WILLIAM JAMES AND TIFFANY COBY were driving up Hillen Road, heading to the mall when a car, driven by a member of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), sped up in front of them and cut them off.
Then a second car zoomed up behind them and slammed on its breaks. Wayne Jenkins, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor, and Daniel Hersl got out of the two unmarked police cars wearing vests with POLICE printed across them. They removed James and Coby from the car and separated them.
It was August 18, 2016, just over a week after the Department of Justice issued its scathing report on the unconstitutional policing practices of the Baltimore Police Department.
Seven minutes after GTTF stopped James’ car, the 29-year-old Amazon employee and dirt bike rider was handcuffed and charged with possessing a gun.
“A gun? What gun?” Coby demanded.
She asked the cops where they had found it. She hadn’t even seen them go into the car. One of the officers told her that it was sticking up out of the center console.
She knew there was no gun there and she tried to tell them.
“Give him a kiss and tell him goodbye,” one of the officers said to Coby.
She told them that she and James were going on a trip to Atlanta the next day. The cop said if James had no open warrants, he’d be out by then. Then he ordered her to take the car and drive away.
James, who was prohibited from possessing a firearm, was charged with six felonies related to the gun and denied bail. The couple did not go on their trip to Atlanta. Days turned into months. James had been working at the Amazon warehouse outside the city and without his income, Coby struggled to pay the bills and, within a few months, their house was in the process of foreclosure.
“We almost lost our home,” Coby said. “He was the provider for the family, so it was hard for me to maintain everything. I had to take care of his car, my car, the home, the kids, all of that.”
Then, on March 1, 2017, the news broke that seven Baltimore Police officers had been indicted: Jenkins, Hersl, Rayam, and Taylor from her husband’s arrest along with Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix,and Maurice Ward. Coby recognized some of the faces on the news—especially Jenkins.
“That’s the white guy” she said, shocked, when Jenkins’ wide face appeared on the screen. “These are the same police that pulled us over.”
It was a strange sensation. Coby had never had much dealing with the police and so, even after what had happened to James, she still couldn’t quite believe that the detectives in GTTF would commit the kinds of crimes they had been accused of—robbery, racketeering, drug-dealing. On paper, it made what they had done to James look insignificant. But they had stolen seven months of his life. And he was still sitting behind bars.
Coby was still watching the news in shock when the phone rang.
A familiar recorded voice told her an inmate was calling from the Baltimore City Detention Center.
“Are you watching TV?” James said when his voice came scratching through.
Coby thought, now that they had been vindicated, that they would just let James go. That’s not how it worked. She had to hire a lawyer to file motions to get James out. Finally, one day, with no real warning, he called and said he was getting out on March 24.
After seven months in lock-up, James wanted a haircut. But he wanted justice first and so, before he even went to the barber, he went to the law office of Mandy Miliman, who had been helping him with another incident involving a car accident, to see about filing a suit.
“He sat right here the day he got out and said what can we do,” Miliman said. “He knew something had to be done.”
Although some suits had previously been filed in federal court, James’ was the first civil suit against GTTF members to be filed in state court. It moved through the courts and early this year, there was a ruling in favor of James. That ruling only applied to the individual officers—who likely did not have the ability to pay—and so now the question of the responsibility of Baltimore City arose.
Are police officers “acting within the scope of employment” when they commit a crime using police time, resources, and authority to further their crime?
If officers were not acting within the scope of their employment—in other words, if they had gone totally rogue—then Baltimore could be freed from its obligation, under the Local Government Tort Claims Act and the Memorandum of Understanding with the Fraternal Order of Police, to pay judgments won in lawsuits against them.
If they were acting in the scope of their employment, then the city is on the hook to indemnify the officers and pay their victims.
So far, the City has argued that members of GTTF were acting as gangsters, not as cops, but in order to gain a more definitive resolution to the issue, the City entered into an unusual deal with James’ lawyer. Both parties have agreed on all of the factual particulars of the case in hopes that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will determine whether the city is financially responsible for the actions of crooked cops.
