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The Company You Keep

City Hall Filmmaker's Business Partner Accused of Running Drug-Trafficking Operation

Myspace.Com/Producerchic1
A snippet of Lavern Whitt's Myspace page
Myspace.Com/Producerchic1
Whitt poses with Ray Lewis.
Myspace.Com/Producerchic1
Ray Lewis with Hollywood in a Bottle co-founder Freeman White III.
Myspace.Com/Producerchic1
Accused drug trafficker Lawrence Reeves with Lavern Whitt.

By Jeffrey Anderson and Van Smith | Posted 9/10/2008

From the looks of LaVern Whitt's MySpace page, the Baltimore native is not only making it in Hollywood--she's living the dream.

The former stunt woman, now a TV, film, and video producer, poses for photos with celebrities at resorts from Cancun, Mexico, to California. Her list of acquaintances includes fellow Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith and husband Will Smith, comedian Cedric the Entertainer, and actress LisaRaye, the former first lady of Turks and Caicos Islands and star of the sitcom All of Us. In one photo on MySpace, Whitt cuddles with "my partner," Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis.

But Whitt's pretty-people world came crashing down around her on Aug. 28 when another man she refers to as "my partner" on her web site--a lesser-known figure named Lawrence Schaffner "Lorenzo" Reeves--was indicted in federal court in Baltimore on drug-trafficking charges.

The indictment of Reeves, along with a Harford County resident with East Baltimore ties, Devon Anthony Marshall, and an Annapolis man named Justin Santiago Gallardo, has prompted Whitt to pull the plug on two media projects linked to Baltimore City Hall. One is an unfinished documentary on the lives of the four black women who govern the city, titled Women in Power. The other is a seminar called Hollywood in a Bottle, designed to educate youngsters on how to get into the film business.

Reeves, a co-founder of Hollywood in a Bottle LLC, appeared in federal court on Sept. 3 along with Marshall, where prosecutors described wiretap evidence of Reeves employing Marshall as a menacing street enforcer tasked with inflicting violence over drug-money disputes.

Whitt's business ties to Reeves expose an intersection of two worlds: one populated by entertainers, financiers, lawyers, and politicians, the other by people accused of facilitating large shipments of cocaine to the Baltimore region.

Baltimore's top elected officials--Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt, and State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy--were interviewed on camera last fall by Whitt. The resulting seven-minute promotional film for Women in Power was screened earlier this year at the Senator Theatre.

All four say they have never met Reeves. Some are distancing themselves from Whitt, who tells City Paper she was driven to launch Hollywood in a Bottle by the urge to "give back" to her community. She and Reeves formed it in March with Reeves as the resident agent, using an Odenton address. Whitt says she brought in Reeves because "he seemed like a cool brother" who could help finance her vision.

Hollywood in a Bottle held a seminar at a Baltimore City public school on July 26. It cost more than $100 per attendee and featured seasoned Hollywood veterans coaching youngsters on various paths to stardom and behind-the-scenes success. Within a day of learning of the indictment of Reeves (News Hole, Aug. 29), Whitt's web sites for Hollywood in a Bottle and a YouTube promo clip of Women in Power came down (News Hole, Sept. 4).

Official desk calendars obtained by City Paper show that Rawlings-Blake, Pratt, and Dixon each met with Whitt late last year to be interviewed for Women in Power.

Following the Sept. 3 meeting of the city's Board of Estimates, on which Dixon, Rawlings-Blake, and Pratt serve, Dixon refused to answer questions about Whitt. However, in a telephone interview later that day, mayoral spokesman Sterling Clifford says he vetted Whitt when she pitched the City Hall film project and found nothing amiss. Asked if the mayor is concerned about revelations that Whitt is partnered with an indicted cocaine trafficker, Clifford replied in an e-mail, "That will depend largely on what we learn of what Whitt knew and when she knew it."

Approached by a reporter after the same Board of Estimates meeting, Council President Rawlings-Blake asked, "What kind of connection are you trying to make?" and characterized Whitt's documentary pitch as a routine media matter.

In response to City Paper's written inquiries, Pratt writes in an e-mail that she met Whitt through a neighbor, and that she provided T-shirts for the Hollywood in a Bottle seminar on July 26. Public records show that Pratt, a certified public accountant, filed incorporation papers on behalf of Hollywood in a Bottle's publicist, Synergy Communications. Pratt and her private attorney Sharon King Dudley, whom Baltimore City recently hired to investigate employee-discipline matters, are two of the four listed sponsors of Hollywood in a Bottle.

