Retired 60-year veteran law enforcement officer Stephen Tabeling and award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Janis discuss the murder of Maryland State Delegate – who was facing federal indictment for drug charges – by the group Black October (4/4)

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: As we continue our discussion about the war on drugs and the selective prosecution of who was held accountable for selling drugs in Baltimore, we are joined again by our two guests. We’re joined by Stephen Tabeling, coauthor of You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He’s a retired Baltimore City homicide lieutenant. He also served as the chief of police of Salisbury, Maryland. From 2000 to 2009, he was called out of retirement to teach at the Police Academy in Baltimore. We are joined by his coauthor, Stephen Janis. He’s an award-winning investigative journalist currently working as an investigative producer for Fox 45. Thank you both for joining us. STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER, FOX45: Thanks for having us. NOOR: Okay. So, in our last segment we were talking about the war on drugs and the inability or unwillingness of law enforcement in the late ’60s, early ’70s to go after politicians implicated in this. There was a politician, State Delegate Turk Scott, who had a federal indictment against him for bringing in–I believe it was a kilo–. JANIS: Multiple kilos, I think. NOOR: Multiple kilos of heroin into the city. But he was indicted. But he was out and he was free. And a group of vigilantes, called Black October, they took matters into their own hands. And you were in charge of investigating this. And talk a little bit about what happened, how you came across the murder scene, and what was done in to State Delegate Turk Scott. LT. STEPHEN TABELING, FMR. CHIEF OF POLICE, SALISBURY, MD: Well, what the–investigators were called to the basement of the towers on Park Avenue and Howard Street, and the body of a black male was in the basement, multiple gunshot wounds. And when the investigators went there, they found out who it was, and they said, you’d better come take a look at this. He had multiple gunshot wounds in his body. NOOR: It was an execution-style killing. TABELING: Well, yeah. Well, it could be a lot of things. But what happened was he was shot after death. You know, we could tell after death by the wounds, and when we unloosened his tie, he had a big hole in his throat where he was shot. So there were shots when he was alive, and there were shots after death. We began the investigation, and we found a newspaper. And the newspaper was, I’d say, 100 feet away from the body. And in that was a News-American American newspaper. And in that News-American newspaper was the story of a taxicab that was found out off of Gwynns Falls Parkway that had been set on fire. So one of our investigators started going through the building, and he found a guy that was out on his balcony. And he saw a taxicab, and he saw two men come out of the basement, get in the taxicab, and drive away. That taxicab was found in the same neighborhood as the previous one. Well, what we later found out: that was a dry run to see what they could do by using a cab. So, after getting the information and we start checking fingerprints and the time crime scene, we come up with the palm print and a little fingerprint of Sherman Dobson. And he’s the son of a Reverend, and his uncle is a Reverend. And based on the information, we got a search and seizure warrant to go to his home. JANIS: And you should also mention that at the scene, there were these flyers that were had the message, and it said, these persons are known drug dealers, selling drugs is an act of treason, the punishment for treason his death, Black October, which were strewn around the body, which, of course, was–I think it was the first sort of sign that there was a group operating or a vigilante group or a purported vigilante group operating in Baltimore, but supposedly to take matters into their own hands to kill drug dealers because it was considered to be a crime against the community. NOOR: And it was–even at that point it was devastating these communities, where you had the–where you had the industrial base taken away and you had historic underdevelopment and disinvestment and a lack of opportunity. JANIS: This was the beginning of the deindustrialization process of Baltimore City. And as those jobs were leaving and as opportunities were shrinking, it was almost perfectly synchronized that the drug business was taking over the most vulnerable communities. So I think this was a message that it wasn’t going to be tolerated. TABELING: Well, the flyers that were left there said, no hope in dope, off the drug dealer. And the whole premise was that they were killing drug dealers to get rid of them, but they were not killing them to get rid of them. They were killing them to take over their business. Now, they–. Go ahead. JANIS: I mean, I talked to one of the people in there. So there was some other subtext there. One of the things one of the people who got in touch with us when we were working on the book about Black October said that they based this movement off the