The Block raid: Worth it? SPECIAL REPORT: THE BLOCK RAID

March 15, 1994|By Scott Higham and Eric Siegel | Scott Higham and Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

The state police raid on The Block was perfect for prime time.

With television news cameras rolling, 500 troopers -- one-third of the force -- descended on the string of tawdry downtown Baltimore strip parlors on Jan. 14. They burst into 24 clubs and carted off scores of criminal suspects.

Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer braved the near-zero temperatures to take part in the raid. "We saw drugs. We saw prostitution. We saw liquor," he proclaimed to the crush of reporters summoned in advance by state police to record the sweep.

But two months later, serious questions are being raised about the conduct of undercover officers who infiltrated the East Baltimore Street clubs, the way the raid was carried out, and the quality of the resulting criminal cases.

Three officers in the 13-member undercover squad are being investigated by state police internal affairs detectives. Another officer is being investigated for firing his pistol while raiding the Middle River home of a Block bartender.

According to court filings, police records, search warrant affidavits and nearly three dozen interviews:

* In one of the bars under investigation, an undercover trooper paid a prostitute to have sex with him as a birthday present, and another undercover officer tipped her $100, witnesses say. Police never arrested the woman, who says the sex occurred in the bar's basement -- just days before the raid.

* Another undercover officer spent the night in a Rosedale hotel with a female bartender, who was married to the owner of a bar targeted in the investigation. The bar owner -- who says he caught the couple -- has filed for divorce, naming the officer as his wife's suitor.

* Undercover officers spent lavishly, showering dancers with thousands of tax dollars for drinks, tips and spending money. One dancer says she used the cash to retrieve a fur coat from storage and to buy a baby boa constrictor.

* During the raid, police handcuffed bar owners, employees and customers, even though many were never charged with crimes. They searched many people not named in warrants, prompting prosecutors to drop at least one case because the evidence was improperly obtained.

* Some panic-stricken bar workers and customers thought they were being robbed by gun-toting thugs. In the chaos, a pregnant dancer fell down a flight of stairs in one of the bars and suffered a miscarriage.

* Police confiscated 56 rifles and handguns from the Middle River home where the officer fired his pistol, displaying some of them at a news conference with contraband seized from The Block. But the weapons, including a John Wayne commemorative Winchester rifle, were part of a collection once owned by the homeowner's father, who died last April.

* Police claimed that they broke a major drug ring, resulting in 87 arrests. While officers made four large drug distribution busts, 95 percent of the arrests involve misdemeanor drug possession charges, cases for low-level drug buys and warrants on unrelated charges.

State Police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver said some of the claims are being examined.

"We have an internal investigation going on," Colonel Tolliver said in an interview last week. "As soon as we get an allegation, we look at it very thoroughly." Still, he said he is proud of the drug probe.

"I think this was a very good investigation," he said. "This is not just about prostitutes by any stretch of the imagination. This goes into organized drug rings."

The undercover officers named in this article did not return phone messages or respond to certified etters and other requests seeking their accounts of what happened. A state police drug squad major and spokesman said they contacted the officers, and they declined to talk to The Sun.

Risque reviews offered

Once, The Block was part of the social fabric of Baltimore.

In its heyday, about 70 clubs and theaters -- some boasting more than 1,000 seats -- offered risque burlesque reviews.

Comedians such as Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason graced the stages. So did strippers Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Senators and congressmen came up from Washington. Sailors strolled over for the shows. Orioles' victory parties packed the clubs.

And famed stripper Blaze Starr held parties for wounded Vietnam veterans at the bar she owned, the Two O'Clock Club. Some of her guests: former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro III and then-City Council President William Donald Schaefer.

Today, barely two dozen clubs remain. The Block's veneer of respectability is gone.

What's left is a two-block strip of bars, peep shows and triple-X video stores. Once-famous theaters such as the Gayety have been cannibalized, transformed into dark, narrow night clubs.

Outside of bars called the Pussycat, Mouse Trap and Glass Slipper, doormen bark at passersby, promising hot girls and cold beer. Inside, young women wearing pasties and panties stand on stage, gyrating in the darkness to deafening rock and rap beats. Others seductively approach men at the bar, angling for drinks costing $20 apiece.

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