Widening Violence

Authorities Believe Spiral Began With 2 Catonsville Brothers' Kidnappings

Dixon Criticizes Slow Pace Of Federal Investigation

July 30, 2009|By Justin Fenton, Tricia Bishop and Melissa Harris | Justin Fenton, Tricia Bishop and Melissa Harris,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The abduction of two Catonsville brothers last year - which police believe triggered a wave of retaliatory killings and other violence, including the shootings of 12 people at a cookout Sunday - was orchestrated by members of a heroin organization who believed their supplier was cheating them, authorities allege in court documents reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

The documents, filed in U.S. District Court last month, shed new light on last year's kidnappings, which prompted an Amber Alert for the teens but was quietly resolved without criminal charges. The documents claim that the reputed heroin supplier, Steven "J.R." Blackwell Jr., 25, paid $500,000 to free his younger brothers. The documents also link additional deaths to last year's string of violence that have not previously been publicly connected.

In the wake of the cookout shooting, in which Blackwell was wounded along with a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old girl, city police are now exploring possible links to a slew of crimes committed over the past two months in the McElderry Park and Madison-East End neighborhoods, including four homicides and 11 nonfatal shootings, according to law enforcement sources.

The court documents also suggest, however, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and city police knew more than a year ago what was driving the violence, arresting two key members after acting on tips from a confidential informant. On Monday, both Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Mayor Sheila Dixon expressed frustration that the investigation apparently stalled.

Dixon noted on Wednesday that the federal investigation had been going on for two years.

"They've got to step up," she said. "The weight can't just be on our police."

The documents draw a connection between the April 2008 kidnappings of Blackwell's younger brothers and a string of apparently retaliatory acts. Authorities believe the abduction was carried out by Terrell Allen, 35, Omar Spriggs, 27, and Demetrious Rich, 29, all of Baltimore.

Six weeks later, authorities say, gunmen took revenge with a quadruple shooting outside the Allen & Family Appliance store, a mom-and-pop business that sells $99 washing machines and other discount appliances. Spriggs and Allen's father, Tony Allen, 52, were killed. Terrell Allen was one of two men injured.

Detectives investigating the crime scene, in the 1800 block of N. Gay St. near the Baltimore Cemetery, followed a blood trail leading from the street toward a four-drawer file cabinet inside the store, which contained a .44-caliber Taurus revolver with five spent shell casings.

Alleged cheating

ATF Special Agent Noah Slackman wrote in an affidavit to search for the gun that a confidential source relayed that Terrell Allen was the head of a drug organization that had been receiving heroin from Blackwell. But they got into a dispute because Allen believed that Blackwell was cheating on the weight of heroin while raising the price, the affidavit says.

The source said it was that disagreement that triggered the kidnapping of Blackwell's younger brothers.

Baltimore County police said at the time that six masked gunmen forced their way into the home at 3 a.m., bound and gagged 10 occupants and held them at gunpoint for hours. A woman was sexually assaulted. Blackwell arrived at the home as the kidnappers were leaving and was shot at but not struck.

The source said Allen and Spriggs were paid approximately $500,000 as ransom for the release of the brothers, according to documents. No criminal charges were ever filed in connection with the incident.

But after the quadruple shooting, ATF agents raided the appliance store and Allen's Essex home, recovering the revolver, boxes of ammunition and nearly $8,000 in cash.

Allen, who has prior manslaughter and drug convictions, has been charged with being a felon in possession of a handgun and is awaiting an August jury trial.

Allen's attorney, Gerald C. Ruter, said his client "categorically denies" that he has been involved in any illegal activities and questioned whether the informant actually existed.

"He has worked for a lengthy period of time at his family appliance store and has been living a law-abiding life," Ruter said. "The allegation that he was somehow involved in the kidnapping of the Blackwell family, those two youngsters, is something either invented by the Police Department or this informant.

"It really is a travesty at a personal level. His father is killed right in front of him ... and he's the person who ends up being on trial," Ruter added.

On Wednesday morning, employees at Allen & Family Appliance store said no members of the Allen family were available to speak to a reporter. The store sits on a corner in an old brick Monumental Life building, where several young boys were cleaning refrigerators and washing machines lined up in two rows on the sidewalk.

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