Terrible police work sent a man to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Was it incompetence or something else?
Published: October 2, 2013
On Thursday, March 20, 2008, Rob Long ran into his old friend Tommy Ramsay in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in South Baltimore.
Long was under pressure. He told Ramsay that he’d turned state’s evidence against Jose Morales—his boss and co-defendant in a series of theft cases in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Long told Ramsay he had also confided in his housemate, Harry White, who also worked for Morales. Long was afraid White would tell Morales. Ramsay told him he better be careful.
“He’s facing 30 years, he’s got nothing to lose,” Ramsay told Long, according to Ramsay’s testimony before a federal jury last week.
Two days later, Long went to his sister Carol Shiflett’s house for Easter. Shiflett invited Long’s estranged girlfriend, Robin Wolford, and the couple’s daughter, but things were tense.
“Robin didn’t want him near the baby,” Shiflett told the jury last week, breaking down in tears at the memory of what happened next. Long had to stay upstairs at first. Shiflett could hear him telling his daughter how much he loved her and how he wanted to be a better person and take care of her.
In the end he came down and had Easter supper with his family.
It was the last meal he had.
Just before noon the next day, White called Ramsay. He said he had been watching the news: two murders in Baltimore. He called Long’s cellphone, but he reached a stranger who said, “I just picked it up off a dead guy.”
The man who picked up Long’s phone had put it in his pocket while he tried to help the dying man.
Police traced the phone’s location and arrived at his house the next day, and the man turned the phone over, telling them he forgot about it.
Then, so did the cops. So did the prosecutor. The cellphone disappeared from the face of the earth.
“That phone could be a wealth of evidence,” says Michele Nethercott, a lawyer with the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore who represented Demetrius Smith, the man who was first convicted of killing Long.
The missing phone could have told investigators not only every text Long got, but every number that he had recently called and that had called him. With help from the phone company, it also could have told them Long’s location during every minute for the hours before he was killed.
That cellphone data—combined with video from police cameras—could have been used to check the story police and prosecutors would later tell a Baltimore jury about why Long was murdered—a story that turned out to be false.
The department has never accounted for the telephone or for how it was misplaced. And losing that phone is just one of several mistakes the cops made, mistakes that cast doubt on the department’s ability to solve any murder case.
Fingered by two witnesses, Demetrius Smith spent more than four years in jail and prison for the murder—and for a subsequent shooting—before being released in May after federal investigators uncovered new evidence, allegedly including a confession by the man who arranged the murder.
A federal grand jury indicted Jose Morales in August of 2012. He is charged with using a cellphone to hire a hit man to kill Long before he could testify against him in state court. Morales is on trial for the murder now in federal district court in Greenbelt.
I have been covering Morales’ career since 2006 and, as a result, was subpoenaed as a prosecution witness. I testified last week that I accurately quoted Morales in a long profile after the murder. Prosecutors believe that on April 17, 2008—the same day City Paper photographer Ryan “RaRah” Stevenson took pictures of Morales’ lawyer, Stanley Needleman, and Morales as they emerged from Courthouse East on North Calvert Street—Morales told Needleman that he had arranged Long’s murder.
The story is important to me, in part, because I’ve never before been called as a witness in any criminal case, let alone a federal murder trial in which the defendant could get the death penalty.
It is important to Baltimore because of all that has not been revealed: how and why city police charged the wrong man.
We may never know why the city cops botched the case, but it appears they were led astray by a strange lack of curiosity and by several confidential informants (CIs)—even though at least one of them gave them a theory of the case that would turn out to be closer to the truth than the one they ultimately presented in court.
The question of whether Morales was himself a police informant has haunted the case from the start, with several sources claiming he helped the feds on a major drug case and others suggesting that he worked for city cops—though one person with knowledge of the case called him “a CI who never gave any information.”
Morales spent the 1990s and 2000s dealing drugs, stealing heavy equipment, and ripping off customers of his construction business while setting fires and threatening those he suspected of crossing him. For whatever reason, prosecutors declined to make him a priority, and he spent only a year and a few months in jail and prison.