idea of the movie The Battle of Algiers, where before the Algerian Revolution, the native population killed off prostitutes and drug dealers and they said, watch the first 18 minutes, and then you’ll understand what Black October was. But law enforcement, yes, they feel that this might have been just a turf war. Some of the people, or one of the people who were, persons who was involved in it believes it wasn’t. So I just want to add that context. TABELING: Well, but I’d like to back that up with this. I was called to Poly, the high school, and myself and another officer were locked in the cafeteria by 250 students. The leader of that group was Sherman Dobson. And I think when Steve get the information with this group of students, that’s where they came up with the idea of–it’s irony that Sherman Dobson is the leader of this group. And then I get the investigation on Turk Scott, and here he is again. He’s the person that’s involved in that. But Turk Scott–I mean, Sherman did talk to Steve and laid out a lot of the groundwork to how this was done. JANIS: Yeah, it rose out of that actual encounter. And then I guess he also said some female students from a high school were arrested for forming a black consciousness group, and he felt that any sort of sign of organization in the black community was met with either law enforcement recrimination. So they felt like they had to fight back violently. I mean, that’s what he said. I’m just reporting. TABELING: Now, Sherman later shot a cop, and he did time in jail for gunrunning. JANIS: Twenty-six years. TABELING: Was it 20? JANIS: Twenty-six years. TABELING: But we executed a search and seizure warrant, and this was a fact. I had two detectives and three uniformed officers. I rapped on the door, and the reverend answered the door with his brother. I showed him the search warrant. NOOR: That was his father. TABELING: His father and the uncle. Showed him the search warrant, and says, where is Sherman? He said, he’s in bed. I said, I want to go up. You come up with me. They went up with me. Sherman–woke Sherman up, and in his closet was a 38 revolver, a pair of handcuffs, and a ski mask, and found downstairs overtop of rafter was a shotgun. So we arrest Sherman. Well, when we took the weapons in for analysis, they were not the weapons–. NOOR: Used in the crime. TABELING: They weren’t the weapons used in the crime. When the case went to court, the reverends got on the stand and said, I brought 125 policemen to their house after I had broke in the back door and actually went up to the son’s bedroom and planted all that stuff up there and planted the gun up on the rafter. I had to sit on a witness stand, sit on a witness stand, I forget how long, but I had to have the run sheet from every police officer in the City of Baltimore after midnight to show where they were to prove that I could not have had 125 policemen with me on that service. NOOR: In the trial resulted in Sherman Dobson not being convicted for that murder. TABELING: Right. NOOR: And talk about–I mean, talk about why that might have happened, why the jury would have not wanted to find him guilty. JANIS: I think this was the first sort of–well, I don’t know if it’s the first, but definitely one of the best examples of the distrust between the African-American community and the police department, because I think, you know, Steve said it wasn’t really the crime that was on trial; it was his department and it was–one of the biggest moments of the trial was just that specific search, because to the African-American community it embodied the fact that the police were prosecuting the war on drugs unfairly and were targeting the African-American community and ignoring the white community. And so, when–the trial basically became a trial about that whole process. And I think–you know, I don’t–you know, he was exonerated, so I can’t question the jury. But I think certainly this was where you saw sort of a trial about the drug war in a sense and about who’s going to be the winner and the loser here. And as Steve always tells me, Milt Nolan, who was the first African-American states attorney, right, always said he lost the next election because of that trial and because of–. TABELING: He told me that. JANIS: Yeah, he told you that. So I don’t mean to– TABELING: No, I understand. JANIS: –usurp you there, but that’s what he said. So I think you see here, the first time, sort of the intersection of those two forces and the mistrust really evincing itself in court. NOOR: And the fact that someone argued the community was taking this matter into their own hands. They were dealing with the drugs coming in. And because they didn’t want the drugs, they didn’t want to see the devastation that was continuing. And along with the prosecution, like we said, the nonprosecution or the slap on the wrist for members of the elite or members of the white community that were involved in this process. TABELING: One thing. I’ve been on a witness stand a lot of times in my career. And this particular case, I was asked a question about a defense. I forget what the question was, but I knew I shouldn’t answer it, and so did the judge. So I remained mum. And, you know, you do that when you don’t