A quiet end to murder case

Decade after death of witness in city, charges dropped


Like others before him, Benjamin H. Paige saw his share of violence in East Baltimore. In 1994, he watched his housemate, a ruthless cocaine dealer, hunt down an underling to shoot him to death.

Paige agreed to do what so many have not -- help police and take the witness stand against the killer, Donald Lee Ferebe.

The decision cost Paige his life.

Ferebe ordered two gunmen to kill Paige on Aug. 15, 1995, as he sat on the steps of a North Streeper Street rowhouse, according to authorities. Paige's cousin also died in the barrage of bullets that wounded a third person.

Police quickly arrested Ferebe, and the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland charged him in federal court with three murders, carrying a maximum penalty of death.

Ferebe is serving life in prison without parole for shooting his underling. But last month, more than a decade after Paige and his cousin were killed, federal prosecutors in Baltimore quietly dropped the charges against Ferebe in their killings.

Paige's half-brother, a Baltimore police officer, was stunned.

"You have your head blown off, and the U.S. government says, `Forget you, who cares?'" said Aaron Ferguson, 35, a narcotics sergeant who lives in Harford County. "It's the principle. ... If they drop cases like these, who's going to want to help police?"

A review of court records and interviews with attorneys, investigators and family members shows that the Ferebe case derailed, in part, because prosecutors did not follow proper procedures for pursuing the death penalty. The courts ruled that the government wasted too much time before declaring its intention to put Ferebe to death.

The U.S. attorney's office announced it would abandon the case.

Prosecutors explained their decision by reminding a federal judge in Baltimore that the shooters hired to kill Paige were serving prison terms. Another trial, they argued, was unnecessary because Ferebe was serving life without parole for the murder that Paige had witnessed. Prosecutors told the judge in September that the families endorsed their reluctant decision.

"All participants in the crimes have been punished," Assistant U.S. Attorney James G. Warwick wrote.

His boss, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, spoke for the office last week when he said, "Given that we couldn't pursue the death penalty, we wouldn't be able to exact any more punishment."

According to court records, the best hope for any conviction was hamstrung four years ago when the Justice Department overruled Maryland prosecutors on the death penalty issue.

Ferebe had wanted to plead guilty to Paige's contract murder. Federal prosecutors in Baltimore agreed to two terms of life in prison.

But in July 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's office ordered prosecutors in Baltimore to rip up their signed agreement with Ferebe and forced them to seek the death penalty. It was part of Ashcroft's new policy of uniform and, some say, harsher oversight of capital murder cases.

"In this case, the local prosecutors didn't want the death penalty. Then along comes a new sheriff in town," said Charles G. Bernstein, one of Ferebe's defense attorneys.

"We signed a plea letter with the government. The locals here are on board, and the taxpayers are going to be saved a few million dollars," Bernstein said. "Then they say, `Oh no, we have to kill him.' That's when the needless circus started."

Dealer's death

Benjamin Paige, once a gifted trumpet player and artist, languished in a world of drugs and crime near the end of his short life. Before that, his younger brother looked up to the man he called "Beedee."

"He made his own clothes, and they looked real, just like this," Ferguson said, pointing to his shirt.

His admiration turned to disdain when his brother, a high school dropout, started using drugs.

"Bad choices," Ferguson said. "We had a good mother and a good grandmother. I mean, I was heading down the wrong path, too. But I made the right choices in the end."

Paige lived with Ferebe, his partner in the cocaine and marijuana business. Ferebe had built a fearsome East Baltimore reputation, despite his nickname "Goof," running a drug trade around his Rose Street house.

On July 18, 1994, one of Ferebe's low-level street peddlers, Richard Thomas Jr., argued with another dealer over a debt. The dealer trailed Thomas into Ferebe's house in the 700 block of N. Rose St.

Furious at the intrusion, Ferebe chased Thomas into an alley. Paige watched the scene unfold.

"When you saw him running halfway up the block, what did you see Goof pull out of his pants?" the grand jury prosecutor asked Paige on Aug. 25, 1994.

"A large revolver or what looked like a large revolver," Paige said.

Minutes later, he said, Ferebe could be heard firing his .357 Magnum pistol three times into Thomas' head and body.

Ferebe was arrested within hours. Detectives found the weapon in Ferebe's house and said tests on Ferebe's hand showed residue indicating he had recently fired a gun.

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