Out of Reach
The Black Guerrilla Family gang aimed to show a way out of the criminal lifestyle—until its criminal activities brought it down
Published: February 15, 2012
“It’s hard to promote black nationalism when you have a black man in the White House,” Thomas Bailey said on Jan. 6, 2009, weeks before Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American President of the United States. Bailey, a Maryland inmate serving life for murder, couldn’t have known at the time how prophetic his words were, or that they would end up memorialized in court documents.
As Obama was movings into the White House, court documents show that federal investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Maryland—a unit dubbed the Special Investigations Group (DEA-SIG)—were kicking into gear a sprawling probe of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), the black-nationalist prison gang for which Bailey ran “the day-to-day operations” at North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI), a maximum-security prison near Cumberland.
When Bailey uttered those prescient words, he was talking over a prison phone at NBCI with Eric Marcell Brown (“Eric Marcell Brown,” Mobtown beat, May 7, 2009), who was on a cell phone at the Maryland Transition Center (MTC), a correctional facility in Baltimore, where Brown was close to finishing a lengthy prison stint for a 1992 drug-dealing conviction. Brown, DEA-SIG investigators wrote in court documents, was “in command of day-to-day operations” in Maryland for the BGF, a national prison gang founded in California in the 1960s by inmate/radical George Jackson, a Black Panther Party member who espoused the black-nationalist view that African-Americans needed to build separate economic and social structures for themselves.
Numerous conversations between Bailey and Brown were intercepted by DEA-SIG, unbeknownst to them at the time, and they show that the two, and their many BGF comrades, seemed to have a genuine desire to promote a better, less violent, more productive path for ex-cons and street hustlers. They weren’t the first. Jackson’s ideas were wrapped up with the Panthers’, and few would question that at least some of their intentions were good. It was their tactics and internal contradictions—along with the machinations of law enforcers—that quashed their ambitions. The same, it now appears, could be said of the BGF in Maryland.
As the DEA-SIG’s probe began in late 2008, Eric Brown had already established himself as a soon-to-be-released inmate prepped to become a force for economic and social good, both in prisons and on the streets.
Brown and his wife, Deitra Davenport (“Deitra Davenport,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), had started a nonprofit, Harambee Jamaa Inc., “to improve the lives of our people who are living under sub standard conditions here in Baltimore” and “to educate, invigorate and liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison,” according to its incorporation papers. They had formed DeeDat Publishing Inc., which had printed and distributed The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities, a “living policy book” intended to serve as “a deterrent to continued criminal behavior and prison recidivism.”
The Black Book condemned drug dealing as “genocide” and “chemical warfare,” and promoted a vision for “Jamaa”—the Swahili word for “family,” which The Black Book uses to refer to the BGF—to build “legitimate and organized ventures” and to “establish Jamaa in a positive light in the prison system and in the streets.”
The rhetoric was persuasive. The Black Book’s back cover featured glowing blurbs from Andrey Bundley, a Baltimore City Public Schools administrator and two-time mayoral candidate; two Anne Arundel Community College professors; former FBI agents Tyrone Powers and Leslie Parker Blyther; Bridget Alston-Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Partners in Progress, which works with at-risk children in Baltimore City’s public schools; and Michael Curtis Jones, an author and youth counselor based in Washington, D.C.
“Kudos, to Eric Brown (E.B.) for not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs,” Bundley’s blurb stated. “He has availed his leadership capacity in Jamaa to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom and equality.” Blyther’s blurb called Brown “an extraordinary human” who “deserves our respect,” and said that “what he has to say” is “life changing!”
But DEA-SIG’s success torpedoed the love-fest. Scores of Bailey’s “comrades”—the term BGF members use to address one another—would plead guilty to a host of federal charges brought in 2009 (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009) and 2010 (“Round Two,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2010), including racketeering, heroin trafficking, extortion, assault, money laundering, and smuggling contraband into prison. Those convicted include inmates (though not Bailey, who, like many of the investigation’s targets, ultimately wasn’t charged), prison personnel, and previously law-abiding citizens.
The presence of prison staff in the scheme prompted City Paper to look at the issue of corrupt correctional officers in Maryland, in connection both with the BGF and other gangs (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010), but there were other defendants with legitimate-looking careers. Todd Duncan was a gang-interventionist for a government-funded nonprofit (“Inside Out,” Mobtown Beat, April 14, 2010). Rainbow Williams was a youth mentor for Baltimore City Public Schools students (“Rainbow Lee Williams,” Mobtown Beat, May 1, 2009). Kimberly McIntosh was a health care worker (“Health Care Worker Accused,” Mobtown Beat, April 16, 2010). Tomeka Harris was a mortgage broker (“Day of Reckoning,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 22, 2010). And Calvin Robinson was a Baltimore City wastewater worker with a clothing boutique (“Calvin Renard Robinson,” Mobtown Beat, June 10, 2009).
