Gang leaders ride heroin to wealth and to prison

January 01, 1995|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

Drug money made Mumin Sahib Abdullah rich.

The loft of his Owings Mills townhouse was filled with silk suits, fur coats and $600 shoes. He had four foreign cars, including a $50,000 Range Rover. His wife ran up monthly bills as high as $16,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue and spent thousands more at other chic stores. Abdullah threw champagne parties at a private club.

The couple's high-flying lifestyle was financed on the streets of Baltimore. Abdullah's heroin operation, begun in 1990, was an entrepreneur's dream. Sales boomed, and profits grew rapidly. He and two partners employed dozens of people and commanded customer loyalty by offering reliable service, quality control and a catchy brand name: Strong as Steel.

"These were the main guys in West Baltimore. No one had the reputation that these guys had," said Detective Sgt. Gerald M. Kreiner of the Maryland State Police.

"If you were an addict and you wanted the best around, you wanted Strong as Steel. There were other drug dealers, but these guys had better business tactics."

Four years after they took over their first drug corner, the business is dead. Four gang leaders, including Abdullah, have been convicted of federal crimes.

The group, driven by overconfidence and greed, foundered by making a series of business blunders. Gang members then increasingly resorted to violence to protect their franchise, turning to brazen robberies of other drug dealers and street executions.

The rise and fall of Strong as Steel, as documented by police, prosecutors and court records, provides a detailed glimpse into the economics of a gang that was among the most profitable in Baltimore during the early 1990s.

The strategies used by the Strong as Steel gang were not unique, but the organization distinguished itself by its early success and then by terrorizing West Baltimore. Members killed at least three people and shot more than a dozen others, investigators say.

"In their minds they were businessmen. They were in it for the same reason as any other entrepreneur -- for the money," said Andrea L. Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted gang members.

"They had a real method of operation. Everyone had a role or a job, and it was all designed to keep [heroin] going out on the street."

Strong as Steel began with a garbage can near Gold and Brunt streets in West Baltimore.

There, Abdullah and a partner, Corey L. Woodfolk, hid their heroin when they opened for business in 1990. They soon took over part of nearby Etting Street, a prime drug-trafficking spot, and began stamping the name Strong as Steel on heroin bags. That practice made it easy for police to track them, so they stopped, but the name stuck.

By the next year, Strong as Steel was the premium brand name for heroin on the Westside. Every evening, scores of people, many of them addicts on the way home from work, would begin milling around on Pennsylvania Avenue, Druid Hill Avenue or Division Street, waiting to hear "Steel's running."

Then they would head to Etting Street to pick up waxed-paper bags of the drug. The heroin was twice as pure as the other drugs sold locally; addicts diluted it, used half and sold the rest.

"Everybody knew it was the best stuff on the street," said Sergeant Kreiner, who helped to investigate the group.

'Steel's on'

Gang members would be on the streets shouting "Strong as Steel" and "Steel's on," or herding customers toward the distribution spot.

Underlings functioned as "regulators," who sometimes fired guns into the air to make sure customers didn't riot.

"People would be pushing and climbing all over each other trying to get to the guy" with the drugs, said Baltimore police Detective Glenn J. Hester. "On a hot summer day, they would just be out there mobbing the guy, like they were shoving their way into a concert or something."

Abdullah and Woodfolk had practically grown up in the drug business. Abdullah, 37, who was born Philip E. Roberson, lived in Northwest Baltimore and got involved with drug gangs when he was a teen-ager, according to Baltimore police and court documents. He served time in prison in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and again starting in 1986, on charges including burglary, assault and heroin distribution.

Abdullah, who converted to Islam in prison during the 1980s and changed his name, is tall and hefty, with the look of a linebacker who has grown puffy with too much high living. He called the gang's members "the family" and dictated how the operation would run.

He also tried to insulate himself from the gang's riskiest ventures, according to other members. Abdullah often would pass out weapons to gang members at his father's house on Poe Avenue before a robbery, but he frequently didn't participate. He would count the proceeds and divide the spoils afterward, keeping the largest share himself.

Lisa Woodfolk, Corey's wife, later told FBI investigators that Abdullah always took the biggest slice of profits, without taking any of the risks.

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