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U.S. Attorneys Leo Wise and Derek Hines talk about their prosecution of Baltimore’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force

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BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News, I’m Baynard Woods here in Baltimore, Maryland, where we’re talking with Leo Wise and Derek Hines, two federal prosecutors who just secured convictions against Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, two of the corrupt police officers involved in Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force. We talked to them about where this case may be going and about their motivations going to what defense lawyers called “the depths of the criminal underworld in Baltimore.”
So in the trial you guys really showed a really deep sympathy for what the defense called “the depths of Baltimore’s underworld,” and this is somewhat opposed to what people think of as a prosecutorial frame of mind generally, but you seem both to be really passionate and sincere about this desire to defend the defenseless.
LEO WISE: I mean, so we took everybody as individuals, and listened to them and looked for evidence that supported what they said, or didn’t, but we treated everybody with dignity, and believed that everybody deserved the protection of the law, and that no one, as Mr. Hines said, was above the law. And that was genuine. There’s a line that’s used sometimes that the Department of Justice is the only agency with a value for its name, and that’s not a contrivance, that’s something we really feel. And so I remember coming out of those, when we first encountered some of the victims, coming out of those meetings and saying “I think this is happening. I don’t think this is people making stuff up, or saying things cause they think they can benefit themselves.” I mean, that was something we said at the trial.
There was no benefit to any of those people taking the stand and being subjected to cross-examination about whether they were drug dealers, whether they weren’t, nobody was trying to get out from under a charge or get a sentence reduced, they were there because they had to be, and I think the fact that the jury convicted, I think shows that jurors are uniquely capable of assessing people’s credibility and their truthfulness, just like I hope we are, and came to the same conclusion.
DEREK HINES: There was also one of the defendants in particular argued that he had stolen money, which made it sort of, for us, why does it matter if these people were drug dealers or if they had law-abiding professions? Their money was taken and we’re here to prove a robbery and so we were here to defend the interests of everybody and pursue justice for them.
BAYNARD WOODS: You both live here in Baltimore, I believe, and so you were representing the United States but in representing specifically citizens of Baltimore against Baltimore police did you feel in some ways like you were also representing the place that you live, in a way that maybe you wouldn’t in doing Enron or Deepwater Horizon or some of the other cases that you all have done.
DEREK HINES: Absolutely. It felt like we were representing a wide variety of people. People in our office, we had overwhelming support throughout the case from prosecutors here to root out this corruption, even people whose cases were impacted because they had indicted cases using these officers in the past. Other law enforcement agencies, federal and state and local, we felt like we were representing them, they wanted to root out this corruption. As well as the citizens in Baltimore, and being from this area, we had a particularly vested interest.
LEO WISE: My wife and I moved here, we moved our family here, and we live here in the city. And one of the things that has really struck me about this case, and it just happened actually this morning, was people come up to us and talk about how the case, how it means something to them, and that they, it’s we’re a small part of a larger team, but sort of on behalf of the team they sort of thank the US Attorney’s office and the FBI for pursuing this and for bringing it to the conclusion that it was brought to because they want a city that’s safe and they want a police department that respects the law and respects the citizens that they’re protecting and serving.
BAYNARD WOODS: How did this go on for so long before people became aware of it at a federal level?
DEREK HINES: The officers preyed on people who, they believed, their word would not be believed at a later date, so they targeted drug dealers, they targeted criminals on the street, and these people did not want to come forward to the Internal Affairs division of the Baltimore Police Department and say they in fact had more drug money or more drugs or a gun that wasn’t reported because they were afraid of the repercussions that would come to them at a later date. So, a lot of this conduct went unreported until the investigation exposed it.
LEO WISE: Yeah, and this really wasn’t a case that grew out of Internal Affairs complaints that had been ignored, at all. This, as Mr. Hines said, the people that they targeted either wouldn’t or couldn’t make complaints, and they sort of knew that, and they counted on that, and I think they also counted on, as we said at the trial, that if they ever did, that the defendants at least believed no one would believe them. And I think what the trial demonstrated was that that’s not something any police officer should believe anymore.
BAYNARD WOODS: So there was a huge amount of money mentioned in the case, with drugs and especially with Jenkins and Stepp. What is the FBI or your office doing to track down that money and figure out what happened to that?
LEO WISE: The most vivid example of something that’s been recovered is that watch that was shown to Mr. Hamilton, I mean that was an expensive wrist watch that was stolen from his home by these officers and it was found underwater at Donald Stepp’s home in Annapolis. And nine months after the indictments were originally returned. So we look for assets to seize, there are assets that we were able to seize and were returned to their owners, there were other assets that will be used to try to provide restitution to victims. Unfortunately a lot of the money was spent, it was spent in casinos, it was spent on vacations, it was spent in a variety of ways and so we’ll never be able to restitute all of the funds that were taken, but we’re absolutely committed to doing as much as we can to do that.
