Potrepreneurs' High-Flying Operation Faces a Pricey Reckoning
Published: August 15, 2012
The Lancair IV-P airplane is a sleek four-seater, capable of flying 330 miles per hour and more than 1,500 miles on a tank of gas. The one that was seized in June 2009 from Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, near Denver, had been purchased the previous summer for $450,000. The buyer, a Delaware company called Air Sky Holdings LLC, still owed the seller about $64,000. But the Lancair was not repossessed due to outstanding debt. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took it.
What led law enforcers to that Lancair was a game-changing series of events for a sprawling, sophisticated outfit of Baltimore-based potrepreneurs whose illicit, high-volume business had been a veritable license to print money. Its seizure didn’t immediately end the flow of eye-popping amounts of premium weed they’d been moving, but it was a red flag, putting key players on notice that the gig was nosediving into a forest of cops, lawyers, and judges.
And nosedive it did, ultimately resulting in at least three federal cases and possibly dozens of state-level ones, all in Maryland. The central federal case accuses 16 people, indicted in Dec. 2010, of participating in a Baltimore-based conspiracy that used not only airplanes, but trains, trucks, warehouses and other real estate, and legitimate businesses—including Baltimore’s now-shuttered Sonar nightclub (“Feds Name-Drop Baltimore’s Sonar Nightclub in New Pot-Conspiracy Indictment,” The News Hole, May 4)—to perpetuate its sophisticated efforts to satisfy the seemingly bottomless market for weed (“Smoked Out,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 29).
The $30-million, decade-long operation, evidence in the case shows, got its pot from Canada and California, then distributed it not only in the Free State but also in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Kansas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia (“The Smoke Thickens,” Mobtown Beat, March 21). Four of the defendants are fugitives, and all but four of the remaining 12 have pleaded guilty. The final four, if they don’t plead guilty soon, are scheduled for a month-long trial starting in September.
When law enforcers discovered the plane’s connection to the alleged pot conspiracy, one of the first pieces of the house of cards to fall was an actual house in Woodberry Woods, also called Green Acres, near Television Hill, which the conspirators quickly abandoned.
That house, at 4210 Clarkdale Rd., sits amid thick forest cover at the end of a dead-end street. It had been purchased in Aug. 2007 for $367,000 by Clarkdale Properties LLC, a company formed the same day the deed transferred. The LLC was formed by Anthony Thacker, an alias for Matthew Nicka, according to a federal forfeiture lawsuit that put the property in government hands.
Nicka allegedly used the house for nearly two years to receive, repackage, and distribute large volumes of weed, and to count lots and lots of money, according to the forfeiture case. “The money was counted approximately three to four times a week,” according to court documents, “and bundled into $50,000 increments and then placed in Tyvex [sic] envelopes in $300,000 increments.”
“Nicka abandoned the Property and left Baltimore” shortly after a house in Hampden was raided, court documents say—the same raid that drew a bead on the Lancair. He remains a federal fugitive.
Other than the alleged Nicka conspiracy, a related federal case against two others implicated in the operation—Kevin Brandes and Michael Borakove—has already wrapped up with guilty pleas. Brandes is serving a four-year prison term, and Borakove got 18 months. According to their plea agreements, they dealt many thousands of pounds of pot from Canada and California between 2002 and 2010, at prices between $2,200 and $5,000 per pound. Taking the least amount they dealt—8,000 pounds—at the lowest price, that translates to at least $17,600,000 in transactions.
One of Brandes and Borakove’s suppliers during the earlier part of their conspiracy was Jeremiah “Jeremy” Landsman, according to court records. A Baltimore real-estate developer whose JBL Real Estate owns, via one of its many LLCs, the Hickory Avenue house where the Lancair documents were found, Landsman’s companies own or co-own numerous Baltimore-area properties. Several of them also figure in the alleged Nicka conspiracy, including properties leased by Sonar and McCabe’s Restaurant in Hampden, both of which were or are operated by another Nicka co-defendant, Dan McIntosh. Landsman pleaded guilty to his role in June and is scheduled to be sentenced in November.