In all, as much as City Paper could determine from federal court records, 40 people were charged in connection with the probe, and at least 28 of them—maybe more; the court docket is vague on the fates of some defendants—have pleaded guilty so far. According to a Jan. 12 press release issued by the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, “all the indicted high ranking members of BGF, and their associates, including four employees of state prisons, have pleaded guilty to charges relating to their BGF activities.”
In reality, the problem for Bailey and the BGF was not “a black man in the White House.” It was their hubris and hypocrisy in promoting themselves as a legitimate alternative to the criminal lifestyle, when, in reality, they were committing crimes like any other prison gang. And they got caught.
Though Brown and his BGF comrades claimed to be engaging potential re-offenders in an effort to set them on a more productive path in life, court documents show they were, in fact, engaged with a who’s-who in Baltimore’s underworld as they carried on like common gangsters.
“You are trying to do good,” explains a BGF member who wasn’t charged as a result of DEA-SIG’s investigation, but who knows many of the now convicted BGF leaders and members well, “but you are doing so much fucked-up shit at the same time.” The member, who asked that his real name not be published (in this article, he’ll be called Sam) so that he could speak freely and stay safe from retribution, identifies what may be the BGF’s central contradiction: “You [can’t] tell people about uplifting your people but you’re one of the biggest drug dealers around. There’s no gray area in the struggle. You’re either in it, or you’re not. You can’t say you’re a revolutionary and you’re in the struggle, but you’re a dope-slinging, gangbanging, shooting motherfucker. That ain’t what the struggle is about.”
Because there was no trial in the prosecution of the BGF racketeering probe, the full scope of the evidence that yielded the long cascade of guilty pleas is not publicly available. What is available, though, is abundant. DEA-SIG’s affidavits supporting search warrants and wiretap orders provide hundreds of pages of detailed information about what the investigators were finding. A host of them, attached to a motion filed in the case last year by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, show that investigators linked BGF leaders—especially its main heroin trafficker, Kevin Glasscho, who has prior convictions for murder, handgun possession, and drug trafficking—to a roster of suspected and convicted drug traffickers, some of whom have been the focus of City Paper articles in recent years.
Glasscho ended up on DEA-SIG’s radar thanks to a confidential informant, identified in court documents as “CS1” and described as a BGF member incarcerated at NBCI. On March 3, 2009, CS1 told the investigators that Glasscho “is a major Baltimore drug trafficker and a drug-trafficking associate of Melvin Williams, a/k/a ‘Little Melvin,’ a notorious convicted drug dealer from Baltimore who is now back on the streets of Baltimore.”
Williams is a legendary figure in Baltimore, and his alleged ties to Glasscho add perspective to the extent of the BGF’s reach in the city’s streets—as well as its affinity to people who suffer their own contradictions.
Williams had an acting role in the HBO series The Wire, playing a church deacon who tries to draw hustlers out of “the game.” In real life, he served a lengthy federal prison sentence, starting in the 1980s, for bringing heroin to the streets of Baltimore in bulk. He says he put his gangster ways behind him in 1996, when God appeared to him in a vision (“Little Melvin’s Holiday,” The Nose, Jan. 22, 2003). After his release from prison, he became a bail bondsman, and in 2000 was convicted of possessing a firearm, but his 22-year sentence for that crime was reduced in 2003 to time served, courtesy of U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis. In 2005, Williams’ house in Randallstown was raided after investigators intercepted phone conversations he’d had with Antoine K. Rich, a major Baltimore drug trafficker with whom Williams claimed to play high-stakes craps (“Redemption Song and Dance,” Mobtown Beat, March 19, 2008). The raid turned up more than $100,000 in cash, including $90,000 stashed in the ceiling of his basement bathroom. Ultimately, though, Garbis in 2006 ordered the money returned to Williams, calling it “unlawfully seized property.”
Two days before CS1 described Glasscho’s alleged relationship with Little Melvin Williams, investigators intercepted a phone conversation between Eric Brown and Glasscho. According to the affidavits, the two discussed the then recent murder of Frederick Jeffrey Archer, a 68-year-old who had been stabbed and bludgeoned with a brick inside a Harlem Park apartment complex for senior citizens. They referred to Archer as “Archie,” and talked about how “Melvin”—a reference to Williams, according to DEA-SIG—was upset about the murder, because Archer had been a “close associate” of his. They agreed that Glasscho, who was already investigating the murder, would handle the punishment. In another call later the same day, Brown told Davenport that “when they find out who did it, I know they going to torture his ass. That whole West Baltimore love old man Archie, boy.”
(Baltimore police say the murder of Archer, who in 2002 was charged in a cocaine and heroin conspiracy and received a three-year federal prison sentence, remains unsolved.)