Then, Long was killed less than two weeks after he agreed to testify against Morales, upping the stakes.
I had been following the state cases for months by then, studying the delays and twists for a story about how chaotic and inefficient the Baltimore circuit court is for witnesses and victims—and how perfectly attuned it is to the needs of bat-wielding defendants like Morales and edgy lawyers like Needleman. I wrote a long piece, published in June of 2008, about Morales’ consequence-free criminal career. I expected Morales to be charged for the murder by the Baltimore police very soon after.
Instead, the story went into the Twilight Zone.
Morales skipped a bunch of court dates and was caught in a Dundalk duplex on the same day Smith was arrested for Long’s murder.
Smith was set free on bail and, after a public outcry, charged with shooting another man in the leg and jailed.
Morales, meanwhile, was jailed in Baltimore City without bail but then mysteriously sprung on a $30,000 cash bond.
No one in the court system could tell me who set the bond or who paid it, though it was later revealed that Needleman had done so, breaking the rules of professional conduct.
Then, on Aug. 15, 2008, Morales was picked up in McAllen, Texas, with 6 kilos of cocaine, for which he was charged federally. The charging document said that Morales told federal agents he was sent to McAllen to buy the coke and fly back to “reimburse a $30,000 cash bond he owned [sic] to an individual for a prior arrest.”
It was more than a little bizarre. Reportedly, Morales walked into a tiny airport, put $23,000 on the counter, and asked to charter a private jet back to Baltimore. What kind of drug dealer would do that? While traveling dirty? And then immediately tell federal agents what he was up to?
Whether or not he was a seasoned informant, Morales clearly thought he was untouchable in the summer of 2008.
Smith was convicted of the murder in early 2010 and sentenced to life plus 18 years.
In September of 2011 Needleman pleaded guilty in federal court to tax evasion, having been discovered with more than $1 million in two safes in his home. Morales, apparently, had snitched on him, and he served a year in prison.
City Paper covered the events as they transpired, picking up tips and hints from sources all the while and trying to fit them into a coherent whole.
Here is what we learned in the five years since Long’s death:
• Early in the investigation, a key witness—and other potential witnesses the police did not reinterview—told city police that Morales was behind the murder, but they discounted it.
• City homicide detectives did not interview one of the last men to see Long alive until more than a month after the murder, and the interview was cursory.
• City homicide detectives never interviewed Morales, even though he apparently called one of them from the same cellphone the feds believe he used to arrange the hit.
• A witness who allegedly told police that Morales set up the killing—and whose testimony put Smith behind bars—is dead, along with another witness and at least one of the men who the federal government believes conspired in Long’s murder.
• The other main witness against Smith recanted.
Demetrius Smith spent almost 18 months in jail before his case came to trial. Anne-Marie Gering, a supervising attorney at the Office of the Public Defender, carried it into court against an up-and-coming assistant states attorney named Richard Gibson.
Under Gibson’s command, the available evidence was edited into a pat narrative. Long was shot in Traci Atkins Park on the morning of March 24 by Smith, a local drug dealer whose $7,000 stash he had filched the night before. Smith, aka Michi, was known in the neighborhood as the violent guy behind the “Buck Naked” brand of gel caps.
The narrative hung entirely on the word of Mark Bartlett, an addict who testified that he’d worked for Smith selling Buck Naked and had known Long since kindergarten. Bartlett told the jury that on the morning he died, Long had knocked on his door at 5 a.m. (it was closer to 3:30 in a pretrial hearing) and traded some Buck Naked for some of the crack Bartlett and his roommates had on hand.
With Long on that early morning visit were two brothers: “Junior” and “Troy Lucas,” Bartlett testified.
Bartlett never said—he was never asked—how Smith supposedly learned that Long had his stash.
But Bartlett told the jury that he stood at a pay phone on the corner of Stricker and Ramsay streets trying to “score more heroin” at 9:30 a.m. as Smith and Long walked past him a few feet away. He told the jury he saw Smith shoot two bullets into Rob Long’s head.
