Men charged under RICO on trial this week

Alleged drug ring leader to testify as part of deal

`Very dangerous individuals'

Attempted murder, arson are among allegations

January 06, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A group of area men accused of using nightclubs as fronts for a violent, well-organized drug ring go on trial this week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, charged under rarely used racketeering laws that helped bring down Mafia figures in other cities.

Federal authorities say the Baltimore group, run by two convicted heroin dealers whose ties go back more than a decade, reached well beyond drug dealing into arson, witness tampering and attempted murder.

An indictment charges that the group was responsible for arsons that destroyed two nightclubs -- one as part of an insurance fraud scheme in 2001 at the group's former operation's base, Strawberry's 5000 in Baltimore County. The other arson was allegedly done to thwart competition at Club Fahrenheit in Southeast Baltimore in 2000.

The defendants also are accused of burning a Lexus sedan, robbing a Stop Shop `N' Save on North Monroe Street, intimidating witnesses and turning on each other in late 2000. Two of the defendants are charged with kidnapping and trying to kill Louis William Colvin, one of the group's alleged leaders.

Colvin, 43, has been linked for years with the group's other alleged leader, James E. Gross Sr., 44 -- the two Abingdon men were arrested together in 1990 on drug and heroin charges and convicted together that year in Baltimore's federal courthouse.

But court records show that the men's longstanding partnership -- renewed when they left federal prison in the late 1990s -- gradually dissolved into a bitter feud over profits from their last joint venture, the now-closed nightclub Emineo in downtown Baltimore. As part of the racketeering case, federal prosecutors charged that Gross' son, James Elmer Gross Jr., 26 -- also known as "Man" or "Grip" -- and another defendant, James D. "Turkey" Wilkes, 24, tried to kidnap and kill Colvin in September 2001.

In September, Colvin pleaded guilty to a single racketeering count, agreeing as part of his deal with prosecutors to provide information and testimony in the high-profile organized crime case.

The deal is so sensitive that attorneys in the case took the unusual step of asking U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who will preside over the five-week trial, to seal the details of the plea agreement. Concerns about potential violence against witnesses also prompted prosecutors to withhold some details of their case from defense attorneys until about three weeks before trial.

"We have some very dangerous individuals here," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian said during a court hearing in September. "We're concerned about providing this too far in advance and that there may be a problem created because of the safety of our witnesses."

Motz approved the government's request, over the objections of defense attorneys. The judge said he would protect the defendants' rights but said, "The rules have changed in the city. People are getting killed out on the streets."

The case that opens this week signals a change in how federal prosecutors attack violent crime in Baltimore. The city's drug trade has long been intertwined with Philadelphia and New York, but unlike in those cities, prosecutors in recent years have rarely pursued cases under federal racketeering statutes.

The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act was passed in 1970 as a way for prosecutors to go after Mafia figures who hid criminal enterprises behind legitimate businesses. Most major federal drug cases in Baltimore in recent years have focused on drug conspiracy charges against players with cash and connections who ply their trade on city corners.

In announcing the indictment last spring, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said the wide range of crimes made Gross and Colvin's alleged group targets for prosecution under the organized crime statutes. The indictment alleges that much of the criminal activity was run from Strawberry's 2000.

The troubled Baltimore County nightclub also was the scene of another crime involving James E. Gross Sr. In late 2000, he was charged with kidnapping a 12-year-old girl in downtown Baltimore and raping her at the club. Gross, who has been jailed since shortly after the attack, pleaded guilty to second-degree rape in Baltimore County Circuit Court last spring.

The rape occurred eight months after Gross was allowed to remain out of jail as a cooperating witness for the government, though authorities had evidence that he and Colvin had returned to the drug business within a year of their release from prison on the 1990 charges.

The cooperation agreement was terminated immediately after the rape arrest, U.S. prosecutors have said, and Gross became a central figure in the current case.

Ronald "Chicken" Eddie, 23, and James Earl Feaster, 44, both of Baltimore, are also charged in the new federal case.

One other man charged in the case -- Michael Dante Randolph, 26, who is known on the street as "Dirt Bike" -- pleaded guilty late last month to one racketeering count. Court records show that Randolph made statements to police after his arrest that implicated himself and his co-defendants.

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