In his plea, Landsman admits to using properties owned by seven of his companies to help facilitate the massive pot conspiracy. By City Paper’s count, those companies own 46 properties in the Baltimore area—24 in Hampden, 14 in Fells Point, one in West Baltimore near the Gwynns Falls, five in Mayfield, and two in Towson—though his plea does not specify which ones were used to aid the conspiracy. Under his plea agreement, the only properties he will turn over to the government are seven garages behind Keswick Road in Hampden. In addition, he agrees to hand over $200,000 to the government—but he’s escaped obstruction-of-justice charges for lying before the federal grand jury investigating the conspiracy.
Another Baltimore developer, Jacob Harryman, was one of the biggest customers of Brandes and Borakove, according to their pleas. Harryman, while not indicted in federal court, figures prominently in the evidence of both cases. In addition, as a result of a wiretap on Harryman’s phone, in Nov. 2010 at least 21 people were arrested on pot-related charges amid a series of police raids around the Baltimore region.
The third and earliest case related to the sprawling federal investigation appears to have been against Charles Koplow, whose name appears in charging documents in the Nicka case. Koplow was charged in Nov. 2009, the same month he pleaded guilty to conspiring to deal 100 kilograms or more of pot between Oct. 2007 and May 2008. In his guilty plea, he admits to running a threatening operation involving guns, an assault, and a robbery. This past May he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Of the 16 defendants in the Nicka case, four remain at large: David D’Amico, Jeffrey Putney, Gretchen Peterson, and Nicka himself. Only four of the remaining 12—Keegan Leahy, McIntosh, Anthony Marcantoni, and Ryan Forman—have not pleaded guilty. They are running out of time to do so, since the month-long trial—and the defendants surely are hoping this isn’t a bad omen—begins on Sept. 11.
From small things, big things can happen and such is the case with the Lancair.
On March 11, 2009, a police investigation out of Montgomery County, Md., brought a drug-sniffing dog to storage unit 8-14 at S&E Mini Storage on Wilkens Avenue, next to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. The dog smelled drugs, and a week later, on March 18, a surveillance team watching the storage unit hit pay dirt.
The team saw one of the subjects of the probe, Adam Constantinides, enter the unit around 11 A.M. with some empty cardboard boxes. When he left, he carried three full cardboard boxes, which he put in his 2001 Ford truck. The team followed Constantinides to Bond and Aliceanna streets in Fells Point, where he handed the boxes to Jeffrey Putney, who put the boxes in his Toyota 4-Runner. He drove to the rear of 3522 Hickory Avenue, in Hampden, and took the boxes inside.
While they were being followed, Constantinides and Putney pulled U-turns and drove across parking lots and down dead-end streets. Their tactics didn’t work. Moments after Putney left the Hickory Avenue house and drove away, he was pulled over. He had $2,000 cash on him and another $5,000 was in the truck.
When investigators searched the storage unit, they found more than 30 pounds of pot. What was inside of 3522 Hickory Ave., though, suggested something huge—and explains why Nicka fled Baltimore.
In addition to nearly 100 pounds of pot, the house contained about 30 cell phones, four money-counters, two scales, $20,000 in cash, money wrappers, and drug tally sheets detailing more than $1.5 million in transactions. Also found: documents about the purchase and maintenance of a Lancair aircraft, tail number N516DB, and near them, paperwork reflecting prices and amounts of drugs, including the names of customers and suppliers.
Air Sky Holdings, the airplane’s owner, is incorporated in Delaware, a state where corporate charter laws can make it difficult to ascertain companies’ true owners. But documents in the Hickory Avenue house allowed investigators to pierce the veil: three men—David D’Amico of Baltimore and Massachusetts; Keegan Leahy, a licensed pilot from Chicago who has a Canadian passport; and Sean Costello of Hawaii—controlled Air Sky.
Five days after the Hickory Avenue raid, D’Amico, Leahy, and Costello had met in San Francisco to put in place financial maneuvers intended to conceal their connection to the aircraft and their drug-derived cash, according to court documents. On April 1, 2009, about two weeks after the raid, D’Amico left the United States for Caracas, Venezuela, and he remains a fugitive.
The Lancair was at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport undergoing repairs when law enforcers showed up to take it. Why was it there? Just like the far-flung pot conspiracy that helped its owners acquire it, it crashed.
The Nicka indictment seeks to take $30 million in allegedly illicit proceeds from the defendants, but a little math would indicate that’s a very conservative estimate of how much the operation may have yielded.
