A long road from Scout to slumlord

Paradox: George A. Dangerfield Jr., whose drug trial begins today, sang in a choir, built model cars and was an entrepreneur at age 12.

June 14, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Even at an early age, George A. Dangerfield Jr. had the gift. The wide, easy grin. The firm handshake. Ambition. Drive. A head for numbers that would serve him well as one of the city's largest landlords.

He opened his first business when he was 12 years old -- a sweetly smiling kid selling frozen Kool-Aid cups out the back door of his parents' rowhouse on Cliftwood Avenue. In two hot summers, he earned enough to buy a motor scooter.

"His hero was Evel Knievel, the stuntman," says Elizabeth Dangerfield, allowing a faint laugh at the memory of her youngest son's daredevil exploits. "He was in and out of Johns Hopkins so many times, one of the nurses joked that we ought to reserve a permanent room for him."

Today, the 29-year-old East Baltimore entrepreneur goes on trial in U.S. District Court, accused of masterminding a drug ring that plowed its profits into a real estate empire of more than 125 rental houses. If convicted, he could be sentenced to a decade in prison and $4 million in fines.

Described in court records as a ruthless slumlord who paid thugs to evict troublesome tenants, then taunted city prosecutors with a bouquet of roses, Dangerfield has emerged in recent weeks as a far more complex character than the man targeted by law enforcement officials.

Fearful that anything he says might be used against him, he has repeatedly declined to comment since an article in The Sun on Valentine's Day brought him to public attention.

But more than a dozen interviews with families, friends, tenants and former associates -- along with hundreds of pages of previously unavailable court papers -- portray an enterprising young man seemingly destined for legitimate success who was undone by his street identity as the self-styled "King of Baltimore."

"He is not who they say he is," declares Dangerfield's niece, Angie Jackson, 30, bouncing her baby on her hip in the offices of her uncle's Estate Management company on North Avenue. "He is not some kind of monster."

As the gray sky outside swelled with rain Thursday morning and neighborhood crack heads drifted down the sidewalk, she peeked through the blinds at the bronze-tinted van parked across the street.

Inside, two police officers in body armor maintained their pretrial vigil on Dangerfield's rowhouse headquarters.

Fronted by black awnings trimmed in gold, it was here that detectives tapped the telephone lines last year -- allegedly confirming that the building was the control center of a New York-to-Baltimore cocaine pipeline that employed 20 convicted felons as runners, collectors and enforcers.

Whatever else it might have been, Estate Management -- with its 22 subsidiary corporations, its jangling phones and beeping fax machine -- is also the lifeblood of the Dangerfield family.

The president's mother, father, brothers, niece and nephew work here, toiling to squeeze a living from the ruins of East Baltimore's rental housing market. Family photos line the walls. Children's toys are scattered across the floor. Dangerfield's 4-year-old niece has left a puddle of melted ice cream in the middle of his desk.

"Oh, man!" the boss cries out, sinking his elbow in the goo. "Is this any way to run a business?"

Dangerfield winks at the toddler and flashes her a broad smile.

Wealth, status slipping away

These days, Estate Management is under siege.

The business that paid for Dangerfield's midnight blue Rolls-Royce, his white Humvee, his Lincoln Town Cars and designer suits, his two-tone shoes and cell phones, is in jeopardy.

Denounced in the state legislature -- which passed two laws giving the city unprecedented new powers to seize property owned by convicted criminals -- Dangerfield has watched 10 years of accumulated wealth and status steadily slip away.

His mailbox is stuffed each day with letters from creditors, subpoenas and court orders. Housing prosecutors are dogging him for renting a vacant two-story cracker-box full of code violations to a mother of three. Foreclosures have stripped dozens of properties from his real estate portfolio.

Now, all that stands between him and total disaster is Stephen H. Sacks.

A diminutive criminal defense lawyer who strides along Charles Street on his courthouse rounds in sharp-pressed suits, aviator shades and a black Stetson cowboy hat, Sacks is a slashing courtroom infighter.

At preliminary hearings in recent months, he has accused prosecutors of misconduct and pounced on investigators for supposed slips in police procedure. He has laid the groundwork for his argument that they hyped a few snippets of wiretapped phone conversation at Estate Management to rope his client into a massive drug conspiracy.

"There's no overt statements in any of these reports about drugs, are there?" he demanded of one detective on the witness stand in April. "You say you `believe' they were about drugs but these are only assumptions on your part."

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