Investigators say gang turned city jail into 'stronghold'

Longtime observers shocked by alleged corruption

April 27, 2013|By Ian Duncan, Kevin Rector and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were preparing for a middle-of-the-night search of jail cells, aimed at rooting out drugs, cellphones, weapons and any other contraband inmates had stashed away. But the officers weren't the only ones getting ready.

Hours before the planned checks in January, an FBI affidavit says, word reached Tavon White, an inmate who prosecutors say reigned as the jailhouse leader of a violent gang called the Black Guerrilla Family.

White's alleged tipster, according to court records: a corrections officer at the jail.

The advance warning vividly illustrates the success with which federal authorities believe the BGF turned the downtown Baltimore detention center into a gang "stronghold."

Authorities around the country have struggled for years to dislodge gangs from jails and prisons. In Maryland for example, a 2009 investigation revealed widespread BGF activity at other corrections facilities.

But the scale and scope of the allegations laid out this week in a federal indictment — 25 people, including corrections officers, were accused in a smuggling scheme — has astounded even longtime observers.

After getting the tip, White allegedly announced: "I just got message saying that they going to pull a shakedown tonight. Let me call all these dudes in my phone and let them know."

Prosecutors say White relayed the news to two gang deputies, who in turn sounded the alarm to other inmates — fellow BGF members with nicknames like Fatboy, Ack and Flatline.

With White as its alleged leader behind the jail's walls, the gang dealt marijuana, cigarettes, painkillers and cellphones that it smuggled in with help from corrections officers, several of whom were having sex with gang members, according to a federal indictment unsealed this week.

The gang's so-called "Minister of Finance" also collected dues from members and levies from non-member inmates, funneling money to gang leaders on the outside, the indictment alleges.

Court filings paint gang members as highly organized, with an eye on the long term at a facility intended to temporarily hold suspects before trial. Prosecutors say they methodically went about co-opting corrections officers and had a command structure that jail authorities believed would determine succession if a member was set free or sent to prison.

Corrections department investigators discovered BGF documents outlining that new recruits are trained to target female officers with "low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes," according to the affidavit. Gang members believe such officers can be easily manipulated, investigators wrote.

Previous federal investigations targeting the BGF suppressed the gang in Maryland's prisons and on the streets, prosecutors say. But the new indictment says it became deeply entrenched inside the jail — establishing the 36-year-old White in power while he awaited trial for more than three years on an attempted-murder charge.

Arnett Gaston, a clinical psychologist and prison gang expert who rose to the top ranks of the New York and Maryland corrections systems, said he was shocked by the alleged level of involvement by corrections officers. Thirteen were charged, and four officers were impregnated by White, prosecutors say.

"Quite frankly, I have never come across this level of voluntary participation. That's what really surprised me," said Gaston, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s commanded New York City's main jail complex on Rikers Island, considered one of the largest detention facilities in the world.

Growing in Baltimore

From roots in California prisons during the 1960s, the BGF has spread its influence to the streets of Baltimore, investigators say, setting in motion a wave of violence around the city late last year.

White, who held the relatively senior rank of Bushman, felt supreme inside the jail, according to an affidavit filed in connection with the case. But investigators also intercepted conversations between him and more senior leaders outside in which he asked for instructions.

In Maryland, prosecutors say, the BGF rose to prominence after federal authorities took on another gang, the Bloods, in the middle of the last decade. The Black Guerrilla Family might even have directly benefited from those cases, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said Friday.

"People choose their gang affiliations based on which they think is currently the most powerful," he said. "So I suspect the series of prosecutions against Blood sets led people to join a different gang.

"To some extent these affiliations are supposed to be [for] life, but I don't know whether that's the case."

State officials say they have flagged gang ties of about 7,400 inmates and detainees since 2007. The BGF is now the second-largest group after the Bloods, according to Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the city jail.

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