By Baynard Woods

Sgt. Wayne Jenkins was driving his squad’s car the wrong way down a one way street—as he often did—when he saw a man walking with a backpack. He got in a van with Oreese Stevenson*. Jenkins slammed on the breaks. This encounter on March 16, 2016 would begin a long saga that illustrates the determined, almost obsessive, corruption in the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF).

There was no probable cause to stop or search Stevenson. But for Jenkins, the backpack was enough. “Anytime someone is over 18 with a bookbag, Jenkins thinks it’s concealing drugs or money,” Maurice Ward testified in federal court at Tuesday’s police corruption trial.

Ward, who worked under Jenkins in two different units, including GTTF, was the first witness in the trial of Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, both members of the elite task force. Hersl and Taylor, charged with robbery, extortion, using a firearm to commit a violent crime, and fraud charges relating to overtime theft, are the only officers who have not pleaded guilty.

Ward was testifying in the hopes of a reduced sentence and was laying out a series of crimes, committed by himself and with other officers, going back to 2014 and earlier. Jenkins

has also been charged by federal prosecutors with planting heroin on Umar Burley in 2010. Detective Sean Suiter was killed the day before he was scheduled to appear before the grand jury to testify in this case.

But even in light of the stories of egregious corruption that have emerged about members of the taskforce, Ward’s testimony about the Stevenson case is stunning.

The officers grabbed Stevenson. Jenkins, who later became the sergeant of GTTF but was at the time the head of a special operations unit, lied to him and told him he was a federal agent and they were there because of a wiretap. Ward opened the bag and found cocaine. The squad then managed to get Stevenson’s keys and did a “sneak and peek”—breaking into a residence to take a look around before seeking a warrant.

In order to do that without arousing suspicion, they pretended to see someone run out of the back of the house. Then some of the officers left to go get a legitimate warrant. Ward was left in the house alone and said he wondered if they were going to split money without him. When they found a safe in the basement during their search of the house, they used a series of tools to pry it open, finding somewhere near $200,000. Jenkins, Ward said, took about half the money. Then they re-sealed the safe and Taylor began filming a recreated discovery of the safe on his cellphone.

“Don’t touch it,” Jenkins yells on the video when they see the stacks of $100 dollar bills. He instructed Taylor to keep recording the money so no one would think they stole any.

Then they called another officer who worked with “the feds” to process large amounts of cash. Stevenson was arrested for drugs, which they also found in the house. Ward went to let his dog out and then met Taylor, Jenkins, and Evodio Hendrix at Taylor’s home—he was the only one who lived alone. They went into Taylor’s basement and split up the money. Hendrix, Taylor and Ward each got $20,000. Ward said Jenkins got more.

But, Ward said, on the way home, he had some time to think. There was nothing he could do with that kind of money. Jenkins warned them not to use the money conspicuously and suggested they have home improvements done by someone he knew who would cook the books for them and issue false receipts. Ward rented. He didn’t want the money in his house so when he got home, he discarded the money, tossing it in an area behind his building.

It was the second time he had thrown away money they stole, he said, acknowledging he would have loved to keep the money if it had been practical. The first time was after stealing 20 lbs of weed and $20,000 from two men they stumbled upon in the middle of a pot deal.

“I didn’t want to be the one on the squad to be, ‘I’m not with that,’ ” Ward said on the stand.

But the jaw-dropping Stevenson story—only one of many from the first day of testimony in what is expected to be a month-long trial—was not over yet. Already it had involved profiling, illegal searches, theft, and faked evidence. But the paranoia that made Ward throw away his money may have gotten ahold of the other officers as well. Ward says that Jenkins listened to the recordings of the calls Stevenson made from jail “like he was obsessed.”

He discovered that Stevenson was complaining about missing money and said he was going to get a lawyer to try to address it. Jenkins also learned that the wife was dealing with the lawyers—and that Stevenson was also talking to another woman.

Jenkins put the pieces together. He got either Hendrix or Taylor—they had neater handwriting, Ward said—to forge a letter from the other woman. It said that she was having Stevenson’s baby and they should talk, and included her phone number. Jenkins placed the note on the door—the same home where they had stolen over $60,000—knocked, and ran.

A couple months later, in June of 2016, Jenkins took command of the Gun Trace Task Force, where Momodu Gondo, Jemell Rayam, and Daniel Hersl were already working. It was, at that point, largely an investigative unit that brought in about one gun every week. Jenkins brought Ward and Taylor with him and transformed it into a squad that practiced “street rips” to greatly increase those numbers—and charged overtime for them.

