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Mobtown Beat

Steamed Rice

Imprisoned Rice Organization drug-gang chief says snitch was real leader

Photo: The City Paper Digi-Cam™, License: N/A

The City Paper Digi-Cam™

One of the Rice Organization’s main cocaine suppliers ran Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on Antique Row on North Howard Street.

When The Wire was airing on HBO in the mid-2000s, telling complex tales of Baltimore’s drug-driven shadow economy and its overlap with local politics, the real-life dramas of Baltimore’s drug world were playing out in Wire-like fashion in the “Rice Organization,” a violent, politically connected group that for years ran drugs while operating legitimate-looking businesses (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005). The high-profile federal racketeering case against them resulted in lengthy prison sentences for many of its members, though one in particular—Eric Clash, now 34, who was described as a lieutenant in the group—got off lightly with a four-year sentence, thanks to his prodigious work as a government cooperator (“Working Overtime,” Mobtown Beat, April 1, 2009) and was released from prison in 2010.

On Dec. 12, though, one of the group’s leaders, 46-year-old Howard Rice, who pleaded guilty in 2006 and is due to be released from prison in 2036, argued in a court filing that his 30-year sentence is too long, since some of the facts used to justify it are undermined by Clash’s 2011 court testimony in a separate drug case, a transcript of which Rice recently obtained. The testimony, Rice argues, revealed that Clash, rather than Rice, was a shot-caller in the conspiracy and that the amounts of drugs attributed to Rice at his sentencing—more than 150 kilograms of cocaine and 30 kilograms of heroin—were impossibly large.

Rice’s sentence was lengthened because he was dubbed a leader in the conspiracy and because of the large amount of drugs he admitted to dealing; therefore, successfully attacking the facts on both scores could result in knocking off some time from Rice’s prison term. In his attempt to accomplish that, Rice is asking U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles Jr., who sentenced him, to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the government “knowingly used perjury” or “false evidence” in establishing the facts used at his sentencing, or “failed to correct such perjury/false evidence after the government had discovered” it.

The language Rice uses in his filing suggests he’s righteously indignant over the way his sentence was determined. “Today,” he writes, “the lies which serves [sic] as the adhesive to Petitioner’s 30 year prison sentence, find no safe haven from the truth,” since Clash’s testimony “boasts a hoard of evidence” that shows Rice was sentenced “based upon materially untrue information.”

City Paper contacted Clash for this article, but he declined to comment, writing in an email that “I would just ask that you consider I have a family and it’s a wicked world out here. Talking about this in the paper will put a lot of strain on my family, like in the past.” In the transcript of Clash’s 2011 testimony, given during the sentencing of drug dealer Darnell Anthony Young, who used to DJ at the Red Door Lounge, a West Baltimore club that Clash and Rice co-owned, Clash said he’d heard that “someone’s putting out money to get me killed,” and that the amount got as high as $100,000.

The big-money contract on Clash’s life is chilling, but, in light of the people he snitched on, perhaps not surprising. According to the 2011 transcript, in addition to the Rice Organization and Darnell Young, Clash helped the government put away Antoine Rich and Willie Mitchell.

Rich got an 87-month prison term after getting nabbed as collateral damage in the Rice Organization probe, and some big-name people—Milton Tillman Jr. and “Little Melvin” Williams, in particular—got in and out of trouble thanks to their dealings with Rich (“Redemption Song and Dance,” Mobtown Beat, March 19, 2008). Mitchell and his crew, meanwhile, were put away after a lengthy trial, during which his interactions with Clash—Mitchell stabbed Clash and Howard Rice’s brother, Raeshio, outside of Hammerjacks nightclub in 2002 during a birthday bash for rap mogul Kevin Liles—were showcased, along with the aftermath of that attack: the 2002 double-homicide of Lisa Brown and Oliver McCaffity, who Mitchell believed was gunning for him in retaliation.

The intrigue surrounding the Rice Organization investigation was consuming. Chet Pajardo, one of the co-defendants, co-owned an East Baltimore building with Hollywood star Jada Pinkett Smith (“Star-Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16, 2005). Some of the Rice Organization co-defendants were related to, or gave money to, Baltimore politicians, and one of the group’s main cocaine suppliers, Anthony Leonard, ran Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on Antique Row on North Howard Street, which had been a hot spot for the city’s political elite. The restaurant was housed in a building owned by a company controlled by Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1996), whose historical roots in Baltimore’s drug economy formed the basis for a film he produced profiling Nathan Barksdale, who he believed formed the basis for The Wire’s Avon Barksdale (“Last Word,” Feature, April 29, 2009). In 1991, Jackson won acquittal in a New York murder case with Robert Simels, the same attorney who represented Clash, who has since been convicted and is serving a lengthy prison sentence for witness intimidation in a Guyana-based cocaine-conspiracy case (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008) and who co-owns a downtown Baltimore condominium with Jackson’s mother (“New York Attorney Robert Simels, Serving a 14-Year Prison Sentence, Co-Owns Baltimore Condo with Kenny “Bird” Jackson’s Mother,” The News Hole, Feb. 22, 2010).

The main prosecutor on the Rice Organization case, Jason Weinstein, left the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office upon his 2009 appointment as the deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, a job he lost this year, upon taking blame for the much-maligned “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program. On Dec. 17, days after Rice’s petition was filed, Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Johnston struck her appearance in the case, and it is not yet clear who in the prosecutor’s office will be handling Rice’s new claims. Spokesperson Marcia Murphy declined to comment.

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