“THERE AIN’T NO LEGITIMATE BUSINESS ANYWHERE.”
SERGEANT WAYNE JENKINS was going the wrong way. He steered a silver Malibu full of plainclothes cops against traffic on a residential street, rolling past brick row houses with white trim and pitched roofs resting atop dappled hills spotted with resurgent spring grass. He was looking for a monster.
Jenkins, the only white man in the car, was the driver, and he was the boss, the officer in charge of this brutal, four-man squad. Detective Marcus Taylor, the runner, sat in the front seat beside Jenkins, ready to jump out and give chase. In the back seat, Maurice Ward, the unit’s steady hand, and Evodio Hendrix, the squad member most often burdened with completing the paperwork that would legitimate the baroque kind of bust about to play out on Jonquil Avenue, a one-way street in Northwest Baltimore.
These men in tactical vests, cargo pants, and running shoes, part of the Baltimore Police Department’s Special Enforcement Section (SES), knew as much as anyone about the city’s underground economy of guns and drugs and the desperation that drove people to them.
“Sarge,” as they called Jenkins when they weren’t just calling him Wayne, was always further indoctrinating them into his philosophy of hot-rod policing, wrinkling his forehead with two big creases folded horizontally above a nose slightly too narrow for his wide, doughy face as he squinted and gesticulated, giving orders, never just saying but emphasizing—yelling, whispering, condemning, cajoling.
The words of Wayne Jenkins were actions.
Over his thirteen years on the force, he had studied the habits and customs of the drug trade and developed an arcane set of rules about how the game is played. Acura TLs, Honda Accords, and Honda Odysseys were “dope boy” cars, he explained, and stopping them often paid off. Driving the wrong way on one-ways added the element of surprise. Pulling up fast on a corner and popping open the passenger door and chasing whoever ran did too. He called it a “door pop.” It was a numbers game. The more people they stopped, the more likely they were to get drugs or a gun.
These rules were all variations on a principle Jenkins had learned well: Don’t let probable cause get in the way of a good arrest.
Another rule: Stop and search anyone over eighteen years old with a backpack.
So when Demetrius Brown, a thirty-six-year-old black man, jogged out of one of the row houses with a camo backpack and got into a minivan idling against the curb, Jenkins hit the gas. His prowling, weaponized midsize sedan rigged with a siren and flashing lights sprang forward and then stopped short, inches from the van’s front tire, at an angle, just close enough that there was no way the van could pull out.
Oreese Stevenson, the van’s driver, saw SES detectives fanning out of the car, heavy black vests flashing POLICE in white letters, a burly, bulldog-like white guy and a thin black guy with a flattop coming up on each side of the van, and right behind them, two more. One superfast, nervous and wormy, and the other bearded, older looking.
They did not draw the weapons hanging from their waists. They didn’t need to.
“How much money you have in the box between your feet?” Jenkins barked in his Baltimore white-boy accent—part Philly whine and part Southern drawl with smashed, elongated vowels tempered by the black slang he’d picked up on the streets.
“What money?” Brown asked, moving the backpack that held a Quaker Oats box packed with $20,000 out of view with his feet.
Stevenson, a thirty-six-year-old black man with the bulk of an over-the-hill linebacker—or an ex-con—said little, stoic in a minivan on a suburban street at 3:30 in the afternoon on a cloudy spring day, March 22, 2016.
“You don’t have a warrant,” Brown said, tightening his ankles around the backpack on the floor of the van. “You can’t search me.”
There was no legal reason for this stop, but the two black men were not shocked to see the cops come jamming up the wrong way and block them in. The city was at war, had been ever since they could remember. People said police had been lying low since Freddie Gray. You couldn’t tell it from these guys.
Hendrix said something about how Stevenson’s windshield was tinted—that always looked good on paper, even if the tints weren’t dark enough to violate the law.
Ward slid the van’s door open and saw another backpack, zipped shut in the middle seat. He unzipped it, found a half kilo of coke, and said something to his squad about the Steelers, the hated Pittsburgh rival of Baltimore’s beloved football team, the Ravens.
Steelers was code SES used to announce drugs or guns.
“Don’t move. Put your hands up,” Jenkins said.
They pulled Stevenson and Brown from the car. Taylor handcuffed them. Jenkins patted them down, took their keys and their cell phones—Stevenson had more than one phone on him—and read them their Miranda rights.
“At any time being questioned by myself or another officer, you have the right to answer questions or refuse to answer questions,” Jenkins said.
He usually rushed through the words, impatient and nearly poking the culprit in the chest with his restless, stubby fingers, annoyed to have to go over all of this again by rote.
Taylor filmed the ritual with his cell phone. Smart cops created and controlled video. Always be aware of how you tell the story, on paper and later in court, and always make sure you’re the one with the footage, and don’t fuck up and forget about a security camera up on a pole or let bystanders take their own video that might contradict you.
A woman came out of the house they’d seen Brown exit. She had her phone out. Taylor saw it too and rushed right past her and into the house. She turned to follow Taylor, and Jenkins snatched her phone so she couldn’t record or call for help. Inside the house, Jenkins started asking her questions. She was the mother of Brown’s children. Taylor went upstairs and looked around for drugs, for cash, for guns.
Nothing. They walked back outside.
Jenkins had to work fast. A serious gambler, he often got lucky, but he wasn’t lucky enough to pull up on a cocaine deal in a residential neighborhood by accident. This was more than investigative intuition. Jenkins had studied up on Stevenson, researched his history and the federal drug case that had snagged him a decade earlier. He had shown Ward the news stories about Stevenson and all his high-powered, politically plugged-in associates who had been charged. Now many of them were back at it, and he was watching them.