If the high court makes a ruling, it will make it easier for the city to determine the dozens of cases that will surely emerge out of the GTTF case.
I STUMBLED ON William James’ suit in Case Search one day in mid-April and I saw that he had been awarded $32,000. I knew the city hadn’t been paying on these cases and I was confused. Was the city now paying out? I called City Solicitor Andre Davis and, to my surprise, he told me to come in and talk the following Monday.
Davis wanted to explain what he was trying to do with the GTTF cases, but because he did not want the cases to be jeopardized, he asked me to agree to an embargo until the various motions had been filed. I agreed.
In 2003, as a federal judge, Davis called the sworn statements of Detective Thomas Wilson, a long-time friend and partner of GTTF’s Wayne Jenkins, “knowing lies.” And yet, as the City’s lawyer, he has steadfastly maintained that the GTTF officers alone are financially responsible for their actions. I was curious to hear his thoughts.
When I walked in on April 29, City Hall was in chaos. Then-Mayor Catherine Pugh had taken a leave-of-absence at the beginning of the month and, it seemed, she would neither return nor resign. Wooing the well-respected Davis away from the federal bench where he was a senior judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, to take the job as the City Solicitor was probably the last time that Pugh did anything that was described as a “stroke of genius.”
Reportedly, he refused Pugh’s offer twice before accepting it. As I walked into his office, I wondered if he regretted finally taking the job as the city’s lawyer.
It wasn’t only Pugh’s stupendous moral implosion—which would, a couple days hence lead to federal search warrants on City Hall—that I expected to weigh on Davis’ mind. He had a lot of unprecedented problems to deal with. The violence was getting worse and the City had just hired a new police commissioner, who would be responsible for implementing the Consent Decree between BPD and the federal government.
And then there was the reason I was there: the massive legal fall-out of the GTTF cases. The Office of the Public Defender and the State’s Attorney’s Office have been dealing with the several thousand criminal cases that need to be re-examined or overturned because of GTTF, and no one knows how many of those people will eventually file suit against the officers and Baltimore City.
One lawyer has already given the city notice of more than 30 suits he intends to bring for GTTF victims. However many suits there eventually are, Davis will have to deal with all of them.
And yet, Davis, a rotund Black man with a healthy white beard, sat in his second-floor office with a picture of Frederick Douglass on the door looking downright Falstaffian, almost jovial as he described the legal foundation for the question of “scope of employment.”
“So you’re not a lawyer, right?” Davis asked me after what must have been a particularly daft question as I attempted to figure out what he was trying to do. “You’re a better person for it.”
Davis made sure to stress, both in his office and his filings, that, whatever happened with this case, he was not saying that he would not ever pay citizens for GTTF crimes—but before that could happen, he needed a legal framework for the case.
“We need to know the rules of the road,” Davis said, and it was in search of such “rules,” which he called a “legal regime,” that Davis has made a deal with Miliman to get the case on the fast track to the Court of Appeals.
“She’s got the judgment,” Davis said of the $32,000 judgment Miliman won in James’ suit against the officers which really only means the cops owe but does not necessarily mean they have to pay. The Memorandum of Understanding with the police union says that the City has to cover the cops for such damages. So Miliman brought a separate suit against the City.
“And now she’ll file a lawsuit against the City,” Davis said. “And we’ll file an answer and deny that we owe any indemnity to Mr. James, then we will file a Motion for Summary Judgment.”
Summary judgement is when a party says the court should rule in its favor as a matter of law. So, because of the stipulation of the facts of the case, the City was saying in its filing that the courts should rule in the city’s favor, as a matter of law. From there, Miliman will file her own Motion of Summary Judgment, arguing that based upon the stipulated facts, the court should side with her, as a matter of law. Whichever side wins this case, the other will appeal the ruling and both will file motions asking for the case to skip the Court of Special Appeals and go straight to the Court of Appeals.
