By Baynard Woods
This story is part of Collateral Damage, a Real News and Democracy in Crisis investigative series that looks at the damage corrupt police inflict on people, often in law enforcement, who are not their intended targets.
Joe Crystal, a former Baltimore cop, sat hunched over, almost hiding in a gray hoodie in the back of a small restaurant downtown. It was a brisk day at the end of November, and Crystal, who has spent the last several years in Florida, was no longer accustomed to the cold.
One police commander compared Crystal, who is short with a wiry build and a shaved head, to a diminutive version of the movie star Vin Diesel. But on this day he carried himself more like Robert DeNiro in “Serpico” than any action hero, walking with the weight of everything he has gone through over the last several years as he prepared to take a polygraph test the next day.
He was back in town talking to the people who supported him back then, when he was forced out of the Baltimore Police Department, because he was trying to come back.
Maybe there is no good time for a whistleblower cop to come back to the Baltimore Police Department, but even if there was, the Fall of 2017 was probably not that time.
In March, seven members of the Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on federal racketeering charges. Then in August, another indictment: Sgt. Thomas Allers. In November an officer in Philadelphia, who was allegedly selling the drugs that the GTTF stole, was also charged. Prosecutors said he threatened Rayam’s family if he talked.
Then, on Nov. 15, Det. Sean Suiter was murdered. He was supposed to testify before the grand jury the next day about a 2010 event involving GTTF leader Wayne Jenkins. One man died as a result of their actions that day, and another man, Umar Burley, was serving 15 years for the drugs they planted on him. Suiter had a lawyer. He was going to testify, and it would probably be the hardest thing he had ever done.
Joe Crystal understood more about this feeling than anyone would want to know. He had been in that position before, after reporting that his sergeant and another officer beat a man in 2011. His coworkers put a rat underneath his windshield. They didn’t respond to calls for backup. They made his name a verb. In Baltimore, to get “Joe Crystaled” means to be shunned for doing the right thing.
Even after Suiter’s death, Crystal wanted to come back.
“They’re saying it’s kind of like the dawn of a new day you know, maybe now it is time for me to at least try to come back,” said Crystal in a series of conversations with The Real News. “Maybe enough time has gone by some people are tired of the Gun Trace Task Force things happening.”
The department desperately needed a dose of integrity. And so Crystal, who is now working in diplomatic protection in Florida, where he has a wide range of security clearances, re-applied for his old job. He had been gone long enough that he had to start the application process from scratch, including various tests, including the polygraph.
And yet two different commissioners—Kevin Davis, who was censured for helping kidnap a man in Prince George’s County, and Darryl De Sousa, who shot three people in a short period—turned Joe Crystal down, a cop who only left because he could no longer do his job safely and who wants nothing more than to come back to Baltimore.
And, to make it worse, the major in charge of the hiring process, Major James Handley, had good reason not to want a whistleblower in the department.
Crystal, whose parents were both cops, joined the police force in late 2008. He recalls a detective asking some of the new cadets if they had seen “The Wire,” when he first came in.
“His exact words were ‘How many of y’all motherfuckers have seen ‘The Wire’?’ and about three quarters of the class raised their hand,” says Crystal, who had not seen the show at that time. “And he was like, ‘For all you that haven’t seen it you need to watch it because it’s exactly like that in real life.’”
When he watched the David Simon show, Crystal was like “No way it’s this wild, drugs being sold in the open streets like this. There’s no way.”
It was that wild. He wrote his first warrants right out of the academy and was a good drug cop, he says, because he would “climb into vacants…or, you know, actually watch, instead of pocket surfing” for drugs. He also talked to people in the community. And listened.
Soon, he had a real life encounter with “The Wire,” when he stopped Micaiah Jones, who played Wintell “Little Man” Royce on the first season of the show.
Jones says he was running a nightclub on Belair Road, where they were filming a movie called “Thug Life: All in the Game.” He was driving with a young man and got pulled over by Crystal and his sergeant because his tags were not legal.
“He asked me if I had any guns or drugs in the car,” Jones recalls over the phone. “I was like ‘Nope,’ because I didn’t and then I thought about it and was like ‘Damn, I do got some weed in the car, you know an afterthought. He was able to read it.”
Jones could laugh about it now. His poker face was “no good,” he said with a laugh.
“Is it a gun?” he recalled Crystal asking.
“Hell no it ain’t no gun,” Jones said.
Jones had a young man riding with him. He had no record. No knowledge of the tags or the weed. He was cursing at the cops. Jones’ family and friends had gathered and they were also cursing.
