When John Edward "Liddy" Jones placed a call in January 1998 from the Baltimore jail to his girlfriend and instructed her to tell The Furniture Man that he wanted "the little chairs," he wasn't talking about decorating his dream house.
What Jones was doing, according to federal prosecutors, was masterminding a drug ring within the detention center with the help of a prison guard.
The Furniture Man was Roderick Parham, the owner of a West Baltimore store called Mattress & More who prosecutors allege supplied marijuana that was smuggled into the detention center by a guard bribed by Jones. They say the reference to chairs was coded language for how much pot he wanted.
Tomorrow, 14 months after an FBI wiretap recorded the conversation, Jones, one of the city's most notorious drug lords; his girlfriend Joyce Cottom; and three other alleged co-conspirators are scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The trial before Judge William M. Nickerson is expected to last three weeks.
Parham had been scheduled to go on trial as well. But two weeks ago, he entered into an agreement with prosecutors in which he will plead guilty to drug distribution charges though he will not testify at the trial, according to his attorney.
Last month, a correctional officer pleaded guilty to helping Jones smuggle drugs into the detention center and promised to cooperate with the government.
The indictment of a second correctional officer has been dismissed by prosecutors.
Two other inmates alleged to be involved in the scheme also are negotiating plea agreements, according to court records and interviews.
Neither prosecutors nor defense counsel would comment on the case before trial. But both sides have given the broad outlines of their case in court papers and at a pretrial hearing this month.
Jones, 57, who was in the detention center for violating his parole from a 30-year federal sentence, contends that he is the subject of selective, vindictive prosecution by the government.
Claims he was targeted
Jones claims federal and state authorities have been frustrated in their attempts to convict him of serious criminal charges since he was paroled five years ago from the lengthy sentence imposed in 1973.
At a pretrial hearing March 5, Jones' lawyer, Gary A. Ticknor, said "anybody that's lived in Baltimore knows there's an ongoing problem" with drugs in the jail. But investigators ignored the problem until Jones was sent there two years ago, he said.
"They started a federal investigation simply to get Mr. Jones," Ticknor said. "The government targeted my client in every way, shape and form."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith denied the contention, and dismissed it as irrelevant in determining whether Jones is guilty of the charges.
"There's no evidence to show that Mr. Jones was targeted," Smith said. "Even if he was, so what?"
Prosecutors say their evidence includes surveillance and dozens of wiretapped calls, many of which they plan to play in court.
"These are conversations that don't make any sense unless they are drug conversations," Smith said during the hearing.
The case got off to a dramatic start in February 1998, when federal drug agents hastily rounded up members of the alleged drug ring several days sooner than they had planned because of fears that a federal grand juror might have tipped off the targets of the investigation. To date, no charges have been filed against the juror.
That's not the only subplot to the case. One of Jones' co-defendants, James "Brother" Cromer, a fellow detention center inmate, tried unsuccessfully to have Smith disqualified from trying the case.
W. Michel Pierson, Cromer's attorney, argued in court papers that Smith had a potential conflict of interest in the case because of a dispute over whether Cromer had fulfilled his obligations under a 1994 plea agreement for a firearms violation negotiated by the prosecutor.
Also, if the government sought to introduce evidence of Cromer's past drug activities, Pierson said he would call Smith as a witness to support his contention that drug buys Cromer allegedly made in an unrelated case in 1995 were part of his undercover work under the plea agreement.
At the March 5 hearing, Nickerson denied Cromer's motion but said, "I'm going to remain concerned about it."
The central focus in the drama is Jones.
A large, lumbering man, Jones was one of the leading drug figures in Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s. He was convicted of state drug charges in 1965, according to court records, and sentenced to five years in prison.
After his release, he began running what prosecutors described as one of the largest heroin rings in the city, distributing up to 7,500 packets a week worth several hundred thousand dollars.