How the Gun Trace Task Force Fueled Violence and Overtime During Baltimore Uprising
“I got an entire pharmacy,” former bail bondsman Donald Stepp said from the witness stand in federal court Thursday. He was quoting former police sergeant Wayne Jenkins, the center of the ongoing corruption trial of two members of the Gun Trace Task Force, an elite police squad charged with criminal conspiracies.
In a trial full of dramatic revelations of corruption, Stepp’s claim was especially significant in this beleaguered city, which was about to embark on a third citizen-led Ceasefire attempting to halt the brutal pace of near-daily murders for a weekend.
In June 2015, after what was then Baltimore’s deadliest month in decades, then-Commissioner Anthony Batts blamed the spike in murders on drugs looted from pharmacies during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April of that year. Headlines blared: “Baltimore police commissioner: looted drugs during riots causing spike in violence.”
Others have claimed that the murders arose from the “Ferguson Effect,” which argues that police “stood down” for fear of being “the next viral video.”
But Stepp’s claims complicate both of those narratives. According to Stepp, early in the morning on April 28, 2015 as Baltimore police struggled to regain some control after weeks of protest had turned to a day of rioting, Jenkins had his own agenda.
“During the riots of Freddie Gray, he called me again, woke me up, said I needed to open the garage door,” Stepp said. When Jenkins pulled up, Stepp said, he got out of the car, opened the trunk and took out two large trash bags.
“I got people coming out of these pharmacies,” Stepp, who estimated making a million dollars off of selling drugs Jenkins stole, recalled his old friend saying.
Deborah Katz Levi, the head of the Baltimore City Public Defender Special Litigation Section, calls it callous.
“There’s some argument that these guys robbed drug dealers, some people say that, right, and that these guys, you know committed crimes against other alleged criminals—but when you’re taking prescription medication that the citizens of Baltimore, and in impoverished neighborhoods, really needed, that shows a level of callousness that rises all the way to the top,” she said outside the courthouse Thursday.
But in addition to taking medicine away from citizens, according to then-Commissioner Batts’ logic, Jenkins and Stepp contributed to “turf wars,” which, he said were “leading to violence and shootings in our city.”
Batts said 27 pharmacies were looted. And while most people think of the burning CVS at the heart of the unrest in Penn North, the DEA claimed that most of the pharmacies were targeted by organized gangs.
“You see the economic value for these gangs in targeting these pharmacies,” Special Agent Gary Tuggle told WBAL back in 2015, comparing the price of Oxycontin—which he said could go for $30 a pill to heroin, which was selling for $10-$15 a bag.
Stepp testified that he and Jenkins regularly burgled buildings—and that he bought a wide variety of equipment used in such burglaries, including grappling hooks, crowbars, sledgehammers, and tracking devices for Jenkins and other police officers, whom he did not name.
He described Jenkins as a man in control of the city.
“It was easy for him to be able to steal because he had access, incredible access because of his position,” Stepp said.
While the exact role the Gun Trace Task Force and other rogue officers played in the looting of drugs and the rise of violence is unknown, it is clear that the task force, which was described by prosecutors as “both cops and robbers at the same time” profited from it.
Cooperating co-defendants testified that, as the murder rate rose in 2015, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis asked Jenkins how he was keeping his squad motivated. According to Evodio Hendrix, Jenkins told the commissioner he was using overtime to keep his crew happy and getting guns off the streets. Davis allegedly told Jenkins to “keep up the good work.”
Jenkins received a bronze star for his conduct in the unrest. Davis was fired two days before the beginning of the GTTF trial.
The worse the crime, the more easily the GTTF could claim fraudulent overtime. In 2015, Daniel Hersl, one of the defendants who has not pleaded guilty, made a salary of $77,591 in 2015, and made an additional $86,880 in overtime that year. Hersl claimed that he worked 1,692.9 hours of overtime in 2015—roughly 28 hours of overtime every single week of the year. And yet, according to another GTTF member, Jemell Rayam, Hersl went as long as a month without coming to work at all as he worked on his new home.
Stepp testified that Jenkins called Hersl “one of the most corrupt cops in Baltimore City.”
Hersl was working on May 2, the night after State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against six officers for their roles in Gray’s death. He is currently being sued for throwing down a credentialed reporter that night. Sgt. Keith Gladstone, who has been described by someone in law enforcement who knows both men as a “mentor” to Jenkins and Lt. Christopher O’Ree, a GTTF supervisor who approved some of the fraudulent overtime, were both found guilty of using excessive force on the same night in a recent civil case, where Larry Lomax was awarded $75,000.
Increased violence did not only offer more opportunities for overtime fraud, but it gave the officers a wider latitude in further criminal activity—creating a viciously circular logic of profit. “This is not a normal police department,” Stepp said on the stand. He also said Jenkins described the GTTF as “a front for a criminal enterprise.”
Rayam testified, for instance, that on at least two occasions, he sold guns back onto the street and that he helped one drug crew rob another. Other testimony has alleged that Jenkins wanted to rob a drug dealer who shorted a friend of his on a cocaine deal.
Stepp said he had known the Jenkins family for 40 years and that Jenkins sent drugs to Stepp through his older brother for eight years before they began working together directly in 2012. After that, Jenkins dropped off drugs almost nightly. “It was just over the top. Everything and anything that could be imagined.”
But Stepp’s testimony also showed that Jenkins used him to get around his own squad. In the case of Oreese Stevenson, which other officers had testified about at length, Jenkins called Stepp and tried to get him to break into Stevenson’s house before the squad got there.
Stepp testified that Marcus Taylor, the other officer who has pleaded not guilty and is standing trial, and Sgt. Thomas E. Wilson III accompanied him and Jenkins to Scores stripclub and acted as security for a visiting drug dealer.
Wilson, who had previously been charged with perjury and was said to be Jenkins’ former partner, has been placed on administrative duty. As more officers are named in connection with the case, many in the city wonder where it will end.
“The only thought I have racing through my mind every day all day is: where does it stop, how many officers, how many people’s convictions are called into question by these officers’ brazen and really egregious and horrible criminal conduct,” said public defender Levi, who is charged with reviewing the cases.
She said that testimony earlier in the week pushed the number of tainted cases up to somewhere around 3,000.
“We don’t know who’s involved in this kind of criminality.” she said. “And there’s really no increased transparency based on these trials. I don’t see anybody from the police department committing openly to get to the bottom of it; I don’t see anyone from the State’s Attorney’s office saying ‘come look at our files and we’ll show you what we’ve got’ so we can all be in this together and try to undo it.”