“Of course they are irate. ‘This little bit of weed, why are you doing this?’ And everybody is directing it at Joe. This man held his composure, unbelievably,” Jones said.
“The gentleman who was with me in the vehicle, the boss told him, ‘Lock both of them up.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa fellas. He has no record. He has never been arrested in his life. Don’t give him this charge.’”
Crystal did not take the other young man to jail, but he did bring Jones in to Central Booking.
“It was respect. It was something I’d never experienced from another officer before in my life,” he said. “Yeah, I’m going to jail but I was wrong and we stuck by the letter of the law. He didn’t try to disrespect me or stand on my neck.”
They found out they lived near one another and the two eventually became friends.
Still, Crystal was a drug cop, and he wasn’t exactly “Officer Friendly”—the name that comes up when any old-time citizen talks about good policing. He got into some hairy situations. He shot a man named Jamar Holt in the summer of 2011 after stopping his car, suspecting he had bought heroin from another man they had been following.
When they approached the car, Holt reached for a gun. Crystal testified that he saw Holt take “his right hand off the steering wheel,” and move it down out of sight and then raise a handgun and point it “directly at Detective McShane.”
Crystal yelled and told his partner James McShane that Holt had a gun. According to their testimony, the car then moved toward McShane and he started shooting. Then Crystal shot. “I thought I hit him in the back and it came out his chest. Three seconds later he hits the gas and floors it,” Crystal recalled.
The police later arrested Holt when he checked himself into a hospital.
Crystal could not sleep that night. His adrenaline was rushing. Then when a story came out in the Sun, the comments upset him more. His wife, Nicole, called his mother. She invited them to come visit for the weekend.
The shooting was on a Wednesday. He was packing to go out of town on Thursday night when his lieutenant, Sean Miller, called and said he had to work and serve warrants the next morning, two days after he was involved in a shooting—a practice that makes the job even more dangerous for civilians and officers alike.
When the case came to court, even though the stop was initially ruled illegal, the judge commended Crystal’s testimony.
“I am impressed by the detectives. I don’t see them here, so I’m going to say it again, I am very impressed by their candor with the Court,” she said. “Especially Detective Crystal. I think he was being honest and truthful and forthright. I think he was clear about what he was doing, and why he was doing it. And for that I greatly appreciate the testimony.”
Even if he did it right, he knew the shooting affected him. He doesn’t like to tell the story about what happened six months after he shot Holt because it was one of his worst moments: When he tried to pull a driver over and the guy briefly hit the gas and fled, Crystal’s adrenaline was flowing by the time the suspect pulled over. When the man reached for the parking break, Crystal says the back of his neck went hot. “Fuck, he’s going for a gun,” he thought.
“Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t fucking do it,” he remembers yelling. “I pulled my gun. Grabbed him through the window and pulled him out of the car.”
He realized the man did not have a gun and he apologized, he says. It is something that still bothers him—and something he knows the department is still not good at dealing with.
Crystal was also involved in a car wreck in a take-home vehicle, which resulted in an internal affairs complaint.
It was a minor matter at the time, but it would come back up and affect Crystal’s application to return years later.
Back when Crystal was working on the drug unit, the model for many of the detectives was Wayne Jenkins, the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force, who was indicted last year on federal racketeering, robbery, and corruption charges.
“People talked about him like he was the messiah of drugs,” Crystal says. “You know like, he could stop a guy that he got for a pill and get from that guy, the guy who sold him the pack and then the supplier of the pack and from there the guy he got the raw heroin from. He had this name like you know you talking about him like he was, you know, eight foot tall and bulletproof.”
That rhetoric, especially from the bosses, had effects.
“If you wanted to be a drug cop, truth be told, you wanted to be like Wayne,” Crystal says.
Crystal was working under another very-well connected sergeant—Mariano Gialamas—when things went wrong.
According to the terms of a settlement they reached, neither Crystal nor the department is able to talk about what happened in October 2011. But the events were well reported at the time, and are documented in court proceedings from testimony and a diary that Crystal kept, recording the details of the retaliation and intimidation he faced after he reported Gialamas and another officer for beating a suspect. I also spoke to Crystal at the time.
The Violent Crimes Impact Division (VCID) unit that Crystal was in rolled up on a crowd on Biddle St. When the crowd saw the knockers, people started to split. One man threw a bag of drugs over a fence and ran onto Prentiss Place. Often, Crystal would be the runner who would give chase. But he had hurt his ankle a few days earlier. He saw where the drugs landed and told his sergeant he would get the drugs. He stood there while the others chased the suspect, Antoine Green.
