Case offers look into drug ring involving 'Snoop' of 'The Wire'
Actress caught on federal wiretap as part of years-long investigation into drug ring
In more than 300 pages of court documents, authorities describe an alleged drug ring that touched notable addresses in Baltimore, including The Redwood apartment building of "The Wire" actress Felicia Pearson, center. Investigators say the group's headquarters was in an East Baltimore storefront, A.R. Lounge, and that the New York drug supplier picked up money from the valet stand at the Harborplace Renaissance Hotel at the Inner Harbor, bottom right. Police say they had Pearson under surveillance while she talked with a man holding a gun outside the Hippodrome Theater, bottom left. (Baltimore Sun photos by Kim Hairston except center, by Algerina Perna)
The building on South Eutaw Street, within walking distance of the Inner Harbor and featuring a large ninth-floor deck and a 'round-the-clock fitness center, seems appropriate for an actress on the much-acclaimed HBO series "The Wire."
But for authorities describing an alleged criminal enterprise in more than 300 pages of recently filed court documents, Apartment 1207 was a storehouse for heroin and its proceeds — one stop on a drug trail that wound through premier city addresses as well as desolate dope corners in East Baltimore.
The lucrative trade centered, according to federal prosecutors, at East Hoffman Street and North Milton Avenue — a world away from Pearson's apartment — where kids hustled "Black and Blue" heroin that was brought by a trafficker from New York in 10-kilogram quantities.
It was a world in which Pearson had grown up and seemingly escaped, going on to portray a ruthless enforcer on television. Her arrest, along with 62 others in March of last year, part of a investigation dubbed "Operation Usual Suspects," raised questions about whether she had returned to her old life — or had ever really left it.
The documents filed in connection with 29 defendants in U.S. District Court in Baltimore provide the most detailed look at Operation Usual Suspects and Pearson's role. The filings also give a rare glimpse into wiretaps and the raw dialogue of the city's drug trade, which were staples of the HBO series.
Authorities said high-level dealers directed people who needed help, such as Malone, to Pearson to get money. Federal agents said in court documents that in January 2011 they overheard Pearson using code and street slang to buy drugs, speaking with the New York trafficker in a conversation conducted in a "guarded fashion."
"I'm [expletive] up in the head man I can't even get to the jungle or nothing," she tells a New York supplier, and she admitted in court to letting the old friend stay at The Redwood and store heroin in her apartment. "I'm trying to get me some 'ew-we.'"
Prosecutors said the dealer apologized for sending someone in his place to handle the transaction:
"Naw, cause I was trying to tell this [expletive] to get to you," the dealer says, according to the transcript in the court documents. "But I ain't even want to go through that for real, for real."
"Yea, those, yea I'm glad you didn't go through for real," Pearson answers. "Aight, just hit me."
Pearson and her attorney have repeatedly said that she got caught on the edges of the drug gang, and the court documents filed recently against other defendants don't dispute that. Though she pleaded guilty in state court to conspiracy to sell heroin, receiving a suspended seven-year prison sentence and probation, she maintains she's guilty only of bad judgment — letting old friends crash at her apartment.
One of those friends, Shawn Johnson, was the New York supplier, the main target of the undercover investigation.
"If she was a major player in this case, [prosecutors] wouldn't have agreed to a suspended sentence," her attorney, Benjamin Sutley, said. "She wouldn't be on probation if she was anything but a periphery player."
Federal prosecutors said 21 defendants, including Johnson, have pleaded guilty to selling drugs, and seven have been sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. Johnson faces life in prison when he is sentenced in May. Many others have pleaded guilty to drug charges in state court.
Authorities, who declined to comment because some cases are still pending, spent two years with confidential informants, making drug buys, pulling over cars, eavesdropping on phone conversations and keeping surveillance on drug corners, rowhouses and apartment buildings.
The court documents describe in intricate detail a drug organization with tentacles reaching into New York and Pennsylvania, suburban neighborhoods and drug stash houses throughout the city. Heroin was packaged and distributed to dealers all over East Baltimore, with the corner of Hoffman and Milton — about 10 blocks northeast of Johns Hopkins Hospital — as the hub.
Prosecutors said Johnson collected tens of thousands of dollars from a spot near the valet stand of the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel at the Inner Harbor. He was arrested in October 2010 leaving a condominium in the White Marsh area in a gold Chevrolet Trailblazer.
Police said the main drug stash and meeting house — the group's headquarters, so to speak — was a nondescript business-front rowhouse on Hillen Street near Old Town Mall, a strip of long-dilapidated shops north of downtown.