According to evidence in the case, Marcantoni, who owns martial-arts studio Ground Control Academy in Owings Mills—there are others in Canton and Columbia—was distributing 500 to 750 pounds of pot each month. If true, that translates to 6,000 to 9,000 pounds annually. The operation dealt in high-grade weed from California and Canada, which can sell on the street for about $3,000 a pound—up to $5,000 or more for super-premium bud. That means Marcantoni alone could have been grossing $18 million to $27 million or more each year.
Marcantoni has already done a five-year stint in federal prison for pot dealing, identity fraud, lying to law enforcers, and money-laundering, after a 2004 jury trial was cut short with his guilty plea, two and a half weeks after it began. The case arose after police in Houston, Texas, found him with nearly 150 pounds of pot and $28,000 in cash. His current indictment charges him with the same conduct—large-scale weed dealing—while he was on supervised release for his prior federal conviction. He’s facing up to life in prison if convicted in the Nicka case.
Marcantoni’s predicament actually may be better than his brother’s in one sense: at least he gets to answer to the accusations. His brother, Rafael “Rocky” Marcantoni IV, just has to grin and bear being described in court documents as a participant in his brother’s bulk pot dealing, without the benefit of a judge or jury to weigh the evidence.
The allegations came from a cooperating witness, dubbed CW1, and were included in a July 2011 search warrant for two locations connected to Anthony Marcantoni. CW1 is described as one of Anthony Marcantoni’s pot suppliers.
“CW1 explained that [Anthony] Marcantoni knew Jujitsu and owned a gym called Ground Control” in Canton, the warrant states, adding that “Marcantoni and his brother … ‘Rocky,’ worked together and were receiving marijuana from Matthew Nicka and Kevin Brandes. CW1 recalled delivering 50-100 pounds of marijuana to Marcantoni and/or ‘Rocky,’ whom investigators have identified as Rafael Marcantoni IV, on eighteen (18) to twenty (20) occasions between September 2008 and March 2009,” for a total of 1,000 to 2,000 pounds. “Marcantoni and/or his brother paid $3,000 to $3,500 a pound,” and CW1 “recalled receiving as much as $100,000 in cash on a few occasions.” If true, that translates to between $3 million and $7 million in weed, and it means the flow stopped when the Hickory Avenue house was raided.
City Paper’s attempts to reach Rafael Marcantoni through a variety of channels—lawyers, Ground Control Academy, friends and associates—were fruitless. One man, though, said he’d try to get word to Rocky: John Rallo, a professional fighter who is the primary owner of the Ground Control Academy gym in Canton.
Rallo calls Anthony Marcantoni “a very nice guy” and “a friend,” and says “I don’t want to believe” the accusations against him, which he characterizes as “movie stuff.” He points out that each of Ground Control’s three locations is a separate business entity the three men co-own: Rallo has the one in Canton, which is the original one; Anthony Marcantoni has the Owings Mills location; and Rafael Marcantoni’s is in Columbia. He says he was subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury investigating the case, so he’s not free to speak about the details. He calls CW1’s claims “bullshit.”
Rallo confirms something that has come up in court proceedings in the case: that Ground Control had drawn law enforcers as customers, but they’ve taken their business elsewhere since Anthony’s troubles began. “We used to do a lot of law-enforcement guys,” says Rallo, estimating that they lost 40 or 50 customers in total in the indictment’s aftermath. Rallo adds that he believes the government’s case against Marcantoni lacks hard evidence.
The Nicka indictment alleges that Anthony Marcantoni “used Ground Control to facilitate the drug business, including as a location to receive and deliver large quantities of marijuana and bulk currency payments.” But one of his attorneys, Howard Cardin, stressed “the weakness of the government’s case” at a February hearing. Cardin added that the government’s witnesses are “looking for a benefit from the government,” and that they’ve presented “conflicting stories” about Marcantoni’s alleged pot dealing.
Cardin said “no money, no marijuana, no owe sheets, no payment records, no evidence whatsoever linking Mr. Marcantoni to this conspiracy” were found during three raids, according to the court transcript. “Mr. Marcantoni runs a business, pays taxes, and there is no evidence of suspicious activity within his accounts,” Cardin continued.
There are, however, wiretaps of Jacob Harryman’s phone, intercepted by Baltimore County police in the fall of 2010. Transcriptions of the phone calls have Harryman, who has not been charged publicly (although he has lost assets to the federal government in civil court), talking about his dealings with Marcantoni—though not always in the friendliest terms. Until, that is, Harryman needs him.