First to the scene after district cops were homicide detectives Steve Hohman and Charles Bealefeld, the brother of then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. They and other cops canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses. They spoke to Long’s friends and family, who told them about Long’s phone. The phone was recovered but never entered into evidence.
Tommy Ramsay says he called Baltimore police shortly after he spoke to White. He says he was transferred to a homicide detective. Ramsay says he identified Long as the victim and told the detective to look at Jose Morales. City police never contacted him again.
Another group of cops, the Regional Auto Theft Team—R.A.T.T., for short—had been tracking Morales and his associates since they were teenagers stealing dirt bikes, according to one member of the squad. “We turned our file over three hours after we heard about it,” one cop told me.
The R.A.T.T. case file was filled with the names of potential witnesses and the motivation for the crime. Long had been one of Morales’ key employees for years, ripping off customers of their contracting business and swiping heavy equipment and scaffolding from other job sites. On March 10, 2008, Long called a R.A.T.T. detective named Steve Sunderland and asked for a meeting. He said he did not want his lawyer, Alex Leikus, to know because Morales had paid Leikus’ fee through Needleman, with whom Leikus shared an office.
Thinking it was legally required, the assistant states attorney invited Leikus to the meeting the next day. The meeting was videotaped. Long told about thefts he had done on Morales’ behalf and an arson. He said Morales had already begun threatening him: “Calling me up on the phone telling me he’s gonna beat me with a baseball bat and whoop my ass,” according to a partial transcript the feds published this year.
“When was the last time you spoke with him,” the cop asked.
“Three days ago he called me up from . . . sounded like he was in a night club said I can’t wait to catch you . . . know what I mean. Can’t wait to beat you with a baseball bat and whoop your ass, so I’m gonna give him something to whoop my ass for.”
“Had you told him before that you were going to come forward and talk to the police?”
“No,” Long said. “I ain’t tell him nothing.”
“Why are you getting these calls?”
Leikus then interjected: “Why don’t we just talk about the crimes . . . I mean does it really matter?”
Long said Morales had told him he’d tried to run Warren Lumpkin, another former crew member who was testifying against him, off the road. Lumpkin’s nickname was “Pie.”
“The little bitch was scared and Pie was yelling out the window ‘they made me do it they made me do it.’ That’s what he was telling me,” Long said, according to the transcript.
All this information was in the hands of detectives Hohman and Bealefeld within hours of Long’s death.
A few weeks later, Lumpkin told me he had received a call from Long, saved on his voicemail, in which Long said Morales was going to kill him. Lumpkin had already been threatened twice by Morales, once with a baseball bat.
But detectives Hohman and Bealefeld never contacted Lumpkin (who died earlier this year, reportedly, after overdosing on a housemate’s methadone). And the detectives’ interviews with the last people who saw Long alive appear cursory—and tardy.
Approximately five weeks after Long was killed, on May 2, 2008 around 9 p.m. Hohman and a Detective Norton interviewed Clyde Lucas, known as “Junior.” Just short of his 40th birthday, Lucas, with brother Troy, had been with Long the night before he died.
The Lucas brothers were associates of Morales as well, with long criminal histories involving theft, assault, and drugs.
Here’s what Hohman and Norton gleaned from Lucas in that interview, according to a note in the file:
1. Lucas says he was with the victim on the night of the murder, with Troy, in front of 1401 McHenry Street, “getting high.”
2. “V[ictim—Long] ran away about 1:30-1:45 a.m. We didn’t see him after.”
3. He said he knew about the Morales case and Long testifying against him.
There were no follow-up questions. It appears there were no other interviews with Clyde Lucas or his brother Troy.
There was no recourse to the data from Long’s phone, of course, which would have told the detectives whether Long actually was on the 1400 block of McHenry Street, and whether he left at 1:30 or 1:45, and where he went then.
Of the Morales associates he and Bealefeld spoke to, Hohman later testified that he “expected them to tell me the truth.”
