Man pleads guilty in federal drug case


An Owings Mills man admitted yesterday that his classic suburban lifestyle - a brick house with a red minivan in the driveway, barbecues in the backyard and pick-up basketball games on the cul-de-sac - masked a scandalous secret: his membership in a violent Northeast Baltimore drug gang that distributed thousands of pounds of cocaine and heroin.

Chet Pajardo, whom neighbors once described as a typical family man, pleaded guilty in federal court in Baltimore yesterday to his involvement in a criminal organization whose members participated in the underground Stop Snitching DVD and have been accused in four killings.

Last year, a federal grand jury handed up a 20-count indictment against the so-called Rice Organization, seeking forfeiture of $27 million in criminal proceeds and, possibly, the luxury vehicles, restaurants and houses owned by its alleged members.

Prosecutors announced last month that they intend to seek the death penalty against the organization's alleged hit man, Eric Hall, whom they link to four killings. The alleged leaders of the drug organization, brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice, could receive life in prison if convicted when they go to trial in October.

The government, by its own account, has assembled a mountain of evidence, from cooperating witnesses, controlled buys of illegal drugs and electronic surveillance that included listening devices planted inside suspected gang members' vehicles and wiretaps on their phones.

Pajardo, 38, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. His lawyer did not return a call for comment yesterday.

For the better part of a decade ending in 2005, Pajardo schemed with other gang members to distribute cocaine in the Northwest area of Baltimore City, according to his guilty plea.

Court papers say Pajardo routinely picked up kilogram-quantities of cocaine from Vernon Jackson's house where the gang kept their supply. He then paid others to distribute the cocaine.

On at least one occasion, Pajardo showed up at an apartment with approximately six kilograms of cocaine in a gym bag and paid an individual $1,000 a kilogram to distribute the drugs to customers.

During Pajardo's involvement, federal prosecutors say, the Rice Organization distributed and possessed with intent to distribute more than 150 kilograms - more than 300 pounds - of cocaine.

In court papers, Pajardo admits that he was part of the conspiracy, but disputes the amount of cocaine prosecutors say he distributed. How the judge resolves that issue could be critical in determining what his recommended sentencing guidelines would be.

If the judge determines that he is responsible for distributing five kilograms or more of cocaine, Pajardo faces a maximum sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

If the amount is less, he faces a maximum sentence of five to 40 years behind bars.

Pajardo, who remains in federal custody, is scheduled to be sentenced March 8 before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr.

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