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Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy

From Bounty Hunter to Bible Thumper, Pastor Anthony Hill Presents a Paradox

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Hill says goodbye to a parishioner at his covenant life family worship center.
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Parishioners feel the spirit.
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Hill leads a service.
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Hill with mentee brandon saunders.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 4/16/2008

IT was nearing midnight when the cops stormed the Prince George's County apartment, handcuffing one resident and terrorizing the rest of the family inside. The three plainclothes detectives--they wore badges around their necks and drove a big Ford sedan--said they were there to arrest "Jose," but he wasn't there, and they lingered after the family told them Jose had moved out.

The officers--William Mossman, Antwan D. McKnight, and Anthony Golphin, according to a police report--ransacked the Hyattsville apartment and another upstairs where more members of the family lived. Then they rifled the family's pockets, taking a total of $1,570.

Then things got weird.

After midnight, as they left with the family's money, the detectives discovered that their car had been towed.

But the story of that spring night three years ago, drawn from a state police officer's report of the incident, is not what it first seems. And those thieving detectives were not what they appeared to be, either. The story of that night is also part of a larger story, an evolving and still cryptic tale that revolves around a little-noticed Baltimore City bribery case, the threatened foreclosure--for the second time--of a Remington church, and a shadowy, high-stakes industry that one defense lawyer described as the "wild, wild West." At its center stands a friendly, gregarious, heavily armed pastor who calls himself "the secret weapon."

That clergyman blames events before and after the Prince George's incident on his status as the strong right arm of Milton Tillman Jr., the politically wired East Baltimore businessman and bail-bonds impresario whose close links to at least one drug fugitive have lately come to light ("Flight Connections," Mobtown Beat, March 12). But despite a long public record of his deeds and misdeeds, the pastor remains an enigma, right down to his name.

In recent court records, Anthony Golphin is known as Anthony J. Hill. In some court records he is 46 years old, in others 50. As Anthony Golphin Hill, he is the beloved "Pastor Tony" of the Covenant Life Family Worship Center, a handsome brick storefront church at 2602 Huntingdon Ave., one block east of North Howard Street. Hill is also a bounty hunter who since 1989 has tracked down bail jumpers, sometimes using illegal means. He has earned himself multiple convictions for theft, forgery, bribery, and handgun violations while facing down charges as varied as perjury and attempted murder.

"It has its ups and downs," Hill says when first asked, on March 13, about the bounty-hunting business, which in recent weeks has, by his account, taken him as far afield as Houston and South Bend, Ind. "I just treat people fair."

The two faces (and shifting identities) of Anthony Hill place him and his church at the nexus where Baltimore's underworld melds with legitimate businesses--both for-profit and non-. Hill ministers to Bloods gang members while falsely telling a judge he operates a state-licensed youth services organization. He captures dangerous criminals but also helps some escape. Hill stacks his church's board with ex-cons but has, according to his lawyer, given state and federal prosecutors information helpful on many important cases.

Vanessa Vereen, the church's clerk and an old friend of Hill's from when they were co-workers at Verizon, in the 1990s, says Pastor Tony's "creativity" drew her to his church. "He delivers his message through drama," she says, "which a lot of people can relate to."

Tony Hill's life has seldom lacked drama.

On the night of May 19, 2005, Hill, McKnight, and Mossman drove to 1409 Langley Way in Hyattsville. They came to the apartment complex, a warren of squat, two-story brick buildings rented mainly to Hispanic immigrants, to find "Jose," who was not further identified in the police incident report and subsequent court records. Hill and his crew had adorned themselves with fake badges, handcuffs, and a pellet gun that looked like the semiautomatic pistols police usually carry.

After holding the four men and one woman they found in the two apartments against their will for several hours and relieving them of their cash, the bounty hunters exited the apartment building to discover that their car, a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria they had registered earlier that day with a temporary tag, had been towed for a parking violation. They went to the impound lot to get it back, but instead of complying with the fake police, the woman behind the glass at Henry's Wrecker called the real cops, prompting the bounty hunters to flee in a white van, according to the Maryland State Police report of the incident.

