Baltimore jail case depicts a corrupt culture driven by drugs, money and sex
By Theresa Vargas, Ann E. Marimow and Annys Shin, Saturday, May 4, 4:12 PM
Inside a gray brick fortress, past a barbed-wire fence, two women in prison guard uniforms traded words about their pregnancies.
“Did he tell you we was having a son?” Tiffany Linder asked, according to court documents recounting the conversation. “Did you know about our baby?”
Chania Brooks said she didn’t care about that baby. That was their child, not hers.
“We having one, too,” she said. “So what?”
The two 27-year-old correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were sparring over an inmate who prosecutors said left both women with a permanent reminder of their allegiance to him.
To investigators, Tavon White is a thug who has been in and out of jail since he was 18, most recently on charges that he shot a fellow drug dealer four times.
He is allegedly a high-ranking “bushman” in the Black Guerilla Family, a gang with a reputation for not just killing its enemies but also burning down their homes.
Huh? A "high-ranking 'bushman' in the Black Guerilla Family"?
Original Bushman the Black Gorilla
What the ...
"Bushman" was the name of the famous gorilla in the Lincoln Park Zoo. When he was rumored to be dying in 1950, 120,000 Chicagoans came to see him in one day. Bushman is currently stuffed and on display at Chicago's Field Museum.
I suspect somebody is pulling somebody's leg over this whole Black Guerilla / Black Gorilla confusion, which I've theorized helped inspire the fine 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But I can't say who is yanking whose chain. This sounds like a racist joke that some old white cops made up and that the nice Washington Post reporters were too refined too grasp, but what do I know?
Other articles in local Baltimore media say a "bushman" is either middle-ranking or "relatively senior" in the Black Guerilla Family. I wonder what the top rank in the BGF is? Kong?
But during his three years at the state-run detention center, White, 36, was allegedly a figure who commanded respect, not only from fellow inmates in jumpsuits but also from many of the women in blue collared shirts and pressed slacks guarding him. Thirteen of them allegedly smuggled cellphones and drugs inside their hair, lunches and underwear for the man they called “Bulldog” or “Tay.” One tattooed his name on her neck, another on her wrist.
Bushman and fan at Field Museum
Four have carried his children.
... Just weeks before the two pregnant guards talked about the children they were expecting, a third allegedly pondered possible names for her son.
“What if I name the baby King?” Katera Stevenson, 24, asked in a wiretapped call to her sister recounted in the affidavit. “I like the name King. King Tavon White.”
... The inmates vastly outnumber the 625 guards, who make a base salary of $35,000 to $45,000 a year but can earn considerably more through overtime. They receive five to six weeks of training before entering — without any weapons to protect themselves — what one former guard calls “a city within a city.” ...
The corruption extends far beyond the 13 women charged, the affidavit suggested, with one inmate estimating that as many as 70 percent of the corrections officers were compromised. ...
Chania Brooks’s hands were shaking. She had just seen an inmate get attacked by a fellow gang member, blood spilling from his head, the affidavit said.
She needed advice, so she went to get it. Not from a supervisor. From White.
“I abandoned my post,” Brooks said in an intercepted call between her and White. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I thought he was going to have to go 911.”
Brooks has denied the charges against her, including the allegation that White fathered her child. ...
Documents that investigators recovered from the Black Guerrilla Family detail how its new members are taught to target specific officers. Look for women, they are told, with “low self-esteem, insecurities, and certain physical attributes.”
The manipulation of young female officers often starts with a smile or a brief conversation, said a former inmate very familiar with the gang’s tactics. Then the inmate slips the guard a few hundred bucks in exchange for bringing him a pack of cigarettes.
“Once that door is open, you find your way in,” said the former inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. “It’s a hustle game.”
The gang also recruits relatives, girlfriends and fellow gang members without criminal records to apply for positions as correctional officers to establish a network of operatives within the prison walls, he said.
As many as 80 percent of correctional-officer applicants in the central region, which includes Baltimore, do not make it through the background investigation, said Binetti, the corrections spokesman.
Among those who do, women seem to dominate. More than 60 percent of the corrections officers in Baltimore’s jails are women, Maryland officials estimate.
By comparison, women make up 37 percent of the guards in the District, a D.C. Corrections Department spokesman said.