Ward testified that under Jenkins the GTTF drove up arrest numbers using “door pops”—pulling up fast on a group of people and slamming on the breaks, acting like you’re jumping out to see who runs. According to Ward they would make 50 unconstitutional stops like this on a busy night. They regularly stopped any car—especially Honda Acuras—that Jenkins, who always drove, perceived as a “Dope-Boy” car. They kept BB guns in the trunk in case they got in a shootout with someone who didn’t have a gun.

“Jenkins liked to profile a lot,” Ward said, noting that he would make up an excuse like a no seat belt or a tinted-window violation after the fact. If they got guns, they could claim overtime. The GTTF had a day schedule with no weekends, and was supposed to work from 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Often, Ward said, they did not even come in to work until their shift was ended—working all of their hours on overtime.

“Your work speaks for itself,” was Jenkins response, according to Ward. He testified that the willingness to give “slash days”—days off that aren’t counted as such—and overtime as rewards for getting guns off of the street went all the way to the top of the department with “a wink and a nod.”

“Banging our overtime shit,” Ward explained in a recorded phone call.

Hersl’s lawyer, William Purpura, who also represents Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, referred to the “riots” of 2015 that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. He spoke of the unrest as an exigent circumstance that required more policing—even if the community saw overpolicing as the problem.

“GTTF was to get guns off the street—quite frankly, we don’t care how you do it,” he said, describing the mandate of the unit.

Jenkins assured Ward and Taylor that “Danny’s good. He’s just like us,” by which Ward says he understood to mean, “He would split money and we didn’t have to worry about him.”

Hersl is currently being sued in a civil case for throwing a credentialed reporter to the ground on May 2, 2015 while enforcing the 10:00 p.m. curfew. But Hersl’s reputation goes back long before 2015.

Hersl had 29 internal affairs complaints by 2006. By 2014, the city had paid out nearly $200,000 settling cases related to his conduct.

Hersl’s attorney argued that his client’s crimes should be treated as theft rather than robbery because he had legitimate probable cause against the suspects. Taylor’s entire defense seems to be based on the fact that the witnesses—whether his co-defendants from BPD or people like Stevenson—are criminals and liars and can’t be trusted.

Not only did Ward’s testimony show that the GTTF falsified statements of probable cause, but Hersl is notorious for misleadingly using rap videos of Kevron Evans, who performs under the name Young Moose, as probable cause warrant to raid his home—the Evans family claimed that Hersl robbed them long before the GTTF indictments came down. They sent videos of a smashed safe to reporters, claiming Hersl was responsible.

The GTTF was a “perfect storm of officers who took advantage of their positions to enrich themselves,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said in his opening statements. “The Gun Trace Task Force wasn’t a unit that went rogue … It was a unit of officers who had already gone rogue.”

Sometime after November 2016—the dates aren’t entirely clear from testimony—Jenkins wanted to meet with Taylor, Ward, and Hersl about “hitting Mr. Stevenson’s house again.”

Ward said he rode over with Taylor, who told him about Jenkins’ plan. At first Ward said, he thought “hitting” meant a raid. But when they met Jenkins and Hersl, who was at the time no longer in the GTTF, in a parking lot by a wooded area where the two men were drinking Twisted Tea, he discovered that Jenkins wanted to “put [GPS] trackers on the cars, kick in the door, and take the drugs and money.”

But Ward didn’t want to do it: “We just took $60,000 from him—why take a chance?”

In the end, the squad ended up not hitting Stevenson again, but they did go on to use illegal trackers against numerous other victims.

Ward was only the first of Taylor and Hersl’s co-defendants to testify against them. Gondo and Rayam previously testified in a related drug case, during which they revealed numerous other robberies committed by the GTTF and their conspirators.

In the prosecution’s opening remarks, Wise said that “this is not a case about overzealous policing or police tactics.” It was, he said, about greed. But he also acknowledged the way their legitimate police work was inextricably intertwined with their criminal enterprise. They were “motivated to seize guns and make gun arrests so they could claim overtime.” And that motivation put them ever more often in situations where “agents were able to abuse their positions in order to commit crimes.”

“They are, simply put, both cops and robbers at the same time,” Wise said.

*An earlier version of this story indicated that they saw Stevenson walking with the backpack.

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Baynard Woods is a criminal justice reporter and the Editorial Director of the Baltimore Bureau at the Real News. He creates Democracy in Crisis, a column and podcast syndicated in a number of alternative weekly papers, and is the author of "Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff."