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Shadow Players

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

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


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

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For years Baltimore Police and city officials have contended that loosely grouped street-corner crews drive to New York City to buy drugs for resale here. Yet recent federal court cases have tied Baltimore defendants to drug trafficking organizations stretching to Florida, Texas, California, and Mexico, suggesting that a few well-connected Baltimoreans orchestrate shipments of pot, cocaine, and heroin purchased from Mexican middlemen who work for (or are part of) international drug cartels.

They have been doing so for more than a decade, according to Fred Brooks, a Remington native and Baltimore City College graduate who, during one nine-month period in 2003, shipped 600 kilos of Colombian coke direct to Baltimore ("The Dealer," Feature, Jan. 9 and 16, 2008). Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick, who prosecuted drug traffickers on both coasts with Brooks' testimony, said the networks disrupted by the Brooks investigation were just "the tip of the iceberg in terms of distribution of large quantities of cocaine in the Mid-Atlantic area."

Brooks, currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, says he never gave up his hometown friends. Presumably some of them are still in business.

The DEA's Heroin Domestic Monitor Program reports that Baltimore heroin is, on average, about 45 percent pure. High purity suggests Baltimore is a distribution hub for the drug, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the nation's primary keeper of illegal drug statistics.

Ethan Nadelmann, a professor of politics at Princeton University and drug-policy expert who heads the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance in New York, says the high purity of Baltimore drugs indicates a highly competitive market, with no monopoly supplier. "So," he explains using a hypothetical example, "the question in Baltimore is, if Joe Blow takes over 40 percent of the market, why is that significant? And it's significant if it's actually having some impact on the supply of drugs in the city . . . or if this person actually has some impact outside the drug market. Does this person have any influence on the legitimate world of business and politics? That would be interesting."

Operators at that level, Nadelmann says, have an interest in ratcheting down the violence and working with police to shut down rivals. "If you have anyone who's in a big enough position to think like a businessman, he wants to reduce the likelihood that people are dying," Nadelmann says. "It goes back to the idea of why were the cops working together with the mob in the old days--there was a payoff, but they also had similar interest in public order."

Baltimore in 2009 is no one's ideal of public order. Yet there is circumstantial evidence that drug dealers and law enforcement have been cooperating here for years. On one hand, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics, federal prosecutors here have doled out sentence reductions for "substantial assistance"--that is, snitching--at almost double the national rate. On the other, newcomers from New York who take over drug corners on the east side tend to get shut down, as the Howard Peppers organization did in 2003, while long-time local street dealers have reportedly been seen palling around with detectives.

Nadelmann, who spent the 1980s researching the DEA's efforts in South America and wrote a book, Cops Across Borders, about how the DEA works in and around corruption in foreign agencies, says such cooperation is commonplace. "If one drug trafficking organization is giving information on others, the police target them, they get their arrests," he says. "And then they either deprioritize the other [cooperating] one or leave them alone."

During the past year or two, federal prosecutors appear to be busy dismantling a large network of related drug trafficking organizations centered in and around Baltimore. In December, for example, Shawn Green was arrested in Pennsylvania after spending more then 20 months as a fugitive ("Return Flight," Mobtown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008). An apartment building he owned in Reservoir Hill (another DrillDown star neighborhood with a thriving illegal drug economy) was seized by the government last spring and sold at auction.

Like Tony Hill, Querida Lewis, and Devon Marshall, Green also has business ties to Milton Tillman Jr., whose 4 Aces Bail Bonds, on the 2300 block of East Monument Street, sits smack in the middle of another of the DrillDown's most interesting study areas.

The DrillDown report sees the area it dubs "East Baltimore Development" as yet another strong market for a grocery store. DrillDown claims the area, an amalgam of Middle East and North Avenue-centered neighborhoods running from Greenmount Avenue to Edison Highway and Sinclair Lane to East Baltimore Street, has an aggregate income 17.2 percent greater than traditional market estimates, with more than $36 million earned annually via the "informal economy." The report claims that between 2002 and 2006 violent crime declined by 32 percent in this area, property crime by 29 percent.

Between 2006 and 2008, 88 people were murdered on the streets of this study area--11 percent of the city's total. Fourteen of the murders were in the area north of Patterson Park, south of Madison Street. It is a neighborhood Glenn Ross knows well.

"They're people of all races," says Ross of the people who buy and sell drugs in his neighborhood a few blocks east and south of the massive, and expanding, Johns Hopkins Medical complex.

Ross has been watching the spectacle for almost 30 years from his home and office on the 500 block of North Milton Avenue: the drug dealers on the corner, the drug users coming up the block, the prostitutes, the hustlers. But Ross, a community activist and sometime political candidate (he is currently a community liaison to 13th District City Councilman Warren Branch), has an eye for pattern and detail, so over the decades he's been able to track the larger movements.

Despite all the killing, Ross says the corner boys cooperate better than the community groups, in part because the community groups split along class, race, and turf lines, and in part because drug dealers sometimes chip in for neighborhood-association block parties, blunting community criticism of the informal economy. On the street, Ross says, a little money buys a lot of loyalty.

"You have drug dealers here, and so a lot of people say, 'How come residents don't tell on the drug dealers?'" Ross says. "Well, these drug dealers pay people. They pay people to hold their stash. They'll pay sometimes $200 or $300 for a basement to cut their drugs. We're talking about single mothers and even some seniors."

These arrangements are by no means universal, Ross says, but they are common. As Ross describes it, the informal economy is a continuum of hustles, from homeless men reselling donated groceries and peddling loose cigarettes for $1 each to full-sized, long-term businesses. He points up the block to an old post office, saying dirty old mattresses have been re-covered there and sold as new merchandise in a store a few blocks south. "We had two chop shops" in the neighborhood, Ross says. Theft of tools and construction supplies from rehabbers has been a popular pastime.

"We tell these developers, when you buy new kitchen cabinets, new water heaters, install them right away," Ross says. "We've seen people stealing two-by-fours, five gallon buckets of paint--anything--circular saws--and selling them up the street to the other guy redoing a house!"

The scams become a way of life. Ross describes a neighbor, discreetly omitting his name. "The guy's on disability," Ross says. "He never worked in his life. He sells drugs. He holds high-stakes card games inside his house, so he always gets the house money. The bedroom upstairs, if someone comes in with a prostitute, he rents it out." This has been going on, says Ross, for "at least 30 years."

Jefferson Street, running east-west through the neighborhood, features two drug corners about two blocks apart, one at Collington and the other at Montford, Ross says. "The Collington group, they're like older guys and they run it more like a business," he says. "They don't have the problems that the younger ones have, the fights, the break-ins." Of the Montford group, Ross says their faces change often, but they're consistently more menacing than the older dealers a few blocks away.

Ross says that the influx into the neighborhood in recent years of Hispanics, mostly men moving north from increasing rents in Canton and Highlandtown, has increased opportunities for hustlers. Slumlords pack 10, 15, and sometimes 20 people in a house, Ross says, and the drug users line up to rob the off-the-books construction workers when they get their pay. The workers who like drugs, Ross says, wait in the vacant houses and give their orders to "runners" employed by the corner boys. Prostitutes are available as runners, too. (In October, police raided a house nearby and charged the proprietor with human trafficking of Mexican prostitutes.)

Asked who runs things in his neighborhood, Ross demurs, talking about "gypsies" from out of town. Ross has a well-earned reputation as a fearless straight talker, but chooses discretion, just like other Baltimoreans who can't--or won't--say the names they've known for years.

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Tags: shadow economy, milton tillman jr.

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