $6,000. "A lot of people he burned, some are suing," he says by phone in April. "I think mine's more criminal. I haven't really proceeded" to press charges.

In September 2006 a judgment was entered against Morales in the amount of $120,397.86, in favor of XS LLC, a North Charles Street eatery. According to Melvin Kodenski, XS's lawyer, Morales collected $70,000 to renovate the building, screwed it up to the point where it was structurally unsound, then abandoned the job. Kodenski (who incidentally defends Morales Sr.'s Arizona Bar before the Liquor License Board) says he doesn't know why XS owners Phillip Quick and Maurice Bloom hired Morales' Mason's Unlimited.

"I asked him, `Phil, what did you fall on your head that morning or what?'" Kodenski says.

There are more judgments in Anne Arundel County: repossessions of a $50,000 truck bought in Mary Morales' name and a leased Caterpillar skid loader on which Morales' company neglected to make payments. There are several bad-check charges as well. Coster says that for a time his phone was "ringing off the hook" with people asking where to find Morales.

But Morales does not steal only from customers and suppliers. Friends and business partners are fair game, too.

George Arias, the man who bailed Morales out after he was charged with burning Nicole O'Brien's SUV, filed criminal charges against Morales after discovering his credit had been damaged by identity theft. On April 26, 2006, after a lengthy investigation by Anne Arundel police, Morales was charged with 10 counts relating to identity theft. Strung together, the maximum sentence on all these charges totaled more than 78 years in prison.

He served not a single day.

On the day Morales was charged with the ID theft, he was already on probation for replacing the vehicle identification number on a 1997 Ford F-350 flatbed truck that had been stolen from Alcap Construction in July 2003, according to court records. Morales pried off the VIN plate from the stolen truck and in its place taped the VIN plate from a 1992 truck registered to his mother, according to the police report. When police stopped the truck, two of Morales' employees were in it, and the glove compartment was full of Mason's Unlimited business cards. Morales might have been sentenced to a maximum of 18 months in prison for the crime, but after multiple postponements of the case, he was sentenced in September 2004 to two years of probation. The case file indicates that he did not pay his probation fees.

It is not clear why Morales wasn't jailed after he was charged with the identity theft, which violated the terms of his probation (he was also criminally charged three other times in Baltimore City while on probation for the truck theft case, and convicted of rinsing lead-laden brick-washing sludge into the Chesapeake Bay). "If he was on probation in Anne Arundel County and he committed a crime in Baltimore City, we would have no way of knowing this," says Kristen Fleckenstein, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel State's Attorney. "We could look it up, but there is no flag automatically sent out, no e-mail."

A spokeswoman for Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, whose office has recently highlighted cases in which it jailed violent offenders on probation violations, says Morales' charges did not rate attention from the "war room."

"The war room is for repeat violent offenders," Margaret Burns says. "The way it's designed is only to identify anyone who is arrested for a violent crime, who is on parole for a violent crime." Morales' current assault cases--including the alleged attack on Lumpkin with a baseball bat--are all misdemeanors, she explains.

Fleckenstein says the state Division of Parole and Probation decides when to "violate" a convict, but Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, says probation officers merely advise prosecutors and judges about parole and probation violations (which they seem to have done in Morales' cases). The decision to charge and convict the offender for the violation, Vernarelli says in an e-mail, "is a matter wholly decided by the court. Similarly, whether a warrant or summons is issued for a particular offender for violation of probation is a matter left to the discretion of the court."

After stealing George Arias' identity and using it to borrow $249,000 against a house he sold the next year for $345,000, Morales pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false entry in a public record. On Sept. 21, 2006, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Joseph Manck sentenced Morales to 12 months of unsupervised probation and fined him $500. "Unsupervised" means he is not under the control of the Division of Probation, so any violations would go unnoticed.

Morales chose his victim well. Arias is currently serving a five-year sentence in federal prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Arias' lawyer says the drug charges, which were pending when Arias discovered the identity theft, complicated the case against Morales because the federal government won't transport witnesses to testify in state court.

"George got arrested and unfortunately got sentenced before this case went to trial," says Joe Murtha, who defended Arias in the federal drug case. "It's sort of awkward when someone is getting ready to go to prison and is a victim."

Arias, who came up with Morales in Morrell Park, had bailed Morales out of jail and even signed on to a commercial loan as "partner" in Mason's Unlimited. Murtha says he doesn't know the extent of the pair's relationship. He does say that his client was worried that his credit rating would remain damaged long after his prison bid ends. "He was concerned that this was something that was just going to linger," Murtha says.

In the spring of 2005, Keisha Rice bought 8075 Woodholme Circle, in a leafy Pasadena neighborhood of capes and ranchers, from Morales, then posing as Arias.

She says after she found out whom Morales was, she took it upon herself to check every nook and cranny for drugs and found nothing. "I had to go through the whole house," Rice says. "I have kids in here." Like many who have dealt with him, however, her main gripe with Morales is his workmanship: A back window and a skylight in the house both leaked, she says, adding, "Don't get me wrong, I love the house once I fixed it."

Rice went to testify against Morales in the summer of 2006. The first court date was postponed. On the second go, he pleaded to the misdemeanor public record charge. "He should have gone to jail for what he did to me," she says. "My thing was, lock his butt up, `cause he cost me money."

Locking up Morales is no easy feat, records filed in Glen Burnie District Court show. Jean C. Morales, Jose Morales' wife, from whom he is separated, has tried.

In a complaint filed last Halloween seeking protection for herself and her two young sons, the former Jean Castranda reported that Jose Morales Jr. banged on the door of the home they shared at 1432 Grimm Road in Severn. "[W]hen I let him in he started screaming and yelling because I had a conversation via e-mail with his girlfriend. I asked him to leave because he was scaring me he said no I called the police with the phone in my hand he grabbed me shoved me up against the wall told me don't fuck with him he will kill me.

"He has threatened to kill me before," Jean Morales continued. "[L]ast year the police came to our home for domestic violence and could not make him leave even though there was broken glass everywhere and broken refrigerator and my children were screaming and scared."

The judge granted the protective order, barring Jose Morales from the home and from Jean's workplaces at the Long and Foster's BWI/Fort Meade office and the Ritz Cabaret, a gentlemen's club at 508 S. Broadway, five blocks from the Arizona Bar and Grill.

Morales violated the order, according to a second complaint Jean filed on May 7, 2008, a month after Morales was arrested for assaulting her at their Severn home. "He is coming and going as he pleases," she wrote. "A few days ago he said if he seen me out at night he was going to hurt me."

The judge ordered Morales to pay his wife $25,000 to vacate the home within 30 days. The Severn property, from which Morales apparently ran much of his business during the past two years, is currently subject to foreclosure proceedings. The vinyl-sided modern colonial with an attached two-car garage occupies a large corner lot hemmed by an eight-foot stockade fence with planks missing here and there and a section knocked out in the back. The backyard features a small aboveground pool and a few beat-up trucks. One corner is occupied by a stack of rusting scaffolding.

On the afternoon of May 29, Jean Morales, a petite woman with light brown hair, answers the front door and declines to talk to a reporter about her husband. "No," she says softly. "I'm not going to get involved in that. No."

Warren Lumpkin started talking to police about Jose Morales Jr.' crimes in the summer of 2006, phoning in anonymous tips about stolen scaffolding. He knows Morales has put word out that he's a snitch, but he doesn't care, he says. Lumpkin says he never would have talked if Morales hadn't told police that he--Lumpkin--stole items he hadn't taken.

Lumpkin, who turned 30 last month, grew up with Morales in Morrell Park. "We all stole," he acknowledges of their teenage years together. "Kids steal--you're supposed to grow out of it."

In a long interview on April 15, Lumpkin says he sold drugs until he was 17 or 18, when his girl got pregnant, and he knew he had to give up that life. But court records list some 20 criminal arrests between 1996 and 2007, when Lumpkin was placed on probation for drug possession. Lumpkin's criminal record includes several arrests for assault and racial harassment and a 2000 attempted murder charge, which was dropped.

Lumpkin says he worked for nine years at the Simkins Industries plant in Catonsville, and lost his job when it burned down in 2003. He says he was hard-up for work when he signed onto Morales' contracting crew in early 2005. "I knew his MO. He was about makin' money," Lumpkin says. "I was kind of fond of him."

During Lumpkin's time on Morales' crew, Morales was charged with passing bad checks and with theft, and Mason's Unlimited was convicted of water pollution. The group also collapsed three adjoining rowhouses on South Hanover Street. Lumpkin recalls feverishly shoring up 906 and 910 S. Hanover after the outside walls buckled. He says the buildings gave way after Robert Long dug too deep with a Bobcat during a basement underpinning job at 908. "Jose told him it was too deep," Lumpkin recalls. "Rob was in there stamping the ground saying, `Look, it's solid.'"

For $12 an hour, Lumpkin worked jobs at 234 S. Chester St. and 2814 Fleet St., he says, and tolerated Morales' habit of becoming scarce on payday. He says he fell out with Morales after declining to take part in a July 2006 scaffold heist: "When I told him I wasn't in he started treating me like an asshole."

Stealing equipment for jobs was standard operating procedure at ABR Construction and Mason's Unlimited, Lumpkin contends. When caught--a rare occurrence--Morales would instruct a crew member (Long, usually, Lumpkin says) to take the rap, and then maybe pay restitution or buy the machine in question. Given Morales' experiences in Baltimore City, stealing may have made more sense than renting or buying--especially when it came to earth-moving equipment. Police reports say that in November 2005 Morales stole a skid loader owned by Alban Tractor Co., from a Baltimore County job site, and in August 2006 stole a skid loader and an excavator worth $75,000 each from Biddinger Contracting in Anne Arundel. On any of these thefts, Morales could have been sent to prison for 15 years or more. Biddinger Contracting owner Frank Biddinger says he found his machines in a Morales job site at 1325 Towson St. in South Baltimore, and that unhelpful Baltimore police advised him to just take the machines back. The charges in the case were later postponed indefinitely for lack of evidence.

