HAGERSTOWN -- His mother says she sent him to this Western Maryland town as a teenager to escape the drugs and violence of their Bronx neighborhood. Instead, this is where he cut his teeth as a criminal.
Now 28 years old, Steve Lamont Willock has lived all but six months of his adult life behind bars. His home for the past four years, the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, is even farther from Baltimore - a place in which he might never have set foot. Yet authorities say they believe Willock commanded one of Baltimore's largest and most violent gangs, a set of the Bloods called Tree Top Piru.
From his prison cell, according to a federal racketeering indictment last month, Willock enforced the gang's rules and oversaw its activities, including violent initiations, witness intimidation and five murders. Twenty-seven other alleged gang members were indicted, including Willock's girlfriend, Diane Kline, a Hagerstown woman who relayed his messages to the streets of Baltimore, authorities say.
Willock could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the racketeering and drug conspiracy charges he faces. His defense attorney, Thomas Crowe, declined to comment on the specific charges but said his client "maintains his innocence" and will plead not guilty at an arraignment scheduled for March 21.
Authorities have not explained how they believe Willock ascended to the top of a Baltimore gang even as he remained behind bars in Cumberland. But the snippets of jailhouse letters and recorded phone calls included in the indictment portray him as a fearsome leader who called himself "Kanibal Lecktor." He instructed members, authorities said, to defend the Bloods' honor through violence.
"Understand that it's a violation to side with ... another set over Tree so make sure that y'all fully understand that anyone who does carry out that sort of violations will be sanctioned," he wrote in a letter to a gang member in Baltimore, according to federal prosecutors.
That gang lord persona comes as a surprise to those who knew Willock as "Chu," a seemingly low-level crack-cocaine dealer in Hagerstown - a small city that has become a magnet for big-city drug dealers. He was so nondescript that police officers who arrested him testified later that they couldn't remember him.
"Our relationship with him was pretty basic," said Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael, who secured an 18-year-prison term for Willock in 2004. "He came here from New York, we arrested him, he went to prison. He got out, we arrested him, he went to prison. He got out, we arrested him, he went to prison."
Born April 11, 1979, Willock lived in the Bronx until he was about 16. His relatives could not be located for this article, but letters from his mother and sister to a Washington County judge offer some shadings of his early years.
Dolly Campbell said she was a single mother raising Willock and four other children. She described him as "very caring, respectable and friendly" and said she sent him to live with her sister in Hagerstown "to escape the violence and drug-infected neighborhood."
She said she didn't realize that her sister was a drug addict, and that her sister's children, around Willock's age, were "involved in drugs activities."
Willock fell into addiction at age 18, Campbell wrote, and never received any treatment. Natasha Campbell, Willock's sister, also wrote that he "has a drug problem, and he really should be getting help for his condition."
In the half-dozen or so letters he has written to Judge W.P. Kennedy Boone III, who sentenced him in 2003, Willock also repeatedly calls himself a drug addict. He sold drugs, he claimed, only "to support my habit."
The prosecutor isn't so sure.
"Aside from all his whining about drug addiction," Michael said, "there's no indication he was ever anything but an enterprise criminal."
For this modest Western Maryland city, Willock appears to be part of an unlikely migration of dozens, if not hundreds, of young men from New York City. Many of those who relocated during the past decade and a half were involved in the drug trade, according to authorities.
"His story is repeated over and over and over again," said Michael, who was prosecutor of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force for 10 years before becoming deputy state's attorney in 2004. "Like lemmings, they're drawn here."
Hagerstown, founded in 1762, has a population of about 40,000 and a low rate of violent crime. At the intersection of two major interstates - I-70 and I-81 - it's known as "Hub City." And with three state prisons six miles outside of town, it's often a first-stop for the newly paroled.
Michael said he has interviewed dozens of the New Yorkers that he has convicted and asked them bluntly: "Why the hell do you come here?"
Their answers are consistent, Michael said, and his successor, prosecutor Brett R. Wilson, separately offered the same opinions.