Police quickly caught up to the bounty hunters and arrested them. Hill--who gave his name as Anthony Golphin--was initially charged with multiple counts of robbery, theft, impersonating an officer, and false imprisonment. McKnight, a 31-year-old Essex man with a 2003 gun conviction, was charged likewise, through the charges were later dropped. The last member of the crew, Mossman, is a mystery; a search of his name in the Prince George's County court file finds no record of the incident, although Mossman is named in the "probable cause" report submitted to district court in the arrests of both McKnight and Golphin/Hill.

Carlos A. Quintanilla Godoy, the member of the family who told police he had been handcuffed and whose account of the incident police appear to have relied on most heavily, backed out of a scheduled interview with City Paper, saying he was too busy working and asking, "What's in it for me?" A paralegal who served as translator for the conversation, Mario Gonzales, says Godoy contends the state police report account is accurate, except for the amount stolen. "[Hill] took $10,000 from the family," Gonzales translates.

On Jan. 12, 2006, Hill pleaded guilty to theft of under $500, receiving a short jail sentence to run concurrent to another one he was already serving, and all the other charges against him regarding the incident were dropped. But he says he and his men are innocent and is incensed that anyone would think otherwise.

"There was no money taken," Hill says by phone on April 8. "That money was all ours. Nobody was handcuffed. There were like seven or eight people in that apartment. Why would we put handcuffs on one if we couldn't put handcuffs on all of them?"

This interview comes after several weeks of cordial, if brief, communications. But in the April 8 interview, Hill is by turns angry, pleading, and mocking. "We don't take stuff from people," he says. "We don't do that. Did they report that everyone in that house were illegal aliens?"

Asked why he went to Prince George's County at all that night when, by order of a circuit court judge, he was supposed to be home in bed, Hill says, "You got to do what you got to do."

On the night of the ill-fated May 2005 raid, Hill was already under house arrest, with a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, awaiting trial on a 12-count indictment charging him with handgun possession by a convicted felon, forgery, misuse of a state seal (seven counts), perjury, and the bribery of two court officials.

The bribery case against Hill hardly rated mention in the local media, with only WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller airing a short report after his arrest and indictment on Jan. 14, 2005. Asked about the case initially on March 13, when City Paper first contacted him, Hill sounds nonchalant about the ordeal.

"It's just like any other business," Hill says. "You need people looking out for you, you need information, because information is key."

As Hill explains it, he asked an old friend to look up some information for him so he could locate a bail-jumper, and thereby ran afoul of the bribery statute in a very technical way. "The state's case was, because I bought her lunch, they say I paid her," he scoffs.

Hill says the case against him was motivated by larger concerns, political and corrupt. "It wasn't so much they don't like me--they don't like the company I work for," he says, adding that the prosecutor in his case, Elizabeth Ritter, "was very close to Fred Frank," the state's largest-volume bail bondsman, who, in recent years, has been challenged for business by Milton Tillman Jr.'s company, 4 Aces. To get at Tillman, Hill contends, Tillman's enemies came after the linchpin of Tillman's operation: Tony Hill.

"Everybody in the city knows I'm the secret weapon," Hill brags over his cell phone as he enters a downtown parking garage during the March 13 interview. "Ask anyone in the city. . . . They're thinking, If I get him out of the way, [4 Aces] will fold."

Last summer, Ritter prosecuted Tillman on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury for his part in an alleged conspiracy to use the same properties to post multiple bails; he and his co-defendants were found not guilty on all charges. Noting that Ritter had served with representatives of Fred W. Frank on a bail-reform committee, Tillman's lawyer moved that Ritter be dismissed from the case or that she recuse herself. Both motions were denied. Ritter could not be reached for comment.

Brian Frank, who operates his uncle Fred's eponymous bail business, scoffs at the notion that Ritter favors his company, but he does confirm Hill's notoriety. "He's very well known," Frank says. "I don't know if he always gets his man--I know he's had significant issues with the law."

Hill says his troubles were anything but significant. "It was a bunch of petty stuff, man," he concludes.

Aquetta Jenkins, an elder at Covenant Life Family Worship Center, says she met Hill by accident, after he called her best friend for help tracking a fugitive. Jenkins' friend's name, Shaquetta, was close enough to her own that Hill got them mixed up. "He's talking to [Shaquetta], thinking it's me," she laughs. "He's telling her all about me."

Naturally, Shaquetta called her best friend to tell her all about the bounty hunter. "`I know he's doing the job,'" Jenkins says her friend told her, "`but there's something different about him.'"

They found out later that Hill had his own church. Shaquetta joined right off, Jenkins says. After some hesitation--she was a lifelong member of another church--Jenkins joined Covenant Life as well, bringing along her children. Part of it was curiosity, Jenkins says: "I said, you know too much about me, I want to find out about him."

Sitting in a small room inside the church, at a dark wood table with a doily on it, Jenkins holds out a video titled Pimpology--Purpose in My Pain. The garish blue cover features Hill dressed up like a gangsta thug. "We do a lot of illustrated sermons," she says.

Hill's dramatic preaching style, stripped down to street vernacular, unbound by churchly convention, and unafraid of taboo, strikes a powerful chord in Jenkins, a nurse and nurse educator who teaches at Coppin State University.

"He was absolutely teaching the word," Jenkins says. "I'm a student. I always had my notebook."

Jenkins says Hill pushed her constantly to be her best, to stretch her abilities, to believe in herself and in her own bright future. "There would not be a day where he didn't say, `Something is going to happen. Something wonderful. All you have to do is walk into your place,'" she recalls. "I came to find out who he is, and all he showed me was Christ." She flashes a smile that could light a stadium.

Vanessa Vereen (yes, she says, she is a distant cousin to Tony-winning actor Ben Vereen) was one of the first to join her friend Tony's church six years ago. "He told me he was getting ready to start a church. I said I'll be there," the church's secretary remembers.

Covenant Life Family Worship Center was incorporated on Oct. 1, 2001, and took up residence in rented space at 5426 Harford Road, a former bank building attached to a dollar store.

On his church's web site Hill calls himself Dr. Anthony Golphin Hill. He says he earned his doctorate from Logos Theological Seminary, which is an online university run, according to its web site, from a Georgia post-office box.

Church is something of a family enterprise. Dennis M. Golphin, Hill's half brother, is "presiding bishop" of the Living in Favor Global Network Ministries, overseeing a network of churches, of which Covenant Life is one. Golphin says he admires his younger sibling's head for business.

"He's been very enterprising all of his life," Golphin, who now lives in North Carolina, says by phone. "I gave him a puppy once when he was 9 or 10. He sold his puppy."

Golphin laughs at the memory. "We tell that story all the time," he explains. "He sold his dog for 10 or 15 cents, I think it was. He said he was happy, because he made a profit."

The brothers learned the art and business of preaching from their father, Milledge Golphin, who came to Baltimore from South Carolina around 1950. Working as a parking-lot attendant, he founded the New Galilee Baptist Church of God in Christ Jesus Apostolic Faith, at Biddle Street and Argyle Avenue. Milledge Golphin had no formal religious education, but by 1971 his church had some 2,000 members and took up residence at 3016 Oakley Ave., where it still thrives today, along with sister congregations in both North and South Carolina. Milledge Golphin died in 1999.

Dennis Golphin is a Vietnam vet and an expert in jiujitsu. His younger brother took after his older brother in the latter regard, too, taking up karate. Hill says he was teaching martial arts at a school in Park Heights around 1989, when a bondsman he knew "offered me $1,000 to get a guy. The first time out I went to Philadelphia. First time out I had to kick a door down."

Hill says he's been doing the job ever since, despite its dangers. Hill says he's never shot at anyone but has been shot at.

The shooting came not during an entry, he says, but on Vine Street as he sat in his car. "It was about four years ago," Hill says. "A guy unloaded his gun inside our car. Nothing hit us. We was in a Chevy Cavalier, and he was in a Lincoln Continental." Hill says bullets went through both doors and there were holes in the headrests, but neither he nor his partner was hit. "I just put it down to God's grace," Hill says. "It just was not my time."

NEARLY six feet tall, thick-necked, and solid in a neat, single-breasted charcoal-gray suit with lots of buttons, Tony Hill towers over his diminutive attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell.

Ravenell and two other defense lawyers join Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Ritter at a bench conference at a videotaped plea hearing on Oct. 25, 2005, before Circuit Court Judge John M. Glynn. Out of Hill's earshot, the judge asks what would appear to be a pertinent question: "Who is he, really?"

Ritter shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders, and holds her hands out.

"What's his real name?" Glynn asks.