Regardless of the jurisdiction, officials say, all guards receive training on how to deal with the con games they will encounter inside prisons. They are warned how easily a compliment can turn into a favor, which can turn into an obligation.
Jon Galley, a top Maryland corrections official, said he likes to show trainees a copy of a how-to guide, confiscated from an inmate’s cell, that lays out how to win over guards. The two pages of tips include dropping a “kite,” or love note, confessing to the officer that the inmate “felt a connection to her, that she was beautiful.” ...
Soon after White was born, court records show, his father began serving a life sentence for murder, and his mother struggled with drugs. He was raised largely by his grandparents and lived for a time in McCulloh Homes, a bleak public housing project in West Baltimore, said one family member.
His own troubles began early, court records show. He was expelled from middle school in eighth grade. By 19, he was a convicted murderer who would spend seven years behind bars.
It isn’t clear when his alleged gang ties began. His most recent charge — attempted murder — stems from a fight with one of his “boys” over a cocaine sale in 2009, according to court documents. White was charged with firing four bullets at close range into the man’s ankle, thighs and buttocks.
White, prosecutors said during his trial in December, wanted to make sure there was no doubt about who was in charge.
“Lesson learned: One shot at Tavon White’s ego gets you four in the body,” Assistant State’s Attorney Katie O’Hara told a Baltimore jury as White watched calmly from the defense table.
But White’s attorney, Melissa Phinn, raised doubts about the credibility and consistency of testimony from key witnesses, and the jury deadlocked on the attempted-murder charge. They had done the same in an earlier trial.
Now White is awaiting a third trial, scheduled for June, at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Last week, he pleaded not guilty in federal court to racketeering, money-laundering and drug-dealing charges.
What his criminal history doesn’t reveal, a family member said, is the loyal grandson and doting father who attended PTA meetings, accompanied his children to church and took them to Six Flags and Sesame Place. (In January, White called his grandmother Bessie Timmons from the detention center to tick off the due dates of the guards he had impregnated, according to the affidavit.)
In jail, he played chess and read novels, court records show. Between prison stints, he cleaned swimming pools and packed boxes for a moving company.
That is what he was doing when he met Danielle Hall at a Wendy’s down the street from McCulloh Homes. The two moved in together and had a daughter, who is now 7.
“Tavon will always be a good guy in my book,” said Hall’s mother, who asked not to be identified by name, because of safety concerns. She said she was floored by the allegations that White was a gang leader at the detention center but not by his appeal to so many of the female correctional officers.
“He’s a hunk,” she said. “He’s got a mean-looking body, a body that’s all that, that says, ‘Catch me if you can.’ ”
Jennifer Owens had her diamond ring and her flashy cars and the name of the man who had provided them tattooed on her neck, according to the indictment. The 31-year-old correctional officer, who lives in Randallstown, drove around in two Mercedes-Benzes allegedly financed by the gang leader, one black and one white.
In return, she gave him two children in two years.
“Like really, who the f— does that?” Owens said in an intercepted call to an unidentified woman in October. She called herself dumb but also said, “I don’t regret it.”
Several former detention center guards said White could not have run such a large criminal enterprise without the help of higher-ups, tacit or explicit. But none have been implicated. ...
The challenge will be changing the culture of a place where, according to the affidavit, the names of 14 female guards were scrawled on a wall along with the price they allegedly charged for sexual favors: $150.
... At least one of the 13 officers charged had been accused of gang ties at the detention center before. In 2008, inmate Tashma McFadden sued officer Antonia Allison, 31, for allegedly allowing a group of inmates who belonged to the Bloods to attack him in his cell. McFadden was stabbed 32 times; Allison, who denied having gang ties, remained on the job. Allison could not be reached for comment.
Investigators were told that White and other gang leaders had informal agreements with jail officials: They would reduce violence inside the detention center and, in exchange, officials would “turn a blind eye to contraband smuggling and actively protect White and the [Black Guerilla Family] by warning them of investigations,” according to the affidavit.
All 13 correctional officers who are awaiting trial have been suspended without pay.
In other words, still nobody has been fired.
The case against them could take two months to lay out for a jury, prosecutors say.
No matter what happens in court or at the jail in the months to come, one fact remains indisputable: Tavon White ensured his legacy.
Tiffany Linder is due any day.
So, what's the over-under line on how many years that kid will wind up incarcerated?