As he fled, Green kicked in the door to a row house and ran inside to hide. It turned out that the girlfriend of another cop, Anthony Williams, lived there. The cops caught him and charged him with breaking into the apartment, as well as drug possession, and started to take him. But before the van could reach Central Booking, Gialamas called the wagon on the radio and told the van to come back to the house. When it arrived, Williams and Gialamas assaulted Green and pulled him back to the van battered and with a broken ankle. Then they covered it up in the official police statements, saying they brought him in to apologize and noting that he sustained injuries when he fell.
Standing in the vestibule, Crystal could hear snippets of what was going on, and he could figure out what happened and he knew this wasn’t right. But he also didn’t know quite what to do. He went to a sergeant who told him to keep his mouth shut.
When he and his wife had brunch with Anna Mantegna, a prosecutor who had become a friend, he told her what had happened.
“When we had made the decision to go to Anna it was a decision we had made together and we went to her together. We made the decision to tell her because we were being shut down by other avenues when he was trying to do the right thing,” Nicole Crystal said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy path but we knew it was something he had to do.”
Once she got an idea what he was going to say, Mantegna told him he might want to think twice about what he was doing. They were friends, but she was also a prosecutor. She had an ethical responsibility, and if he said it, he wouldn’t be able to take it back. Now, she regrets ever even giving him that choice.
“I feel horrible, but I was afraid. It wasn’t going to be pretty,” she said in an interview. “I just wanted to eat my pancakes.”
He kept talking. Before they left the bar, Mantegna called Jan Bledsoe, who was working police integrity under then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein. Mantegna has since been fired in a move that she believes was intended to make her look like the “leak” in the GTTF case.
It was not easy for Mantegna, who was also friends with Gialamas. She didn’t want her name to come into it—but it did. Mantegna’s call to Bledsoe set into motion the legal wheels that would ultimately see Gialamas and Williams criminally charged on October 18, 2012. She was the one who told Bledsoe that she needed to get the police radio recordings of Gialamas calling the van back, before they were erased.
Once her name came out, police quit talking to Mantegna, whose father and grandfather were both police and who was close friends with many on the force. But it was also a professional problem, trying to arrange court dates. “You put my name out there and nobody calls me back,” she said, still angry.
It was Daniel Hersl, recently convicted on racketeering charges as part of the Gun Trace Task Force, who told them to lay off. “She was just doing her job,” she recalled him saying.
It was worse for Crystal. Even before charges came down, word started to circulate around the department that Crystal was a rat because he had gone to a supervisor to report their misconduct.
Reading the suit where the threats against Crystal are enumerated is chilling. One of Crystal’s superior officers called him and started yelling: “You better pray to God you are not the star witness, because your career is already fucked, but if you’re the star witness you may as well just resign.”
Fellow officers would drive by and ask Crystal if he wanted cheese—because rats like cheese. They said no one wanted to work with him.
“People don’t like you and you need to watch your back,” one officer said. The police union paid for Gialamas’ defense and did not help Crystal.
In November, 2012, Crystal was doing a drug investigation and called for back-up. No one came. When he asked his sergeant about it, he was told he was being removed from the drug squad. A couple weeks later he found a dead rat under his windshield.
His wife, Nicole, was terrified.
“I never could have imagined the weight of doing the right thing could have affected us,” she said. They called the police, in the county where they lived—a different jurisdiction. The county police considered it witness intimidation and forwarded the complaint to Internal Affairs in the city—but nothing ever came of it.
Nobody wanted to be “Joe Crystaled.”
One evening, when his wife was working nights at the hospital, his best friend on the force pulled up. He hadn’t said he was coming by. They stood outside and talked shit for a few minutes about cases they had worked. They were getting kind of emotional. “You know you gotta get the fuck out of here?” his friend said.
“I remember when we were talking, it was hard to even look at him when we were talking about it,” Crystal said. “I said to him, ‘Yeah, man. I know.’”
“Things will get straightened out in time,” Crystal recalled his friend saying. “If you stay here, they’re going to try to ruin you.”
“And he said, ‘I know you love it here. I know you want to be here,’” Crystal recalled his friend saying. “You need to go.’”
Crystal sued the the department. He was offered a job at a sheriff’s department in Florida and left the city. Nicole Crystal calls it exile. “Baltimore pushed us away,” she says.
