2 more plead guilty in drug probe

U.S. prosecutors near sweep in investigation of decade-old Park Heights operation

October 20, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Two brothers admitted in federal court yesterday that they imported more than 100 kilograms of cocaine and heroin from both coasts, sold the drugs to dealers on the streets of Northwest Baltimore and hid their proceeds by investing in nightclubs, suburban real estate and high-performance cars.

The hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore gave federal prosecutors close to a clean sweep in the widespread racketeering case.

Twelve of the 13 indicted defendants - several of whom appeared to live the quiet suburban life of minivans, cul-de-sac basketball courts and backyard barbecues - have pleaded guilty to helping operate a decade-old drug organization that trafficked large amounts of drugs in the city's Park Heights neighborhood.

After Howard Rice, 40, pleaded guilty without comment to racketeering and drug conspiracy charges, Judge William D. Quarles Jr. sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

His 33-year-old brother, Raeshio, also pleaded guilty to similar charges. He is scheduled to return to federal court for sentencing in January, when he could receive between 27 and nearly 34 years in prison.

But the plea agreements approved by the judge yesterday also let the Rices admit to facts different from the original indictment lodged in January 2005.

In that document, the brothers were accused of distributing more than 1,500 kilos of cocaine and heroin. Prosecutors originally said last year that the Rices participated in the contract murders of two men and the attempted killing of a third.

Yesterday, the Rices took responsibility only for distributing more than 180 kilos of illegal drugs and did not admit any role in the murders. By signing a deal with prosecutors, they also avoided a mandatory life sentence if they had been convicted at trial of the most serious racketeering charge.

"We're very pleased with the outcome," said William B. Purpura, one of Howard Rice's defense attorneys.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein described the result as a "very significant sentence" for Howard Rice.

There is no parole in the federal system, he said in an interview, adding "he'll be locked up until well after he's a senior citizen."

Rosenstein said that the amount of drugs listed in the plea agreement was reduced because anything more than 150 kilos would not have ratcheted up the prison sentence nor increased the amount of the brothers' assets the government could seize.

The families of the murder victims, he added, did not object to the resolution of the case.

Federal drug officials said the investigation relied on cooperating witnesses and months of watching drug dealers, bugging their cars with electronic listening devices and recording their telephone conversations.

"The cooperation between local and federal officials was just great," said Carl J. Kotowski, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Baltimore office.

At the top of the organization were the Rices. Howard, known as "Howie" or "H," and his brother Raeshio, known as "Whip" or "Goodie," oversaw the day-to-day operations of the drug distribution business.

Much of the group's drug dealing in Baltimore was based out of the Red Door Lounge on North Payson Street and a car wash on Quantico Avenue, according to prosecutors.

The Rice brothers used their profits to buy property, jewelry, a Sea Ray boat and luxury automobiles, including a Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, two BMWs, a Cadillac, a Bentley and several motorcycles. Those items have been forfeited or will be forfeited as part of yesterday's plea agreements, according to prosecutors.

It was unclear how much of the $27 million in illegal gains alleged by the government federal prosecutors expected to collect in the end.

Other drug organization members included George Butler of Owings Mills, who appeared in the underground DVD Stop Snitching and later pleaded guilty.

Anthony Leonard, who also pleaded guilty, admitted he was the Rices' primary cocaine supplier. Leonard's second in command was Steven Campbell, who was also convicted.

Yesterday, Keenan Dorsey, 40, of Baltimore, admitted he was a drug runner for Howard Rice and pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to distribute heroin. He now faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Court papers allege that the hit man for the Rice organization was Eric Hall.

Hall, 35, of Baltimore is scheduled for trial beginning in October of next year. Prosecutors charged Hall in the killings of Dante Green of Woodlawn in 1996 and Marvin Nutter of Baltimore in 2003. Court papers filed yesterday also accuse him of the killings of Alfonzo Smithson on June 18, 1997, and the murder of Dana Ellerbe on Dec. 27, 1998.

Prosecutors announced earlier this year that they will seek the death penalty against Hall if he is convicted.

Before last year's indictment, the Rice brothers had thought they had escaped serious charges. They pleaded guilty in 2004 to a single count of conspiracy to distribute heroin. They received substantial prison sentences about 11 years for Howard and 12 years for Raeshio.

But less than a week after Raeshio's sentencing, federal prosecutors stunned the brothers in January 2005 by charging them with a slew of new crimes, including two killings in Baltimore, from the same investigation.

Defense lawyers filed claims alleging they were unethically deceived by prosecutors. A judge later ruled that it was earlier defense lawyers who missed an important clause in the brothers' plea agreements.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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