BAYNARD WOODS: So, in addition to the money, the amount of drugs — the two trash bags full of pharmaceuticals from the unrest after Freddie Gray’s death, that was something that the former police commissioner had blamed the distribution of those drugs for the spike in murders here and the spike in violence. And so, one, I want to ask, do you think that’s an accurate assessment, that those drugs really did disrupt the supply chain and stuff in the kinds of ways that they said could lead to violence? And what does that mean if it’s the police? And two, is there any indication that the grappling hooks and all of that that he did anything other than take those drugs from looters, like he said, but actually actively break into pharmacies while the city was in unrest.
LEO WISE: That came from the testimony of Donald Stepp. And I don’t know, from a broader perspective, I don’t know whether the looting of pharmacies pushed greater quantities of drugs into the supply chain. What I will say, though, is what I think came out of the trial is that this unit was part of the crime that was happening at the time, it was not part of the solution.
What they were doing on a day-to-day basis contributed to the crime that was seen as spiking in the city, and particularly what Jenkins was doing on such a regular basis, as the testimony from Stepp established. You know, the tools, the burglar’s tools that came out … I mean, there was testimony about proposed robberies that Jenkins pitched to the rest of the unit. In the trial there was testimony about a number of burglaries that he did with Stepp using some of those tools. And part of what we had to prove was that there was continuing criminal conduct, that’s what made this so dangerous. That’s what made this an organized crime case, because organized crime demonstrates that when people get together they can be far more dangerous than when they act independently.
BAYNARD WOODS: So the people in the city and the Baltimore Police Department are using the “few bad apples” metaphor a lot, and I feel like sometimes they don’t understand the second half of that, that a bad apple ruins the whole barrel. Can the Baltimore Police Department–I mean, 12 other names came out — having experience seeing law enforcement, what does this mean for law and order in the city of Baltimore?
DEREK HINES: One of the things that was really interesting to us in investigating the GTTF to start was learning that really three different sets of officers from three different units had merged into the GTTF and were committing crimes together. And as we went forward in that investigation, we looked back in time and found that each of these three sets of officers, while not working with one another and in entirely separate units, had committed crimes and those crimes were proved at trial recently in the plea agreements of the defendants who pled guilty. So there wasn’t just this unit, at one point in time; there were multiple different units prior to coming together in what Mr. Wise referred to as really the perfect storm, where you had eight corrupt officers working together. And that was eye-opening on a number of different levels.
LEO WISE: And I think what the four officers that testified about what they had done before they got together on the GTTF make clear is that, as we argued in our opening and closing statements, these were crimes of opportunity. And the opportunity that presents itself, at least based on their experiences, was that units that were focused on drug-related crimes where there are significant amounts of money. It’s a cash-based business. And so in terms of focusing resources on oversight or reform, I think those are the kinds of units that, at least the anecdotal experience of these officers suggests, should be the area of focus. Not all kinds of units, not all kinds of policing, but really targeting where it seems like there are these opportunities that certain officers then exploit.
BAYNARD WOODS: Did it seem in any way that this perfect storm was orchestrated? Some people that were higher up were named in the trial, and right after that, Deputy Commissioner [Dean] Palmere announced retirement after his name came up in the trial. Is there any indication that these people were being put together because of their criminal activity? Or was it either to put them all in one barrel to knock them off, or to facilitate crime?
DEREK HINES: I think one of the many important witnesses who testified at this trial was James Costopoulos, who was brought into the unit by Jenkins, and Jenkins proposed to him robbing people, along with 17-year veteran Daniel Hersl. And Costopoulos turned that down, he said absolutely not. I think there were certainly some decisions made about bringing people into the unit, but once James Costopoulos turned that down he was reassigned out of the unit at a later date.
LEO WISE: And there was also testimony from [Momodu] Gondo, there was a recording that was actually played that he and Jenkins had had a previous sort of falling out, and patched things up when they got together. And so the evidence presented at trial appeared to suggest that these officers that had committed these crimes before, once they were in the same unit and had sized each other up, got comfortable with one another and then started working together beyond the sort of smaller cliques that had existed, as Mr. Hines said, before they all got together.
BAYNARD WOODS: Is there any time frame for, the FBI said during the trial this was on ongoing investigation. Is there any time frame that you can share with us about how long this investigation may continue to go, or if and when other indictments may be coming down or anything looking forward?
LEO WISE: The case moved at a very fast pace for federal criminal investigations, even after we indicted the original, seven additional indictments were brought against the original sergeant of the unit, Sergeant [Thomas] Allers, and then two individuals that [Jemell] Rayam recruited to rob a homeowner, an additional officer who was here in Baltimore city and then moved to Pennsylvania and is pending trial. So we will move as quickly as the evidence allows and will follow the evidence. These are very hard cases to make, precisely because the defendants, the targets, are law enforcement, and they know the techniques we can use, they can get ahead of them. And while the original case was brought in a covert setting, it’s now obviously public that we’ve been looking, so it makes it that much harder. So we don’t have a sort of crystal ball about whether and when there might be additional cases but we’ll continue to follow the evidence wherever it goes.

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Aaron Maté is a former host/producer for The Real News and a contributor to the Nation. He has previously reported and produced for Democracy Now!, Vice, and Al Jazeera, and written for the Toronto Star, the Intercept, and Le Monde Diplomatique.