The Rise and Fall of Fred Brooks and How Drugs Get to Baltimore. Part One.
The voice on the other end of Fred Brooks' cell phone in August 2003 was familiar, but the tone was agitated, the words ominous. Brooks had been in business with Mexican drug traffickers for more than a year without major mishap, but now his Los Angeles associate Raul Del Real was telling him that $1 million had gone missing. Someone was going to pay with his life.
"Have you called Jay?" Del Real asked, referring to Jason Getzes, a member of Brooks' East Coast drug crew stationed out in L.A. "Guys are going crazy. Everything comes down to Jay. We know everything about him. To tell the truth, it's a done deal. We can take him out right now. Not even you can help him. We have people worldwide--everywhere."
Days earlier, Brooks had received his usual twice-monthly shipment of Colombian cocaine, which had made its way through Tijuana, into Los Angeles, and across the country to Baltimore in an ingenious manner. An innovator in a high-risk industry, Brooks had become so proficient at selling large amounts of coke--which he stashed in a Roland Park apartment and sold wholesale to Baltimore drug dealers from a hotel room at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover--that he was on the verge of brokering bigger deals.
But having opened a shipment from Brooks 3,000 miles away in a sleazy car wash in South L.A. and finding no money in return for the drugs, which they sold to Brooks on credit, the Mexicans now suspected a ripoff. On the phone, Brooks assured Del Real that he had sent the money as he was supposed to do, and that he did not know what the problem was. Then he had an associate call Getzes to tell him to destroy all evidence of drug trafficking, such as ledgers and shipping receipts, and get the hell out of L.A.
This conversation between Brooks and Del Real, monitored by federal agents with the DEA's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, was a pivotal moment in the lives of both Brooks and Del Real. Del Real, a violent criminal linked to one of L.A.'s most mysterious alleged crime figures, was unaware that he was being set up. Brooks, on the other hand, was about to face the consequences of making one of the hardest decisions of his already complex life: to become a government informant. In fact, Brooks was about to become the catalyst for an international drug conspiracy investigation that had multiple targets on both coasts.
Taking Brooks off the streets of Baltimore was a big enough accomplishment, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick, who described Brooks to a federal jury in 2005 as one of the city's most prolific and resourceful drug traffickers. "I do not recall ever having investigated a matter in which such large amounts of cocaine were brought into this or any jurisdiction," Warwick told the jury, describing Baltimore as a "consumer" city of drugs and L.A. as a "source" city--a symbiotic relationship that enabled Brooks to bring 600 kilos of cocaine into Baltimore from L.A. in a nine-month period in 2003.
With Brooks' help, Warwick also sent Del Real and six other Mexicans from L.A. to federal prison--two of them for more than 40 years. "We've just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of distribution of large quantities of cocaine in the Mid-Atlantic area," he said of the Baltimore-L.A. connection.
Brooks was an atypical drug dealer and a major catch in other ways. A Baltimore City College graduate with a flair for numbers and business, he started dealing in Remington in the late 1980s and built an organization that, he contends, dealt drugs in 17 countries and involved more than 30 employees, with Brooks himself operating under 50 different aliases. In a letter that arrived at City Paper just before press time, he offers details of his early rise as a Baltimore drug dealer that no federal jury has ever heard, including early connections to the Medellin and Cali cartels of Columbia and groups in Sicily, Afghanistan, and the Caribbean.
According to residents in Remington, where he grew up in a middle-class household, Brooks also helped transform the mixed-race neighborhood adjacent to I-83 from a drug-consuming area to a drug-dealing area, with violent results.
With his brother Kelly, he rose above Baltimore's sectarian crime infrastructure in part by recruiting white kids from Remington and training them to go into black neighborhoods and sell drugs, according to sources who observed him build an organization from the ground up. Products of a biracial marriage, the Brooks brothers did not discriminate as they conducted legitimate and illegitimate business, funneling drug money into property, a beauty supplies company, a hair salon, an electronics company, a sound production company, and a popular downtown Baltimore nightclub, Club Indigo.
Yet Brooks had even greater potential for the government. He held the key to taking down Del Real, known as "Ra-Ra" (pronounced "rah-rah"), whom federal court documents identify as a close associate of L.A. grocery king George Torres, best known as the former business partner of Horacio "Carlos" Vignali, whose drug dealer son Carlos Vignali Jr. was pardoned by President Clinton in 2000.
For two decades, authorities had a hard time swallowing the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story that went with Torres' Numero Uno supermarket chain that proliferated in the barrios of South and East L.A., to say nothing of his fleet of customized lowriders, gaudy suits, shaved eyebrows, and dozens of commercial, industrial, and residential properties from L.A. to Santa Barbara.
Vignali Sr. ostensibly was nothing more than a successful parking lot and billboard operator with similarly vast holdings who schmoozed with L.A. politicians--particularly after his son was convicted in the mid-1990s in the largest drug case in Minnesota history. Only after the Clinton pardon of Vignali Jr. did it become publicly known that Vignali Sr. had donated money to prominent local, state, and congressional representatives to write letters on his son's behalf, and also persuaded the U.S. Attorney, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, and Cardinal Roger Mahony of the L.A. Archdiocese to lobby the White House for clemency for his son. The resulting scandal, known as "Pardongate," got uglier when government documents later surfaced that alleged Torres and Vignali Sr. were major Southern California drug traffickers.
The government could never establish enough evidence to charge Torres or Vignali with drug trafficking, however. But when Torres associate Del Real came on the radar as a co-conspirator with Brooks in a drug-trafficking ring, Brooks' stock as a potential asset went up.
Now, Torres is in prison facing RICO charges in federal court in Los Angeles, and Del Real is identified in court documents as one of the key witnesses against him, in a trial scheduled to begin sometime this year. Brooks is serving a reduced 10-year sentence in federal prison.
"Establishing a Baltimore-L.A. connection through Del Real was a big part of the Torres investigation," a veteran Los Angeles law enforcer says. "Ra-Ra was a dope nexus--we knew we could put dope on him, but we also knew he was connected to Torres."
By attempting to satisfy Baltimore's insatiable thirst for drugs through contacts in L.A. with representatives of Tijuana's Arellano-Felix cartel, Brooks entered a world that had vexed investigators for years. These days Brooks sits in a cell advising his law-enforcement handlers on matters that he claims are "more complex than what the court records might show." In a recent letter to City Paper, Brooks writes, "Things are ongoing and quite frankly the government was taken off guard by the size and many tentacles of this investigation."
Brooks' cryptic comments leave much to the imagination. But his sworn testimony in 2005 (corroborated by his brother and other co-conspirators) makes clear that he once had a vast network of suppliers and customers--some of whom might still be wondering what happened to him. Brooks' story offers a rare glimpse of the methods of international drug traffickers, and underscores the value to the government of such individuals when they cooperate.
His lawyer, David Irwin, refuses to comment on Brooks' status as an informant but says, "My advice to him would be to keep a low profile, do his time, and hope to get out of prison alive."
Which is a chilling situation for a former undergrad whose journey took him from Remington to Roland Park to L.A. and abroad, whom friends describe as the last person they'd expect to become a drug dealer.
For his part, Brooks, who once aspired to be an actuary, now says he regrets the life he led, and the losses that occurred. He never considered the human toll until it was too late, he writes, mostly because he was too caught up in the grind. Though he describes his decision to cooperate with the government as "my only unselfish act in the last 20 years," it now appears that the government simply owns him.
"When millions of dollars is just a five-minute phone call away, I saw it as a means to the end of solving my family's poverty issues," Brooks writes of his drug-dealing career. "I am not some evil monster."
From the crest of a hill on Miles Street, north of North Avenue, a stone's throw from I-83 and just around the corner from where Fred and Kelly Brooks grew up on Huntington Avenue, you can see the city jail in the distance. Kids around here call it "college."
It wasn't always this way.
Often obscured by its more well-known neighbors of Hampden and Charles Village, Remington--bordered on the west by the Jones Falls Expressway and on the east by Howard Street--historically was a tight-knit, working-class community with tree-lined streets and rowhouses that often feature large porches and generous yards.
Whereas until recent years Hampden was a fiercely white, insular community, Remington was a community where whites and blacks co-existed relatively peacefully. Back in the 1980s, longtime residents say, if there were drug users in Remington, they had to go to nearby Reservoir Hill or Barclay to score.
But still, coming from Remington clearly set the Brooks brothers apart from some of their peers at City College, where Brooks offered his favorite quotation in the class of 1986 yearbook: "You lie like a rug."
John "Scottie" Bowden says Fred Brooks was a friend of his family in the 1980s, and he recalls the positive impression Brooks made on him, his twin brothers, and even his parents: "Fred was not much of a ladies man, not so much into sports, although he was on the wrestling team. He was just an all-around good guy. My folks used to say, `Why can't you be more like Fred?'"
According to Bowden, now an assistant principal at the Crossroads Center school in White Marsh, Brooks did not lack intelligence or family support either. "He did not want for the things that would have prevented the kinds of decisions he later made, Bowden says. "He was good people." Yet the socioeconomic gap made their friendship a one-way street, Bowden adds: "We grew up near Roland Park, and my parents didn't allow us to go over that way [to Remington]. We didn't go to Fred's house to hang--Fred came to ours."
The class of 1986 at City College was a close group, and Brooks was well-liked, says Cindy DuBerry-Keller, a member of the class reunion committee. "Unless you rode the bus together, no one paid a lot of attention to where you were from," she says. "We'd show up at school and just hang together. Fred and I hung in similar but not the same circles. He was nice, kind of funny. He certainly did not struggle with school. He had one of the highest SAT scores in our class."
Brooks was even closer with Scottie Bowden's brothers, Jeff and Paul, twins who saw a transformation in Brooks after he got to Hampton University, in 1986. "I don't know the Fred that's [in prison] now," says Paul Bowden, a sports administrator with George Mason University.
"His father was a stern man, from the Caribbean, I think," Paul Bowden continues. "His mother was white, and I never saw her that much. Fred was an A student who came to our house, played Nerf hoops, and ate dinner with us. He was extremely intelligent. We were good friends. We all had our social issues, and I can only imagine what it was like growing up biracial in Baltimore in the 1980s, but this kid was smart. I have no clue what happened to him from senior year in high school to freshman year of college.
"You don't just come home and decide to deal drugs. There's got to be more to that story." (The Brooks' parents are deceased. Efforts to reach their immediate family were unsuccessful.)
When Brooks and Paul Bowden got to Virginia's Hampton University together in 1986, it did not take long for them to go their separate ways, Bowden says, even though they lived in the same dorm. School officials confirm Brooks attending through the fall of 1988, when he dropped out and returned to Baltimore.
The Bowdens seem to think Brooks had trouble paying for school. "I recall being surprised at how smart he was, and hearing that his family wasn't going to be able to pay for school," Scottie Bowden says.
It was during this period that Brooks came home one summer from Hampton, he testified in federal court in 2005, and decided to deal drugs as a way to make some extra money.
"I think Fred had [a relative] who had something to do with his getting into the life," Paul Bowden adds. Once in, his friends say, Brooks quickly went from a well-spoken, Sebago-wearing undergrad to a streetwise player sporting jewelry and flashing cash. "You'd see him on the street later and you could tell he was making a lot of money," Paul Bowden says. "He got big from that connect in L.A., is what we later heard."