"Anthony Hill," Ravenell says.

"Anthony Hill?" Ritter says with surprise. "We have Golphin."

"Anthony Hill Golphin," Ravenell amends.

"Who's Golphin?" the judge inquires.

"That's the name he used," Ravenell says.

"But who is he?" Glynn again asks, "really?"

"Good question, Judge," Ravenell responds, laughing.

"That's always a mystery around here," Glynn says.

The plea conference capped a series of events that began more than 14 months earlier, just after 3 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2004, when Baltimore police detective David Rosenblatt took a call from AT&T Wireless Services. The AT&T representative told Rosenblatt about a suspicious subpoena for "subscriber information" the company had received the previous night. It was a court order, signed by Judge Kathleen Friedman and stamped with the judge's seal, requesting phone records for an AT&T customer. A similar document demanding another customer's records had been received on May 20--this one marked "Urgent !!! Kidnapping!"--with the same fax number and the same address. The faxes purportedly came from detective "R. Miller."

The police soon discovered that Friedman had retired in May. The address of the "police station" on the faxes was a McDonald's on East 29th Street. The fax came from a machine at the Covenant Life Family Worship Center, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore.

There were many others. Nextel complied with one. Sprint got one from a "Sgt. James Walker" on Feb. 14, 2004. A contact number on that one traced back to New Trend Development Co., 2332 E. Monument St., which is also the home of 4 Aces Bail Bonds.

By Aug. 18, 2004, police had search and seizure warrants for the church, Hill's home on Bolton Street, and a yellow Hummer registered to Covenant Life Family Worship Center. From the home and church, cops seized hundreds of confidential court and police documents Hill was not authorized to have. From a nightstand in Hill's bedroom, police confiscated a Glock semiautomatic pistol.

Police also stopped the Hummer as Hill left his house, finding inside it a police tactical agent's dark blue bulletproof vest, a flashlight, a baton, gloves, flex cuffs, Mace, and a replica handgun. The raids resulted in a charge of perjury, five counts of illegal gun possession, and seven counts of counterfeiting or forging a court seal. Hill was jailed for about two weeks, bailed out, and then went back to bounty hunting on weekdays and preaching on Sundays, as the investigation continued.

Tracing the documents back to their origin in police and court files, investigators focused on a pretrial division clerk named Michelle R. Middleton, who Hill had once dated, and a police department records clerk named Shirley Mae Wiggins, who was nearing retirement. Both would eventually admit to committing crimes by helping Hill, who continued to access confidential documents after the August raids.

On Jan. 13, 2005, police raided Hill again, finding a police baton, two folding knives, and another real-looking fake gun. They also took Hill's steel handcuffs, a "United States Fugitive Agent" badge, and more purloined paperwork he'd gotten from Middleton.

Hill's new bail was initially set at $5.5 million, before being reduced to $300,000. He was out in a week.

On Jan. 20, 2005, in return for immunity, Middleton told the grand jury that she gave Hill protected information "hundreds" of times over seven years, and that, for each bundle of records, he paid her up to $200 cash--not, as Hill would later tell a reporter, "lunch."

"It wasn't, `If you give me five records, I'll give you $200,' or, `If you give me,' you know, `10 records, I'll give you $300,'" she testified. "It was whatever he gave me, whatever he gave me. I never asked for an amount. I never asked him for money for the records. We had been friends."

In November 2004, Hill paid another court worker, Dale Linnard Robinson, $50 for forged court papers that allowed him to get his driver's license renewed after it had been suspended. Robinson also supplied Hill with false court papers that rescinded a bench warrant on a New York drug dealer named Benoni T. Cole. Cole had skipped bail and remained at large for more than 90 days, forfeiting his bond, which would have cost 4 Aces money. Until it was discovered, Hill's scam canceled 4 Aces' debt to the court.

The police clerk, Shirley May Wiggins, told investigators that at Hill's behest she regularly handed over confidential information, including suspect photos, to a female 4 Aces employee. Both Wiggins and Robinson were charged as well.

At Hill's plea hearing, his lawyer casts his crimes as mere technical fouls, the driver's license scam being a case in point. Judge Glynn acknowledges that there "is a process by which" Hill could have gotten his license restored legally.