But at Smith’s trial, Mark Bartlett would swear under oath that Troy and Clyde Lucas were with Long at 3:30 (or was it 5? Or 6?) in the morning when Long knocked on his door with a big bag of Smith’s heroin. That statement, which Bartlett had surely told detectives years prior, put the Lucas brothers with Long less than four hours before he was killed. Why did the detectives believe Bartlett’s account and not Clyde Lucas’?
Why did they not try to find out where the Lucas brothers were during that night?
A police spokesperson emailed City Paper to say the department does not comment on open cases.
The Baltimore police missed at least one other chance to find out what really happened that morning when a coke addict we’ll call “Davis” asked a narcotics detective he was friendly with what was happening in the park.
“He said he didn’t know the name,” Davis told the jury in federal court last week. “Homicide don’t tell us anything.”
The narco then described Rob Long, and Davis said he had “just met him the night before.”
Davis was never questioned by city police, he testified.
City Paper is withholding Davis’ real name at the request of federal prosecutors, who say they fear that Dead Man Inc. will kill him in state prison. On the witness stand, Davis testified that he knows Troy Lucas is a member and that he considers the gang “a joke.”
Davis testified that he had spent the entire night with Long and Troy Lucas, mostly sitting in a Buick, shooting cocaine into their bodies with a syringe.
When the coke was all gone, they repaired to the Lucas house on Sargeant Street, Davis, who testified that he knew the Lucas brothers well, said. Clyde was the one who left early that night, he said.
In Davis’ version, Mark Bartlett was not visited. At no time did Long have a bag of heroin.
Back at Sargeant Street, Troy Lucas called a woman named Mary for more coke. On this particular day, Lucas told Davis, Mary was not selling out of her house, just nearby, but was “up top”—on the other side of the railroad tracks in the Mount Clare neighborhood. Davis walked one way, up South Carey Street toward the rendezvous, which was to be on Ramsay Street in front of the park.
Lucas and Long went the other way: Bayard Street and through the old lumberyard.
Davis testified that he waited for his friends in front of the park, but they never came. He repaired to the B&O Bar a couple blocks north. Then to Bill’s (now Margaret’s Place) on the corner of South Calhoun and Ramsay streets.
The barmaid there, Davis says, told him she heard he had just been murdered.
Davis says he rode with Clyde Lucas when he was summoned to Central District homicide a month later. He watched Clyde’s car, he testified.
And when Troy Lucas was arrested later on drug charges, Davis helped bail him out. Coming out of lockup, he says, Troy Lucas demanded to know what Davis told the cops about Rob Long.
“I said I didn’t say anything, why?,” Davis told the jury last week.
“I didn’t want to get you involved,” he says Lucas told him.
“You just did,” Davis replied.
The actions and motivations of the Lucas brothers were curiously absent from Smith’s trial. It was not because the police thought they were upstanding citizens.
During a break, I asked the prosecutor and the detective how Smith supposedly knew that Long had stolen his drugs.
“That’s one thing we don’t know,” Gibson said.
“Maybe the Lucas brothers,” Hohman opined. “They’re shady and they play both sides.”
Hohman testified that investigators never spoke to Morales during the investigation, suggesting that “none of the evidence led to Mr. Morales.” He said this despite the fact that Hohman had the transcript of the dead man saying that Morales had been threatening him.
It would not have been difficult for the investigators to have a chat with Morales. Sources familiar with the investigative file say Morales’ name and phone number are written on a “While You Were Out” note addressed to Bealefeld, dated March 31.
Apparently, Morales called the detective a week after the murder.
The phone number was the same one the feds now say he used to coordinate Long’s murder.
Bealefeld would come under pressure that spring and summer for an unrelated case in which he was accused of covering up racial harassment of a fellow officer. The detective left the department in September of 2008. The Sun later reported that Bealefeld had “given a false report” in the harassment case.
But before he left the department, Bealefeld helped make two cases against Demetrius Smith: for murdering Robert Long, and for shooting Clyde Hendricks in the leg on Aug. 22, 2008.
Key to both those efforts was a 52-year-old former drug dealer who calls herself a “neighborhood watch” in Mount Clare, where she and her husband own several rental properties.