During their conversation, according to the affidavit, Glasscho also told Brown that “Melvin want some trees. I got to get him some damn trees.”
“Some what?” Brown asked.
“Trees,” Glasscho responded.
“What the hell is that?” Brown asked.
“That weed shit,” Glasscho said.
“Oh, oh, oh, the trees,” Brown said.
The DEA-SIG investigators believed the two were referring to Little Melvin Williams, according to court documents.
When City Paper told Williams over the phone about how he was described in the affidavit, and what Glasscho and Brown had said while DEA-SIG was listening in, he said, “I don’t have a clue who Glasscho is, and you do what you want to do” with the information. Asked if he knew Archer, Williams said, “I don’t know none of these people. Whatever the U.S. attorney wants to do they can go ahead and do. I’m through with this.” After a short pause, he hung up the phone.
DEA-SIG’s probe into Glasscho’s criminal activities monitored his phones to develop evidence tying him to 27 people who had figured in DEA investigations in recent years. Investigators came up with this list of people by tracking back which phones his phones had called, and which phones those phones had called, thereby mapping a network of contacts linked to Glasscho.
Perhaps Glasscho was working his network in order to draw them into BGF’s path of greater legitimacy, or perhaps he was leveraging his high-level criminal contacts in order to boost the gang’s standing as a drug-trafficking enterprise. Either way, the picture that emerges from this list is that the BGF was fully embedded with Baltimore’s underworld on the streets.
Some of those named in the affidavit have no record of being charged with crimes, though many have been convicted in federal court. Among the latter are:
• Sherman Kemp, who made an appearance in the famous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD (“Skinny Suge Presents Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. 1,” Film, Jan. 19, 2005). Kemp pleaded guilty in Maryland in 2008 to federal cocaine and firearms charges, receiving 180 months in prison (“Return Flight,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008), and in 2010 in Pennsylvania, after a months-long jury trial, he was found guilty for his part in the massive Phillips Cocaine Organization conspiracy, and received a 30-year federal prison sentence.
• David Funderburk, a co-defendant in Frederick Archer’s 2002 coke and heroin case. Funderburk’s bail documents were found in bailbondsman and stevedore Milton Tillman Jr.’s car (“Another Tillman Court Document Comes Available,” The News Hole, Aug. 28, 2008) during the high-profile 2008 federal raids that led to Tillman’s indictment on tax and fraud charges (“Milton Tillman and Son Indicted in Bailbonds Conspiracy,” The News Hole, March 17, 2010), to which he has since pleaded guilty.
• James Henderson, who in 2008 was sentenced to five years in federal prison for his part in a heroin conspiracy centered at Fat Cats Variety (“All the Emperor’s Men,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008) in Southwest Baltimore, a business that was co-owned by one of Tillman Jr.’s bailbonds agents.
• Duane Truesdale, a co-defendant in 1990 with Savino Braxton (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009) in the legendary Baltimore heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams.
• David Zellars, who last year was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for his part in a large cocaine conspiracy.
• Richard Cherry, who in 2009 was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison for a cocaine conspiracy.
• Tahlil Yasin, who in 2007 received a 92-month federal prison sentence for a heroin conspiracy.
Among those whom DEA-SIG tied to Glasscho is Noel Liverpool, who, despite having a clean criminal record, is described in the affidavit as “a multi-kilogram cocaine trafficker operating the Baltimore area.” When the Tillman Jr. raids went down in 2008, the feds seized evidence involving Liverpool (“All Around Player,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 8, 2008), whose business ties to Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton Tillman III, (“Creative Licensing,” Mobtown Beat, April 9, 2008) have been reported by City Paper. Another Liverpool associate is Shawn Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 12, 2008), a former federal fugitive now serving time for drug trafficking and money laundering; court documents also link Green to the Phillips Cocaine Organization in Pennsylvania, though he was never charged in that prosecution.
Attempts to reach Liverpool, who was a basketball and football star at Morgan State University in the 1980s, were unsuccessful. His attorney, Jeffrey Chernow, did not return phone calls, as was the case in prior City Paper articles that mentioned Liverpool.
Drug dealing, money laundering, violence—this was far from the image Brown was trying to project through The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa. Rather than ushering ex-cons and hustlers to their redemptions, with hopes for productive lives to come, the BGF was organizing and executing crimes, undermining the very communities it was ostensibly trying to build up. What were they thinking?
BGF members are supposed to operate in secrecy, but City Paper was able to get incisive perspective from Sam, a BGF member who wasn’t charged in the investigation. He spoke at length about the gang’s mentality, potential, and shortcomings.