“I just gave him $140,000 in the last two weeks and he can suck a fucking dick,” Jacob Harryman says on Oct. 4, 2010. He’s telling Jordan Barraco, who has since pleaded guilty in state court to pot-conspiracy charges, about having paid down his weed debt to Marcantoni, who he calls “the Italian” and “Boss Man.”
Three days later, Harryman is at the Sudsville Laundry in Reisterstown, talking to Barraco again, saying he’d just been with “Boss Man.” The cops on Harryman’s trail watch him leave the laundromat. They notice Marcantoni in the parking lot, seemingly counting money for nearly an hour in his red Chevy truck.
A couple of weeks later, on Oct. 25, Barraco complains to Harryman that the pot market is “flooded again,” hurting sales. “That’s from the Italian,” Harryman says, “because he just told me, he . . . got rid of four hundred last month or so. I’m sure it’s flooded.”
In the early afternoon on Nov. 13, Harryman talks on the phone with Mitchell Kalavan, who would soon be charged in Baltimore County in a high-volume pot case that is scheduled for trial this fall. Harryman says he’s going to meet “the Italian.” The surveillance team watches Harryman enter Captain Harvey’s Restaurant in Owings Mills, then leave a half-hour later with Marcantoni. By mid-afternoon, Harryman’s telling Kalavan that “the Italian would not serve him until he gets his outstanding balances paid down.”
“His shit is garbage anyway,” Harryman complains. A couple days later, though, Harryman’s take on Marcantoni turns rosy.
On Nov. 16, the police raided 925 Binney St. in Canton, finding 30 pounds of pot and two guns, for which Andrew Sunell is arrested, charged, and later convicted, receiving a five-year sentence despite the efforts of his attorney, Stephen Tully. The property is described as one of Harryman’s “stash houses where large amount of high-grade marijuana is stored.”
Marcantoni, according to court documents, was instrumental in mounting Sunell’s defense and helping Harryman manage the damage his arrest posed to their pot-dealing operation.
The day after the Binney Street raid, Harryman and Kalavan talk repeatedly about how to deal with Sunell’s arrest. Harryman says he “can always go back to the Italian and beg.” Later, Harryman says Marcantoni’s advice is for Kalavan, who had made large pot deliveries to the Binney Street house and may have been noticed by police, to get rid of his truck, find a new place to live, and establish a new “stash spot” for the pot. Harryman adds that Marcantoni “will not directly deal” with them anymore, “until they know the depth of the police investigation regarding Sunell.” Marcantoni, Harryman says, paid Sunell’s lawyer $7,500 and Harryman kicked in $2,000.
“When times are tough,” Harryman concludes, Marcantoni “really does have my back.”
(In addition to Sunell, Tully has been the go-to attorney for numerous individuals in the alleged Nicka conspiracy, including Putney, Constantinides, McIntosh, Ian Travis Minshall, and Daniel Fountain in state-level cases leading up to the federal indictment. Tully says he can’t comment on the alleged payments by Marcantoni and Harryman for representing Sunell because of attorney-client privilege. As for the others, he says he was notified by prosecutors shortly after their state-level arrests that he was conflicted out of representing them further.)
In short, the Sunell situation is the least of Marcantoni’s concerns. His life, as well as those of dozens of people targeted in the Nicka investigation, is upended by indictments, forfeitures of valuable property, and the need to hire expensive attorneys and make bail. Business reputations are tainted. Children and other family members have to be told something about what’s happening with their father, brother, or son. And then there’s the nagging, unverifiable concern about who’s going to turn state’s evidence—and where else the investigation may turn.
As assistant U.S. attorney Stacy Belf said at a February court hearing, “the case is still under investigation and we keep finding more evidence every day.”
Just who is cooperating is hard to say, but there are cooperators. They’ve already appeared as CW1 and the like, in affidavits filed in the case. And court records show their numbers are growing, even if their names aren’t yet disclosed—as are the numbers of potential targets in the ongoing investigation.
According to court documents, prosecutors have been using a book of photographs of persons of interest in the case to show potential cooperators. When they first made the book on Aug. 12, 2009, it contained nine photographs. As of April 20, there were 118. That’s a lot of people with cause to be nervous.
> Email Van Smith