Gussie the ex-bookmaker crosses the line, feds say

November 12, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the fullness of his wisdom, Constantine "Gussie" Alexander stands last week at the rear of an empty federal courtroom where he faces criminal charges and formally declares, "If I'm a betting man, I'd say it's 2-to-1, I'm walking."

If? This, from the legendary Gussie, former East Baltimore bookmaker, former seller of his own blood to finance trips to the racetrack, former proprietor of the famous Gussie's Downbeat, the Highlandtown nightspot that was located beneath a Chinese laundry where the gamblers came to settle up each night, and he's saying "if?"

Well, yeah. If he merely stays in the gambling business all these years, maybe he walks. If he continues, in his glorious retirement in Ocean City, merely to lend money with a little juice attached, he continues to sail through life.

Only lately, the government was now charging, Gussie had decided to go beyond the gambling, beyond the cross-fertilization of his money through various loans, to enter another world. Of cocaine trafficking.

Chairman of the board, the government said.

"Chairman of what?" cried Gussie. It was all a terrible mistake, he said. This government undercover guy had come to his home one night in Ocean City. On the walls, he'd seen photographs of old Baltimore Colts, who once hung out at Gussie's Downbeat. On a bed stand, he saw a book of Frank Sinatra, an old hero of Gussie's.

"Chairman of the board," Gussie said that night, referring to Sinatra.

"Chairman of the board," the government agent said, declaring Gussie was referring to himself, and his role in cocaine trafficking.

And so, as twilight arrived Friday, here was Gussie, standing in the sad isolation of his 71st year as a jury deliberated his fate and wondering how he'd put himself into such a terrible predicament.

"I got in with a bad crowd," he admitted at midweek, as he paced a federal courthouse corridor, "but not like they say. They're talking about a kilo of cocaine? I don't even know what a kilo is. I thought it was like a quart of gasoline."

His attorney, Tom Maxwell, made no bones about bad company. In court, he called Gussie "a victim of his acquaintances," but. ... He called him a bookmaker and a horse player, but. ... Called him "a juice man, not a loan shark, but a juice man, a guy who loans money to those who aren't good bank risks, like bookmakers who took a hit and maybe even car dealers and restaurants, guys who need a cash flow, a 6-for-5 man, where you borrow $5,000 for 10 weeks and you pay back $6,000 10 weeks later," but. ...

But not a cocaine dealer.

The distinction is important, and not only for legal reasons. At 71, Gussie comes from a generation of hustlers who drew a line. They ran numbers, they took horse bets, they scrambled all their lives to skirt the law -- but strictly the laws of gambling.

A lot of these guys -- in East Baltimore, in Northwest Baltimore, guys who remembered Gussie in better times -- followed his case all of last week with a sense of disbelief. What was going on here? they asked. In their generation, the line was always drawn at the trafficking in dope.

"Me, too," Gussie insisted last week. "I never sold drugs in my life. I loaned money to people, sure. That's how I made my money. But, what they did with the money after I loaned it to 'em, that was their business."

On such distinctions, federal prosecutors made their case against Gussie. They had an undercover informant working for them, a guy with a lovely background: drug trafficker, muscle man for a loan shark, and he gets caught stealing from his boss and then panics and asks the FBI for protection after some business about a murder. The government says, sure, we'll give you a new identity and pay off your debts and give you a salary -- all told, they've spent $49,612.22 so far -- and all you have to do is help make some cases for us.

Last fall, this guy hooks up with a couple of local drug traffickers, claiming he wants to buy a kilo of cocaine but has a cash-flow problem. The only thing he has, he says, are some gold coins, Krugerrands, if they're interested. In fact, they say, they have a friend named Gussie who happens to collect Krugerrands. The undercover guy wants about $400 apiece for them. Gussie offers $270, and buys 100 of them. Total price: $27,000.

This was the money, and the relationship, on which the government made its case. A kilo of cocaine was exchanged, though there was no evidence -- no fingerprints, no profits beyond the legal coin swap, no explicit language on any of the government's extensive recordings -- that put Gussie at the heart of drug trafficking.

"I'd be stupid to tell you Gussie didn't know a drug deal was going on here," defense attorney Tom Maxwell told the jury, "but this was an open-market decision to buy coins. ... He had every right to make a coin deal."

The government said: Who's fooling whom? Gussie was friends with these coke traffickers, who sat in his car when they made deals, and no matter that Gussie was elsewhere. There were traces of cocaine in Gussie's house that indicated at least use of the drug, though not cutting or distributing. With the cash-for-coins swap with Gussie, this undercover agent bought a kilo of cocaine. Thus, says the government, Gussie was the financier.

And, late last Friday, after deliberating only a couple of hours, a jury agreed. A line had been crossed. The old bookmaker had lost his last gamble.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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