Sale of seized car sparks feud between top Arundel officials Man, 21, raising brother got vehicle illegally, county executive says

October 02, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It would be 5: 30 a.m. and still black outside last winter when 20-year-old Tavon Johnson would start his daily hour-and-a-half commute by foot and bus to support his 14-year-old brother.

Frustrated that the long haul from Glen Burnie to Baltimore for work was making him miss his college classes, Johnson turned to a police officer he knew for advice about buying a car.

The officer gave him more than advice. With the help of another Anne Arundel County officer, an assistant county state's attorney and a nonprofit organization that helps needy young people, the officer allegedly broke the law by selling Johnson a car seized from a drug suspect for only $500 when it was worth perhaps $5,125. Unlike most vehicles forfeited during drug arrests, this car was not auctioned off.

This act of charity in July sparked a fight between the county executive and state's attorney last week, with the former charging that law officers should not break the law even when they're trying to be kind.

County Executive John G. Gary said that he demanded an investigation by the state prosecutor because State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee's office may have sold more than 100 cars RTC over the past two years without receiving the required approval of the police chief.

Since the Gary administration learned about the sale to Johnson in late July, it has been working to take control of the county's more than $500,000-a-year drug-asset forfeiture program away from Weathersbee's office.

Weathersbee contends that Gary has brought up the frivolous charge as a way of removing the funding for about two-thirds of Weathersbee's investigators just as they're investigating allegations of missing funds at the county jail.

And Weathersbee argues that Gary -- a longtime political enemy -- is trying to ruin Weathersbee's reputation in advance of his re-election effort in 1998.

At the middle of this clash between the county's most powerful officials is a soft-spoken young man who said he feels like a pawn.

"This whole thing is hurting me a lot," Johnson said during a recent interview in his modest Glen Burnie apartment. "How would you feel if you were struggling and the person who tries to help you out loses his job? I feel totally responsible. And I don't think it's right."

Johnson would be an unlikely participant in either an investigation or power politics.

A bespectacled business student at Morgan State University whose speech is laced with references to God, Johnson won custody of his brother Gajuan in 1994 after their heroin-addicted mother left them.

A wall of their modest apartment in Glen Burnie is covered with citations from Gary, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Governor William Donald Schaefer and others for Johnson's decision to act as a surrogate father for Gajuan.

"His character is absolutely beyond reproach," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who presented Johnson with an award during a Martin Luther King Jr. dinner in 1995.

Johnson grew up in public housing projects in Baltimore and Pasadena. His family lived in 11 apartments over 18 years and was evicted four times. They lived in a homeless shelter for about two years.

Johnson and Gajuan's mother died of pneumonia last November, Johnson said. The brothers have different fathers, each of whom has been in and out of prison.

Johnson's childhood memories include seeing a murder victim under a blanket behind his apartment and looking at the blood on a basketball court where a friend had been shot to death.

He said he learned about his mother's heroin addiction when he was 13 and she asked him to bring her a cigarette from her purse. Instead, he found a hypodermic needle.

Despite the difficult upbringing, Johnson said he has been able to put together a stable home for his younger brother.

Johnson, now 21, said he pays the rent on their $340-a-month apartment on Lori Lane from $1,000 a month he earns as a pharmacy intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

He makes his now 15-year-old brother tidy up the living room, while Johnson cleans the kitchen. They share cooking duties. And they do homework together in the evenings, Gajuan for Glen Burnie High School and Johnson for Morgan State.

The pair has been helped for several years by Anne Arundel County police officers Gordon March and Kyle Starghill, who run a nonprofit organization called Take Back Our Streets, which aids needy youths.

The organization arranged in April 1995 to buy Johnson for his 19th birthday a Chevrolet Spectrum sold by the county as surplus property for $500. But this car's engine failed in February.

After Johnson struggled to commute to his job in Baltimore, the officers worked with Trevor Kiessling, head of the state's attorney's office's drug-asset forfeiture program, to buy Johnson 1991 Toyota Corolla police had seized from a drug suspect.

The $500 to purchase the car came from a trust fund for Johnson administered by Take Back Our Streets and an attorney.

Gary said the first transfer of the Chevrolet Spectrum to Johnson was legal because it was surplus county property and Gary approved of the sale.

But giving the second car to Johnson was illegal, Gary said, because the drug-asset forfeiture program requires that the police chief give his written approval before a car is sold.

March not only disobeyed Police Chief Larry Tolliver's explicit orders not to sell the car to Johnson, but March also signed the title of the car over to Johnson without the legal authority to do so, Gary said.

Kiessling apparently told a judge that the chief had granted his approval for the sale when the chief had not, Gary said.

"The young man is not the issue," Gary said. "I think they [the state's attorney's office] are trying to drag this kid into the middle of this to cover their own butts and get away with breaking the law. I think that's unacceptable."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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