The slayings of two business executives in Baltimore this fall are now being investigated by a special federal-city task force interested in, among other leads, the possibility of a murder-for-hire contract ordered by East Coast organized crime figures.
Reliable sources said federal subpoenas have been issued for telephone records of at least one Maryland resident and others who live out of state. Also, a "substantial" number of interviews have been conducted by prosecutors.
Peter M. Semel, assistant U.S. attorney for Maryland, said the cooperative investigation involving his office and the Baltimore state's attorney's office began about a month after the Sept. 4 killings of John R. "Jack" Shotto, a financially troubled entrepreneur, on Baltimore's waterfront, and Raymond Nicholson, a vice president of the Hechinger Co., which has a chain of home-improvement stores.
Semel said he is working with Ilene Nathan of the violent crime division of the city state's attorney's office. A team of FBI agents and four city homicide detectives is assisting the prosecutors, he said.
Sources said FBI offices in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York also have worked on the probe.
"There are all kinds of possible motives in this case," Semel said. "We're following different tracks. One is an out-of-state murder-for-hire, the other a drug hit."
But sources and those close to Shotto strongly discount Shotto's involvement in the multimillion-dollar world of cocaine smuggling. He was deeply in debt and one of the possibilities for his death was that he failed to repay a large loan to organized crime interests.
Scott Shotto, the victim's son, said his father had refinanced his Harford County home on a $150,000 note; cashed in his $25,000 in Individual Retirement Accounts and let a $1 million life insurance policy lapse because he could not pay the premiums.
John Shotto's home in Bel Air will go on sale at public auction tomorrow.
"Those moves," said a source close to the investigation, "are not those of a big-time narcotics trafficker."
Shotto, 52, was believed the target of the gunman who shot him and Nicholson with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver outside the Broening Highway office of Baltimore International Warehouse Co. Nicholson, the father of three small children, was not an intended target, investigators believe.
Two other men with the victims were not hit -- another Hechinger executive and William Romberger Sr., a BIW consultant.
Shotto was a peripheral figure in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of a ship, the M/V Liberty, that Shotto helped purchase for Ernesto Forero-Orjuela, described in a federal document as a trusted operative of the Cali cocaine cartel in Colombia.
Forero-Orjuela also allegedly helped launder narcotics money through Baltimore, federal agents said in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court here.
John Hechinger Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Hechinger chain, said yesterday a $25,000 reward still is being offered for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the slayings.
The last time a joint federal-city team investigated a local homicide was in 1985 when William Player, a Baltimore informer, was gunned down on the front porch of his West Baltimore home.
Player was under the federal Witness Protection Program and returned here to testify before a grand jury investigating large-scale narcotics trafficking.
Three men were convicted of federal charges, including witness tampering and violation of Player's civil rights, and all are serving life-plus prison terms.