Antonio Howell, former drug gang boss, given 23-year sentence without parole

Less than maximum set because of his cooperation

March 03, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The head of the Nickel Boys, an East Baltimore gang that violently controlled the drug trade in the O'Donnell Heights neighborhood, was sentenced yesterday to 23 years in prison without parole.

But although Antonio "Big Black" Howell, 30, was once the vicious boss of the operation, federal prosecutors said he has done a turnaround in jail and has provided vital help in prosecuting other city drug figures.

Howell told the judge he regretted his past.

"I hope God is listening, because truly I am sorry," Howell said in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

As head of a thriving drug organization linked to the murders of three people, Howell could have faced the death penalty and was facing a mandatory, no-parole life sentence under federal guidelines. But, based on his cooperation and remorse, prosecutors asked for a substantial departure from the guidelines.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert R. Harding told Judge Benson E. Legg that Howell wrote him a letter last year from jail, saying that he realized his life had gone wrong and that he wanted to do what he could to make things right.

"He decided he couldn't stand it anymore," Harding told the judge. "He told me he wanted to make right out of the wrong he had done to society."

Harding said Howell and his family have received repeated death threats because of his cooperation.

Howell testified in Baltimorefederal court last week against suspected drug dealer Andre Addison, a childhood friend. Addison's trial is continuing.

Howell also testified against his former cohorts in the Nickel Boys organization, which grossed $30,000 to $40,000 a day selling drugs in an area they called "The Hole."

Among those who addressed Howell in court yesterday was Vicky Brown, the mother of 25-year-old James Brown, who was murdered by a Nickel Boys hit man acting on Howell's orders.

James Brown had been targeted because he had been selling drugs in The Hole without the Nickel Boys' permission.

"I have mixed feelings," she said. "I am a childless mother and nothing can fill that void. But I'm also very glad the Nickel Boys are off the street. You need to reach out to others and tell them that the direction you took is not the answer. You're not my enemy, and I wish you well. But I loved my son, and I had to speak out because of him."

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