If it all works out the William James case will be the test case for payouts on GTTF crimes.
“So we’re hoping to get to the Maryland Court of Appeals for a decision. The key is going to be how they reasoned to whatever conclusion they get to,” Davis said. “What we need to know is, how is the Court going to evaluate all these factors, all of these elements and put them in a holistic test that we can apply in future cases.”
Just how it might apply to future cases is unclear.
“We did not expect to get an opinion in the James case from the Court of Appeals of Maryland that will resolve all future Gun Trace Task Force cases,” Davis said, because “in future cases there will be other facts.”
To make it more complicated, Davis wants to join the case with a federal case, with a similar set of facts, including allegations of planting a gun, so that the high court could make a ruling on state law that would apply in both state and federal cases so that there would be a clear way to decide future GTTF cases without a jury deciding on scope of employment in every individual case and creating chaos in the courts.
“The idea is to have one in state and one in federal court,” Davis explained. “We’re trying to get them on parallel tracks so that … they all get up to the Court of Appeals at about the same time and the Court of Appeals will then, at our request I hope, consolidate the three and basically they’ll have three factual platforms to look at to make the decision ‘is this within the scope of employment or is it not within the scope of employment.’”
At the time, Davis thought he would be able to strike a deal with the lawyers of two plaintiffs in federal cases. One of those lawyers has pulled his client out of the deal altogether and is pushing for a trial and so the plan is currently to try to join one federal case together with James’ case if he can strike a similar deal.
The deal is essentially this: the city and the plaintiff would agree on a broad set of facts that includes the crimes admitted to by GTTF members and the facts of the given case, so that the Court of Appeals can rule on the issue, which is often a factual matter for the jury to decide.
Here are the most pertinent facts of the James arrest, as filed in the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
“At the time that Plaintiff was pulled over, neither Plaintiff nor his girlfriend was committing any traffic infraction or engaged in illegal activity. After cutting off Plaintiff, Taylor exited one of the police vehicles, approached Plaintiff’s vehicle, and, without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause, pulled Plaintiff out of his car. Co-conspirator Taylor advised Plaintiff that he would release Plaintiff if Plaintiff provided the name of a person who possessed guns or drugs. Plaintiff could not, and did not, provide any such names. Co-conspirator Rayam then advised Plaintiff’s girlfriend that Plaintiff would be going to jail for possession of a gun. Plaintiff was not in possession of a gun, a weapon, or any illegal substances.
“The co-conspirators then huddled in a circle around their vehicles to converse. When they finished, Jenkins emerged with a gun and stated to Plaintiff, ‘This is your gun right here.’ None of the co-conspirators had searched Plaintiff’s person, Plaintiff’s girlfriend’s person, or Plaintiff’s car before Jenkins produced this gun. Indeed, this gun did not belong to Plaintiff.
“The co-conspirators then arrested Plaintiff and transported him to Baltimore
City Central Booking & Intake Center, where he was ordered to be held on no bail.
The co-conspirators charged Plaintiff with six felony counts related to illegal possession of a handgun.”
With this statement of facts, the City of Baltimore is officially acknowledging that GTTF planted guns. When the GTTF cops were arrested, Marcus Taylor had a BB gun in his car and in his trial another officer, Evodio Hendrix testified that Jenkins instructed GTTF members to carry BB guns in case they need something to plant. BPD Sergeant Keith Gladstone pled guilty to doing precisely that, but this is the first official acknowledgment that GTTF members planted handguns on people.
“Where is all this planting shit come, that’s ridiculous,” wrote Taylor, who was convicted of robbery and racketeering charges, but maintains his innocence, over a prison email system. “Please show me valid physical proof, because I can show proof that nothing like this ever happen involving me, I wouldn’t even put myself in that position and I would not ethically or morally allow that to happen.”
