Catharsis and Corruption in Wake of Dirty Cop Conviction

By: Brandon Soderberg, Baynard Woods | February 14, 2018
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By Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods

All afternoon on the second and final day of jury deliberations in the Gun Trace Task Force corruption trial of Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, Alex Hilton paced around the lobby of the federal courthouse, anticipating a guilty verdict.

He was there for Hersl, a cop he’s got history with dating back more than a decade.

“If I hear ‘guilty,’ then I know I won’t have to worry about him anymore, he’s a monster man,” Hilton said, as he hiccuped and cried. “A monster.”

Everyone expected an outpouring of emotion in the trials of the officers charged with death of Freddie Gray and with every acquittal, national news agencies swarmed the city looking for signs of “riot” as police helicopters hovered overhead. There were no “riots” though—only a resigned frustration toward a legal system that was clearly broken. But at the courthouse on Feb. 12 following a guilty verdict for Hersl and Taylor on robbery, fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering charges, there was raw emotion everywhere—just far fewer people were interested in it. The GTTF trial shed light on the conditions that led to the Baltimore Uprising, including the “looting” of the pharmacies, which the trial showed corrupt officers profited from via reselling stolen pharmaceuticals.

“Every time they have had the trial, I kid you not, I get up off the bus and right up to the door and I’d sit there and try to will myself to come in but couldn’t come in,” Hilton said.

Today was the first day he made it through the door during the three-week trial and two days of jury deliberation. In 2006, Hilton was picked up by Hersl outside of a substance abuse clinic where he was volunteering.

“I never abused drugs but I sold them,” Hilton said. “But I got out the game pretty early—everything about me now is right. My thinking, my walk.”

That day, Hilton said Hersl searched him and others for drugs, found none, then planted cocaine.

“You always had some asshole cops or whatever but as far as they go would be a threat at you or whatever, I can live with that,” Hilton said. But Hersl was different, more of a bully, who’d focus on people and return to them again and again. “You look into this guy’s eyes man, I don’t know if it’s the hold he has on me—that could be it—but something about his eyes man. It’s that power he got over me. I just want it to end. Until he don’t have power on me, it’s never gonna end, man.”

In 2011, Hilton was working a construction gig near Fells Point. He says plainclothes came up to him as he ate his lunch on a friend’s stoop. Hersl searched him, pulled a cable bill out of his pocket with his brother’s address where he was staying at the time, and took the keys to his brother’s home. As Hilton sat in jail, eventually hit with drug charges he wasn’t even told about—he thought he was arrested for trespassing—his brother’s home was broken into and $1,100 was stolen.

After that, Hilton moved to West Baltimore to avoid Hersl. Although Hilton was not part of the case against Hersl and did not testify, his experience is similar to the story of Herbert Tate, who testified during the trial that Hersl approached him, kept his money, and planted drugs on him. Tate left the city for Anne Arundel County.

“Every now and then I have a nightmare—anything that has to do with prison brings me back to drugs and then I go to him. I just kind of put it to rest, then when this [trial] happened and I see it on the news, it brings up all these memories,” Hilton said.

Before Hilton went into the courtroom for the first time on Monday, he kneeled and prayed. He had prepared himself for the decisive moment—but it turned out everyone had gathered in the courtroom for a question from the jury and not the verdict, at least not yet. Still, Hilton got to see Hersl saunter across the courtroom and sit down.

Studying the back of Hersl’s head, Hilton watched the former detective fidget in court: “He knows how I feel now, look at him, twiddling his fuckin’ thumbs man,” Hilton said aloud in the courtroom to no one and everyone.

When he left the courtroom after the judge answered the jury’s question, Hilton was looser, more clear-headed. The hard part—facing someone he said “terrorized” him—was over.

“See, it’s like some woman been battered all her life and until she knows the judge said ‘guilty,’ she’s never free. I ain’t free,” Hilton said. “I feel crazy because I’m a man and I feel like this. I’m afraid of another man. That just does something to you as a man, you know?”

Then Hilton’s eyes shifted around the courthouse lobby. He looked at the U.S. Marshals, hulking, mostly bald—like Hersl.

“Security, they all look just like him, man,” Hilton spat out. Briefly, he spiralled. So he prayed again.

Soon after, the verdict finally arrived. The tedious, tension-filled roll-out of each of the charges, the majority of which Hersl and Taylor were found “guilty” of committing. Hersl’s head grew red as the verdict landed. Taylor seemed unaffected.

When Hersl went away in handcuffs, Hilton and Hersl’s family—who had been at court every day, often bringing a cooler full of lunch—watched the disgraced cop exit, holding onto the moment together for very different reasons.

“I love you Danny,” Hersl’s brother Steve cried out.

In the lobby, Steve Hersl wailed while the rest of the Hersl family wobbled in shock nearby. Taylor’s family was eerily silent as they moved like ghosts through the courthouse and into the media scrum outside.

“I can go on with my own life without having to worry about and being in fear of somebody who’s supposed to protect me,” Hilton said in the lobby a few feet from a bawling Steve Hersl. “I feel for [the Hersl family], I do, because I’m a Christian man, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Outside, Hilton shared his catharsis with reporters.

“It’s crazy. We’re talking about cops. Somebody’s who’s supposed to protect and serve. I finally came to grips with it today because once he got the cuffs put on him I knew he was no longer a police officer,” Hilton said.“I feel I have closure. Is it totally over with? Probably not. There’s a lot more work to be done. It’s going to start from the top up.

Like Hilton, Steve Hersl, a former firefighter, was furious at the cops he considered dirty—he just didn’t think his brother was one of them. He thought “Danny” had been “shanghaied” and set up by the higher ups.

“My brother Danny Hersl wasn’t a part of this gang,” he said, his cheek glistening with drying tears. “He tried to get out of this gang. He begged. He cried. He cried to the family. He cried to everybody to get out of the gang. He didn’t want a part of it.”

Steve Hersl blamed higher ups like former Commissioner Kevin Davis and Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere, who announced his retirement on the same day that Momodu Gondo said Palmere covered up the 2009 murder of Shawn Cannady committed by GTTF’s Jemell Rayam. Gondo also testified that he had robbed people with Detective Sean Suiter, who was was murdered the day before he was supposed to testify before the Grand Jury in the case. Suiter’s death has not been solved.

“When you got guys resigning, walking out the door with their head down—the commissioner, Palmere, all of them. Why are their heads down?” Steve Hersl asked. “Hey, is there an unsolved murder of a police officer? They know what the hell happened. They know. My brother Danny Hersl knows what happened.”

More television cameras surrounded Steve Hersl.

“Do you know what happened?” we asked.

“Oh yeah I know what happened. You’re gonna find out what happened and you’re going to find out a lot more because Danny Hersl is gonna tell you what’s going to happen because he’s going to write a book and he’s gonna do some talking. He’s not done,” Hersl said.

Related Bios

Baynard Woods

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.”