Remington residents who don't know much about the Brooks brothers describe a neighborhood decline that is concurrent with Fred Brooks' rise as a drug dealer.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, longtime residents say, Remington took on all the common characteristics of inner-city decay due to drugs and drug dealing: shootouts, addiction, squalor. And though today's more promising mix of yuppies, bohemians, working class, and questionable characters still leaves room for crime, the neighborhood has come a long way back from where it had sunk during the time when Brooks was "da capo di tutti capi," according to a longtime resident who asks to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
In the 1990s, residents say, turf wars sprung up in Remington and shootings became more common than before, as dealers fought over the burgeoning drug market. Though Brooks, in his communications with City Paper, maintains he did bigger business in other parts of the city, he concedes that his activities had a negative effect on the neighborhood. With crosstown traffic on 28th and 29th streets and close proximity to the Jones Falls Expressway, drug users from all over could be in and out of Remington in minutes, making the streets of the once humble blue-collar neighborhood resemble an open-air drug market.
Yet even after he became a drug dealer, Brooks seemingly had not totally abandoned plans for higher education or even public service. He testified that from 1986 to 1990 he served in the National Guard, and that even after he left Hampton in 1988 he continued to take business classes at local colleges.
Still, court records and law-enforcement documents obtained by City Paper show that Brooks, though not formally charged with a crime until 1992, was arrested as early as 1988 for assault, and again in 1990 for carrying a gun and assault with intent to murder. In 1991, he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to supply wholesale cocaine, common battery with the use of a bottle, and destruction of property. He was arrested again in 1992 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was charged with disobeying a police officer, though the charges were dropped. Brooks contends in a letter to City Paper that he was already one of the largest heroin traffickers in the city by 1992.
One aspect of Brooks' operation was the recruitment of troubled youth from Remington and nearby Hampden, according to neighborhood sources. One such recruit was a particularly violent youth named Timothy McDermott, who managed to get arrested at least a dozen times in a three-year period for a range of assaults and violent felonies that never seemed to stick. "Fred was not a particularly violent person," says a neighborhood observer who is familiar with both Brooks and McDermott. "But if someone crossed him, he found use for Timothy's skills and rage." (McDermott is currently serving out the remainder of a five-year drug-trafficking sentence, imposed in 2005, and could not be reached for comment.)
In October 1992, Brooks was finally arrested on a charge that stuck: possession of heroin with intent to distribute, on the 1600 block of West North Avenue, for which he was sentenced to eight years in jail--all but 18 months of it suspended.
This bump in the road barely slowed Brooks down. Rather, it allowed him to hone his skills of deception.
Convicted in March 1993, Brooks was paroled in November that year, after serving a portion of his 18 months at Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp, court records show. Parole supervision began in May 1994, when he told his parole officer he was gainfully employed at Brooks Beauty Supply Inc. Federal court records show that the beauty supply company was a legitimate family business--started with drug-trafficking proceeds.
By the end of 1994, Brooks also was the owner of Club Indigo. The nightclub was a downtown hot spot located at 204 N. Greene St., incorporated by John Anderson Jr., who was later convicted in a federal conspiracy case for money laundering and selling manufactured substances used to cut drugs. (The club forfeited its license more than a decade ago for failure to file necessary paperwork, according to Samuel Daniels, executive secretary of the city liquor board.)
While Brooks was hiding drug money in various businesses, he was dealing increasing amounts of cocaine and heroin along the eastern seaboard. Just seven months after his parole supervision began, Brooks, who went by "Dougie," was arrested in New York for conspiracy to purchase four kilos of heroin, in November 1994, along with McDermott. The federal conviction, in 1995, resulted in a 57-month sentence at Fort Dix federal prison in New Jersey--a potential opportunity for rehabilitation.
North Avenue evangelist James E. Roberts Sr. is having memory trouble. "I'm trying to recall Fred Brooks," he says one day in October, when called by City Paper. After some prompting--a reminder that he wrote a reference letter one year ago, in which Roberts claimed to have known Brooks for 13 years--a spark of recognition occurs: "Oh, yeah, now I recall . . . well, if the Lord wants you to remember, you remember."