"Absolutely a process," Ravenell exclaims. "And none of this, all of this stuff, at best, any of this was a shortcut to do things that could have been done."

This prompts Brian Thompson, a lawyer representing Wiggins, to wax philosophical.

"The bigger problem--I've been representing these bail bondsmen for a long time--and yeah, they're street guys," Thompson tells the judge. "But the bigger problem is it's the wild, wild West. There's absolutely no regulation whatsoever. Nobody knows what they can and can't do."

"They do know what they can and can't do, your honor," Ritter says. "They do know they can't bribe people."

At about the same time as the alleged attempt on Hill's life, in 2004, his church was looking for a larger space. One became available at the corner of 26th Street and Huntingdon Avenue, a former Salvation Army store that had been bought three years earlier by Dennis Hatton, of Accokeek in Prince George's County, and dubbed the New Dimension Faith, Love, and Deliverance Temple Inc. (For some reason, Hatton incorporated the church from an abandoned drug house at 1303 Greenmount Ave.) In October 2003, a finance company called Blue Island Inc. had foreclosed on the church building, citing unpaid interest on a $125,000 mortgage.

"You never like to foreclose on a church," says the lender, Rex Frost, a retired psychologist who has invested in Baltimore-area real estate since the 1960s. "It's like foreclosing God."

Hill and his wife, LaTonya--Frost refers to them "Tony and Tony"--bought the building at the December 2004 auction. "Right on the steps of the courthouse," Hill says. Land records indicate the Hills pledged $37,000 in cash and financed the $175,000 purchase through Lakeside National, closing the deal in April 2005.

Both Blue Island and Lakeside National are controlled by Frost, who says his three sons own the companies.

Hill laughs when asked where he and his wife, who filed for bankruptcy over a $6,600 debt less than a month before closing on the church property, came up with $37,000 in cash shortly after he was charged with multiple felonies and had to raise two separate $300,000 bail bonds. "We have sponsors," he says during the March 13 interview. "Donations and sponsors who donate to our 501(c)(3), tax-deductible gifts." Asked for detail, Hill laughs again. "Let's just call them sponsors," he says.

Frost's companies lend at interest rates up to 14.9 percent. They are involved in dozens of current foreclosure cases and have hundreds more loans outstanding--many of them on properties owned by borrowers with links to Milton Tillman Jr., who has been convicted of attempted bribery and tax evasion, and last year fought off charges that he illegally staked the same properties to back multiple bails.

In the summer of 2005, as Hill faced his own felony charges, he began moving his flock, which a prosecutor later claimed had dwindled to about 15 people, into the new Covenant Life in Remington. But the new location came with a surprise.

"The water-meter size is one of those large ones which bills at several hundred dollars a month," Hill says. "We weren't aware of that."

Those water bills mounted, and on Dec. 19, 2007, a company called DonWil Properties LLC filed a new foreclosure action. Frost's company was named a defendant in that suit, but Frost says he no longer has an interest in the building.

Loan documents indicate that in December 2007 the church borrowed $200,100 from GreenPoint Mortgage Funding of California. Leatrice O. Scott signed for the loan on behalf of the church, which now counts between 50 and 60 people in its congregation, according to Hill. "We're small and growing," he says.

At Covenant Life, contacts with the criminal-justice system are not shameful. Like Jesus, the church has welcomed the legally wayward into its fold, beginning with its pastor and board of directors. Besides Hill, board members include Edward Fowler, 47, who has been convicted of theft and forgery, and Robert Campbell, a bail bondsman who is either 48 and has multiple convictions for drugs, assault, and theft, with another drug case pending, or is that man's 69-year-old father, the founder of Campbell Bail Bonds, who has no criminal convictions. Messages left with the bail-bonds company were not returned.

"My church knew, they hung with me and stuck with me every step of the way," Hill says, speaking of his 2005 legal ordeal. "That kind of stuff qualifies me to really be a pastor to people in the city. I been there, I done that. I've been arrested. I know what that's like, to deal with that . . .

"One of my mottos is--Pastor Tony Golphin: The pastor who is just like you."

On Dec. 6, 2005, Kenneth Ravenell is trying to convince Judge Glynn to keep Tony Hill out of jail. Hill had pleaded guilty to two counts of misuse of a state seal and one count of bribery.

