The making of a snitch

To become an honest man, Charlie Wilhelm would betray his friends and befriend his enemies.

November 26, 2001|By Joan Jacobson

Charlie Wilhelm felt bad enough for ratting on his old friends. Gathering evidence against them by working as an informant for the FBI would be even worse, but it was his only safe option: It would be better if they were in prison for their crimes than free to retaliate against a snitch.

One day in September 1995, the FBI gave Charlie directions to a "safe house" in the Baltimore area. There he met Thomas J. McNamara, the agent who would become his "handler," boss, protector and conscience. McNamara laid down the rules:

No more cocaine snorting. No more drug sales -- unless it was part of an FBI sting. No beating people up. No fencing stolen goods. No loan sharking.

He could continue running an illegal lottery to make members of his crime ring think nothing had changed. But in reality, McNamara and another veteran agent, Stephen D. Clary, would control Charlie's every move.

He signed papers agreeing to have his phone tapped, to hide a tape recorder in his car, to conceal another in his pocket, and to have his house in Hampden bugged. He received a pager and a code name -- "Warlock." He could page McNamara and signal who it was by punching in 520 -- the number of the hotel room where Charlie had sealed his fate by meeting with the FBI.

In the beginning, Charlie pretended to go about his business as usual, cruising around town in his flashy white Lincoln Continental with red leather seats, setting up drug deals. But eventually a more important, and dangerous, mission would preoccupy him: trying to get his best friend, Billy Isaacs, to admit to the murder of a young construction worker.

For 17 years, Charlie told the FBI, he had protected Isaacs and two other men involved in the killing by keeping silent. Now Charlie hoped to right that wrong by capturing a taped confession.

Nearly every morning at 8:30, McNamara or Clary paged him and put him to work. For a career criminal used to staying out all night and sleeping until noon, the schedule was an adjustment.

On Halloween, his assignment was a drug deal. After taking his son trick-or-treating, Charlie met agents in the parking lot outside Greetings and Readings off Loch Raven Boulevard. They patted him down to make sure he wasn't carrying any drugs of his own, then followed him to the Super Fresh at Harford Road and Taylor Avenue. In the parking lot, they handed him $2,400, and watched from their cars as he bought 5 ounces of cocaine.

Nine days later, he taped an old associate selling cocaine from the false bottom of an Ajax can outside Finn's Bar and Grill near Fells Point. And on Dec. 1, he pursued a man the FBI was eager to catch -- Frank Tamburello, a convicted drug dealer who had been caught in 1986 selling cocaine through a drug syndicate with Charlie and 24 others.

Charlie arranged to meet Tamburello on a stretch of highway outside Ocean City. It was nearly midnight when Charlie, tailed by Agent Clary, followed Tamburello off U.S. 1 and into the parking lot of a convenience store.

Tamburello got out of his car and went inside the store. He emerged a few minutes later with a mentally retarded man he called Roy in tow. Roy appeared to have no idea what was going on as Tamburello put a 10-ounce bag of cocaine in Roy's hand, then forced his hand inside Charlie's car, where he left the bag on Charlie's lap.

It was like using a kid to sell drugs, Charlie thought. Tamburello made Roy his courier. But the little game wouldn't protect him. Charlie got the transaction on tape.

In the days and months ahead, Charlie would rarely have a conversation that wasn't recorded, whether he was sitting in his Lincoln, on the phone at home, or eating dinner with a drug dealer in Little Italy. And he was hardly ever alone. Agents followed him almost constantly.

Even knowing he was being watched, Charlie found it hard to give up his old life. One day, he recalls, McNamara opened the trunk of Charlie's car to find it filled with imported crystal stolen off the docks in Baltimore. "Tommy said, 'What's this?' I said, 'It's crystal. I'm going to sell this stuff.' And he says, "Oh, no you're not. You've got to give it back.'"

Helping keep Charlie in line was Kevin Bonner, the agent assigned to be his undercover partner. Charlie introduced Bonner to his crime buddies as a fellow thief and drug dealer. He respected Bonner's calm manner, quick mind and instincts. But his disguise? Pathetic.

He dressed like a cross between a biker and a construction worker, Charlie thought, and never had much money. He was appalled when Bonner used a credit card to pay for dinner with a drug dealer in Little Italy. Charlie's cronies carried wads of hundred-dollar bills and wore diamond pinkie rings and $200 shirts. Couldn't the FBI give Bonner the clothes and money he needed to look like a respectable drug dealer? Charlie expected his fellow criminals -- he called them "wiseguys" -- to see through Bonner.

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