Roberts says he met Brooks through his daughter, and that all he really recalls is that Brooks would come around once in a while and chat with his wife, eat barbecue and cherry cheesecake, and have a nice time. Brooks simply got mixed up with the wrong crowd, Roberts says: "I'd try to tell him, but some people don't want to listen. They have to learn the hard way."
On a rainy day in November, Roberts answers the door of one of his three adjoining houses on the 1900 block of West North Avenue, which serve as homeless men's shelters. All nervous energy in jeans, a button-down shirt, and white sneakers, he has blue eyes and light brown skin, a little gray at the temples. He sees himself as a modern-day Jeremiah, "the weeping prophet," and complains that greed is killing churches.
Greed may have gotten the best of Fred Brooks, too, Roberts suggests. A stint in federal prison in New Jersey from 1995 to 2000 didn't provide a sufficient wake-up call, Roberts says, but now that Brooks is back in federal prison again, he's taking an 11-part Bible study class. Brooks even has other inmates interested in a more spiritual journey, Roberts says. "He didn't turn to the Lord until the second time."
Maybe that's true. But after coming out of Fort Dix in 2000, Brooks soon turned right back to the street, expanding the scope of his already enterprising career.
In many ways, Fort Dix was an ideal berth for aspiring drug dealers. With 80 nationalities among the inmates, it was "a virtual graduate school of international contacts and drug trafficking expertise," according to a brief by federal prosecutor James Warwick. So it was no surprise that within two years of his release Brooks "had become one of the largest narcotics distributors in the Baltimore area," Warwick wrote.
Brooks claims that he tried going straight after his release but that it didn't pencil out. He told a federal jury that after his release from Fort Dix, he went to work at Arbitron, the Columbia-based radio ratings service, while attending the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (UMBC has no record of Brooks ever attending school there.) But by summer of that year, he testified, "My family was running low on money, so I called some Colombian friends of mine, and I started dealing heroin again."
On probation and required to report his employment, Brooks testified that he maintained straight jobs but did not perform them as often as he represented. One of the jobs he says he had was with Roberts Painting Co.--owned by James E. Roberts Sr. "Were you untruthful in reporting work activity to your probation officer?" Warwick asked Brooks at trial. "Yes," Brooks replied. Law enforcement sources familiar with Brooks say he would splatter paint on himself before going to see his probation officer, to make it look as if he was working as a painter. (Roberts says that Brooks never worked for him, but that his daughter, Tamera Roberts, has a painting company called Roberts II. Tamera Roberts did not return calls for comment.)
Brooks testified in federal court that he needed help to negotiate deals during this time, so he turned to his brother Kelly Brooks, who was "like a spokesman and a sales rep as far as my drug dealing." Kelly was an employee, Brooks stated, and was useful in that Brooks could not travel easily because he was on probation. "I basically had him on a need-to-know basis," Fred Brooks testified. (Kelly Brooks, like his brother, cooperated with the government and is serving a reduced five-year sentence in federal prison.)
In the summer of 2002, Brooks began shipping marijuana and cocaine from California through contacts he made in prison, one of them a member of the Bloods street gang, based in Los Angeles.
Brooks was receiving coke from one contact and up to 500 pounds of marijuana every seven to 10 days from another contact named "Bobo," a Bloods gang member. Bobo was buying the pot from a Mexican named Jose Mendoza, known as "Chato"--a business partner of Raul Del Real--with an artificial right leg and a habit of stashing money and drugs at his mother's house in South L.A., according to federal court documents.
"Chato and I both got dissatisfied with the way [Bobo] was doing business, and we decided to just deal directly with each other," Brooks stated in court testimony, "because [Chato] was a better businessman than the people I was dealing with in the Bloods."
