Gun Trace Task Force trial highlights callous cops, structural inequality

On Aug. 31, 2016, two cars full of Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) officers watched in the distance as two cars that had just collided sat on the sidewalk badly damaged, with the state of the passengers unknown.

Detective Jemell Rayam suggested they get out and help, but aiding the injured drivers was not an option because Sgt. Wayne Jenkins—who was described by those he commanded in the GTTF as both a “prince” in the Baltimore Police Department and as “crazy”— told them not to do anything.

He had also, told them to initiate the chase that led to this moment.

So they waited, listening to the radio, waiting for a concerned citizen to call in the crash or for other cops to come to the scene.

This is all according to Rayam, who pleaded guilty along with all of the officers except for Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, and seemed visibly shaken and sometimes confused. It was his second day testifying in the ongoing federal corruption trial of the GTTF.

And though Taylor’s defense relied solely on presenting the witnesses as liars, what Rayam said was corroborated by audio from a bug the FBI had planted in the car of GTTF detective Momodu Gondo.

Rayam explained it all began that day when Jenkins saw a car he wanted to stop at a gas station. The car fled and both Jenkins and Gondo, each driving an unmarked car, drove after it in pursuit. The car they were pursuing ran a red light and, in Rayam’s words, was “pretty much T-boned,” by another car.

“It was bad, real bad,” Rayam said. “Both of the cars collided with each other.”

Briefly, he couldn’t answer follow up questions—a crying Rayam wasn’t sure which crash they were asking about.

“There were so many car accidents,” he said.

Instead of checking on the victims of the accident, the members of the GTTF sat tight and waited, worrying that their role in the event may have been discovered.

“None of us stopped to render aid or to see if anyone was hurt,” Rayam said.

On the tape, Hersl suggested covering it up: “We could go stop the slips at 10:30 before that happened. ‘Hey I was in this car just driving home,’” he said, and laughed.

The trial, now in its second week, has presented a tremendous amount of evidence showing that the officers claimed overtime for hours they did not work.

Hersl laughed again on the tape and wondered what was in the car.

Jenkins and others worried that Citiwatch may have it all recorded—they hoped the rain that night would make them hard to see—and worried the pursued may be able to mention he was chased.

“That dude is unconscious. He ain’t saying shit,” Taylor said.

“These car chases. That’s what happens. It’s a crapshoot, you know?” Hersl said.

This was an extraordinary statement to hear coming from Hersl as his family sat in the courtroom. In 2013, a driver—who was being followed, but not chased, by a state trooper—killed Hersl’s brother Matthew in front of City Hall in downtown Baltimore. WBAL said that Stephen, Herl’s other brother, told them Matthew “didn’t drive because he didn’t like traffic and thought drivers were dangerous.”

This incident wherein a chase led to a car crash echoes other events in this case. In 2010, Jenkins, Officer Ryan Guinn, and Det. Sean Suiter initiated a chase that also ended in a crash—one that was fatal. According to the federal indictment, the officers had a sergeant come and bring an ounce of heroin to plant in the back of the car they were pursuing, before giving first aid to the man, who ultimately died. Umar Burley, who was driving the car they chased, was recently freed from federal prison. Sean Suiter was murdered a day before testifying in the case—and the police car bringing him to Shock Trauma crashed on the way there. Guinn was reinstated to BPD after a two-week suspension—and, last week in court, another Gun Trace Task Force member Maurice Ward testified that Jenkins told him that Guinn had informed the squad that they were under investigation.

Hersl has admitted to stealing money, but his lawyers are arguing that because he had probable cause he did not rob his targets—and did not use violence to take the money. He glared at Rayam as he testified about the wreck and various thefts. Rayam has confessed to dealing drugs, stealing drugs, and strong-arm robbery. In court, he suggested that Momodu Gondo, with whom he worked closely, had discussed other serious crimes, including a possible murder.

He alluded on several occasions to the numerous internal affairs complaints against Hersl but the judge shut him down—that information was not admissible in court. On another occasion, federal prosecutors asked Rayam if Hersl gave him money for selling cocaine. Hersl’s lawyer objected and the judge sustained the objection.

But the overall sense is that, for the Gun Trace Task Force—and especially Jenkins, who has pleaded guilty but is not expected to testify—Baltimore City was at once a killing field and playground.

