Videotapes in murder trial show drug life on city streets

Surveillance clips taken in Lexington Terrace area

February 05, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

In one scene, a baby girl toddles along the sidewalk as cocaine dealers hustle and count their cash around her. In another, kids with books and backpacks trundle off a school bus amid the steady exchange of drugs and money outside their homes.

Federal prosecutors say this was the front-step drug trade in West Baltimore's Lexington Terrace neighborhood, named for the public housing high-rises that once loomed above it. In court this week, they showed video surveillance tapes to jurors hearing a federal death penalty case that grew from those streets.

The three men on trial, who authorities say are members of a violent crack-cocaine ring known as the Lexington Terrace Boys, do not play starring roles on the video clips shown to the jury. One defendant, Keon D. Moses, was in jail between November 2001 and March 2002, when FBI agents recorded the comings and goings along the neighborhood's narrow streets and alleys.

Defendant Michael L. Taylor can be seen counting money and appearing to sell drugs on a tape from Nov. 28, 2001, shortly after he leans over and appears to briefly acknowledge the baby girl on the sidewalk.

Another defendant, Aaron D. Foster, can be seen on some of the tapes hanging out with a group of young dealers but was not recorded selling or carrying drugs or counting money.

Foster's attorney, William B. Purpura, emphasized to the jury that the videos don't offer a clear picture of guilt or innocence.

At one point, Purpura asked FBI Special Agent Stephen J. Gordon: "Is he running up to any cars? ... Is he running to any people?"

To both questions, Gordon answered no.

But as much as the surveillance tapes began to lay the foundation of the government's case, the footage provided jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore a glimpse of some of the city's toughest streets and, in a way, of ghosts. At least two of the young men the videotapes recorded are now dead. One of them, authorities allege, was killed by Taylor after a later argument over drugs and a gun.

"The rules of the Lexington Terrace Boys were simple: You either belonged there or you didn't," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith told jurors in opening statements before bringing the surveillance tapes into evidence through Gordon, the government's first witness. The case is expected to last up to three months.

"The Lexington Terrace Boys, and others, lived by these rules," Smith told jurors. "Too many died by these rules."

A video camera hidden behind the dark windows of a government van - disguised for the street with the slogan "Born to Race" on its rear window - captured some of the young men who seemed to belong to the place. The tapes show a revolving cast sitting on the front steps of rowhouses along the 800 block of W. Fayette St., watching the traffic on the streets and sidewalks, and greeting one another with an easy familiarity.

With the buildings of downtown Baltimore just visible in the background, the men flag down customers in cars or serve neighborhood users who walk from their homes. On Nov. 16, 2001 - a day when a young man named Aaron Butler, now cooperating with the government, appears to be running the sidewalk drug business - the videotapes show a middle-age woman in a flowered housecoat appearing twice within two hours to buy drugs.

In a narrative transcript provided to jurors, the woman is identified only as "housecoat lady." Other customers were tracked by agents and detectives through their car license plates and identified by name. On the sidewalk, the dealers and users and hangers-on are known by nicknames - Peanut Butter, Dead Eye, Bird, Big Head Ed, Yaha, Boogie.

Some of the men ended up as government witnesses. In addition to Butler, a man named Tavon Brown, who appears in some of the surveillance tapes, is expected to be a key witness in the Lexington Terrace Boys case. Butler and Brown, and their criminal records, are expected to come under scrutiny by defense attorneys.

Others ended up dead.

During an off-hand question by defense attorney Purpura, jurors learned the fate of a lanky hustler seen on the videos in a pale-blue sweat suit. The man was identified by the nickname Jay Rock. Purpura asked Gordon whether investigators knew where Jay Rock lived.

"Do you know his address?" Purpura asked.

"Well, he's dead," Gordon answered, without elaboration.

On the videotapes, jurors also saw a young man with a round face and braided hair, hanging with the dealers, riding up and down the sidewalk on a small dirt bike. It was Travis Burley, known on the street as "Phat Harold."

Within months of the videotape surveillance, Burley, 20, had vanished.

Federal authorities say he was killed by Taylor, an old friend from the Lexington Terrace housing development and a distant cousin. The last time Burley was seen alive, he had left his mother's rowhouse in South Baltimore and climbed into an idling minivan with Taylor.

The surveillance video of Nov. 28, 2001, shows Burley and Taylor with the other young men on the streets. No sound was on the tapes, just silent pictures of the men talking and laughing and, later, a glimpse of Burley's black T-shirt as he walked away from the group.

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