Loyalty cloaked one of the largest and most unlikely drug rings in Anne Arundel history through five years of police pursuit while it flourished in a Severna Park barbershop, authorities say.
In the end being played out now, authorities say, those same ties brought down John Vincent Baumgarten Sr. and the home-grown "family" of drug dealers who terrorized a community and supplied the county with a steady flow of cocaine. One of their most trusted aides provided the information to put the group behind bars, officials say.
As a strange story of barbering and drug-dealing unravels in a federal courtroom with chapters on cocaine transactions, arson, intimidation and a $25,000 contract for a hit, the quiet Magothy River community of Cape St. Claire near Annapolis has listened agog.
"They were a street-smart bunch of guys who were closely knit, very discreet and very intimidating to the people around them," said Detective William H. Booth, a nine-year veteran of the county police force temporarily assigned to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force. "They had the community deathly afraid of them.
"We hit brick wall after brick wall as we tried to gather evidence against them," Booth said. "Every time we arrested a customer, they thwarted our efforts each time and caused the case to run over five years. It was only through determination and diligence that we finally got them. It's been a difficult case."
Over the next several months, prosecutors say they will prove that the Baumgartens and their suburban clan of "wise guys" smuggled 110 pounds of cocaine out of southern Florida between 1990 and 1996 and set up the family business -- T. J.'s Barbershop in Severna Park -- as the front for their high-stakes drug operation.
With a street value of $5 million, the cocaine they sold over five years allowed these barbers-by-day to live in $300,000 homes with expensive cars and flashy jewelry, said prosecutors, who described the Baumgarten sons as "a public menace."
End of the high life
The high life ended Dec. 18 when John Sr., 53, and his two sons, John V. Baumgarten Jr., 33, and Anthony Quinn Baumgarten, 31, were indicted in cocaine trafficking. They are in prison awaiting trial.
Their undoing came at the hands of a lifelong companion who pleaded guilty and accepted a plea agreement to protect his own family. John Steven Luke, who lived across Rolling View Drive from the Baumgartens most of his life and eventually ran their drug ring as "boss," testified in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last week and implicated his former friends.
Luke, 31, his wife, three children and 19-year-old brother-in-law, Joseph Cerniglia Jr., were whisked out of their homes by FBI agents shortly after both men pleaded guilty to drug charges. They are under federal protection. Luke testified about making dozens of drug runs from Florida and Philadelphia, about how the operation grew, about the threats and a botched murder attempt on a police informant.
Luke and Cerniglia were arrested in March after police uncovered drugs, steroids, money, scales and a hydraulic press in a raid at their homes and the homes of Richard Terrence McArdle, 30, of Cape St. Claire and Jesus Ibarra Rodriguez, 38, of Brooklyn Park. McArdle has pleaded guilty to the drug charges but refuses to cooperate; Rodriguez is on trial in federal court.
'Part of the family'
"They trusted me like I was part of the family," Luke said in court. "They never thought, and I'm sure they're still in shock, that I'm doing what I'm doing. Right now, they'd probably pay $25,000 for my life."
The Baumgarten family crime syndicate began with John Sr. and his younger brother, Joseph Leo Baumgarten Jr., who got their start as small-time street dealers in the late 1970s, police said. Police said the brothers split a kilo of cocaine and divided the county; Joe sold to the northern end and John Sr. to the south.
In the late 1980s, John Sr. brought his sons into the business, which gave him an edge, and he soon was outselling his brother, and a sibling rivalry developed that resulted in two organizations, said Booth, the detective. Joe was arrested in 1993 on drug charges. His brother, meanwhile, was doing so well that he recruited his sons' teen-age friends, police said. They included Luke, who testified that he began selling cocaine for the family at age 18.
The younger Baumgartens grew up in a tan brick house with a back yard that sloped down to a pier on Deep Creek. Luke and McArdle grew up a few blocks away in Cape St. Claire, a community of about 2,700 households. The community is squeezed between Deep Creek and Little Magothy River on the east and west and the Magothy River and College Parkway on the north and south.
Residents describe it as a self-contained family place.
"You can probably live your whole life and not have to venture outside of the Cape," said John Yox, a former resident and police officer who patrolled it for 14 years.