think you should answer. You wait for the judge to say, well, officer, you can answer that. The judge said to me, you know you shouldn’t answer it, I know you shouldn’t answer it, but because of the seriousness of this case, I’m directing you to answer that. I’ve never had that happen before in my career. JANIS: Yeah. I mean, I think if you talk to people about Black October, I think the feeling was that the police at that moment–and this is in the community, from reporting I’ve done, that there was some complicity there. NOOR: And that’s a feeling that’s–still today, you talk to people in the community,–. TABELING: Absolutely. If you talk to people in the community, yes, they do feel that way. And that’s something that’s persisted throughout the drug war, not only unfair prosecution, but some complicity in saying, okay, these areas are okay and these areas are not. And maybe to a certain extent it speaks to the futility of the whole idea, which I think is what’s so interesting about what Steve did, because in the narcotics task force, they were really trying to diagnose the problem. And then I think what they found was so uncomfortable that we came up with other strategies that were more palatable politically. You know? Said, okay, we can’t really know what’s going on, because there’s too many people too powerful who are involved, so let’s just come up with this other strategy. We really focus on people that are more politically vulnerable. But, I mean, Black October is one of those–he was immersed–even more interesting about it is that he finally–I guess he finally had–there was so much fear because of the riots in 1968. And they were putting signs all over the city saying, we are really going to–. NOOR: That was after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. JANIS: Yeah, right. There was–. NOOR: There was riots in Baltimore and across every urban–. JANIS: Across the country, and it really devastated the city. So when Black October reared its head, people were scared. I mean the politicians were scared. And I think there was just a tremendous fear that this could foment another riot. And Steve–you know, you can talk about what happened, but it was fascinating. TABELING: But the aftermath of this is, what hurt me personally is, my life was threatened, my family was under police guard. I have a daughter, 63 years old now, and she’s been suffering from agoraphobia and other problems because as a 13-year-old she was exposed to being taken to school with armed policemen and armed policeman sitting in the living room. So this does affect police officers, not only the officer, but it affects the officer’s family too. JANIS: And, I mean, in a similar sense, but what’s amazing about Black October–and they said they–I guess during the course of the trial they murdered another drug dealer. I think they eventually took responsibility for three. But Steve put some people out and watched some people they thought, but no one was ever arrested. And there’s really never been sort of a truth-telling on this idea. And, of course, there are many people who feel that it was just a way to eliminate the competition, just as many people who feel that it was actually a movement. And I think it’s, like, a really fascinating part of Baltimore’s history that hasn’t been told, a fascinating part of the drug game that hasn’t been told. NOOR: And it’s a very little-known story today. JANIS: It’s not a story that’s received a lot of attention. Even when I write about it–and, you know, we wrote about it and I did some other work on it–I don’t know if it so uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’s the fact that there are unsolved murders tied to it, but it was something–when you talk to Sherman Dobson about his understanding of it, it was like a military, from his perspective, like a revolutionary military movement against the whole idea of how the drug war was being prosecuted, ’cause he talked a lot about how the National Guard came into Baltimore, how you couldn’t walk around. I mean, there is a lot of history untold in that story that I think should be told. NOOR: So we’re going to have to leave it there, but we certainly hope we can get you back into our studios and continue this discussions. JANIS: Yeah. Absolutely. NOOR: Thank you so much, Stephen Tabeling for joining us, longtime, now retired police officer. JANIS: Not really. NOOR: Still going. JANIS: Yeah, believe me. I get his call every day. NOOR: And also Stephen Janis, award-winning investigative journalist currently working for Fox 45 in Baltimore. JANIS: And thank you for being willing to explore these ideas, because this really, looking at the roots of the problem is, I think, going to really be helpful to people to understand it. So thank you for doing this. NOOR: Thank you. And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Stephen Tabeling

Stephen Tabeling is the co-author of You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. Tabeling is a retired Baltimore City Homicide Lt., who also served on the police force for Salisbury, Maryland; from 2000-2009 he was called out of retirement to teach at the police academy in Baltimore.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.