7 indicted on U.S. charges in crime ring

Arson, witness tampering, attempted murder alleged in local case

`It's organized crime'

Rare instance of using federal RICO laws in Md., but not Mafia-related

April 26, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

In the latest example of federal authorities moving to prosecute Baltimore's worst crimes, seven area men have been charged under rarely used racketeering laws with running a crime ring that reached well beyond routine drug-dealing into arson, witness tampering and attempted murder, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said yesterday.

A federal indictment made public yesterday said the group was responsible for arsons that destroyed two nightclubs - one as part of an insurance fraud scheme at the group's former operations base, Strawberry's 5000 in Baltimore County; the other allegedly to thwart competition at the now-defunct Club Fahrenheit in Southeast Baltimore.

The defendants also are accused of setting fire to a 1992 Lexus, robbing a Stop Shop 'N' Save on North Monroe Street, intimidating witnesses and even turning on each other. Two of the defendants are charged with kidnapping and trying to kill Louis William Colvin, one of the group's alleged leaders and a co-defendant in the federal case.

"They were not discriminate in the criminal activities in which they involved themselves," DiBiagio said during an afternoon news conference at U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

DiBiagio said the wide range of crimes made the syndicate's members prime targets for prosecution under the federal racketeering statutes. Created in the early 1970s as a way for prosecutors to go after Mafia figures who hid criminal enterprises behind legitimate businesses, the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) laws have not been used in Maryland for years, DiBiagio said.

Baltimore's drug trade has long been intertwined with Philadelphia and New York, but unlike in those cities has not traditionally been linked to organized crime groups. Instead, even major federal cases in recent years have focused on drug conspiracy charges against players with cash and connections who ply their trade on city corners.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said that just because Baltimore is not a base for Cosa Nostra crime families does not mean there isn't organized crime, and he said he welcomed the use of the RICO laws in fighting city crime.

"When people are involved in organized, criminal behavior, to me it's organized crime," Norris said. "You may not have what people traditionally call organized crime, but there's organized structure to these gangs."

Colvin, 42, and James Elmer "Stink" Gross Sr., 43, both of Abingdon, were identified as the leaders of the crime ring targeted in the 19-count indictment announced yesterday. Also charged was Gross' son, James Elmer Gross Jr., also known as "Man" and "Grip," and four other Baltimore men: James D. "Turkey" Wilkes; Michael "Dirt Bike" Randolph; Ronald "Chicken" Eddie; and James Earl Feaster.

Federal prosecutors said all of the men were arrested this week and are being detained. All face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted except for Feaster, who would face up to 20 years.

Colvin and Feaster made brief appearances yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner, where they acknowledged that they understood the charges against them but did not enter pleas.

Defense attorney Leslie A. Stein said his client, Colvin, is in the unusual position of being victim and defendant in the case.

According to the indictment, the younger Gross and Wilkes tried to kill Colvin in September.

By then, federal authorities were closing in on the group that they said yesterday operated from 1998 through January. Michael R. Bouchard, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Baltimore field office, said the complex case grew from what at first appeared to be simple drug and fire investigations.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Baltimore City and Baltimore County police and fire officials also helped investigate the case, which is continuing.

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