Five years ago, next to the chapel in a Maryland prison, the Black Guerrilla Family kept its own office with desks, chairs — even computers. The group’s ranking members met there with community leaders, including a former Maryland state trooper, to talk about reducing gang activity in prison and beyond. They wrote a manual filled with self-help rhetoric that they distributed to hundreds of inmates.
All the while, according to court documents and interviews, BGF, a prison gang from California, was methodically taking root in Maryland, plotting an audacious criminal enterprise controlled largely behind bars. Under the noses of Maryland correctional officials, the enterprise grew and flourished into a vast and violent smuggling operation that has spilled onto the streets of Baltimore.
Five years later, there is growing concern that Maryland’s gang problem is as intractable as ever. Arrests of more than a dozen correctional officers and alleged BGF leaders this spring at a state-run detention center in Baltimore revealed what federal prosecutors said was a brazen operation to smuggle in prescription pills, tobacco and cellphones. The alleged ringleader also impregnated four prison guards, investigators said.
Some officials say those arrests did little to slow BGF’s rise. The arrests shook the gang’s leadership at the city jail. But the violence has continued on Baltimore’s streets, and police say cracking down has helped increase the gang’s ranks by delivering new recruits behind bars.
“We’re arresting people and sending them right into the den of that gang haven,” Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said in a recent interview. “We’re basically helping them recruit by arresting people.”
Several state officials rejected Batts’s view that BGF has not been contained — and accused him of trying to deflect attention from a recent surge in city killings. But these officials are in the hot seat, too; the latest federal indictment trained a bright light on the Maryland prison system’s failure over many years to thwart BGF — and has prompted recriminations, public hearings in Annapolis, and tough questions for prison officials and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) about their oversight of inmates.
A spokesman for the department, Rick Binetti, said prison officials have worked closely with Baltimore police in recent years, including Batts, to reduce violence on the streets and make the corrections system safer. He pointed to a 47 percent drop in serious assaults among inmates since 2007.
“We disagree that there is a ‘gang haven’ anywhere within our system,” Binetti said. “Gangs are a fact of life for every prison and jail in the country.”
Still, since the April indictment, corrections officials have acknowledged that nearly one-third of more than 3,000 identified gang members within the system are affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family, making it the state’s largest prison gang. The system houses nearly 22,000 inmates in all.
BGF has grown adept, investigators say, at remaking itself even after major law-enforcement crackdowns. It has survived investigations that cut off an arm — because the arm quickly regenerated.
BGF traces its roots to the revolutionary prison writings of a former Black Panther in California. In Maryland, a key figure was Eric Brown, a charismatic salesman locked up at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore in the late 2000s when he oversaw the writing of “The Black Book — Empowering Black Families and Communities.”
Brown distributed hundreds of copies of the revolutionary manifesto to inmates throughout the prison system, law enforcement officials said in court filings. But he didn’t pitch “The Black Book” as having a connection to a criminal gang: He advertised an empowering organization meant to uplift its members, impose discipline and keep a lid on violence behind bars.
The pitch was so successful that Brown, beyond recruiting new members, collected endorsements from a former FBI agent and a mayoral candidate in Baltimore. Early on, however, federal authorities began studying the book. They also began monitoring Brown’s phone calls and investigating allegations that he was bribing officers and coordinating sales of heroin and cocaine.
One photograph officials obtained shows Brown posing in a prison bathroom with one of the founders of BGF’s Maryland operation. Brown has a cigar in his mouth and a cellphone at his ear.
“Listen, man, we on the verge of big things, man,” Brown told a fellow inmate in a call from prison recorded by law enforcement officials in 2008. “This positive movement that we are embarking upon now, right, is moving at a rapid pace, right.”
Brown and two dozen associates were indicted in 2009; he pleaded guilty to racketeering two years later and is serving time in federal prison outside Maryland. But BGF was hardly slowed. Within months, a new leader had assumed the role of “city-wide commander,” according to a 2010 search warrant affidavit.
That new leader, Todd Duncan, worked as a youth counselor for a nonprofit committed to reducing violence at the same time authorities said he was a high-level heroin dealer. Duncan also helped recently released BGF members get jobs as counselors to “conceal their illegal activities,” according to court filings.
