the moment of truth -- and consequences

Charlie Wilhelm's best friend is on trial -- but so is his own credibility. Will the jury believe a former thief, loan shark, arsonist and bookmaker?

November 28, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

the prosecutor called his star witness to the stand.P Charlie Wilhelm, flanked by FBI agents, rose from his seat in the back of the cramped Towson courtroom. Dressed in a crisp business suit, his graying hair neatly trimmed, Charlie wore a resolute expression that belied his fear and exhaustion. This was the day -- Oct. 30, 1997 -- he had dreaded for more than two years, the day he would face his best friend in court and accuse him of murder.

Charlie's decision to end his own life of crime and become an FBI informant had brought him to this moment. For five months, he had used a hidden tape recorder to document the crimes of his former friends. His work had put old cronies in jail for drug dealing and loan sharking and had led to the guilty plea of a secretary in the U.S. Justice Department for selling confidential information. But this trial represented Charlie's crowning achievement: the prosecution of William R. Isaacs for first-degree murder.

The body of Mark Schwandtner, a 22-year-old construction worker, had been discovered in the Gunpowder Falls on June 10, 1978. Now, 19 years later, prosecutors would present no witnesses to the murder, no motive, no weapon, no bloody clothes and no fingerprints. All they had was Charlie Wilhelm.

Jurors would not be allowed to hear the surreptitious recording Charlie made of another man describing Schwandtner's murder at the hands of Billy Isaacs. That tape was considered inadmissible hearsay in this trial.

But they would hear testimony placing Billy and two other men at a Hampden bar the morning Schwandtner's body was found, talking about the murder. And they would hear Charlie describe Billy's instructions: "Nobody talks; everybody walks."

To convict Isaacs, the jury would have to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, the testimony of a former thief, bookmaker, loan shark, drug dealer and arsonist -- a man who helped three accused killers dispose of their bloody clothes.

It would be Charlie's word against Billy's.

Would you state your full name and give your current address?"

"My name is Charles Henry Wilhelm. I decline to give my address."

It wasn't safe to say exactly where he lived.

Relatives in Baltimore had received death threats, and there was a contract out on Charlie's life.

For the last year, Charlie and his family had lived 800 miles away in Decatur, Ala., and had gone by the name of Williams. The FBI had relocated them for their protection. They had also supported the family on $2,500 a month, a fact Isaacs' lawyers would suggest as a motive for the story Charlie was about to tell.

Charlie had known Billy Isaacs for nearly 20 years, he told the jury. They were best friends, and together they had operated a crime syndicate that ranged from Hampden to Little Italy to Dundalk. Charlie told the jury that Billy had been closer than family; he was the best man at Charlie's wedding and godfather to his youngest son.

Dressed in a dark suit and seated just a few feet away, Billy listened stoically as Charlie detailed their illicit businesses: the illegal lottery, the drug deals, the loans made at exorbitant interest rates. By the 1980s, Charlie told the jury, he grossed $7,000 a week.

It was a lucrative lifestyle. Why would Charlie choose to leave it behind? Assistant States Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. hoped to answer that question for the jury by exposing the growing tension between Charlie and his partner. He asked about a meeting they had in January 1995, when Isaacs was in prison.

"Did something happen that caused you to become concerned?" Gentry asked Charlie.

"Yes," answered Charlie, explaining that Billy had patted him down. "He was making sure that I wasn't wearing a wire."

"Had he ever done that before?" asked Gentry.

"Never," said Charlie.

"Did that concern you?"

"Yes."

At that time, Charlie had not yet gone to the FBI. But he was contemplating trying to break away from Isaacs. A raid on his house later that year would spur him to act.

Gentry asked Charlie about that raid on Aug. 21, 1995. "Why did that make a difference?"

"When they came in the house and everything," Charlie said, "my youngest son ..."

"How old was he?" asked Gentry.

"He was [7], and he was sitting there crying."

"After the raid of your house, where your son was crying, did you start to think about your life?"

"Yes."

Charlie choked up and his tears prompted snickers from the back of the courtroom, where Isaacs' entourage packed the benches. They looked like actors from central casting for a movie about aging mobsters -- balding, paunchy men wearing gold chains and pinky rings, with nicknames like Racetrack Joe, Fat Tony and Mousy.

As Charlie regained his composure, Gentry went on: "Tell the jurors what you were thinking about during that time."

"I just was tired," Charlie replied. "You know, you can't win. You can't win at all, and I just wanted to get out."

What Charlie was prevented from telling the jury was that he had reason to believe Isaacs might kill him.

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