Prosecutors summing up a monthlong federal racketeering case told jurors yesterday that the complex case came down simply to the selfishness of one man who used his son, friends and others to carve out his empire, fueled with drug money and disguised by area nightclubs and other businesses.
Jurors who will weigh the first case using a federal racketeering law in recent history in Maryland's federal courts must determine, however, whether it was lead defendant James E. Gross Sr. who called the shots in the alleged crime ring or his former friend and business partner, Louis W. Colvin, who testified against Gross as part of a plea agreement with the government.
In closing arguments yesterday, defense attorneys said Colvin was responsible for a string of criminal acts, including arsons that destroyed two nightclubs - one as part of an insurance fraud scheme in January 2001 at the group's former base of operations, Strawberry's 5000 in Baltimore County, and another in 2000 to thwart competition at nearby Club Fahrenheit.
"Lou's prints, Lou's hands are all over the arson - before, during and after," said attorney Richard C. Bittner, who represents Gross. "He's using [Strawberry's] during this time period as his own personal ATM machine. He's operating independently."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian portrayed Gross as the group's leader, who set up a series of area businesses as a front for a cocaine and heroin ring operated chiefly by his son - James E. Gross Jr. - around Mount and Baker streets in West Baltimore.
The younger Gross also is a defendant in the case, along with three other men.
"He used all these people to his own advantage," Manuelian said of the elder Gross in closing arguments. Gross, she said, wanted "to own and operate his own clubs and be a person of some notoriety. And, unfortunately for him, it all came crashing down around him."
Gross, 44, and Colvin, 43, have been friends since they were teen-agers and have been linked in crime for more than a decade. The two Abingdon men were arrested together on drug and heroin charges in 1990, when they jointly operated a Baltimore County nightclub called the Stardom Lounge.
They were indicted together again last spring, charged under rarely used racketeering laws that have helped bring down Mafia figures in other cities. The Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act was passed in 1970 as a way for prosecutors to go after organized crime figures who hid criminal enterprises behind legitimate businesses.
Colvin pleaded guilty in September to a single racketeering count, acknowledging his role in the arson at Strawberry's. In his trial testimony, Colvin said the two men relied on the advice and connections of former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell to keep their legitimate businesses operating smoothly.
Colvin also testified that after his and Gross' partnership dissolved into a dispute over profits at their last joint venture, Colvin forged a new partnership with former heavyweight boxing champion Hasim S. Rahman.