Maria Moses contacted police a few weeks after the Long murder, saying she knew that a band of neighborhood drug dealers she called “Buck Naked” were behind it.
She knew the players, she said: The boss was a guy called “Peanut,” whose real name was Jamie Hilton-Bey (he would be abducted and murdered in May 2010 by a squad of masked men in two stolen vans). Another key player, according to Moses, was Demetrius Smith.
“They were terrorizing the neighborhood,” she said.
Moses also made the 911 call when Hendricks was robbed and shot, according to a source with knowledge of the case. Bealefeld was called to that shooting even though Hendricks’ leg wound was relatively minor and would not usually involve a homicide detective. With a prostitute as his informant, and in apparent contradiction of a police camera’s depiction of the suspect, Bealefeld quickly collared Smith, guaranteeing he would be jailed until his trial.
It appears now that Smith did not do that shooting either, although the state prosecutor would not say he is innocent.
Moses’ role was kept out of the trial, her name blacked out in file notes, where she is referred to as a confidential informant.
On March 22, 2010, the day Smith was sentenced, Moses called City Paper.
“Jose Morales paid Demetrius Smith,” Moses said, adding that she’d told the same story to Hohman two years prior. “I was the one that got Mark Bartlett. I protected him. He was the one who told me that Jose Morales paid Michi Smith.”
Moses presents herself as a broker, or agent, to confidential informants—the person cops call when they need a hooker or a street junkie to tell them what went down. It’s clear that Hohman was working with Moses’ theory—at least as it pertained to Smith.
Bartlett, Moses said, was her favorite confidential informant: “He knew every detail there was. Mark likes to lie sometimes, but he. . . Everything was planned. George Iris, Joe Clemmons, Mike Clemmons—they were all involved.”
Moses said that Morales was a member of Dead Man Inc., the fearsome prison gang that served as a white offshoot of the Black Guerrilla Family. Along with “Iris,” Morales supplied the drug dealers in her neighborhood, Moses said.
She dropped another name, Eric Bozeman, and then she added, “we have a lot of crooked cops here.”
Bartlett would not give a statement for more than a month. As Bartlett later testified, he had an open warrant for probation violation and a $200-a-day habit. He did not want to be junk-sick in jail. But then, on May 7, he got his arm broken by a local drug dealer wielding a golf club. The next day he was arrested on the warrant and reached out to Hohman.
Bartlett might have known who really shot Long. It seems possible he fingered Smith because he knew Smith was a low-level operator and not especially violent.
By 2008, Smith had earned a couple of drug charges and second-degree assault cases. The fearsome reputation police would hang on Smith in court—which was crucial to the case against him—was, at the time, nowhere in his criminal record. Another thing that prosecutors would keep from the jury: Smith “has the mind of a 16-year-old,” one of his lawyers told me later. Another lawyer described him as having “an intellectual deficit.” Even George Smith tried to make it clear that his son was not the drug lord depicted by the state. During a break in the trial, I had asked why his son, the apparent boss of the block, did not know who pulled the trigger. “Oh, Demetrius doesn’t have that kind of influence,” Smith said. “If it was me, maybe. But not Demetrius. He’s just a kid. In more ways than one.”
Bartlett also knew the Lucas brothers. It appears he had an interest in protecting them—if only to protect himself.
Today, Morales is on trial for hiring a DMI hit man to kill Long. The federal prosecutors do not say that Morales was a member of DMI, only that he had enough “familiarity with DMI” that he allegedly paid a member of the gang $20,000 for the hit.
Prosecutors believe the shooter was Troy Lucas, Clyde’s brother.
Clyde Lucas died on Feb. 18, 2011, according to Social Security death records.
Troy Lucas is currently serving a prison sentence for theft and burglary under the alias Troy Madron, according to a lawyer and the state’s prisoner-locator system. When I visited the Sargeant Street address the Lucas brothers used in court records (and that Davis says he, Troy, and Long walked out of on the morning of March 24, 2008), I found a battered door padlocked from the outside. No one responded to a card left in the hole where the door knob should have been.
