BALTIMORE (AP) - It seems Tavon “Bulldog” White is still in control, but this time it’s from the witness stand rather than behind bars.
It’s been more than a year since White pleaded guilty to running a criminal enterprise from within the Baltimore City Detention Center, where prosecutors say he used smuggled cellphones to direct crimes on the streets, oversaw the distribution of narcotics, and impregnated four prison guards who helped him and other jailed Black Guerilla Family gang members operate with impunity.
Now, the man federal investigators authorized tens of thousands of wiretaps to nab is poised to testify as the government’s star witness against the only defendants of the 44 charged who did not accept plea deals: two inmates, five corrections officers and a state employee.
The trial for those defendants began Wednesday with prosecutors and defense attorneys seeming to agree on only one thing: When White takes the stand, his testimony will be crucial.
Prosecutor Robert Harding said Wednesday that corrupt guards allowed the state-run jail to become the undisputed turf of the Black Guerilla Family and White its area commander.
“We’re about to go into a strange place,” Harding told jurors during opening statements, “an upside down world where inmates ran the prison and correctional officers took directions from the gang leader, all of them participating in an ongoing contraband and narcotics trafficking organization inside the prison.”
Just who was boss in the Baltimore jail became evident in a call “Bulldog” made to a friend in January 2013 while he was behind bars awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge, court papers show.
“This is my jail. You understand that,” White was recorded as saying. “I make every final call in this jail … everything come to me.”
“Whatever I say is law,” White said in another call a month later. “I am the law.”
On Wednesday, Harding described a jail plagued with corruption, where criminals operated without consequence. Four of the five officers on trial had sex with gang members, he said.
“There was no raising of the BGF flag on the guard tower, but a gradual assumption of an incredible amount of power by the prison gang,” Harding said. “They operated an underground economy in the prison for years. How is this possible?”
“People were supposed to be protecting the public interest but instead opted to form an alliance with an exceedingly violent gang,” he said.
Harding outlined in detail the government’s case against each defendant on trial. Inmate Joseph “Monster” Young is accused of being a floor boss who punished inmates suspected of stealing cellphones from a fellow gang member. Russell Carrington, or “Rutt,” allegedly tried to recruit guards as smugglers.
The prison guards - Travis Paylor, Clarissa Clayton, Riccole Hall, Ashley Newton and Michelle Ricks- smuggled drugs and cellphones into the jail and allowed BGF members to administer beatings to other inmates without consequence, prosecutors say. Michelle McNair, who was working in the jail’s kitchen, also had sex with gang members, Harding said, and helped transport drugs through an underground tunnel connecting two of the facility’s buildings.
While most of the defense attorneys told jurors their clients were innocent or that the government lacked the evidence necessary to find them guilty, all of them told the jury White is not to be trusted.
Attorneys representing the corrections officers told jurors their clients had clean records, and the government has no way to prove any of them engaged in sexual relationships with BGF members or helped them traffic drugs and contraband.
“I challenge the government to bring some real evidence, more than just inmates saying, ‘I had sex with her,’” said Clayton’s attorney, Kevin McCants. “There’s no wiretap. Clayton never came up with drugs. The government’s witnesses can’t say the same thing.”
Carrington’s attorney, Tony Martin, insisted that his client shouldn’t be lumped together with those who already pleaded guilty to corruption charges and urged jurors not to believe “Bulldog.”
Young’s attorney, Richard Bardos, told jurors that for his testimony White will receive a 12-year sentence, to be served concurrently with a 20-year state sentence he received after being convicted of attempted murder.
“He gets no time from this case if he satisfies them,” he told the jury. “The majority of the government’s case relies on Tavon. You will hear Tavon a lot. You will hear one of his cohorts say he’s a good liar. He may be a good liar, but a liar nonetheless.”
McNair’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, told jurors that her client was afraid of the gang and told them she wouldn’t participate in the scheme despite repeated efforts on behalf of White and other members to recruit her.
On Wednesday, Hernandez likened accepting a plea bargain to taking a bribe, and told jurors she believes the evidence will show that White “is a predator.”
Hernandez said White is also a master manipulator, and “can sell ice to Eskimos,” adding that some of the other witnesses who accepted plea deals in exchange for their testimony are “psychopaths and scoundrels.”
“This is like the worst of reality shows,” Hernandez said. “Jerry Springer has nothing on it.”
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