2 Baltimore detectives guilty in corruption trial
6 others from squad have also admitted to fraud, robbery and conspiracy
baltimore — Two Baltimore detectives were convicted Monday of robbery and racketeering in a trial that laid bare shocking crimes committed by an elite police unit and surfaced new allegations of widespread corruption in the city’s police department.
Daniel Hersl, 47, and Marcus Taylor, 30, join six colleagues from the Gun Trace Task Force who already had pleaded guilty in a conspiracy that also included overtime fraud. But the guilty verdicts offer small comfort for a city where homicides keep rising and gun violence rocks neighborhoods even as the police department struggles to overcome accounts of bias and lawbreaking.
The head of internal affairs has been transferred and a deputy commissioner has retired after both were implicated in misconduct during trial testimony. Thousands of convictions in cases handled by the task force are now being questioned by defense attorneys.
“This trial took you inside the Baltimore Police Department,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told jurors last week. “It showed you things more horrible in some cases than you ever could have imagined.”
After the verdicts, Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said in a statement that the indictment and trial “uncovered some of the most egregious and despicable acts ever
perpetrated in law enforcement,” and said he had zero tolerance for corruption.
De Sousa, who was named to head the police amid outrage over spiking crimes, said his 3,100-member department would need to earn back trust and respect from the community and said “I understand the doubt, fear and pessimism” but pledged to root out “anyone who thinks they can tarnish the badge.”
Most of the behavior charged in the case took place even as the department was already under federal investigation by the Justice Department for routinely violating residents’ constitutional rights, particularly in dealings with African Americans.
That 14-month Justice investigation began in the wake of protests and rioting after the death of Freddie Gray from an injury in police custody and ended in August 2016 with a scathing report and a consent decree under which police have started wearing body cameras, begun new training, and submitted to community and judicial oversight.
Over two weeks in federal court, four former members of the once-lauded unit who earlier pleaded guilty took the stand in their new prison uniforms and admitted to crimes denied for years during internal investigations and lawsuits. The officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs, guns and luxury accessories while pretending to be seizing the goods for legitimate enforcement objectives. They concocted reasons to chase and search suspects or enter houses without warrants to sift through goods they wanted. They covered up their involvement in car crashes when rogue pursuits went bad.
One officer gave his girlfriend a stolen Chanel purse, according to his testimony. Other officers provided security for a high-level drug deal at a strip club.
They doubled their salaries by lying to claim extravagant overtime when they were actually at bars or, in another instance, out of the country on vacation.
Hersl put his head in his hands when the verdict was read, and when he stood and turned so a marshal could handcuff him, his face was red and there were tears in his eyes.
Taylor appeared impassive, hugging one of his attorneys before being led away.
Hersl’s brother, Steve Hersl, said later that “Danny” did not “deserve this. Let’s talk about the corruption that starts at the top.”
Referring to the task force once hailed for its policing, he said, “Danny got hundreds of guns off the street . . . the same guys were patting Danny on the back when times got rough.”
One man in the courtroom said he was overcome by relief at the verdict.
Alex Hilton, 46, said he was harassed in East Baltimore by Hersl for years. He said he could understand how Hersl’s family felt, and didn’t like seeing anyone sent to prison. But, he said, he also felt vindicated.
“I feel free,” he said, crying. “I feel safe. I don’t have to watch police cars coming and run fast, worrying that’s him.”
Hersl and Taylor were part of a years-long scheme first exposed in 2015 by a Drug Enforcement Administration wiretap on a suspected dealer’s phone. The DEA alerted the FBI.
Momodu Gondo, the officer picked up on the wiretap, pleaded guilty last year, along with task force sergeant Wayne Jenkins, its former sergeant Thomas Allers, and detectives Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam and Maurice Ward.
Gondo, Hendrix, Rayam and Ward all testified at trial, as did a young officer who was transferred soon after joining the unit, having declined to commit crimes.
Only one task force member, detective John Clewell, was not charged and remains on the force.
The squad’s victims, many self-described drug dealers, took to the stand to recall how they were handcuffed and interrogated about their wealth by officers more interested in finding money than pressing charges.
Wiretaps let jurors hear firsthand how the officers freely discussed divvying stolen cash and coordinated lies about their exaggerated work hours.
One conversation from August 2016, recorded by an FBI device hidden in an officer’s car, captured task force members reacting to a chase through the rain that ended in a bad car crash.
“Dude’s unconscious, he’s ain’t saying s---,” Taylor is heard saying.
Hersl suggests they change their timesheets to hide their involvement. “Hey, I was in the car just driving home,” he says, laughing.
The officers did not offer aid to the injured citizens.
Rayam cried on the stand remembering that day.
“It could have been any of us,” he said of the injured passengers. “It could’ve been you.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh and De Sousa have tried to minimize the impact of the revelations, suggesting a few bad officers are the heart of the corruption and of the civil rights violations.
“That particular unit has been already broken up,” Pugh said at a news conference last Wednesday when asked about the trial. The problems, she said, are limited to “a few members of our police department.”
She brought on De Sousa last month, after replacing Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for failing to stem violent crime.
But some of the startling allegations aired in court involved conduct that was never charged, as the officers on trial tried to shift the focus on their ex-colleagues’ misdeeds. Testimony portrayed the department as riddled with opportunists who cut corners and broke rules.
Court documents suggested the problems seeped beyond the police department.
All six plea agreements state that someone in the state’s attorney’s office leaked information about the federal investigation to the task force members, and several officers testified fellow police gave them a heads-up as well.
Several officers called by prosecutors to testify about employment records and other issues admitted reluctantly under cross-examination that department leaders regularly hand out unearned overtime as a reward for taking guns or drugs off the streets.
“If it’s fraud, the fraud is rampant among the aggressive police squads of Baltimore City and right up the chain of command it was acknowledged with a wink and a nod,” Herl’s attorney William Purpura said in closing arguments.
Members of the department who have been working with the FBI were in court every day tracking new allegations, De Sousa said.
“When you have an idea that there’s just a few bad apples, unless you inspect the entire barrel you have no ability to make that determination,” said state Del. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents parts of the city and confronted De Sousa about the gun task force cases during a recent meeting in Annapolis.
The brazen crimes from officers entrusted to protect the public is “corrosive to the trust of the public,” acting U.S. attorney Stephen Schenning said after verdicts. But he added, “if there’s a message, it’s that the justice system will rectify, we will investigate . . . their business model failed. You can’t rob people just because they’re drug dealers.”
At the trial, prosecutors tried to highlight testimony they said showed a different, honest path exists in the police department.
Detective James Kostoplis told jurors that when he joined the Gun Trace Task Force in 2016, then-Sgt. Jenkins approached him to ask what he thought about stealing money from drug dealers.
“You can’t have a badge and do that,” Kostoplis responded. “That’s what separates us from the criminals.”
At the time, Kostoplis testified, he thought he was being tested.
Later, when the indictments came out, Kostoplis said he realized the true nature of that overture from Jenkins and what he had been asked and called the FBI.
“I feel free. I feel safe. I don’t have to watch police cars coming and run fast.” Alex Hilton, 46, who said he was harassed in East Baltimore by Hersl for years
Baltimore detectives Daniel Hersl, left, and Marcus Taylor were convicted Monday of robbery and racketeering.