Flexing Their Muscles
Almost a year after Woodson’s death, some information started to come out. As a result of a public information act request, The Sun’s Justin Fenton discovered that Dale Mattingly, the detective who wrote the report of Woodson’s death, “had been one of four officers who arrested Woodson in 2013 on various assault and drug charges. Woodson was acquitted at trial of all charges in May 2014, three months before his death.”
I was curious about that case so I went to the courthouse to pull up the statement of charges, which were written by Mattingly and detailed an encounter between Woodson and the officers on Dec. 26, 2012.
It was the day after Christmas and outside it was snowing and icy. Mattingly, a Southwestern District detective, was driving around with three other drug detectives–knockers or jump out boys, as they are called on the street.
Anybody who lives in the city, follows Baltimore crime, or has even watched “The Wire” has heard of knockers. Operations units like this, which used to be called flex squads, have long been the center of controversy.
The Southwestern’s flex squads were officially disbanded in January 2006 when a detective named Jemini Jones was accused–and later charged and acquitted–of raping a suspect in the same precinct house where Woodson died. But even though they were no longer called flex squads, the plainclothes drug units continued to draw complaints.
Fabien Laronde, a detective in the Southwestern, was finally fired from the department after he allegedly filmed and threatened a witness and a reporter at a court proceeding to reveal his internal affairs files–which came about only after more than 50 defense attorneys argued his integrity issues were so severe they could not fairly defend their clients without access to the files.
But to hear them tell it, these rough-and-tumble units get the job done and bring results, driven by statistics toward what a former detective likens to hunting.
“When I did it, it felt like hunting,” said former Baltimore Police Det. Michael Wood in a phone interview last year. “That’s what it felt like, and I was hunting people for those stats and numbers that you had to get because it’s just the way things are incentivized.”
This all came to mind after reading the first few sentences of Mattingly’s report from Dec. 26, 2012.
Woodson 2012 Police Report (PDF)
The detectives were huddled up in their uniforms, instead of plainclothes in their car, when, according to Mattingly’s report, they saw a man named Charles Owens “who these officers knew as a narcotics dealer” approaching a black Acura, which, according to Mattingly, “these officers knew to be the vehicle of the defendant Mr. Tyree Woodson also an area narcotics dealer and supplier.”
Mattingly wrote that Owens was “looking up and down the street as if he was nervous looking for a police presence” before he got in. It was a “high drug trafficking area” near the Westside Shopping Center and Owens’ nervousness prompted a stop.
Two of the detectives, Warren Benn and Mark Verkest, got out of the car and walked up to the Acura. According to Mattingly’s report, Woodson slammed the car into reverse and took off, “almost striking” the officers.
Woodson made it to the end of the block in reverse. Then he turned around and into the shopping center as Mattingly and Det. Wayne Ambrose followed in the car.
Although the weather was bad, Mattingly described the shopping center as “crowded with holiday shopping patrons.”
Woodson tried to cut between two cars and got stuck, Mattingly wrote. Mattingly’s car pulled in behind the Acura, blocking it in.
According to the report, Woodson then put his car in reverse again and struck Mattingly’s car “hard enough and enough times to push the officers [sic] vehicle backward.”
Mattingly and Ambrose remained in the car, according to this account, without responding to Woodson’s alleged vehicular attack.
Mattingly wrote that he followed as Woodson fled the shopping center, throwing items from the car. Other officers later testified that the sergeant on the radio ordered them not to chase Woodson because of the bad weather.
It was hard for me to picture this so I drove over the the West Side Shopping Center, which has a grocery store, a Family Dollar, a video game shop, the KC Hair Outlet, a Western Union, an Advance Auto Parts, and a Wells Fargo Bank. The parking lot is strange–it’s really two parking lots smashed together, a shopping center on each end. The roads surrounding the shopping center also run at confusing angles. It’s not hard to see a car trying to cut through getting stuck, but slamming repeatedly into a police car and then escaping without drawing considerable attention seemed unlikely.
But Woodson didn’t escape. According to Mattingly’s statement of charges, they found Woodson’s car, abandoned in the middle of the road, the door open and drugs laying in the driver’s side of the car in plain sight. They caught Woodson and Owens as they fled on foot.
Woodson was charged with possession with intent to distribute, conspiracy for the seven heroin caps, several serious assault charges stemming from the claim that he had attempted to run the officers over and had intentionally struck the car the officers were in.
Woodson was denied bail, probably because he allegedly assaulted officers in an attempt to flee; the District Court has no record of the bail review hearing because, a clerk said, the equipment was malfunctioning on that day.
Woodson remained in jail for 17 months before he could tell his story in court. But first, he had to survive.
It later came out in a series of indictments and news reports that 10 days after Woodson’s arrest landed him in the city jail, Tavon White, the leader of BGF at Baltimore City Detention Center, was recorded by federal agents boasting about controlling the jail. “I make every final call in this jail,” he said on the tape. “Everything come to me. Before a motherfucker hit a nigga in the mouth, guess what they do–they gotta run it through me. I tell them whether it’s a go ahead and they can do it or whether they hold back. Before a motherfucker stab somebody, they gotta run it through me.”
While in jail awaiting trial, Woodson was brutally attacked. He told his fiancée that a correctional officer, or CO, opened the cell doors so the assailants could leave their cells and enter Woodson’s. Numerous COs were later revealed to be working for and even sleeping with White. It’s unclear why Woodson was attacked, or if COs were actually involved or if White actually gave his approval. But whatever promoted it, Woodson was hurt so badly he was hospitalized. According to his mother, he got a knife to protect himself. He was caught with it and charged.
So by the time Woodson finally got to court, after almost a year and a half, the original charges had multiplied.
When the case finally came before a judge, the state offered Woodson a deal: three years. He refused, facing instead a mandatory 40 if he was convicted on all of the charges. That’s a pretty big gamble if you have the word of four officers stacking up against yours.
I went to the court reporter’s office to watch a video of the trial. I was hoping to see Det. Mattingly. What I saw instead was shocking.