From Sam’s perspective, very few of BGF’s members in Maryland are even faintly aware of the gang’s ideological underpinnings. “Do dudes get involved in it because of the revolutionary aspect and the struggle?” he asks, rhetorically, then answers: “Hell, no. Two-thirds of them never even heard of that shit, nor do they care. Not even a fucking clue. Because if they did, and they had any understanding of it, [the BGF] wouldn’t be where it is now, and never would have went where it went.”
Asked whether the BGF prosecution had any impact, Sam at first says, “None at all. It actually probably made it worse for the simple fact of this: The few people that actually had the ability to steer and think and really, truly put some shit in motion are gone. The only people left keep it on a street level, the motherfuckers who can’t think bigger than this corner or this neighborhood.” Later in the conversation, though, Sam says DEA-SIG’s investigation put a stop to something that could have become truly insidious—a gang masquerading as a do-gooding organization supported by the city’s political class.
“We were getting ready to take it to a whole different level,” he recalls. “We were ready to come on the street and really try and put that Black Book to work and be able to make money and make some changes in the way shit was going.”
The wherewithal to effect change, though, required that some damage be done, Sam says. “You might have one neighborhood selling drugs and the next neighborhood over you have rotating food kitchens,” he says. “The streets would have provided the money. We would have got the city to provide grant money. If it had worked,” Sam speculates, “that shit would have gone in the fucking history books, and Baltimore would have been a city where every fucking mayor and every fucking councilman is corrupt. That’s what that shit would have been. That’s the direction it was going.
“There’s a duality to it, though,” Sam continues. “In [the gang’s] laws, it says you’re not even supposed to use drugs, not just [not] sell them. But here’s the biggest level of hypocrisy—you have so many motherfuckers that are up here [in charge], who violate all that shit, and then you got motherfuckers down here, and I’m trying to discipline you for the same shit these motherfuckers up top are doing? Come on, man. You can’t get more hypocritical than that.”
The BGF’s efforts to become an “organization,” not a gang, were bound to fail, whether or not DEA-SIG dismantled its ambitions, Sam says, because its members never rose above their ingrained street-level mentality.
“Baltimore’s a fucked-up city,” he observes, “and these dudes are a product of the streets, a product of what they know. They always do what they’re comfortable doing. Motherfuckers comfortable with that street shit, so why not join something that’s going to keep you in the street? That’s what it comes down to.” Many ostensible BGF members “ain’t even official,” he says. They might think they’ve been made members because someone initiated them, but often it’s actually a farce. “OK, here’s the oath,” he says, pretending to be a BGF recruiter. “You got it. It’s yours. You’re a comrade. Alright, go shoot him. You’re a comrade, you gotta do what I tell you to.
“The real struggle,” Sam continues, “is about overcoming the condition, the situation, learning from it, and bettering that situation—whether it be yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your whole community and all that shit. And it’s a fucking shame that the blueprint is there—George [Jackson] and them laid that shit out in the ’60s. But [many BGF members in Baltimore] are a product of what George tried to fight against—you become an actual enemy of your own fucking people.
“Do people have to die in a revolution? Sure, absolutely, but they die for a cause, not because he owed me $100 or he called my girl a bitch. There’s got to be a purpose to it. A revolution is a full and complete change. It’s a turnaround. None of these motherfuckers are doing that shit. You come from [prison], being a part of classes and learning [about Jamaa], and now all of the sudden you’re out and you’re running a regime uptown and you guys have the highest crime rate in the fucking city. How the fuck are you in the struggle?
“They don’t know the difference between the animal ‘gorilla’ and the revolutionary freedom-fighter ‘guerrilla,’” Sam says. “They get tattoos of gorillas on them—that’s how fucking stupid they are.”
Though Eric Brown and the BGF’s positive spin may have been utterly discredited by the DEA-SIG probe, at least one man—Tyrone Powers, the ex-FBI agent who endorsed The Black Book—doesn’t blame the message. “I still believe that much of The Black Book can provide positives,” he writes in an e-mail. “Endorsing the book does not endorse the criminal behavior of Eric Brown.”
To drive home his point, Powers draws an analogy to this country’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Endorsing the messages of those documents, he says, does not endorse “the criminal and genocidal racist actions of those that owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson and others who were involved in authoring these historic documents that called for justice.” He points out that Jefferson wrote that African-Americans “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” yet “Jefferson has a monument in Washington, D.C., and not one president has denounced him—not even our current black president.
“I do suggest that that damage done to Blacks and the ‘Black Community’ of that time by Jefferson was more detrimental than what Eric Brown pled guilty to,” Powers writes. “This does not exonerate Eric Brown, but it does say that his written work can have merit even if he lived a contradiction.” Powers explains that he continues to engage gang members in unorthodox ways in order to get them to stop the violence, and Brown facilitated his ability to do that work.
Powers was “able to have access to gang members via Eric Brown,” he writes, and that fact “may still change the deeds of at least one of them, in spite of Eric Brown.”
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