"We think he has done a lot of good for law enforcement," Ravenell says during the videotaped proceedings. "And I'm concerned for his safety, if he is in fact incarcerated, because of ongoing investigations that he's involved in as well as people he's actually brought to justice."

During the hearing Ravenell cites letters of support from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Purcell and postal inspector James Smith, although he does not enter these into evidence. He cites several ongoing criminal cases, including the prosecution of a bail bondsman and alleged arsonist named Roy Marshall, and admonishes the judge to tread cautiously, lest he undercut other, more serious cases. "I think the state should have some concern and maybe want to make some decisions about how they want to proceed when [Hill is] involved in these ongoing investigations as a witness for the prosecution," Ravenell says. (Ravenell did not return a reporter's phone call; a spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office says it has a policy of not confirming letters such as the one Purcell allegedly wrote on Hill's behalf. "If he did it because the guy was cooperating with us, I can't confirm," she says.)

Prosecutor Ritter takes the opportunity to list Hill's prior convictions. In November 1989, shortly after beginning his bounty-hunting career, Hill was charged with aiding in the escape of suspected drug dealers by using forged court forms. He was also charged with a handgun violation. Ritter tells the court that Hill was convicted of forgery and obstruction of justice in that case, echoing a letter Hill's own lawyer sent to the court, but the court record indicates that these charges were dropped. Hill does have a forgery conviction dating from 1985, however.

In 1994, Hill was arrested in Montgomery County and charged with theft, forgery, and uttering a forged document. He later pleaded guilty to theft of over $300 and received an 18-month suspended prison sentence with two years' supervised probation.

Although Ritter does not mention it in court, Hill was arrested again, in August 1997, and charged in Baltimore City with attempted first-degree murder and handgun crimes. All of those charges were dropped, and City Paper was not able to learn more about the circumstances surrounding that case.

At Hill's sentencing hearing, on Dec. 6, 2005, Ritter pounds away at what she clearly regards as Hill's habit of untruthfulness. He told the court, she says, "that he was a volunteer for the church and that he got no pay" other than small stipends for speaking. "But, your honor, in 2003, when he applied for a car loan at Baltimore County Savings Bank, his brother, Dr. Dennis Golphin, filed a W-2 indicating that [Hill] earned $54,000 from the church, and that he also got a $20,000 housing allowance."

Ritter tells Judge Glynn that Hill used a bogus nonprofit company called J.A.T. Community Development, circa 2003-'04, to fool a juvenile court into handing over a juvenile offender. Hill told Judge Martin Welch at the time that J.A.T. had four houses up and running, fully licensed, as shelter and juvenile alternative treatment centers, according to Ritter.

But "there was no juvenile facility," Ritter says. "There never had been." The location Hill told the court would house juveniles, 807 N. Fulton Ave., is actually owned by Campbell Bail Bonds and was being used as an adult male detox center, with no juveniles allowed, Ritter says.

"This behavior of this particular person is not going to stop," Ritter concludes. "And it goes to the core of the court system."

Ravenell objects to Ritter's spin, naming the juvenile Hill got custody of. "Why didn't she tell you what Brandon Saunders became after being there in [Hill's] juvenile facilities?" Ravenell demands. "He became a productive young man in the community."

Glynn sentences Hill to 10 years, with all but 18 months suspended, followed by three years' probation. Hill's prison time is set to begin tolling on May 23, 2005--three days after his arrest in Prince George's County--so that he can be awarded "time served" credit for the months he was monitored in his home under curfew. He ends up serving just a few months behind bars.

At the same hearing, Dale Robinson, the court worker who gave Hill a false document, is sentenced to probation before judgment and 80 hours' community service. Shirley Wiggins, the police clerk, pleads guilty to a single count of exceeding her authorized access to a computer system and receives probation. At Thompson's request, Judge Glynn withholds adjudication until after Wiggins retires from city service, so her conviction would not affect her ability to collect her pension.

From the dock, Hill speaks without the drama he employs from his pulpit. "I am sorry for what I'm here for today," Hill, dressed this day in a windbreaker, tells the judge. "I'm not in the bail-bond industry. I'm not going back to do that any more. I'm already pretty much retired from that, pursuing stuff with the church now and some other things. . . . " His voice trails off.

