Witness' testimony shows his many roles

Was crime-ring leader, club owner, informant

January 24, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Before he became the government's star witness in a high-profile racketeering case, Louis W. Colvin for two years juggled the competing roles of high-rolling nightclub operator, crime-ring leader and Drug Enforcement Administration informant, testimony and records show.

From mid-2000 until last spring, Colvin was known publicly for operating a pair of area nightclubs, including a stylish club in downtown Baltimore where he said he had personal bodyguards and a partnership with former heavyweight boxing champion Hasim S. Rahman.

Behind the scenes, Colvin also was working as a cooperating witness with DEA agents -- even as federal authorities later alleged he helped lead a well-organized crime ring whose activities reached beyond routine drug-dealing to arson, insurance fraud, witness tampering and attempted murder.

Those competing loyalties shadowed Colvin this week as he testified in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against five men accused of once working alongside him, in many instances to carry out the string of criminal acts. In pointed questioning, defense attorneys sought to portray the 43-year-old Abingdon man as having in fact a single loyalty: to himself.

"You don't have any problem in spinning a lie, do you?" defense attorney Richard C. Bittner asked Colvin at one point yesterday. In another instance, Bittner showed a photo of Colvin posing with R&B artists Dru Hill at the nightclub Emineo and suggested Colvin enjoyed impressing big names with his club and connections. "How can I impress him?" Colvin shot back. "That man could buy the club 10 times over."

Colvin's testimony is central to the case federal prosecutors have built against the alleged crime ring under rarely used racketeering laws that have helped bring down Mafia figures in other cities. Indicted along with the other men last spring, Colvin pleaded guilty in September and agreed as part of his deal with prosecutors to testify against his former alleged associates.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding rejected suggestions that Colvin was getting off easy: "This is not a sweetheart deal at all," Harding said in court.

Beyond its key role for prosecutors, Colvin's testimony also is personal. It marked a stark, public splintering of a friendship and alleged criminal partnership between himself and lead defendant James E. Gross Sr. that stretched over more than two decades, since both men were teen-agers growing up in West Baltimore. As adults, they ran bars and other businesses together. In 1990, they were both arrested on drug and gun charges and convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

In the same courthouse this week, Gross, 44, stared hard as his former partner sat on the witness stand and detailed their alleged criminal operation.

In his testimony, Colvin described how the two men reunited after spending most of the 1990s in federal prison and opened up a Baltimore County nightclub, Strawberry's 5000, using some of the more than $115,000 made after Gross' son -- also a defendant in the case -- took 5 kilograms of cocaine from a Detroit courier without payment.

When questions arose about whether Gross and Colvin were operating the bar, Colvin testified that the men turned to former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell Sr. for help in devising a plan in which another man, defendant James E. Feaster, would serve as the nominee liquor license holder for the bar.

By early 2001, there were far deeper troubles with the business and with the friendship.

In his guilty plea, Colvin admitted his role in an arson in 2001 that destroyed Strawberry's as part of an insurance fraud scheme.

The fire did not take the men out of the club business. Gross and Colvin had planned to open a club at 10 S. Calvert St. called Intellects. After Gross was jailed on a Baltimore County rape charge, however, Colvin largely took over the operation. When the men fell out in a dispute over profits, Colvin testified that he formed a new partnership with Rahman and renamed the club Emineo.

In court yesterday, Colvin said he didn't tell the former boxer about his criminal activities or work with DEA agents, begun after a raid at Strawberry's in March 2000, as he tried to persuade Rahman and Rahman's brother to invest in the club.

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