Weapon against Mafia gets new use

With racketeering laws, U.S. prosecutors convict city crime ring figures

March 02, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The predawn fire that destroyed the Rosedale nightclub Strawberry's 5000 on a cold January morning two years ago appeared at first to be little more than a bad ending to a business troubled by rowdy crowds, parking lot fights and sagging profits.

As they sifted through the bar's charred remains, however, investigators began uncovering the outline of what they later would describe as a violent and highly organized crime ring with a series of legitimate business fronts, connections to prominent Baltimore figures and ties to the city's drug trade reaching back more than a decade.

What could have been a relatively straightforward arson trial instead ended last week as the first case in recent years in which federal prosecutors in Baltimore won convictions against a city drug organization under racketeering laws that authorities elsewhere have used against Mafia crime families.

"Why let them skate?" said Special Agent Michael R. Bouchard, who heads the Baltimore division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In the case of Strawberry's, Bouchard noted, "They had enough on them on the arson - but why let them go on all those drug offenses?"

The case against ringleaders James E. Gross Sr. and Louis W. Colvin and five other men marked a potentially significant shift in how federal prosecutors in Baltimore help fight the city's pervasive, but traditionally loosely structured, drug trade.

Baltimore's illegal drug business has been intertwined for decades with Philadelphia and New York. But unlike in those cities, prosecutors here rarely have pursued charges under the complex Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws, which have been gradually expanded to allow prosecutors to pursue urban street gangs and violent motorcycle clubs using the same tactics originally designed to crumble Cosa Nostra.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said last week that could change. If prosecutors discover drug gangs involved in a range of criminal activity, he said, they would consider again bringing racketeering indictments - what he called the best fit for groups like the one operated by Gross and Colvin.

"These guys were involved in everything," DiBiagio said. "They were pretty brazen."

Court records and trial testimony showed just how brazen - during at least part of the time that they were committing crimes ranging from drug dealing to arson to witness tampering, Gross, 44, and Colvin, 43, were supposed to be working as cooperating witnesses in Drug Enforcement Administration investigations.

Gross' cooperation agreement with the government was terminated after he was charged with kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old girl, a case in which he later pleaded guilty.

Colvin, who continued to work as a government informant, pleaded guilty in the racketeering case last fall. As part of a deal with prosecutors he became a key witness against Gross, his friend and crime partner for two decades.

Crime and connections

Before that split, the two men had a long partnership that at times had thrived in Baltimore's crime world, records and testimony show. After serving prison terms in the 1990s for related drug and gun charges, they were back on the streets by the end of the decade and soon were back in business.

They launched Strawberry's, which investigators described as a front used to disguise profits from a range of criminal activity, including an active heroin and cocaine ring in West Baltimore overseen by Gross' son, James E. Gross Jr., who also was convicted in the racketeering case.

During the trial, Colvin and a former events promoter for Strawberry's testified that the elder Gross relied heavily on the advice and connections of former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell Sr. to keep the legitimate businesses running smoothly.

Mitchell was not charged in the case, and his private attorney repeatedly rejected Colvin's claims as untrue.

When federal prosecutors planned to call Mitchell as a witness, however, his attorneys said that Mitchell would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if questioned broadly about the case.

That left Colvin as the most high-profile witness, and the target of defense attorneys who sought to portray the Abingdon man as a skilled liar who was most culpable for any criminal acts.

As part of his guilty plea, Colvin admitted his role in the Jan. 27, 2001, arson fire that destroyed Strawberry's as part of an insurance fraud scheme and touched off the investigation by ATF agents and Baltimore County firefighters. That grew into the racketeering case as investigators matched the pieces of the fire investigation with a continuing probe by DEA agents.

`Running a business'

The RICO laws were created 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 who typically ply their trade on city corners.

In the current case, DiBiagio said, "They were basically running a business."

Court records and Colvin's testimony show that business, at times, fared better than others. With the insurance profits from Strawberry's, Gross and Colvin opened a club in downtown Baltimore, Intellects at 10 S. Calvert St. But instead of offering a new start for the men, it signaled the start of the end.

Gross and Colvin gradually split in a feud over profits. Colvin testified that he later reopened the club as the Emineo with the help of a $100,000 investment from the boxer Hasim S. Rahman, who in interviews has denied any ownership interest in the operation.

Like other clubs linked to Gross and Colvin, the Emineo quickly found its doors closed.

City liquor commissioners ordered the bar to suspend its operations in June as a result of violations: selling drinks after hours and allowing lap dancing without a proper license.

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