9 held after drug raids

Police say heroin network was a highly organized business

September 16, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Recently unsealed affidavits leading to search warrants and at least 18 raids last week on homes and cars throughout Baltimore allege that Johnnie Butler, 32, and his associates ran multiple heroin shops in the city, most concentrated on the east side, and had plans to open more.

They maintained flashy cars - including a 2008 Mercedes-Benz supposedly purchased for $117,000 from Pittsburgh Steelers star Hines Ward - and cleared hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash each month, according to the documents. Law-enforcement agencies said they used informants, wire taps, undercover officers and routine surveillance to unravel the operation.

Butler was one of nine people arrested last week in connection with the raids - during which drugs, guns and thousands of dollars were seized - and charged with heroin possession with intent to distribute. A detention hearing is scheduled for at least four of the defendants tomorrow in federal court.

A call to Butler's court-appointed attorney was not returned. Butler and three other defendants who appeared in court last week were deemed indigent and unable to afford counsel. Attorneys for other defendants said they could not comment because they had not seen the affidavits or the indictment.

The affidavits describe a drug operation that functioned as a fully formed business - complete with free samples given "to the community in an attempt to promote their product" and a hierarchy of employees - and lay out the alleged roles of the defendants within the organization. But a representative for the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association cautioned against prejudging the case.

"It is important to remember that all those who have been accused as well as the rest of us remain innocent unless and until proven guilty," Chris Flohr, an adjunct professor with the University of Maryland's School of Law and a past president of the defense attorneys association, said in an e-mail.

Two affidavits by Michael Collins, a Drug Enforcement Administration task force officer, were unsealed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Friday. In them, Collins details how three people previously arrested for heroin distribution turned against Butler and others and acted as informants, with at least one person digitally recording conversations.

Information from those confidential sources and elsewhere led investigators to conclude that Butler had been dealing New York-bought heroin and cocaine in Baltimore since at least 2002. Allegations of more recent activity are based on Baltimore Circuit Court-authorized wire taps, which intercepted calls and text messages from seven cell phones, including one exchange in June between Butler and another man about the Mercedes-Benz.

During the conversation, Butler says the car "was Hines Ward's," referring to the wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When asked what he paid for it, Butler said "Um, 117, yo. He told me give him the sticker price," which Collins surmised meant $117,000. The car is registered in a woman's name.

Pittsburgh Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten did not return a call requesting comment. There is no suggestion in the affidavit that Butler has any connection to Ward other than the vehicle sale.

Here is how the operation is alleged to have worked, according to Collins' affidavits:

* Butler, aided by Calvin Wright, 36, and suspected money launderer Walter Horton, is alleged to have supplied large amounts of heroin to and maintained control of a group of drug-dealing shops throughout Baltimore.

* Alleged "managers" of the shops include Daron Ashe, 21; Geraldmain Wilkerson, 34, and his brother, Leon Wilkerson, 35; Akeem Yarberough, 31; Antoine Boston, 35; and Adrian Aulton, 36. Yarberough is at large.

* The ninth defendant, Shawn Moore, 22, is incarcerated in Jessup and accused of arranging to purchase heroin for distribution in jail.

The affidavit outlines multiple conversations involving drug-dealing operations and claims that Butler had also taken control of the city's "Red Dot" drug ring, which authorities allege distributes heroin throughout the city, obtaining up to 5 kilograms a week from a Queens, N.Y., supplier and making about $100,000 a week in profit.

Using a complex and coded language, the dealers discussed the quality of a particular heroin batch, the need to acquire more for street distribution, where to drop off proceeds, and how certain sales quotas must be met, according to the affidavit.

Other discussions involved removing heroin from the refrigerator in which it was stashed before it froze and the best way to crawl through an unlocked window, which led to an argument between Ashe and his twin brother, with one berating the other by saying, "You don't think, and you don't listen nothing I say."

The investigation began as part of Maryland's Exile program, an effort by state, local and federal authorities to identify the city's worst "violent repeat offenders" and aggressively gather evidence against them and make arrests.

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