Just inside the front door of the Covenant Life Family Worship Center, a suit of armor stands sentry. The walls are decorated with posters exalting the "spiritual warrior." The church's pulpit is a glass case housing a samurai sword.

Hill warmly greets a visitor from behind the light and sound board in the sanctuary. It is March 30, 10:30 a.m., an hour before the regular Sunday service, and Hill's firm handshake and warm embrace are welcoming.

Hill had e-mailed the reporter several hours before, at 3 a.m., saying he had just gotten back from South Bend, Ind., where he had captured a fugitive. In the e-mail, he apologized for not being available to talk in depth about his life and work, and offered to meet later.

As the early birds start to arrive amid the folding chairs, Hill asks some trusted church members to sit for interviews, including Vereen and Jenkins. Brandon Saunders comes in last.

He is thin, his pants sit low on his hips, and he is noticeably taller than the 5-foot-7 he rates in his criminal records. He says he was 16 or 17 and locked up in juvenile detention, about four years ago, when he met the man he now calls his "father." Anthony Hill walked in with a cross around his neck and asked Saunders what he was into. "I told him I wanted to be a audio tech," Saunders says. "He let me work the sound board" at the church.

Saunders is meant to be the kind of success story everyone in the judicial system wants told. He was a street thug. He was a car thief, a hustler, a drug dealer making $1,500 every day. He was homeless, he says, sleeping on the playground behind Belmont Elementary School with a seven-shot .25-caliber pistol under his Dickies jacket. And now his life is better. Now he has a job. Now he is changed. Saunders is about to turn 21. He makes $8.50 an hour at My Cleaning Service, working when they call him.

After a few minutes, Saunders' story starts to transform. At first it is all past-tense. He had a mouth full of gold, a car for every day of the week, $10,000 in a Reeboks shoe box when he was arrested. But then his story, told in a flat, matter-of-fact monotone, creeps into the present tense.

"I'm Blood since 2003, for real," Saunders declares, before reciting a litany of Compton neighborhood knowledge drummed into him by his set. "I got shot by a Crip last summer. Almost killed me, for real, for real. Right here." He grabs his left leg above the knee.

The gang, he says, is "not all bad. We get the homies jobs, we put homies in school." There are rules to follow--good rules--like no sex with your sister, meaning the girls in your own set. And the Bloods pay the rent, pay for the babies, throw the big cookouts in the neighborhoods, and watch your back. The gangsters handle neighborhood disputes, protecting the civilians from thefts by junkies, purse snatchings. Or, anyway, protecting the good neighbors--the ones willing to live and let live. The others, the ones who call the police to report drug dealing, do not get the same consideration, Saunders explains: "Their kids getting beat down on the front lawn, we just let it happen, kna-mean?"

Hill, Saunders says, "never stereotypes. He never stereotypes my friends," and he welcomes them, with their red bandannas, into the Covenant Life Family Worship Center.

"I won't not be telling people about God, just because I am what I am," Saunders says. "Christianity--that's gangbangin'. Jesus had 12 disciples. They weren't people who'd never done nothing before. They'd been locked up, stealin'."

This is the message Brandon Saunders says he takes from Pastor Tony Hill: "Shine a light. Shine a light on these people, man. Everybody does more good stuff than bad stuff."

Hill will not fully explain his longstanding habit of defying the law, the strange contradictions in his life. From mid-March until early April, Hill politely but consistently ducks a reporter's phone calls and e-mails, promising always to meet and talk later, and then failing to make himself available for an in-depth interview. Along the way he says he is in Houston, South Bend, and West Virginia, tracking down fugitives.

If Hill told the truth about his wherebouts, he violated the terms of his probation. "He's not supposed to be out of state," Alicia Ranson, a field supervisor for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation, says on April 10.

Hill calls the reporter 10 minutes after the conversation with Ranson ends. "Are you out to get me?" he demands. "That question gets me violated." In a short telephone conversation, Hill amends that he was never out of state, saying he "must have been tired" when he e-mailed saying he had been in South Bend. "I'm always right here in Maryland," he says, laughing.

He admonishes a reporter for coming "through the back door," asking questions about the church but then turning attention to his criminal record, even though he had acknowledged his record during earlier conversations. Finally, Hill says, he's not mad. "This stuff blows over," he concludes.

For Tony Hill, it always has.

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