Compared to skid loaders and trucks, stealing scaffolding was child's play, Lumpkin says. "Scaffolding don't have serial numbers on it," he explains. "[Morales] knew what he could get away with."

Morales bid a lot of contracting jobs, often juggling two or three at a time. But the stolen equipment wasn't always meant to aid in their completion, Lumpkin says. It was sometimes a prop to dupe customers.

"We'd set up the scaffold to get the first [one-]third payment," Lumpkin says. "Half the time he'd go take it down the next day" and abandon the job.

On July 5, 2006, working in the rain, members of Morales' crew took eight hours disassembling a $30,000 scaffold at 1465 Key Highway, Lumpkin says, rebuilding part of it at 234 S. Chester St.

Police received an anonymous tip about the pending theft but did not swing by the crime scene, where they might have caught the thieves in the act. Over July and August, Lumpkin and Morales argued over Lumpkin's pay and over a cell phone Morales had given his worker. On Sept. 12, 2006, Lumpkin called in another tip--this one got to the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team, known as the RATT.

Police seized some of the hot scaffolding from various Morales job sites, and Lumpkin says Morales blamed him for the theft. The cops started to trust Lumpkin's version of events after he told them about his anonymous tips, charging documents indicate.

The RATT investigation ground on for months, with mainly Baltimore County police detective Steve Sunderland and Baltimore City police detective D. R. Fields bird-dogging Morales' crew, questioning them, arresting them, watching. Lumpkin says he quit Morales' crew in the fall of 2006, and that Morales withheld his last week's pay. A couple of months later, Morales allegedly attacked Lumpkin with a baseball bat at the midtown job site. Morales was charged with assault, and that case is still pending jury trial.

Thanks in part to Lumpkin's cooperation, Morales was arrested on Feb. 1 and Feb. 15, 2007, charged with the scaffolding theft and taking the Alban skid loader. Lumpkin agreed to testify in those cases, and since then has taken off days from work to do so at least five times. On almost every date, postponement came at defense attorney Stanley Needleman's request.

The multiplying court dates presented a stage for further drama. "Where's my money?" an unhappy customer demanded of Morales outside Courtroom 2 at the South Baltimore District Court on Patapsco Avenue last July. Morales was there on the still-pending theft and assault charges; the unhappy customer was there to confront Morales. "You got my money?"

"You was in a contract and you held the work up," Morales replied calmly.

"You're a fuckin' liar," the man yelled as a bailiff rushed to order the man from the building. "You took $16,000 of my money and walked away!"

After that day's postponement, Lumpkin contends, Morales and his girlfriend, Tiffany Frey, chased him in separate cars and boxed him in at the intersection of Patapsco Avenue and Annapolis Road, where Morales threatened again to kill him.

"It's bullshit," Morales said after a hearing on the matter last August. "Why would I wait for him to come to court before going after him?" Morales claimed Lumpkin concocted the story in order to extort money. "He wants $15,000 to make this all go away," Morales said. "This case and the other cases."

Morales told a reporter he intended to pay: "Wouldn't you? I spent more than that on bail."

Lumpkin did not make a court date, and the assault charges against both Morales and Frey were nolle-prossed last October; Lumpkin denies asking Morales to pay him, excepting the $500 he says he is owed for work. He continues to come to court, usually waiting hours in a holding room before being informed of the latest postponement. On April 17, 2008, he takes a late morning break on the Calvert Street island separating the east and west downtown Circuit Court buildings. Flicking his cigarette butt into the street, he predicts Morales' days of freedom are numbered: "You can't take everybody's money, live like a king, and expect no consequences."

Jose Morales jr., apparently, thinks he can now that Robert Long is dead.

"Co-defendant ain't around no more," he says without emotion, standing in front of the courthouse before his April 17 postponement.

A few days later, a four-page "State's Supplemental Disclosure," signed by detectives Field and Sunderland, made its way into Morales' case file, describing a March 11, 2008, meeting of Long; his attorney, Alex B. Leikus; Assistant State's Attorney Katie O'Hara; and the detectives regarding the scaffolding theft. "During the meeting," the document says, "Long admitted to his part in the case . . . [he] stole approximately $30,000 worth of scaffolding from the Key Highway job site and delivered it to Morales."

Long told police that he took the scaffolding under Morales' direction, using Morales' dump truck, and that Morales paid him to do it. He said that some of the scaffolding he stole was never recovered, and was stored in the backyard of Morales' home in Severn, where police saw it a few days later, stacked behind a fence. A few days later, police searched the house, seizing the scaffolding and other evidence.

Sitting outside the courtroom on April 17, Morales acts as if none of it happened. He tells a reporter that his cases have all been dismissed, right before they are merely postponed for another six weeks.

Riding the elevator down afterward, Morales smirks when asked why he had just lied. "I must have been mistaken," he says. Then he thinks of something more clever.

"They're gonna nolle it," Jose Morales predicts. "They just don't know it yet."

Editor's Note: We mistakenly reported that Jose Morales' father, Jose Morales Sr. is an unlicensed heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning contractor. In fact, Morales Sr. is a licensed HVAC contractor, though he is not licensed with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, as was correctly stated above.

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