Baltimore police, prosecutors and federal agents launched a massive strike against the Black Guerrilla Family gang this week, after indicting 48 suspects in an alleged eight-year campaign of drug dealing and violence that claimed 10 lives.
The breadth of the coordinated operation reflects the growing concern over the BGF's role on the streets of Baltimore. Authorities say the one-time prison gang is using force and intimidation to take control of neighborhoods drug corner by drug corner — one reason, they say, violent crime is on the rise.
Word of the indictments came Thursday as the city recorded its 200th homicide of the year.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, dogged by questions about his crime strategy, said the BGF case shows how police and prosecutors are increasing pressure on violent offenders. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted in the investigation.
"We've got to cut the heart out of these gangs, and we can't do it with small arrests," Batts said at a news conference in Mund Park off Greenmount Avenue. "We're going to start taking the vicious, most violent people down one at a time. That's where you'll see the [crime] numbers start coming down."
Thirty-eight of the people accused in the BGF case face charges under the state's rarely used gang statute, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence and has been used only three times in Baltimore.
Several of the people charged have a history of criminal arrests, including murder, drug and robbery charges that were dropped or resulted in short sentences.
State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said that in this case he hopes to use the gang law to try all suspects together and show a "full mosaic" of "terror."
Bernstein said the crew was involved in a "violent, years-long campaign" to avenge the killing or shooting of any BGF members. Witnesses believed to be talking to police were silenced. A man who opened a drug rehabilitation center near the BGF's drug-dealing corners was welcomed with bullets. Even fellow gang members were shot for internal code violations, Bernstein said.
Dale Hargrave, president of the community association in the New Greenmount West neighborhood, where the group was accused of operating, said residents have felt the gang's presence moving in.
"There were folks coming down and trying to take over," he said. "Taking these guys off the street [is] a good thing — especially if they're shooting."
The Black Guerrilla Family gang, founded on the West Coast, was relatively unknown in Baltimore until a sprawling case brought in 2009 by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The federal agency outlined a complex network built inside the state's prisons that dictated drug dealing and violence on city streets.
At that time, officials said the gang had broader goals of infiltrating government and schools and had been selling a handbook to spread propaganda.
The gang figured prominently this year in a corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where 13 corrections officers have been charged in federal court with helping smuggle contraband into the facility and turning it into a gang "stronghold."
Batts called this week's indictments "only the beginning" of successful investigations into the BGF.
When he arrived in Baltimore after a career spent in California, Batts quickly — and frequently — began discussing how much of the city's crime grew from the gang's efforts to take over neighborhood crews and street corners.
This week's case alleges an example of such a gang takeover effort, involving a crew that officials said was operating of East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood.
Police, who initially referred to the gang as the Young Gorilla Family, had long blamed members for violence in the area.
But around 2007, officials allege, a high-ranking member of the BGF named Naim King invited YGF leaders to a meeting and said he wanted to bring the strongest members into his organization.
Prosecutors said Young Guerrilla Family leaders demanded that all of their members be accepted into BGF — an all or nothing merger — and King accepted.
"The original local organization retained its identity, leadership structure and operations, but its members publicly called themselves members of the BGF," prosecutors said in a statement. "New name, same violent business."
When King was shot and killed in 2007, prosecutors say, fellow gang member David Hunter vowed to avenge his death. They say he waited more than three years before exacting revenge on the man he believed responsible, gunning down Henry Mills in the 2400 block of Greenmount Ave.
Hunter became a leader of the organization following King's death, prosecutors said. A call to his public defender was not returned Thursday, nor was a message left with District Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian.
Prosecutors accused the suspects in dozens of attacks over the past several years:
•In 2009, they said, David Hunter shot four people in the 400 block of E. Lanvale St., allegedly yelling "This is BGF territory" as he fired.
•They said alleged YGF leader Donatello Fenner, whom former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld called a "catalyst for violence," was killed in March 2010 for violating gang code.
•They said a man was shot in April 2011 for allegedly talking to police
•On March 23, 2013, they said, a man named Moses Malone was robbed and shot in the 2400 block of Greenmount Ave. by alleged BGF member Norman Handy.
•About five weeks later, prosecutors said, Handy's brother, Wesley Brown, shot Malone to death, believing he was going to testify against Handy for the robbery and shooting.
•A man named Trevon White allegedly helped tip off Brown to Malone's whereabouts. Prosecutors say White was shot and killed on May 7 in the 200 block of E. 22nd St.
The public defender's office did not respond to requests to speak with representatives for suspects in the case.
The violence wasn't isolated to East Baltimore. In June, prosecutors said, BGF members converged on the Mirage night club for a birthday party for Brown and another alleged gang member, and a man was shot in the 300 block of W. Fayette St. following a disagreement.
Prosecutors hoped that Thursday's indictments would dismantle the BGF's power structure at least in East Baltimore, where several redevelopment projects are underway. Residents welcomed the operation, hoping it would clean out some of the stubborn violence that has been keeping investors away.
"We're all aware of drug activity in the community, and there have been people engaged in that for years," said W. Brad Schlegel, a spokesman for the Barclay-Midway and Old Goucher Coalition.
Barclay, a community that includes the city schools headquarters and is located just north of North Avenue near Green Mount Cemetery, has been the focus of recent revitalization efforts, with the entire 400 block of E. 20th St. razed to make way for new homes.
But it remains challenged by crime. There have been four homicides and three non-fatal shootings there this year alone.
Maryland gang statute
Several suspects were charged this week under a state law that bans participation in a gang. The 2007 law carries a sentence of up to 20 years which must be served consecutively with any other sentence. Prosecutors say the statute allows them to try gang members together, present a complete picture of gang violence and spell out motives.
Two alleged gang leaders
Authorities say the convergence of two gangs led to a string of crimes that wound up killing 10 people. Key in the merger were two suspects.
Alleged affiliation: Black Guerrilla Family
Alleged role: Invited members of another organization to join his gang in 2007 as BGF expanded its role on Baltimore streets.
Fate: Killed in a shooting in October 2007.
Alleged affiliation: Young Guerrilla Family
Alleged role: After joining BGF, Hunter is accused of killing the man police said murdered King.
Fate: Indicted in March in an investigation that would ensnare 48 alleged associates.