One reason why Brooks liked doing business with Chato was that Chato did not force him to assume the financial risk of delivery of drugs from California, which he purchased on credit. So from the summer of 2002 through August 2003, Brooks was buying thousands of pounds of marijuana a month for $250 to $300 a pound, and selling them wholesale in Baltimore for between $550 and $600 a pound, or retail for between $800 and $1,000 a pound.
The shipping process was laborious. Brooks, on federal probation and supposedly working for Roberts Painting Co., tended to it himself by traveling under assumed names and deceiving his probation officer. He rented a place in Pomona, to the east of downtown Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. "I was given the marijuana in L.A., and I would take it out to Pomona and re-package it in electrical cable reels and ship it out" to Baltimore and other points east, Brooks told a federal jury in 2005.
Sometimes the pot would come in blocks, "like giant ice cube blocks or big circular wheels," and Brooks testified that he would use an industrial saw to cut it into smaller sizes. "Then I would vacuum seal it, wrap it with dryer sheets, vacuum seal it again, and place it inside of a false tubing of cable reel," with a layer of industrial-sized cable on the outside to disguise it.
"At first I used UPS, or FedEx, but eventually I went to freight," he stated. He used Forward Air, in El Segundo, Calif. "They'd put it on an 18-wheeler to Baltimore or North Carolina or wherever I had a customer at."
With a distribution network in place in Baltimore, and elsewhere on the East Coast, Brooks would sell the drugs in a matter of days and ship the money back to Los Angeles the same way the pot arrived, hidden inside false cable reels, loaded onto a trailer.
"Was it a lot of work?" the prosecutor asked him.
"Yes," he replied.
"Then why go through it?"
"For the money."
In December 2002, Chato approached Brooks about selling cocaine. A shipment of 18 kilos of cocaine was waiting in Norfolk, Va., and the seller had abandoned it. If Brooks could distribute the kilos, or units, which the Mexicans were selling for $19,000 per kilo, then he could have it.
First Brooks had to meet Chato's boss, a man named Laurencio Gonzalez, known as "Lalo," who had but one question, Brooks recalled: "Would I be able to pay him." Within a matter of minutes, Brooks was on his cell phone with his brother Kelly, instructing him to get down to Norfolk to meet the man who was holding the coke for Lalo. "I finished packaging my marijuana, and headed back to Baltimore," Brooks stated. "Prior to leaving L.A. I made some calls, so I had the units like pre-sold before I got [home]."
Back in Baltimore the next day, Brooks met the man in charge of Lalo's couriers, a man named Jose Jesus Gutierrez, or "Chuy," who told Brooks that his job was to go to various cities across the country to oversee distribution of the Colombian cocaine that was owned by Mexicans who had brought it into the United States and taken it to Los Angeles. Chuy told Brooks that he and Lalo were affiliated with the Tijuana-based group that owned the cocaine.
"I understood that to mean this was an international organization," Brooks said of the Arellano-Felix Cartel that at the time controlled the area between Tijuana and San Diego. "They control . . . immigration and drug shipments" to the United States, Brooks testified.
With 15 years of drug trafficking and federal prison under his belt and a seemingly bottomless pit of customer demand, and with various schemes to avoid detection and a network of employees, Fred Brooks was now playing in a whole new league.
Next week: Fred Brooks moves cocaine for Mexicans from L.A.--and eventually brings them down.
Correction: After receiving an ominous call from Los Angeles-based drug-trafficking associate Raul Del Real in August 2003, Brooks himself called his employee Jason Getzes and told him to get out of L.A., rather than having an associate make the call, as we reported.
Correction 1/30/2008: We reported that evangelist James E. Roberts Sr. owns three adjoining houses on West. North Avenue that serve as homeless men's shelters. The houses at 1928, 1930 and 1932 W. North Ave. are actually owned by Mission Possible Ministries, which was founded by Roberts, who has brown eyes, not blue, as we reported.
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