Trial sheds light on shadows of dope culture

March 29, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

The 900 block of Bennett Place.

Bennett Place is a two-block side street that cuts a near-microscopic path through the heart of West Baltimore. It's bordered by Fremont Avenue on the east and Arlington Avenue on the west, where the 1000 block ends. During my childhood, in which the peripatetic Kanes moved often, I'd wager we bore the distinction of being perhaps the only family to live in both the 900 and 1000 blocks of Bennett Place.

On Monday, I entered Judge J. Frederick Motz's courtroom in U.S. District Court to hear William King testify at a trial in which he's charged with corruption. I went mainly because I learned soon after the trial started that King and I have something in common (other than protoplasm, that is): the 900 block of Bennett Place.

I used to live there. An FBI sting in which a drug dealer turned informant placed a bag of fake crack cocaine in an alley off the 900 block of Bennett Place might have been King's undoing and the reason he had to take the stand in his defense.

Until last May, King was a detective in the Baltimore Police Department's organized crime unit, which specialized, he says, in developing a cadre of informants involved in street-level drug dealing. King said the goal was to use the informants to bring down drug ring leaders. Federal authorities arrested King and his partner, Antonio Murray, last May and charged them with robbing West Baltimore drug dealers of their money and their goods and having informants sell the drugs. King and Murray, federal authorities say, received money from the drug sales.

Their trial began two weeks ago. Federal prosecutors Charles Peters and David Copperthite presented their case. One of their star witnesses, Davon Mayer, testified that he acted as a combination snitch/drug dealer for King and Murray. According to a March 16 article by Sun reporter Matthew Dolan, Mayer decided he wanted out of the arrangement and made a call to the FBI.

Mayer ended up working with Special Agent Richard J. Wolf, who had him stash the fake crack in that Bennett Place alley. That was the first in a series of sting operations set up to expose the alleged corruption of King and Murray, who stand accused of aiding and abetting the drug culture that has destroyed huge swaths of my beloved West Baltimore.

By the end of this week, King and Murray may have been acquitted by a federal jury. Or they may have been found guilty. If they are, we shouldn't necessarily celebrate the fact that two bad cops have been removed from circulation. We asked King and Murray to wallow down in the mud with drug dealers, addicts and a parade of snitches, and then chided them for getting dirty.

But West Baltimore was dirty - and the rot from the drug culture had set in - long before King and Murray were born.

I remember as a boy sitting with my siblings on the steps of my Aunt Margaret's house in the 500 block of N. Schroeder St.- just around the corner from the 900 block of Bennett Place - when two guys came up and asked if my cousin Edward was home. He wasn't, but the pair asked to use the bathroom. Being the hospitable woman she is, my aunt let them.

The guys shot up heroin in the bathroom. My cousin Edward caught hell later for having friends who shot dope in my Aunt Margaret's bathroom. It was my first lesson in the pitfalls of the thing called "dope."

A few years later we lived in the 400 block of Brice St., where there was a bar on the corner. We had moved from Brice Street when I got my second lesson about the dangers of "dope": former Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb died of a drug overdose in a room upstairs from that bar.

Fast forward about 40 years, when a guy in the notorious Stop Snitching DVD is complaining that no drug dealers who work the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Brice Street are "catching cases."

"Word is they work for King and Murray," the guy says. "Don't nobody go to jail."

In court Monday - after Motz denied a defense motion that the Stop Snitching DVD be played for the jury - King testified that New York City detectives told members of Baltimore's organized crime unit that the way to keep informants happy was to keep them out of jail.

King apparently interpreted that to mean letting snitches keep and sell drugs. King also said it was an acceptable practice to take money from suspected drug dealers and pay informants with it.

"It's always been in the interest of my investigation, not for personal gain," King said of the arrangement between him, Murray and their drug-dealing informants.

We'll soon know whether a federal jury buys that explanation. Whatever the outcome, reading about or observing this trial will leave you mourning what the drug culture has done to a once vibrant, decent, working-class West Baltimore community.

And with an itch to spend two long weeks in a shower.

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