the man who knew too much

For 17 years, Charlie Wilhelm protected his cronies by keeping silent about a murder. Now he was being pressured to kill, and there was only one way out.

Cover Story

November 25, 2001|By Story by Joan Jacobson | Story by Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Just after dawn on the day Charlie Wilhelm decided to come clean, he heard car doors slam outside his Hampden rowhouse and knew this time his nightmare was real. As he bolted from bed and pulled on a pair of pants, detectives burst through the unlocked front door. P In the living room, Charlie restrained his barking Rottweiler while upstairs, his wife rousted their frightened children from their beds. Police, drawn guns at their sides, told Charlie they had a search warrant: They were looking for evidence of bookmaking. P Charlie volunteered to give the city detectives what they were after. He didn't want them ransacking his house, especially his son's and daughter's rooms. P From his pocket, he pulled a wad of cash -- $800 collected from his illegal businesses while out bar hopping the previous night in his Lincoln Continental. Next, he directed police to the sock drawer in his dresser, where another $4,000 was stashed. Then he led them to a safe in the basement. P It was Aug. 21, 1995, and weeks earlier a "dirty" cop had tipped Charlie off about the raid. He'd hidden his master list of bettors at a friend's house. But as he pried open the safe with a crowbar (he'd forgotten the combination), he was surprised to see more numbers slips inside. He laughed out loud at his carelessness.

Forty years old and an impeccably neat man with closely cropped blond hair and chiseled features, Charlie was a career criminal. Except for brief stints as a carpenter, he'd spent his adult life chasing and threatening people. He peddled drugs and fenced crystal and other goods stolen off the docks at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. He torched cars for insurance money and beat people up to collect payments on illegal loans. For 20 years, he'd managed to run a lucrative crime ring and escape conviction, except once -- for drug dealing.

At home, he never bothered to lock his door -- even the neighborhood thieves worked for him.

Charlie felt good about how well he provided for his family. He spent $100,000 renovating and decorating their Formstone home on Keswick Road. He left his wife bundles of cash, meticulously organized by denomination, in a fruit bowl in the kitchen. He bought cases of Power Ranger toys for Halloween trick-or-treaters, cocaine for his friends, anything his kids desired.

But now, he could see the price his family paid for his crimes. Huddled together on the living room sofa, they looked shell-shocked as police took their photographs. Charlie watched helplessly from a seat at the kitchen table, where he was guarded by two detectives. He felt like a tired man who knew too much.

He knew 200 thieves, bookmakers, loan sharks and drug dealers -- all part of his crime ring that ranged from Hampden to Little Italy to Dundalk.

He knew a "leak" in the U.S. Department of Justice, a secretary who offered to sell confidential information.

And he knew the secret to an unsolved murder.

It was one thing to know about a murder, to protect cronies with your silence for 17 years. It was another to commit one. Charlie had never crossed that line. But a crime boss was pressuring him; he wanted two men dead, and he wanted Charlie to do the job.

He feared what would happen if he refused. Would he be killed instead? In his business, loyalty was everything.

The pressures of his criminal life were closing in on him -- the lies, the secrets, the deals and drugs he did until dawn. The old thrill of keeping one step ahead of police was gone. That was a young man's game.

For the first time, Charlie was thinking about giving it up. That spring, he had met with a former neighbor, now an FBI agent, pretending to seek advice for a "friend" who was in trouble and wanted out.

Charlie knew he might miss the money from his numbers and loan-sharking rackets -- several thousand a day, tax-free. But he yearned for what normal people have: an honest dollar and a job they can tell their children about.

Charlie's kids knew only that their father operated a bar -- Joe's Tavern, in Dundalk. And though his wife, Gina, understood that he ran a numbers racket, she did not know the extent of his criminal involvement, or how much it weighed on his conscience. She had no idea he was covering up for murderers -- or that he was being pressured to commit murder himself.

But Gina could see how much Charlie was on edge. The sound of slamming car doors had awakened him many nights and dawns before this one.

While police continued their search of the house, the Wilhelms' 7-year-old son began to cry. Charlie assured him everything would be all right, but detectives prevented him from going to his side. Gina put her arm around the boy while his father watched in frustration.

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