China White drug trial opens U.S. alleges elaborate scheme

January 21, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A federal prosecutor told a jury yesterday that evidence will show that nine men were part of a major drug conspiracy to sell the deadly narcotic Fentanyl from apartments in Columbia.

A heroin substitute commonly known as China White, Fentanyl, was responsible for 30 deaths in Maryland last year, according to the Maryland state medical examiner's office. It is a synthetic opiate that is used as an anesthetic in surgical procedures.

"This was a sophisticated group of drug dealers operating an elaborate scheme to distribute a significant amount of narcotics," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent J. Gurney told the panel.

But defense attorneys warned the jury that prosecutors would misinterpret the evidence while seeking guilty verdicts against their clients.

"Investigators will say they knew what was on people's minds," Antonio Gioia, the lead defense attorney, told the jury. "You will hear testimony of amazing extra-sensory perception by some government witnesses."

The contrasting views came during opening statements in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to start the projected eight-week-long trial of the men, each of whom is charged with conspiracy to distribute Fentanyl.

The most serious charges in the case were lodged against Carlos Ortiz, 26, of the Bronx in New York, who Mr. Gurney said was the leader of the drug organization that brought Fentanyl from New York to be sold in the Baltimore area.

In addition to the conspiracy count, Mr. Ortiz is charged with running a continuing criminal enterprise, a crime that could result in a term of life imprisonment.

In his opening statement yesterday, Mr. Gurney said that from sometime in 1991 until May, the organization used apartments in Columbia as flophouses for their drug trade.

He showed to jurors a map of the Howard County community, which pinpointed the locations of the apartments he said were used in the conspiracy.

Two of the apartments were in the 10400 block of Hickory Ridge Road. The others were the 4900 block of Columbia Road, the 5200 block of Cedar Lane and the 12200 block of Green Meadow Drive.

Federal authorities worked with police from Howard County, Baltimore and Baltimore County to keep surveillance through methods such as wiretapping on people believed to be part of the conspiracy.

Mr. Gurney said police seized "substantial amounts" of Fentanyl during a number of raids that also yielded an assortment of handguns and drug paraphernalia.

"The evidence will show that this group generated hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly from narcotics sales," he said.

Mr. Gurney said members of the group moved to other locations whenever they felt that police were beginning to track them down. In March, he said, members of the conspiracy panicked when an officer arrived at one of their locations during the officers' investigation of another matter. The officer had not been aware of the China White conspiracy, he said.

"They went berserk, literally," the prosecutor said. "You'll hear conversations from Mr. Ortiz ordering other co-conspirators to move -- and to move immediately."

Mr. Gurney said the conspiracy continued to operate despite having large amounts of China White seized in a series of raids between March and May of last year.

Authorities said they broke up the ring in May after making a series of raids in Howard County, Baltimore County and Baltimore. The raids resulted in the seizure of one pound of Fentanyl and the indictment of 41 people on state charges.

Twelve of those 41 people were indicted by a federal grand jury in August. Three of the 12 federal defendants since have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Mr. Gurney said the conspirators used codes when holding telephone conversations about drugs and that a Baltimore police investigator would interpret the true meaning of strange phrases during testimony.

But Mr. Gioia said government witnesses would not provide correct interpretations. He said the investigators would put "a type of spin" on the defendants' words to make casual conversations appear to have underlying criminal meanings.

"This is not guilt by association," Mr. Gioia said. "Who you go to restaurants with or who you socialize with -- that is not, in itself, evidence of a conspiracy."

Mr. Gioia said prosecutors did not have evidence to support a claim that the defendants made enormous sums of money.

"Ask yourself where all that money is that the group of men supposedly raised," he said. "The government is talking about millions of dollars. Ask them, 'where is the beef?' "

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