One brave resident defeats a drug gang Informant helps shut a city heroin market

February 21, 1997|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

In public court files, he's known only as Confidential Informant 69.

But to drug agents and prosecutors, CI 69 has become something of a legend -- a citizen brave enough to take on a well-armed drug gang that sold as much as $65,000 worth of heroin every day from an empty lot behind his East Baltimore rowhouse.

CI 69, whose identity has stayed a secret to this day, invited city and federal drug agents to videotape the business from his third-floor bedroom window.

The agents watched in awe as long lines of customers waited patiently for $10 capsules full of heroin while members of the "Sugar Hill" gang brandished Tech 9s and Uzi machine guns to keep order.

"It was more orderly than my supermarket," said M. Stewart Allen, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Baltimore, one of the agencies that investigated the case.

All 14 members of the Sugar Hill gang indicted in the case have admitted to their roles, the last pleading guilty this week.

The investigation also has resulted in drug cases against at least 12 other alleged dealers -- including a man accused of being one of largest suppliers of heroin in the city.

Agents and prosecutors say the guilty pleas are a testament to the strength of the case and how one citizen can break up a drug gang and reclaim his neighborhood with the protection of the federal government.

"The only way people are going to get rid of drug dealers is to say, 'I'm not going to tolerate this going on in my neighborhood anymore,' " said Jamie M. Bennett, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

Agents and prosecutors got the help they needed in January 1996, when a man who lived near the 1000 block of N. Chapel St. in East Baltimore called to say that an empty lot where three

rowhouses once stood had been turned into an open-air heroin bazaar.

By razing the rowhouses, the city had unwittingly created what drug dealers call a "hole" -- a drug hide-out that is easily defended from approaching police and rival gangs. Officers assigned to a joint city-federal task force called the "Achilles Group" interviewed the man who would later become known as CI 69.

Dressed as workmen, ATF agent Robert K. Redd and Baltimore Officer George N. Cunningham Jr. showed up at CI 69's house last February.

When they peeked out of the window into the "hole" below, the veteran drug agents were stunned by what they saw.

Lookouts stood on every corner. Gang members herded customers into three and four lines, some of them 20 or 30 people deep.

They frisked the addicts for weapons, took their cash and handed out capsules of heroin. Gang members watched over the operation, carrying guns and baseball bats.

The business even had regular hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

CI 69 invited Redd and Cunningham to set up video cameras in his home. For the next two months, they recorded the constant stream of customers, the exchanges of cash and capsules, and the weapons displayed for everyone to see. The agents slowly started to piece together the hierarchy of the operation.

At the top was Willie Glen Thompson, 31, along with Donte Jones, 26; Anthony Fortune, 28; and Jesse Clay, 26.

Agents also learned the identities of other gang members who worked as lookouts, suppliers, runners and those who helped to stash drugs and money in their homes near the "hole."

Last April, the operation's cover was blown. Someone broke into the home of CI 69, who had been relocated by drug agents, and stole the video equipment and a tape. After watching the tape, gang members decided to shut down the business.

But it was too late.

Agents had amassed nearly 15 hours of footage that served two purposes -- it provided clear evidence of who did what on North Chapel Street, and it relieved CI 69 of having to take the witness stand and testify against the gang members.

On the strength of the videotape and testimony from the drug agents, a federal grand jury last year indicted 14 gang members on heroin charges that carry 10-year minimum prison terms without parole. As the Feb. 18, 1997, trial date approached, gang members started to plead guilty.

Most of those pleading guilty now face about eight years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. A few gang members face 20-year prison terms.

Only one defendant took his case to court -- Hubert Beneby, 38, who was charged with stashing drugs in his house.

The trial didn't last long. After hearing the evidence and watching a videotape in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Beneby broke down in tears during a recess Wednesday and said he had decided to plead guilty.

Prosecutors are now turning their attention to other cases stemming from the CI 69 drug investigation.

With the help of agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration, prosecutors have developed at least 12 more cases. Among them: an indictment against Daniel "Baby Dan" Ross Jr., charging him with heroin trafficking and murder conspiracy.

Ross is accused of supplying heroin to the Sugar Hill gang and several other drug rings in the city, and of conspiring with a

former Baltimore police officer and others to kidnap and murder a rival drug dealer.

The CI 69 case is one more indication that heroin is a booming business in Baltimore. For years, the city has had a serious heroin problem. But it has been growing in recent years as the highly addictive drug gains increasing popularity, drug agents say.

An estimated 25,000 heroin addicts in the city spend nearly $2 million a day to feed their habits, creating a lucrative market for traffickers, according to Baltimore Police Capt. Michael J. Andrew, a supervisor of a task force created last year to fight heroin traffickers.

One of the best weapons drug agents have is help from citizens such as CI 69.

"A little help can go a long way," said Bennett, the federal prosecutor. "This investigation will really make a difference in East Baltimore."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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