BALTIMORE — A federal prosecutor described an elite Baltimore police unit as a “perfect storm” of rogue officers in opening statements Tuesday at the trial of two detectives charged in one of the largest scandals in the city police force’s history.
“They were, simply put, both cops and robbers at the same time,” said Leo Wise, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys tasked with prosecuting the Gun Trace Task Force.
Members of the disbanded unit of the Baltimore Police Department are accused of extortion and robberies, falsifying evidence, reselling seized drugs and habitually defrauding their department with bogus overtime claims.
Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor are two of eight indicted members of the once-lauded unit, which was tasked with getting illegal guns off the streets of a city plagued by violent crime. They have pleaded not guilty to racketeering and robbery charges.
Six other indicted Baltimore officers — all task force members — have pleaded guilty in recent months. Four of them will testify as witnesses for the government during the trial, according to Wise. All of the indicted Baltimore officers have been in jail since their arrests last year.
In mid-November, a Philadelphia police officer became the ninth law enforcement agent indicted in the scandal, prosecutors alleging he conspired with task force member Jemell Rayam to sell heroin and cocaine seized in Baltimore.
Maurice Ward, one of the indicted Baltimore detectives who have pleaded guilty, began his testimony Tuesday, detailing brazen robberies and other instances of rampant corruption during his time on the force. He described tactics including hiding tracking devices on the cars of robbery targets and routine “door pops” — driving fast at a group of people and then chasing after those who ran to search them for narcotics or cash.
He alleged that Gun Trace Task Force supervisor Sgt. Wayne Jenkins — who allegedly kept duffel bags at the ready stuffed with tools to pry open safes along with black ski masks and other gear — randomly quizzed people he stopped for the names of top drug dealers in order to target them for future robberies. He recounted unchecked profiling of suspects and searching people’s properties and vehicles with no probable cause.
Hersl’s defense attorney, William Purpura, is not denying that his 48-year-old client took money — which he described as an act that “embarrassed” the city and the detective’s family — but that the evidence will show it didn’t rise to charges of robbery or extortion.
“It was a crime of theft, a crime of the moment,” Purpura told jurors, asserting Hersl’s 17-year career as a Baltimore officer was dominated by legitimate police work. He claims these thefts took place on a “few occasions,” asserting that federal prosecutors were essentially “overcharging” his client.
Purpura also attacked the credibility of the officers’ alleged victims, asserting they were drug dealers.
Taylor’s lawyer, Jennifer Wicks, told jurors that the witnesses the government will call during the trial have made “a career of lying” to investigators, juries and others. She called for jurors to examine their motivations and biases, particularly the indicted officers cooperating with the government.
“The evidence will show you couldn’t believe them before, and you can’t believe them now,” Hinds said, arguing that she believes jurors should find Taylor not guilty of all charges against him.
But Wise said the government will show a clear pattern of corruption that lasted years, even before the indicted officers were assigned to the elite gun recovery unit.
“It was a unit made up of detectives who had already gone rogue,” Wise said.
Wise doesn’t dispute that the indicted officers did some legitimate police work, but that they were motivated by greed and broke the law over and over to enrich themselves. He held up the badges and service weapons that once belonged to Hersl and Taylor, saying they were powerful things that could be “used for evil” by those entrusted with them.
Twelve jurors and four alternates were picked from a statewide pool on Monday, the trial’s opening day. The trial is expected to last up to four weeks, according to U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake.
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