Hohman and Bealefeld did not look too hard at Troy Lucas. They apparently also did not look at Jose Morales.
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Moses told me in 2010. “They told Mark not to get into the details.”
It’s unlikely anyone will ever know just what Mark Bartlett, the state’s star witness, knew about Robert Long’s murder. On Oct. 4, 2010, just a few months after Smith was sentenced, Bartlett died of cardiac arrest. An autopsy found cocaine in his system and said it contributed to his death, according to a person who saw it. On the date of his death, the source said, he was awaiting placement in a witness-protection program.
The other main witness against Smith clearly knew much less than she told. Michelle McVicker had a drug problem and hearing impairment. On the witness stand, she had a hard time explaining where she was at the time of the murder, what she was doing there, and what she supposedly saw and heard. She claimed she was in the neighborhood on the way to a methadone clinic, but that clinic was actually miles away.
McVicker recanted her testimony against Smith, several sources told City Paper. They did not explain why she testified as she did or who brought her to the detectives. City Paper was not able to locate her.
In the 2000s, witness intimidation plagued so many Baltimore cases that State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy instituted a rule requiring at least two witnesses for a murder charge to be filed. This put more pressure on investigators to work harder to find witnesses. It also may have put more pressure on those witnesses that were willing to testify—many of who had criminal cases of their own they needed to get fixed. The perverse result of this dependence on confidential informants was more skewed cases—in this case, perhaps, making a real witness killing look to the judge and jury like a run-of-the-mill drug killing.
The defense’s best witness in the Smith trial was Claradeina Koethe. Given the constraints of the trial, she did not tell the jury what she knew about the other witnesses—or about the basic layout of the neighborhood. She did tell later investigators.
In a 2011 interview at her office in Mount Clare, Koethe told city police that she was amazed by the prosecution witnesses. “They had a young girl that day,” Koethe said in the taped interview. “She was never there before. . . I laughed. . . they were both high. The guy. The tall guy that was there . . . He was nodding in the hallway, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open. And the girl, she looked almost as bad. And they were both discussing something about somebody was at a phone booth, and somebody was catching a bus and I start laughin’. I said, ‘How can they be catching a bus or be in a phone booth?’—there’s nothing on Ramsay and Stricker Street, there’s no bus stop. The nearest bus stop is on Gilmor Street and that’s Gilmor-McKinley. And there’s no phone booth. There hasn’t been a phone booth in that area for . . . probably 10 years or so.”
It was obvious that the case against Demetrius Smith was weak. Just how implausibly weak it was, the jurors were not allowed to know. And just why such a case was made remains a mystery.
“We looked at Jose,” Gibson said during break in Smith’s trial, in 2010. “We looked hard.” Then Gibson added, as if it were exculpatory: “He’s the kind of person who, if he was going to murder someone, would have had someone else do it.”
Bealefeld did not return a call to his office phone. He continues to make murder cases in Annapolis. Gibson did not either, though Mark Cheshire, spokesperson for the State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, emailed me back to say the office does not comment on open cases. “Speaking generally and not specifically about this open case, State’s Attorney Bernstein takes claims of errors and actual innocence very seriously, so seriously, in fact, that he created a division—the Conviction Integrity Unit—dedicated to handling them.”
Gibson is still prosecuting defendants in Baltimore City.
Hohman was promoted to lieutenant. He is still making murder cases in Baltimore City, where less than half of all recorded murders result in a conviction.
“When an innocent person is convicted of a serious crime, our criminal justice system is deeply resistant to acknowledging the error,” says Nethercott, Smith’s lawyer from the Innocence Project. “Holding individuals or institutions accountable for their role in bring about a wrongful conviction, whether their actions were the result of negligence or malice, is an extremely rare event.”
Corrections: The Oct. 2 feature, "Justice Delayed," contained two errors. The bail paid by Jose Morales's lawyer, Stanley Needleman, freed him from the city lockup, not the county jail, as originally reported. Also, the alias under which the alleged shooter is serving time in state prison is Troy Madron, not Madras.]
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