City Mutes Criticism Of Feds

Bealefeld, Dixon Retreat From Comments About Investigation Into Drug-feud Violence

July 31, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

City officials retreated Thursday from criticizing federal agencies for their role in a joint investigation of feuding drug rings, emphasizing instead the collaborative nature of the process and the many times the feds have come to Baltimore's aid.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III issued a statement saying the department's "strong partnership" with federal law enforcement is a "critical piece of [its] crime fighting strategy." And Mayor Sheila Dixon's spokesman said the U.S. attorney's office "has done a good job - a wonderful job, actually - in their work in Baltimore City."

The sentiments appeared to be a politic turnaround from earlier comments calling for the feds to "step up" their efforts to end at least 16 months of drug-related violence that has left casualties in its wake, including a pregnant woman and a toddler, who were among a dozen victims shot at an East Baltimore cookout Sunday. The rivals are alleged to have kidnapped, killed and swindled each other since spring 2008. And at least one armed his associates with weapons and instructions to "commit acts of violence toward anybody related to" his enemies, an affidavit says.

Federal investigators have known about that threat for more than a year, along with the name of the person alleged to be involved. The information was provided by a confidential source and documented in the June 2008 affidavit written by a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yet no one has been able to clamp down on the gangs, raising questions of whether the investigation is stalled.

Behind the scenes, some law enforcement sources have complained that the feds have dropped the ball. But federal prosecutors have won convictions and lengthy prison terms for two people linked to the feud, and are currently prosecuting a third, while state charges have often fallen through against the same defendants.

Some characterized the finger-pointing as a symptom of the frustration many feel about the unsolved case, which made a very public debut in April 2008, when six gunmen burst into a Catonsville home, bound and gagged its 10 occupants, sexually assaulted a woman and abducted two teen brothers, Sterling and Stephon Blackwell.

"I assumed the feds would make all kinds of arrests after all of this went down," said criminal defense attorney Warren A. Brown.

He was contacted at the time by a representative of the kidnapped boys' family, who wanted to use Brown's office as a neutral space to swap a ransom for the teens. Brown told the delegate that he would have to bill them and never heard back.

Shortly thereafter, the boys' older brother, Steven Blackwell Jr., walked them into Baltimore County Police Department headquarters. Their return has been as mysterious and shrouded in secrecy as their abduction.

"The victims were uncooperative and so investigators were unable to develop any suspects," William Toohey, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, said in an e-mail.

The ATF affidavit offers the only insight. In it, a confidential source says the feud started when one alleged drug dealer thought he was being cheated by another. He kidnapped the boys in retaliation, returned them for $500,000 in ransom, and a spate of payback killings was launched. The affidavit names those who were alleged to be involved. Police linked other murders to the kidnapping throughout the year.

"I'm kind of surprised, if they had this much info, why they didn't intervene before the shootings this weekend," Brown said.

The ATF and the FBI declined to comment, as did U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. But Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor who's now in private practice in Baltimore, said the word of one confidential informant is not enough to seek an indictment.

It's "a tool for the federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents to gather additional evidence, and that additional evidence may lead to an arrest," Levin said.

So far, it hasn't, though the reasons aren't clear. The federal agencies have taken the brunt of the blame, however.

"The city seems to be relying solely on the U.S. attorney's office to create a deterrent against violent crime," Levin said, "and that's not the solution."

Baltimore Sun reporters Melissa Harris and Nick Madigan contributed to this article.

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