A spokeswoman for Jessamy confirms that the city state's attorney met with Whitt on Nov. 26, for an on-camera interview. "It was sold to us as something totally legitimate, and something that would promote Baltimore," writes Jessamy spokesman Margaret Burns in an e-mail.

On Sept. 3 Reeves and Marshall, both 37, appeared before U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar for detention hearings. Both men have criminal records: Reeves was convicted in 2001 of drug trafficking in Arizona and in '02 in Maryland; Marshall has a prior conspiracy conviction and numerous criminal charges in Maryland for drugs and violence dating to the 1990s.

Reeves, short, balding, and wearing a maroon jumpsuit, enters the courtroom and opts not to fight his detention pending trial. But Marshall--six and a half feet tall, heavily tattooed, and upward of 300 pounds--seeks pretrial release.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Gallagher tells the judge the government tapped Reeves' phone from June until late August. The drug shipments came in "large quantities," she says, describing numerous intercepted telephone conversations between Reeves and Marshall, who allegedly served as a violent "enforcer-collector" for Reeves. The indictment accuses the two men, along with Justin Gallardo, of conspiring with "others known and unknown to the grand jury."

According to the prosecutor, a recent search of Marshall's Abingdon home produced three loaded weapons, including one she describes as an assault rifle containing 20 armor-piercing bullets. Marshall's attorney argues that the weapon belongs to Marshall's wife, and urges his client's release because he has four children and a job prospect at the Sparrows Point steel-making complex.

Judge Bredar points out that Marshall has used multiple aliases, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers, and has a remarkable criminal history involving violence, though few convictions. He orders Marshall held in custody.

When first contacted on Aug. 29, Whitt enthusiastically describes her endeavors but expresses dismay at news of Reeves' indictment. She says Hollywood in a Bottle is her attempt to reach out to youngsters who might not have the wherewithal to launch a career in Tinseltown.

To finance her vision, Whitt says she intends to channel corporate donations through nonprofit organizations, such as Say It Loud, a California 501(c)(3) listed on Hollywood in a Bottle's web site as its "fiscal sponsor." "I kicked it off in Baltimore because that's my hometown," Whitt says, adding that she plans to hold seminars in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Whitt, who also has an interest in fancy cars and music videos, says she met Reeves through a mutual associate at a Mercedes dealership. "I needed help, so he came on board," she says.

Until news of Reeves' indictment surfaced, Hollywood in a Bottle and Women in Power held promise for Whitt. Executive vice president of Warner Music Group, fellow Baltimore native Kevin Liles, partnered with Whitt as co-producer of Women in Power. Whitt's publicist, Sharon Page of Synergy Communications, tells City Paper on Aug. 29 that the documentary is gaining interest: Film and TV producer Tracey Edmonds (Soul Food, Who's Your Caddy?)--the ex-wife of Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Eddie Murphy--may want to turn it into a sitcom. "It's a major story," Page says.

Now, however, Whitt's endeavors seem up in the air. Businesses associated with her risk being tainted by her connection to Reeves. Her California production company, Journey Entertainment LLC, lists Maryland state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-40th District) as a publicist for Women in Power. (Pugh did not respond to calls for comment.) Whitt's other Hollywood in a Bottle partner, Freeman White III, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and the director of Women in Power, has his own entertainment company, A Free World Productions LLC, also based in California.

Then there's Whitt's "partner" Ray Lewis. While their relationship is unclear, another of Whitt's production companies, Journey T-52 Productions LLC, based in Encino, Calif., contains the Ravens linebacker's jersey number in the company name. Photos of Whitt and Freeman White posing separately with Lewis suggest the three are close. Lewis did not return calls for comment.

On Sept. 5 Baltimore criminal defense attorney Warren Brown, who represents Whitt, downplays her involvement with Reeves: "He is a guy who invested some money, unbeknownst to [Whitt], as he was about to be indicted."

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Tags: Milton Tillman Jr., Milton Tillman III, Joan Pratt, Sheila Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Patricia Jessamy, Hollywood in a Bottle, Lawrence Schaffner Reeves, Lavern Whitt , drugs, drug-dealing, shadow economy

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