Case challenges high police standards

October 06, 2001|By Gregory Kane

CRAIG Gentile's hair droops down past his ears to the nape of his neck. He sports a goatee. To some, he might resemble a biker or a latter-day hippie. One thing is certain: Few people would spot Gentile as a vice cop.

Gentile was in West Baltimore as the night of March 31 nudged into the early morning of April 1. It was shortly before 2 a.m. when he, several other Baltimore police officers and agents from the state comptroller's office raided a joint in the 2100 block of W. Lanvale St.

"There were about 25 women in the place," Gentile said earlier this week. Some of the women were completely nude, others wearing only lingerie. The women scurried to a back room when police entered. The 50 men in Ronnie's West Side Gallery hit the floor when ordered by police.

Gentile, testifying before a Baltimore Police Department trial board, said one of those men hitched up his sweat pants, ran forward and then dropped to the floor. Gentile's flashlight shined directly in his face.

The man was Lt. John Mack, who at the time headed a squad of detectives in the department's Northwest District. Police say Mack was supposed to be on duty that night, working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. They say his service weapon was not on him, but behind a bar.

Gentile testified that as he entered Ronnie's West Side Gallery, Mack was about 20 feet away from the gun and came running from Gentile's right. The bar, Gentile said, was to his left, and three men and a woman were closer to the gun than Mack was.

In May, Commissioner Ed Norris told the City Council what he felt about the episode. Norris had canned Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell and Col. James Hawkins, two high-ranking African-Americans in the department. The City Council, having delusions of effectiveness, had Norris appear in a hearing to explain. Among several reasons Norris gave for giving Powell and Hawkins the boot was their knee-jerk support of Mack.

"When Mack was caught," Norris told the Council, "they came in and told me what a great guy he was, and this isn't right, and he's a good guy. He ain't a good guy in our eyes, and I don't want him in my department. Is this what you want, everyone? You want someone being paid by the Baltimore City police working in a whorehouse on duty, not policing their district?"

Mack has denied everything. He says he wasn't on duty that night, that his gun was always within his reach and that there was no prostitution going on at Ronnie's West Side Gallery. He had his lawyer file a $2 million defamation suit against Norris. It was thrown out of court in August.

Mack's denials were contradicted by Gentile and Monica Barnette, one of the "dancers" at Ronnie's that night.

"There was nothing but a lot of tricking going on," Barnette said. Tricking, for the uninitiated, is what goes on in places that might be described as - oh, now, what's a good word? - whorehouses.

The condoms Gentile saw indicate Barnette may be right. And then there's the matter of Mack's gun. He just left it in Ronnie's. There are drug dealers who take better care of their weapons. Gentile and Lt. George Bewley both testified that they told Mack to stay so they could question him about the gun. Instead, Mack left with Barnette and a woman identified only as "Spice."

"I said `L.T., we might have a little problem here,'" Gentile said of his conversation with Mack. According to Gentile, Mack said he had given his gun to his girlfriend, and he would pick it up from the Western District, where the raid occurred.

Gentile said he told Mack to stand in the doorway.

"I figured he would stay there out of respect for what I was doing and out of respect for another officer," Gentile said. Bewley testified he also told Mack to stay.

Let's say for the sake of argument that Gentile, Bewley and Barnette are lying for whatever reason. Let's assume that Mack is telling the truth: that no prostitution was going on, that he was near his gun and that he wasn't scheduled to work. Mack's contention - and his lawyer's - is that everything is everything, and there's no problem.

But there's still a very big problem. There was illegal activity at Ronnie's. Alcohol was being sold illegally, without a license. City police and state agents found it necessary to raid the place. Doesn't a police lieutenant's presence in a place other officers find it necessary to barge into to stop unlawful actions pose a problem?

It does if the department is worth a tinker's damn. Any police department's standards should be high. Visit any district court in the city, and you'll see signs instructing officers that they're to wear either their uniforms or business suits in the courthouse. The same sign appears in Mack's Northwestern District.

What does a department that picky about a dress code do with a Lt. Mack? Stay tuned. Mack is scheduled to testify Monday afternoon.

His account of events ought to be a real lollapalooza.

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