Drug cases using wires

Prosecutors turn to recordings of suspects' own words

First trial begins

Police plan to do more phone taps

special unit created

May 17, 2001|By Caitlin Francke and Sarah Koenig | Caitlin Francke and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors brought to trial yesterday the first in a series of cases employing a new, more sophisticated strategy to bring down drug dealers: using their own words against them.

Setting up wiretaps to record hours of phone conversations between suspected drug dealers is a technique federal authorities commonly use -- and one Baltimore police say they are embracing.

Yesterday, prosecutor James Wallner showed jurors a "Telephone Conspiracy Chart" that he said explained how Dante Linton, 30, organized the drug business he is accused of running.

"You'll hear in the defendant's own words what it's like to sell drugs on the street," Wallner said in his opening statement. "You'll hear how he collected money, met with someone from New York, cooked the powder to make crack cocaine and gave it to people under him."

Police were lying in wait for Linton on Sept. 29 when he met one of his alleged New York-based suppliers, Florentino Sosa. Linton didn't know Baltimore police had been listening when he discussed on his cell phone buying 2 kilograms of cocaine from Sosa, court records show.

After the rendezvous at a gas station at Perring Parkway and McClean Boulevard, state police pulled over Sosa's car and found more than $26,000 in cash and a kilogram of cocaine, according to court records.

A month later, Sosa and Linton and 20 others were indicted on charges they were part of a New York-to-Baltimore drug ring that supplied crack cocaine to city addicts. The main evidence against them was the taped conversations.

Linton, a boyish-looking man who Wallner said sometimes made drug deals on the phone while coaching community football, is charged with being a drug kingpin. Linton and Yonni Ventura, a 33-year-old Dominican from New York, also face conspiracy charges.

Eighteen of the defendants have pleaded guilty, and two others are fugitives, according to court officials and prosecutors.

Yesterday, Wallner said the circle of 30 telephones and cell phones on the conspiracy chart, each with an arrow pointing back to Linton's cell phone, would help illustrate the inner workings of Linton's organization.

Linton's attorney, Linwood Hedgepeth, said those hundreds of conversations won't prove Linton is a big-time dealer or conspirator. "This so-called kingpin, he had no money. No place to lay his head," Hedgepeth said. "You'll hear him on the phone -- he's begging girlfriends, `Can I stay at your house?'"

Robert Smith, a lawyer for Ventura, called the state's extensive wiretap investigation "a complicated and convoluted web of conspiracy that I don't even think they understand."

For years, police relied mainly on intelligence and street-level arrests to attack the city's drug problem, but last year Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris pledged more sophisticated methods that would include wiretaps.

Since then, prosecutors have pressed three wiretap cases, charging more than 60 defendants.

Police say they plan to do more wiretap investigations and have created a special unit for these and other types of surveillance cases.

"It's proving to be a very useful tool for us in bringing down these large drug organizations," said police spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella.

Wiretap cases, while sometimes generating strong evidence, can be a drain on prosecutors and defense attorneys because sifting through the taped conversations is time-consuming. In addition, the cases tax juries and judges because they generally involve multiple defendants and can take months to try. (A murder trial usually lasts about a week.)

Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck said the benefit greatly outweighs the burden that the cases place on his office, because hearing recordings of defendants implicating themselves can be more persuasive to jurors than the testimony of witnesses.

The broader scope of the cases has also posed problems for the public defender's office, which represents the majority of the defendants in the city.

The office cannot represent more than one defendant in a case because that would create a conflict of interest. In multiple-defendant cases, private defense lawyers are hired.

The trial of Linton and Ventura is expected to last up to three weeks. Authorities allege that Linton, of the 5700 block of Utrecht Road, began running a drug ring after he was released from prison in January 2000, having served time for drug and handgun charges.

When police raided his apartment in May 2000, they found a digital scale, boxes of plastic sandwich bags and utensils for cooking crack cocaine, they said.

Yesterday, the jury looked at some of these drug-trade tools, including a homemade "press" used to make kilo "bricks" of crack. One detective's testimony served as a primer on drug slang, such as "QP" for quarter-pound of cocaine, "touting" for advertising drugs, and "re-upping," meaning replenishing a drug stash.

Another wiretap case is scheduled for this summer. It involves 43 defendants, 15 of whom have pleaded guilty, prosecutors said.

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