According to investigators, in one recorded phone call in March 2010, Duncan planned to hold a gang meeting at the offices of the nonprofit, Communities Organized to Improve Life, which had received funding from the Justice Department.
Duncan was indicted later that year on racketeering charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison. But the gang quickly regrouped.
The indictment this spring that implicated 13 prison guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center was another case in point. Thirteen prison guards were accused of helping one BGF leader run a drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation at the detention center. Four of the guards became pregnant by that alleged leader, Tavon White. White has pleaded not guilty.
Yet White, while powerful in the jail, was overseen by BGF leaders on the outside, according to an affidavit. And according to one law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the case, some of the bigger leaders were irked that White was characterized by investigators as a big fish within BGF.
Authorities say they think the gang’s revolutionary rhetoric is a big source of its strength — and not entirely a ruse.
Tyrone Powers, a former Maryland state trooper and former FBI agent who wound up lending his name and an endorsement quote to the back of “The Black Book,” recalled Brown’s charisma when he met him in the late 2000s at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, in Brown’s unofficial office next to the chapel.
“I can see how he could be manipulative and strategic. It doesn’t surprise me that he had the sway that he had,” said Powers, director of the Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute at Anne Arundel Community College.
Becoming a “comrade” in BGF requires learning a code of conduct and passing tests on the gang’s history and its rules. Law enforcement officials have recovered “graded tests” from jail cells.
But membership quickly evolves into a criminal obligation, authorities say. The gang’s paramilitary organization includes low-level comrades, high-ranking lieutenants and field generals responsible for specific territories.
Inside, new inmates are encouraged to serve as couriers or pay a monthly fee. If they refuse, they can be targeted for violence, according to interviews with former inmates with firsthand knowledge of how the gang operates.
“Either you were affiliated with BGF or you were on your own and had to watch your back,” said one former inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. “You had to have protection in there.”
This year, police said they locked up two members of an old-fashioned Baltimore street crew — the DJ Boys, its initials taken from Decker Avenue and Jefferson Street on the east side. Maj. Dan A. Lioli, the police department’s intelligence chief, said investigators think the two men emerged from jail full-fledged BGF members, and their attempts to recruit the rest of their former crew prompted another spasm of street violence.
On the streets, BGF made a play to take over established drug markets, investigators said, but it also infiltrated mainstream society by working for community organizations to serve as a cover for its crimes.
And BGF members contributed to a death toll of 217 last year, police say, which dramatically exceeded the previous year’s 30-year low of 197. During one surge of killings last year, Batts stood on a troubled street corner and blamed BGF.
“This is not a regular group of street thugs,” Batts said, describing the gang as closer to the Mafia than a street crew. “They have built a sophisticated infrastructure. We have to destroy that infrastructure.”
Batts is the first to admit that, more than anything so far, authorities have identified the problem — but not the solution. Days after the April indictment was unsealed, Baltimore police said another round of violence associated with BGF began.
Prison officials say they are doing all they can to limit gang activity behind bars. A statewide database records the affiliation, tattoos and aliases of inmates. Investigators often know about inmates’ affiliations before they arrive and warn police when they are released.
Officials say they are faster about identifying high-ranking gang members and moving out troublemakers. In 2008, about 30 percent of all assaults behind bars involved identified gang members. Last year, the figure dropped to 19 percent.
But state prison officials say they are limited in moving pretrial inmates such as White, the BGF leader who had an unusually long, three-year stay at the Baltimore jail because of two mistrials. White’s third trial on an attempted murder charge has been postponed until August because of the pending federal case.
Under pressure this spring, the governor announced changes to how the corrections department handles prison investigations. The internal investigations unit will expand its ranks by about 50 percent.
Police, meanwhile, are trying to counter the allure of BGF’s inspirational rhetoric with positive messages of their own.
One night last month, about 30 felons gathered in the basement of East Baltimore’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. All had committed violent crimes or sold drugs. They had worked in areas mostly controlled by BGF. Attendance was a mandatory condition of their release.
A series of speakers lectured them: plainclothes drug officers, a state and federal prosecutor, the police commissioner and a reformed gang member who boasts that he’s a “convicted felon with a passport” — evidence, he said, that it’s never too late to change.
Batts told the felons that help is available “to get out of the game,” but, ultimately, he said, it would be up to them to walk away.
“I’m tired of seeing young people like you dying out there.”