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Baltimore detectives convicted in shocking corruption trial

Undated photos provided by the Baltimore Police Department of the Gun Trace Task Force show, from left, Daniel Hersl, Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor, Maurice Ward, Momodu Gando and Wayne Jenkins. Not shown is former sergeant Thomas Allers who also was part of the criminal cases over task force actions. (Uncredited)

BALTIMORE — Two Baltimore detectives were convicted Monday of robbery and racketeering in a trial that laid bare shocking crimes committed by an elite police unit and surfaced new allegations of widespread corruption in the city’s police department.

Daniel Hersl, 47, and Marcus Taylor, 30, join six colleagues from the Gun Trace Task Force who already had pleaded guilty in a conspiracy that also included overtime fraud. But the guilty verdicts offer small comfort for a city where homicides keep rising and gun violence rocks neighborhoods even as the police department struggles to overcome accounts of bias and lawbreaking.

The head of internal affairs has been transferred and a deputy commissioner has retired after both were implicated in misconduct during trial testimony. Thousands of convictions in cases handled by the task force are now being questioned by defense attorneys.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning reacted on Feb. 12 to the convictions of two Baltimore detectives of robbery and racketeering. (Video: The Baltimore Sun)

“This trial took you inside the Baltimore Police Department,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told jurors last week. “It showed you things more horrible in some cases than you ever could have imagined.”

After the verdicts, Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said in a statement that the indictment and trial “uncovered some of the most egregious and despicable acts ever perpetrated in law enforcement,” and said he had zero tolerance for corruption.

De Sousa, who was named to head the police amid outrage over spiking crimes, said his 3,100-member department would need to earn back trust and respect from the community and said “I understand the doubt, fear and pessimism” but pledged to root out “anyone who thinks they can tarnish the badge.”

Most of the behavior charged in the case took place even as the department was already under federal investigation by the Justice Department for routinely violating residents’ constitutional rights, particularly in dealings with African Americans.

That 14-month Justice investigation began in the wake of protests and rioting after the death of Freddie Gray from an injury in police custody and ended in August 2016 with a scathing report and a consent decree under which police have started wearing body cameras, begun new training, and submitted to community and judicial oversight.

Baltimore officials, Justice Department promise sweeping overhaul of city police

Over two weeks in federal court, four former members of the once-lauded unit who earlier pleaded guilty took the stand in their new prison uniforms and admitted to crimes denied for years during internal investigations and lawsuits. The officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs, guns and luxury accessories while pretending to be seizing the goods for legitimate enforcement objectives. They concocted reasons to chase and search suspects or enter houses without warrants to sift through goods they wanted. They covered up their involvement in car crashes when rogue pursuits went bad.

One officer gave his girlfriend a stolen Chanel purse, according to his testimony. Other officers provided security for a high-level drug deal at a strip club.

They doubled their salaries by lying to claim extravagant overtime when they were actually at bars or, in another instance, out of the country on vacation.

Hersl put his head in his hands when the verdict was read, and when he stood and turned so a marshal could handcuff him, his face was red and there were tears in his eyes.

Taylor appeared impassive, hugging one of his attorneys before being led away.

Hersl’s brother, Steve Hersl, said later that “Danny” did not “deserve this. Let’s talk about the corruption that starts at the top.”

Referring to the task force once hailed for its policing, he said, “Danny got hundreds of guns off the street . . . the same guys were patting Danny on the back when times got rough.”

One man in the courtroom said he was overcome by relief at the verdict.

Alex Hilton, 46, said he was harassed in East Baltimore by Hersl for years. He said he could understand how Hersl’s family felt, and didn’t like seeing anyone sent to prison. But, he said, he also felt vindicated.

“I feel free,” he said, crying. “I feel safe. I don’t have to watch police cars coming and run fast, worrying that’s him.”

Hersl and Taylor were part of a years-long scheme first exposed in 2015 by a Drug Enforcement Administration wiretap on a suspected dealer’s phone. The DEA alerted the FBI.

Momodu Gondo, the officer picked up on the wiretap, pleaded guilty last year, along with task force sergeant Wayne Jenkins, its former sergeant Thomas Allers, and detectives Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam and Maurice Ward.

Gondo, Hendrix, Rayam and Ward all testified at trial, as did a young officer who was transferred soon after joining the unit, having declined to commit crimes.

Only one task force member, detective John Clewell, was not charged and remains on the force.

The squad’s victims, many self-described drug dealers, took to the stand to recall how they were handcuffed and interrogated about their wealth by officers more interested in finding money than pressing charges.

“They getting ready to rob,” one victim, Ronald Hamilton, who denied dealing drugs at the time, recalled telling his wife as the officers asked how much cash he had at home. “They trying to rob me.”

Officers admitted taking about $20,000 from Hamilton and his wife in 2016. Wayne Jenkins, the sergeant of the task force, was caught on a wiretap telling members of his unit to pretend Jenkins was a federal prosecutor to intimidate Hamilton.

Wiretaps let jurors hear firsthand how the officers freely discussed divvying stolen cash and coordinated lies about their exaggerated work hours.

One conversation from August 2016, recorded by an FBI device hidden in an officer’s car, captured task force members reacting to a chase through the rain that ended in a bad car crash.

“Dude’s unconscious, he’s ain’t saying s---,” Taylor is heard saying.

Hersl suggests they change their timesheets to hide their involvement. “Hey, I was in the car just driving home,” he says, laughing.

The officers did not offer aid to the injured citizens.

Rayam cried on the stand remembering that day.

“It could have been any of us,” he said of the injured passengers. “It could’ve been you.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh and De Sousa have tried to minimize the impact of the revelations, suggesting a few bad officers are the heart of the corruption and of the civil rights violations that put the city undera Justice Department consent decree .

“That particular unit has been already broken up,” Pugh said at a news conference last Wednesday when asked about the trial. The problems, she said, are limited to “a few members of our police department.”

She brought on De Sousa last month, after replacing Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for failing to stem violent crime.

But some of the startling allegations aired in court involved conduct that was never charged, as the officers on trial tried to shift the focus on their ex-colleagues’ misdeeds. Testimony portrayed the department as riddled with opportunists who cut corners and broke rules.

Rayam testified that Gondo told him that before joining the force, the fellow detective “laid someone out,” meaning he killed a person.

Gondo claimed on the stand that Rayam “murdered” someone in a 2009 shooting and that Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere helped him cover it up.

Rayam also denied the allegation. His attorney, Dennis Boyle, said Rayam “has admitted everything he has done, including significant criminal violations.”

Palmere retired after the testimony while denying ever coaching officers to lie.

Court documents suggested the problems seeped beyond the police department.

All six plea agreements state that someone in the state’s attorney’s office leaked information about the federal investigation to the task force members, and several officers testified fellow police gave them a heads-up as well.

The guilty officers accused several others of stealing from citizens, including a detective killed with his revolver late last year a day before he was set to testify before a grand jury in the police corruption case. The death of Det. Sean Suiter last November remains unsolved. The FBI has said there is no reason to believe it was connected to the corruption probe.

Several officers called by prosecutors to testify about employment records and other issues admitted reluctantly under cross-examination that department leaders regularly hand out unearned overtime as a reward for taking guns or drugs off the streets.

“If it’s fraud, the fraud is rampant among the aggressive police squads of Baltimore City and right up the chain of command it was acknowledged with a wink and a nod,” Herl’s attorney William Purpura said in closing argumentslast Wednesday.

Wise, the prosecutor, responded by acknowledging that “this rampant, rampant fraud” may well be “even worse than what was charged.” But, he added, “that doesn’t make it right.”

Prosecutors did not challenge the testimony implicating other officers, saying the FBI investigation into the department is ongoing.

Pugh, the mayor, said in her weekly briefing last Wednesday that she had been too busy to follow the trial closely or read Baltimore Sun coverage detailing possible lawbreaking by police officers still on the force and members of the city prosecutor’s office.

De Sousa has responded to the trial with a trifecta of new units focused on corruption, constitutional abuses and overtime abuse. Officers will be subjected to random polygraph tests and approached by undercover police who will test their integrity by encouraging them to commit crimes.

Members of the department who have been working with the FBI were in court every day tracking new allegations, De Sousa said.

But the new acting chief has also echoed Pugh, repeatedly blaming “a few bad apples” for giving the force a bad name.

“When you have an idea that there’s just a few bad apples, unless you inspect the entire barrel you have no ability to make that determination,” said state Del. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents parts of the city and confronted De Sousa about the gun task force cases during a recent meeting in Annapolis. “You cannot operate for years without there being a system that supports that, and that has to be rooted out.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund called attention to the federal role in uncovering the crimes that went “unabated for 10 years” in Baltimore but point to failures nationally in discussions about policing, the organization said, in which “voices of community members are disbelieved or dismissed.”

The brazen crimes from officers entrusted to protect the public is “corrosive to the trust of the public,” acting U.S. attorney Stephen Schenning said after verdicts. But he added, “if there’s a message, it’s that the justice system will rectify, we will investigate . . . their business model failed. You can’t rob people just because they’re drug dealers.”

Even as members of two plainclothes units testified to heinous misconduct, De Sousa has suggested resurrecting these aggressive squads, often called “knockers ,” to get guns off the street.

He cited a Johns Hopkins University study showing that despite their controversial history these plainclothes squads in the past reduced homicides and guns on the street.

But Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said if resurrected, the units need far greater oversight and a focus on violent criminals, not just racking up all possible arrests.

The Gun Trace Task Force, he said, was originally designed to go after traffickers and straw purchases — where someone who has a clean record buys a gun to then pass to someone who would fail a background check for a sale.

But tracking guns through many handoffs back to an original point of sale was tedious and difficult and didn’t offer immediate results. So the task force turned to seizing guns right off the street. Without clear marching orders or guidelines, Webster said, they turned abusive.

“The BPD has learned some hard lessons hopefully, that you don’t just send officers out and turn a blind eye to complaints you get from the community,” Webster said.

At the trial, prosecutors tried to highlight testimony they said showed a different, honest path exists in the BPD.

Detective James Kostoplis told jurors Tuesday that when he joined the Gun Trace Task Force in 2016, then-sergeant Jenkins approached him to ask what he thought about stealing money from drug dealers.

Jenkins told Kostoplis to turn off his phone and leave it in a car — believing, correctly, that the squad was already being monitored. He walked the 26-year-old recruit down an alley.

“You can’t have a badge and do that,” Kostoplis responded. “That’s what separates us from the criminals.”

At the time, Kostoplis testified, he thought he was being tested. He had no idea Jenkins had made hundreds of thousands of dollars stealing from Baltimore residents and had also sold kilos of stolen drugs.

Later, when the indictments came out, Kostoplis said he realized the true nature of that overture from Jenkins and what he had been asked and called the FBI.

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