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Feature

Shadow Players

Drilling Down Into Baltimore's Billion-Dollar "Informal Economy"

Milton Tillman Jr. in a 2006 booking photo
Rarah
Tony Hill
Frank Klein
Sebastian Sassi
Frank Klein
Glenn Ross

Videos

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 1/28/2009

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Sebastian Sassi lives in Pigtown, on the opposite side of the city from where Ken Harris was gunned down. When Sassi moved into his brick rowhouse three years ago, he set about cleaning up his neighborhood. He's pushed brooms along the sidewalk, picked up trash around the block, and even got city trucks and equipment to come and aid his efforts. And he's called in tips to police about suspected illicit activities. For that, he says, he is hated.

"There's me cleaning up the neighborhood and chasing out the drug dealers, and people actually resent me for it because I'm chasing away the 'underground economy,'" Sassi says.

The DrillDown report found median household income in Pigtown in 2008 was 21 percent greater than reported in the 2000 census--the largest increase of the 13 Baltimore neighborhoods studied. Population also increased, yet the number of IRS returns from the neighborhood actually declined. This points to off-the-books, "informal" cash that DrillDown estimates makes up 7.9 percent of Pigtown residents' income. Sassi contends that some of it is tied to the drug business, and that the drug business binds many of the neighborhood's families together.

"There are people that, to my face, are extremely grateful" for his efforts in the neighborhood, Sassi, a staunch Libertarian who has run for Congress, explains. "But through the grapevine I'll hear, 'Mrs. So and So hates your guts.' Why would she hate my guts? Well, she hates your guts because her nephew just got a six-month bid in [jail] because you helped get him arrested."

For many neighborhood residents without regular jobs, Sassi says, a government check such as Social Security disability "pays for your property tax and your rent, whatever, but the cable bill and the 20-inch rims on the new car are getting paid for by the work these [drug dealers] are doing."

Whatever illicit revenue flows on Pigtown's street corners, it's not much, Sassi estimates: "These kids wear the same clothes four, five, six days in a row. And they're homeless, basically. I don't think they're actually making that much money. But it's enough to make people resent the work that I've done."

Sassi says someone threw a brick through his truck's windshield and the tires have been slashed. He carries a handgun and has obtained an unrestricted state permit to do so. "One guy told me I'm a snitch-ass, bitch-ass, lyin' police," Sassi recalls.

A group of people outside a corner store nod to Sassi as he walks past. Two teenage boys on another corner see him coming and turn around, press their cell phones to their ears, and walk quickly away. Sassi calls them by name. "He's not a bad kid," he says of one 15-year-old. "He just needs some direction."

Direction is hard to come by in Baltimore, where youth sports organizations, charitable foundations, and even churches have been linked to drug dealers. Steven "Pop" Custis, co-founder of the Leon Day Foundation and coach of the Charm City Buccaneers Pop Warner football team, pleaded guilty last January in federal court to cocaine dealing charges and was put on probation ("Does Cocaine Come With That Lexus?" Feature, July 9, 2008). In August, his business partner, Harrington Campbell, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in the same conspiracy, which involved a Park Heights car dealership called Charm City Motors and the laundering of more than $1.7 million in drug cash ("Unlucky Charm," Mobtown Beat, August 13, 2008). Custis told the judge he quit dealing drugs in 2000, devoting his life instead to mentoring city youth and providing housing for recovering addicts. But in late 2001, the sole director of his company, Metropolitan Baltimore Developers, was Raeshio Rice, the leader of a violent but politically connected drug-trafficking conspiracy which dates to the mid-1990s.

Court records in a federal case filed last July, and other public records, link Baltimore nonprofit Talent Exposition Foundation to an alleged nationwide drug conspiracy. Beverlie E. Ramocan-Woodland, president and founder of the Talent Exposition Foundation, took "an active role in collecting and hiding" the proceeds of her daughter Querida Lewis' alleged drug ring, according to affidavits in the case ("Femme Fatale," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 14). Woodland has not been charged.

"Beverlie is very passionate about making a difference in the lives of at-risk youths, teens and young adults," according to the web site for the Talent Exposition Foundation, which counts as partners such Baltimore stalwarts as the Abell Foundation, the Center for Social Concern at Johns Hopkins, and the East Baltimore Police District.

Another ongoing drug case links violent drug dealers to city officials through a company supposedly formed to "give back" to the community.

Hollywood in a Bottle, a company supposedly dedicated to teaching young people how to break into show business, was funded in part by Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt. Lawrence Schaffner "Lorenzo" Reeves, a partner in the enterprise, was indicted in August on drug trafficking charges along with Devon Marshall and six others ("And Then There Were Eight," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 1, 2008).

Pratt was also one of the subjects, with Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Mayor Sheila Dixon, of a planned "Women in Power" documentary produced by Hollywood in a Bottle co-founder Lavern Whitt and famed rap producer Kevin Liles, both Baltimore natives. A seven-minute preview of "Women in Power" disappeared from You Tube in the wake of the drug charges. Whitt and city officials have denied knowledge of their Reeves' involvement in the drug business, and have not been charged with crimes.

Tony Hill, bounty hunter and self-described "secret weapon" of Milton Tillman Jr., has multiple convictions (some under different names and birth dates) for bribery, forgery, theft, and weapons crimes. He also has his own church, Covenant Life Family Worship Center, where he ministers to adults and mentors wayward youth.

Hill's mentees may not be learning how to stay away from gang life. Last spring, 21-year-old Brandon Saunders, a former drug dealer, credited Hill with turning his life around ("Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy," Feature, April 16, 2008). But Saunders, who has not been arrested since 2007, also spoke proudly to a City Paper reporter of his continuing membership in a Bloods gang set.

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