“This is a big one,” Jenkins told Hendrix.
He followed a procedure: Tell Stevenson he could go free if he’d flip and give them another name—his plug or a rival dealer. Jenkins would work his way up the ladder that way. All that stop-snitching talk was bullshit that applied only to testifying. On the street, most people were more than ready to talk if it meant that they could walk and nothing ever went on paper, especially younger guys who would give up their own mama if it helped them out.
Jenkins put Stevenson back in the van, in the middle seat where the coke had been, and got in beside him.
* * *
REARED UNDER THE equally strict regimes of Stop Fuckin’ Snitching and Zero Tolerance, Stevenson and Jenkins had more in common as enemies than they had with anyone out there in the straight world.
In the early 2000s, after getting out of prison for manslaughter, Stevenson was running a dope shop for a crew that the feds dubbed the Rice Organization in the Park Heights neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. Howard and Raeshio Rice and their crew funneled $27 million in heroin into the city. Stevenson helped, and when they got snagged in a federal investigation, he got caught on the wiretap, which was enough for RICO Act conspiracy charges.
Stevenson pleaded out to a state charge to avoid federal time on the RICO claim, but he stood tall and didn’t rat on nobody. He was home in 2011 and got a truck-driving job, lost it, and eventually ended up here, sitting handcuffed in a van, about to be questioned by a wily jump-out boy with big dreams.
When the Rice Organization case began in 2003, Jenkins was just a skinny, shy-eyed rookie on the force. While Stevenson was away, Jenkins transformed himself into a supercop, a star of statistical policing, scooping up guns, making arrests, getting numbers. He broke the rules sometimes and wrecked a lot of cars along the way, but that was the culture.
In 2009, Jenkins made an arrest that led to the headline BALTIMORE POLICE MAKE LARGEST-EVER DRUG SEIZURE. He and his partner turned in forty-one kilos of coke and $11,000. Jenkins said the dealer didn’t want the detectives to disturb his mom, so he led them straight to the massive bricks of blow stacked in the unlocked bed of his truck. It was that easy. No one questioned the story.
Top brass loved all that coke laid out for news cameras, and Jenkins got a Bronze Star for the bust.
Other cops marveled at his prowess and joked that Jenkins could nab the lowliest street dealer with a single gel cap of heroin one day and have the kingpin supplying the raw the next day.
Now these two old soldiers, each more than a decade deep into the endless drug war, sat in a minivan together on a leafy street, Stevenson saying nothing at all, and Jenkins running through his tricks.
He would try to level with a target first, talk real low about “keeping it a hundred” with him, floating freedom in front of him in the form of a question: “If you could put your own crew together and rob the biggest drug dealer you know, who would that drug dealer be?”
It wasn’t exactly snitching if you were answering a hypothetical question about a robbery.
He told Stevenson that he was a federal agent, one of his most common lies. The coke deal had come across a wiretap, he claimed. They knew who Stevenson was working with and who he was talking to, and now they had his phones, and since Stevenson wasn’t the target and they were after someone bigger, he should give up his connect.
Jenkins asked Stevenson where he lived. He gave them the address on his driver’s license, on Presstman Street in West Baltimore. They knew that wasn’t true. They said they had been watching his house. He lived on Heathfield Road in East Baltimore.
“Where do you live, sir?” Jenkins asked again.
“4100 Heathfield, sir,” Stevenson said, giving Jenkins the wrong street number.
Both men were strangely formal like that, calling each other sir. It was an act that had to play out even when everyone was lying to each other.
Jenkins mentioned Stevenson’s actual address on Heathfield, where he lived with his wife, Keona Holloway, and their kids. He told Stevenson that they had a team there right now, executing a search warrant. They had taken his keys and would use them to prove he lived there. They might end up arresting his wife. Stevenson didn’t give anybody up, but, Jenkins said, he copped to his stash—coke, cash, and guns. That was enough.
The interrogation ended.
Jenkins hopped out of the van, excited, his thick frame electrified. He called a wagon to come and take Stevenson and Brown to Central Booking.
They had two addresses for Stevenson, Jenkins announced to the squad. It made sense to check the Presstman Street place first. It was a plausible dope pad. Jenkins said he would call a sergeant from the Northeast District and tell him to go sit on the other house, the one on Heathfield Road, and make sure none of Stevenson’s boys got anything out of there before SES arrived.
Jenkins didn’t call the sergeant. He called Donny Stepp, a bail bondsman, cocaine dealer, and longtime Jenkins family friend.
“I need you to come to this address as quick as you can,” Jenkins told Stepp, giving him the Heathfield address. “I got a monster.”
* * *
STEPP, CUE-BALL BALD, with a giant gold cross hanging from a thick chain around his neck, knew what Jenkins meant by a monster—it was one of Jenkins’s favorite words, an honorific applied to dealers really worth robbing.
They’d had this kind of arrangement for years. Jenkins would tip Stepp off to a stash or deliver stolen drugs to him, and they would split the profits. They would sometimes watch a guy for months. Stepp bought all sorts of specialized equipment through Double D Bail Bonds, his bail bonds company.
Stevenson had not been one of their shared targets, so Stepp wasn’t sure what Jenkins knew, but, generally, he wouldn’t leave the house unless it was a big job. Some $20,000 pissant robbery didn’t do it for Stepp, but if Jenkins had a monster, he was in.
Jenkins gassed Stepp up some more over the phone, told him Stevenson was a “drug lord.”
Copyright © 2020 by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg