Mitchell's name brought up again in trial

Man says ex-senator aided with liquor board `alibi'

January 22, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A convicted drug dealer testifying yesterday against his longtime friend and crime partner said they turned to former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell for help when questions arose about the ownership of a Baltimore County nightclub the partners set up with money from a brazen cocaine scheme.

Before appearing at a county liquor board hearing in 1999, Louis W. Colvin and James E. Gross Sr. met at Strawberry's 5000 with Mitchell to work out an "alibi" that would disguise the fact that Gross and Colvin, both convicted felons, were operating the bar, Colvin said.

"Michael Mitchell is a lifelong friend of James Gross; he's an ex-senator, I guess," Colvin testified during the racketeering trial against Gross and four other men in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "He knows about liquor board hearings and other legal matters, and he helped assist us in knowing what to say."

Yesterday's testimony marked the second time in the high-profile case that jurors have heard how Mitchell helped the men to keep their legitimate business fronts running smoothly. In testimony last week, an events promoter said Gross and Colvin received a more favorable hearing date before the Baltimore liquor board for a club they planned to open in late 2000 after Mitchell met privately with city liquor board officials.

Mitchell is not charged with any crime. He could not be reached for comment, but his attorney has said that Mitchell has had only glancing interactions with Gross and Colvin and was being unfairly used during the trial to deflect attention from their wrongdoings.

Using a front man

At Strawberry's 5000, the troubled Rosedale nightclub operated by Gross and Colvin in 1999 and 2000, the two men were prohibited from holding a liquor license because they were convicted felons. When called before the county liquor board to account for who owned the club, Colvin said he was working as a cook, Gross as a consultant.

The club's owner, they contended, was James E. Feaster, a deejay and security guard who agreed to serve as the liquor licensee. Feaster is charged in the case with being part of the crime ring, which authorities allege went beyond routine drug dealing to insurance fraud, arson and attempted murder.

According to Colvin's testimony, he and Gross were the true owners of Strawberry's. They opened the club in May 1999, using some of the more than $115,000 made after Gross' son took 5 kilograms of cocaine from a courier without payment, Colvin testified.

The transaction proved dangerous, Colvin said. In the ensuing weeks, Gross and his son - James E. Gross Jr., also a defendant in the federal case - moved out of their homes to avoid detection by the Michigan-based drug connections on their trail, Colvin said.

Longtime associates

In turning to the nightclub business, Gross and Colvin were rekindling a well-established partnership. In the late 1980s, they operated a club called the Stardom Lounge on Reisterstown Road, a restaurant called Louisiana Louie's and a carwash business.

Friends since they were teen-agers who played in area bands, the men were arrested together in 1990. Each was carrying a loaded handgun as they climbed into a white Lincoln Continental where police found dozens of tiny bags of heroin stuffed into a Pepperidge Farm cookie bag, court records show.

They were convicted together on drug and gun charges in federal court and served nearly identical prison terms, with Gross being released in 1997 and Colvin in 1998.

Colvin said they wasted no time in reuniting. "Same day I got out, he was waiting for me, down the street from the halfway house," he testified.

The partnership came to a stark, public end last fall when Colvin pleaded guilty in the racketeering case and agreed to testify against Gross.

Colvin, who continues his testimony today, is expected to face pointed questioning from defense attorneys who portray him as the mastermind behind any illegal activities.

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