“They tried to attack his character. They tried to attack our marriage. They tried to do those things instead and redirect and I stuck by the man I married because of the times I saw individuals on the street come to my husband personally, or call him and come up to him and say how he had changed their life,” Nicole Crystal said over the phone.
Crystal still works in Florida, in dignitary protection—he can’t say for what agency, although he has security clearance for various federal agencies and says it is a good job. But members of both his and his wife’s families got sick and they wanted to come back to Baltimore—home.
And, in some ways, the GTTF scandal made it seem easier to come back. Everyone was talking about rooting out corruption. Who could be better than Crystal?
At first, he was told that he would not be able to apply to come back as a returning employee but would have to go through the entire process again. Still, he says, it seemed like a good sign. He applied, and around Thanksgiving, he came up to Baltimore from Florida and took a polygraph test.
The test, he said, came back inconclusive.
“During the first polygraph test, the polygraph administrator asked me several questions during the interview before the test that was specifically about the lawsuit I had filed and about issues that were supposed to be sealed after I settled the lawsuit,” he later explained in a letter. “I explained to the administrator that the questions he was asking was related to information that was sealed and I did not want to violate the settlement agreement that I had entered with the department.”
Still, Crystal was sent more than one request for additional information about his IAD complaint stemming from the car wreck. The requests came from James Handley, who was at that time in charge of hiring.
“There’s nothing in my background that would keep me from getting this job,” he said.
On December 3, a letter came.
“Dear Joseph Crystal,
“On Behalf of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), thank you for your interest in being rehired for the position of Police Officer. This letter is to advise that you have not been selected for the position.
“Again, thank you for your interest in the BPD and I would like to take this opportunity to wish you success in your future endeavors.”
It was signed by Maj. James Handley.
Handley may have had good reason not to want a whistleblower cop. In 2014, he was in charge of the Southwestern District precinct when a young man, Tyree Woodson, was found dead in the bathroom, shot in the head with a Glock. Handley allowed Dale Mattingly, a detective with an ongoing beef with Woodson and an integrity investigation that kept him from testifying in a case against Woodson, to write the death report. Another detective moved the gun, wearing gloves that were simply thrown away—and the trash was taken out. The crime scene was not secured. There was nothing secure about the crime scene and nothing transparent about the investigation.
When Mayor Catherine Pugh replaced Kevin Davis with Darryl De Sousa, Crystal had good reason to hope. In the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force trial, where testimony revealed that named a dozen officers who had allegedly been involved in corruption and remained on the force, De Sousa was full of the rhetoric of reform. And he was talking about creating a special unit to root out corruption.
He was also bringing back a number of retired officers who had come up with him.
“They’re going to help us restore some of the culture we had in the past—the positive, strong culture with respect to community policing, patrol, not taking short cuts,” he said of the retirees slated to fill top positions.
And Handley was out. After being moved from the Southwest District into Human Resources, Handley was eventually placed in command of the Southwestern again. He was working there when Gov. Larry Hogan stopped by for a roll-call at the precinct and only four officers were present. Sources inside the department say the new commissioner was furious. Handley is now in charge of the medical division.
Some former members of the department have been reaching out to Crystal.
“There was a retired cop I never really talked to before and had reached out to me when the whole Gun Trace Task Force indictments came down and he said, ‘Bro I never wanted to believe this. I didn’t want to believe you but after seeing all this stuff with Gun Trace Task Force, I said a lot of negative shit about you and I owe you an apology,’” Crystal recalls. “I thought maybe … it would be the right time for somebody like me to come back to the agency you know. To show, like, look, this agency is different than it was three or four years ago. You know this guy is comfortable enough with us to come back.”
Crystal sent a letter to De Sousa, explaining his situation and expressing his desire to return.
Neither De Sousa nor anyone else from the department has officially responded.
“That’s a personnel matter that we are not at liberty to discuss,” spokesperson T.J. Smith wrote in response to a query about Crystal’s application. “Anyone is open to applying and they will be scrutinized through the same process.”
City Council President Jack Young calls the decision not to bring Crystal back “the worst thing that could ever happen.”
“I think he’s being blackballed because he told what happened,” he said. “I personally think it is retaliatory and I’m hoping Commissioner De Sousa looks into it and rights that wrong he needs to be commended for stepping up.”
But by now, Crystal feels resigned to exile from the home and the department that he loves. “What this tells me is that they don’t really want change. They want the allure of change,” Crystal said. “Truth be told is that they don’t want that because there’s going to be things that come up that they’re going to want to cover up.”
Additional reporting by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis. This story was done in conjunction with democracyincrisis.com