It is too easy to see Jenkins and Gondo and Rayam as sociopathic exceptions who are especially depraved. More testimony later the same day shows how this behavior stems from creating a city which criminalizes—or at best contains—a large part of its population. This structural disdain for life became clear in testimony from Herbert Tate, one of the witnesses against Hersl, who was treated like a criminal by defense attorneys.

Tate said he was on Robb Street in the Midway neighborhood on Nov. 27, 2015 to see old friends. A few days earlier, he said, Hersl had stopped him on Robb Street, searched him, and given him a slip of paper—not a proper citation, just a piece of paper—called it a warning, and said, “Next time I see you, you’re going to jail.”

It was about 5 p.m., Tate said, when he was walking up the street with an alcoholic beverage—he couldn’t remember if it was beer or wine—when Hersl, Officer Kevin Fassl, and Sgt. John Burns pulled up on him. Tate says that Hersl told Fassl to grab him. Fassl searched him, including searching his waistband and putting their fingers in his mouth, and then sat him down in handcuffs. In his pockets, they found $530 in cash, some receipts, and pay stubs—but no drugs. Hersl, Tate testified, dug around in vacants and on stoops looking for drugs. He went around a corner for about 10 minutes, Tate said, and came back with “blue and whites.”

Tate testified that he did not know what “blue and whites” were at the time but later learned it was heroin. Hersl sat beside his lawyer, William Purpura, glowering as Tate testified that Fassl asked Hersl what to do with the money and Hersl said, “Keep it.”

When Tate asked them to count it, he says that Burns got angry and bragged about how much money he made. According to a 2016 spreadsheet of Baltimore City employee salary data, Burns brought in a little more than $86,000, but with overtime—one of the main issues at stake in the case—he made nearly double that, bringing in $164,403 in 2016. On Feb. 21, 2017—just over a week before the Gun Trace Task Force indictments came down, Burns took medical leave and began raising funds with a GoFundMe account that claimed he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome triggered, the fundraiser says, from “inhaling fecal matter during a search warrant.”

By the time the money made its way into evidence, the $530 had become $216. When Tate was released from jail, he was given 91 cents back. He never saw the rest of the money.

Defense lawyers made a different issue out of the money. Christopher Nieto, who is representing Marcus Taylor, who was not involved in Tate’s arrest at all, made a point of mentioning that some of the money submitted as evidence was in small bills like singles, fives, and tens.

“Dollar bills suggest drug distribution,” Nieto said.

“Everybody has dollar bills,” Tate responded.

The claim was odd in the context of a trial in which it had been repeatedly stated that large sums of cash also indicated drug dealing. Whatever amount of money African-Americans have in Baltimore City can indicate criminal activity, apparently: Tate had a 2003 charge tied to possession and distribution of narcotics, for which he took probation before judgement and admitted on the stand that when he was in high school he “did some things”—meaning small-time dealing—but had never been arrested back then.

Nieto repeatedly referred to Robb Street as “an open air drug market,” “a drug neighborhood,” and a “not a great neighborhood.” A perception encouraged, in part, because these neighborhoods are criminalized.

“That’s what y’all label it as, but that’s not what it is to me,” said Tate, who testified that he had grown up in the area and had friends and family there and coached a children’s basketball team in the area.

Nieto also said that Tate had a black ski mask when he was arrested, though Tate said he had it on him because it was cold and that he was wearing it as “a winter hat.”

This attitude displayed in the questioning of Tate (that certain people are inherently criminal) is the animating force behind the GTTF criminal enterprise, but it isn’t that far from the assumptions of our criminal justice system, which, in 21st century American cities, is based on an almost Calvinist view of crime: If some people are criminal, nothing you do to them can be criminal.

Because of the 2015 arrest, Tate said, he lost his job because he was in jail for four days, then lost his car because he couldn’t pay for it because he lost his job and couldn’t get another job because of the narcotics charge—and to this day, he owes a friend for the bail.

“I’m still paying them back,” Tate said.

In March of 2016, the state dismissed Hersl’s charges against Tate—a common occurrence in Baltimore. After the charges were dismissed, Tate was able to get another job, as an HVAC technician, which he has to this day. He also said that after the arrest, he moved away from Baltimore to Anne Arundel County.

“I got out of the city,” he said.

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