Taylor has long-claimed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office seized his phone, which he says contained exonerating evidence including evidence related to the James arrest, and would not return the phone to him.
“I don’t even know who my attorney for that is,” Taylor wrote in another email. “I sent several letters to the court to the FOP, to the City law department, BPD, with no response.”
Neil Duke, who is representing the officers, has not returned calls requesting comment.
Davis acknowledges that other suits, which make allegations against BPD officials, such as former Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere, who has already been named in federal cases, will be vastly different cases when it comes to scope of employment.
“We have cases in which it’s alleged that higher ups in the police department knew about, encouraged, tolerated, etc.,” Davis said. “We don’t have any of those facts in the James case. That’s what makes it possible to go to the Court and say, ‘You have to decide this case, just on these facts that we’ve given you.’ But in future cases, lawyers are going to be arguing that this is standard operating procedure for the Baltimore Police Department.”
THOUGH THE STATEMENT of facts acknowledges that the officers planted guns, it never refers to them as officers or detectives, but as co-conspirators, which is the essence of the city’s case: GTTF was a criminal conspiracy and was, by definition, outside of the scope of enforcing the law.
“Even though they were on duty and even though physically their acts look like policing it was—you heard me, I called them thugs in court—it was gangster. It was every bit of organized crime as the mob, over several years. So the argument is going to be: ‘this takes them outside the scope of their argument,’” Davis said. “Everything they did during the conspiracy was in furtherance of the conspiracy and the purpose of the conspiracy was for them to enrich themselves. It was not to enforce the law. As a collateral consequence of what they are doing, because they happened to police officers, every now and then they’d enforce the law.”
In other words, their intent—their “mens rea” in legal terminology—was not to enforce the law, but rather to enrich themselves and so they weren’t actually doing police work.
Miliman disputes the idea that the conspirators only occasionally enforced the law and were not acting as police officers when they arrested James.
“In my case in particular there’s nothing to substantiate the argument that the officers were acting in furtherance of their own interest rather than in furtherance of the city’s interest,” Miliman said. “The city created this Gun Trace Task Force for the purpose of getting guns off the street. And his arrest was textbook. They conducted a traffic stop, the arrested my client, they charged him with crimes.”
She noted further that the officers, who were on duty, used “police tools and procedures” to make the arrest.
“[The department] posted it on Facebook and said, you know, essentially another gun is off the streets, another criminal was arrested, and the Gun Trace Task Force did their job,” Miliman said.
The arrest did not further the criminal conspiracy and any benefit that came to the officers from it came from BPD: “They didn’t collect drugs from my client and sell them for their own benefit,” she said.
Davis claimed that the GTTF members probably would have robbed James if he had possessed money or drugs. And then they may not have arrested him. Since he didn’t have cash or drugs, they locked him up.
“The City is trying to do what it has to do to get out of paying these judgments because those judgments are likely to be substantial,” Miliman said. “There’s going to be countless claims rising against the city based on what these officers did.”
Davis denied that he is just trying to get the City off the hook. He says, among other things, that he’s trying to set up a legal regime that would provide officers with “an incentive to engage in constitutional behavior.”
“For too many years [police officers] didn’t have to worry about how they treat people because they thought ‘the City will take care of me,’” he said.
In terms of victims, he acknowledges that in some cases, “the City, as a matter of moral justice, should offer compensation” to a person wronged by members of GTTF.
He hopes that a ruling from the Court of Appeals, may encourage some potential plaintiffs to bring their cases to the City’s law department before they file a suit.
“We’re trying to get it out of the litigation posture and into the truth and reconciliation posture,” he said. “That’s what I, as City Solicitor would like to achieve.”
Talking to lawyers, it’s easy to get swept up in ideas and principles. The trick of the law is that it has to apply the general rule to the particular individual. William James lost seven months of his life sitting in a city jail. Who is responsible? And can that ever be made right?
When I called Miliman a couple days later to see if she could help set up a meeting with James, she told me that William James was murdered on April 29, shot in an alley off the 800 block of West Lexington.
A COUPLE MONTHS LATER, on July 3, I met Tiffany Coby, James’ widow, and his mother, Menyonde Lewis, at Miliman’s downtown office. The City had just filed its motion for Summary Judgment, which, for the first time, put the City on record claiming that GTTF planted guns.
The two women were grieving and confused and overwhelmed, but they had agreed to talk to me about James. It was difficult but they wanted to talk about James.
Miliman left the table and went and quietly got a box of tissues when they discussed his death.
“I had just got a phone call from him and he was going back home,” Coby said. “Two hours after he called me I got the phone call that he was killed. He didn’t sound like anything was wrong.”
“They say they got a video of everything,” Lewis said of BPD’s homicide investigators. “So if you got a video then why has nobody been arrested? They just keep saying ‘a person of interest.’”
“It just seemed kind of funny the way everything happened,” Coby said. “He was at home all the time, he wasn’t into the streets. It’s tough, you don’t know what to believe from the police anymore.”
“It’s strange ‘cause in that movie, it’s crooked police,” Lewis said.
“We was talking about that too. The movie and the way everything happened. So it’s a lot of mixed feelings about that,” Coby said.
The movie? What movie, I asked.
“She received an anonymous text after his death with a link to a movie called ‘Lost Kings’ and William was in the movie,” Miliman explained. “In the movie it deals with William being murdered and there’s like, a plot of crooked police.”
“It just seems like it was premeditated because the movie is like his funeral, crooked cops,” said Lewis.
James plays a ghost in “Lost King,” the brother whose death sets off the movie’s action. Whenever we see him on the screen, there is an exit wound in the side of his head.
WILLIAM JAMES RODE DIRT BIKES. People knew him as AJ and he was close to Wheelie Queen, a well known dirt bike rider, and one of the few women to be accepted in the controversial sport, which is the subject of endless political debate in Baltimore. Wheelie Queen stars, as a young woman named Max, in the three short episodes of the projected series, “Lost Kings.”
The story begins as Max is haunted by the death of her brother—whose ghost is played by William James. The character was killed as part of a drug-deal arranged by a crooked cop playing two crews against each other.
“When we decided to cast Wheelie Queen as the main character, she brought along A.J.,” Terrence Smalls, the series’ writer and director, said over the phone. “The idea was to have the ghost appear, the ghost of the brother she lost…That was supposed to be the PTSD everyone experiences when they lose someone. So she’s like hey let me cast my brother in that role and that’s how I got A.J.”
On set, Smalls recalled mainly that A.J. was professional, and always rushing to get there from his day job, and that he was intensely loyal to Wheelie Queen.
“He did everything he could to see her shine,” Smalls recalled.
James did not talk about his own experience with the GTTF on set, but Smalls was inspired to write the script by Baltimore’s dirty cops. Even before East Side rapper Young Moose started rapping about Hersl in 2014, stories of the brutal white cop were common “folklore,” he said. “Writing ‘Lost Kings’ wasn’t too far from things that could happen.”
Smalls also knew that Wayne Jenkins had been charged with stealing dirt bikes and was selling them with new VIN numbers. It was crazy, given the vehemence with which the Dirt Bike Task Force goes after stolen bikes. A kid who got arrested with a stolen bike, could very well have bought it from Jenkins.
“No kid can go 50 miles away and steal a dirt bike by themselves,” Smalls said.
The City would not give Smalls a permit to film dirt bike scenes in the Baltimore and he had a bike confiscated as they transported it to the county for shooting. It was not stolen but the officers said they could see it had been driven on the streets.
Baltimore’s dirt-bike scene is an obvious draw for cinematographers. The 2013 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” is currently being adapted into a scripted feature film. There’s the athletic thrill of the breathtaking wheelies and high-speed, seat-standing antics that fit into the world of sports. And there’s a larger aesthetic sensibility communicated by the people who perform these tricks, people determined to turn the post-industrial streets sunken by disinvestment into art. Danger, speed, a beauty—everything a movie needs.
Because it is Baltimore, where over 170 people have been murdered so far this year, there is a lot of other danger swirling around the edges of the world. James is not the only person in the film to have been killed. In September, Christian White, who was known as “Ying,” was murdered.
“It’s weird because in my mind, writing it, I just wanted to write something cool,” Smalls said. “And then to see so many things come to fruition. I don’t think it’s a tell of psychic ability but a tell of how fucked up the city is.”
He’s thought about pulling the project after what happened, but hopes to go forward with it.
“It’s the last time a lot of people will see Ying or A.J.,” he said. “On the screen.”
Micaiah Jones, a producer and actor in the series, feels equally conflicted.
“Unfortunately in the story, I am his murderer,” Jones said over the phone from the set of another film he was working on.
Jones plays a member of the rival crew who shot James’ character.
“AJ was murdered like he was in the script,” Jones said.
BPD did not respond to questions regarding James’ death.
LEWIS IS SCARED, especially for her other sons. She doesn’t know who would have sent her that movie. And she doesn’t know if she can trust police. How could she trust the same department that planted a gun on her son to find his killer?
She remembered what happened last time he was shot. Back in 2002, James had gone to meet some friends in East Baltimore before setting off to ride on some trails. They were in front of a house that belonged to a 60-year-old white man named William Banks. Banks shot three of the dirtbikers, including James, who took two bullets in the arm. Banks was charged with attempted murder and eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges, but the white Police Commissioner Edward Norris blamed James and his friends for the shooting.
“Why aren’t they on their own stoops?” Norris asked. “People are intimidated. … You’ve got elderly people, older people, and they are like prisoners in their own homes.”
“He was trying to protect one of his friends,” Lewis said. “So my son got shot twice.”
Note: I would not have known to ask about William Banks’ 2002 shooting of William James if not for a tip sent to me by the @Bmoreprojects Twitter account. Much thanks.
THERE WAS ANOTHER MAN with the same name, William James, the early 20th century philosopher and psychologist, and as I tried to wrap my mind around the stakes of this case, I kept thinking of that William James’ claim that you could tell a truth by its “cash value.” An idea was true if it worked.
“How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?” James wrote in “The Meaning Of Truth,” published in 1909. “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
That’s exactly what is at stake in this legal gambit. Both parties agree on the truth of the event but offer different legal interpretations—not of what happened but of who was responsible. If it makes it to the Court of Appeals, the judges there will have to decide the cash-value of those claims.
There are thousands of other people whose lives were disrupted by similar actions and how do we account for Coby and Lewis and all of the other people who were indirectly affected by the months he lost? And there at the center of all of these questions in this conference room with two grieving women and their lawyer, was William James’ heavy and irrevocable absence, a black hole around which the case would rotate as his estate went forward with the case.
“I hope nobody else has to go what we went through,” Coby said.
“The fact that William is going to be the test case for whether the city’s got to pay these judgments is so meaningful for his legacy because he really believed they needed to be held accountable,” Miliman said. “Any fight we pursue is going to be in his name.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Lewis said.
“That’s great,” Coby said.
“The fight with the city to get these judgments because they sent these officers out there,” Miliman continued.
“That’s great,” Coby said again.
“He knew that,” Miliman said. “I’m so glad he knew that and was happy to do it.”
Lewis and Coby, sitting side by side across from the lawyer, both smiled.
“That’s him,” Lewis said
“That’s him,” Coby added.
Both women were laughing, relieved from grief for a brief moment by the memory of his character encapsulated.
“Fighting everybody’s fight,” Miliman said.”This was not about him. This was about everybody.”