FBI's 'Safe Street Task Force'
fiddles with rap music
while the Dawsons' house burns once again, Part 2
The last time the Dawsons would need to call 911, on October 16, they wouldn't be able to make it to the phone.
In the early morning hours of October 16, 2002, while the Dawsons slept, Darrell Brooks kicked down the door of the Dawsons' home and threw gasoline on the floor and stairway. It was the only way out of the house.
He lit a fire in the little tinder-box house. The fire this time was all-consuming. Brooks then went up on to his roof, on the other side of Eden Street, and watched the flames lick at the Dawsons' little yellow house. Soon he would hear the screams.
For all their expensive technology, neither FBI's "Safe Streets Task Force," nor the 911 operators, heard the last futile calls for help emanating from the Dawson household on Preston and Eden.
The neighbors are haunted by the memory of the last screams of help from Angela Dawson. Her last pleas were now directed at God:
"God, please help me. Help me get my children out!"
Fire burst through the windows and roof. Someone called 911. Three minutes later the fire trucks pulled up, but Carnell, Sr already lay dying on the sidewalk. Burns covering most of his body, Carnell managed to escape the conflagration by throwing himself from an upstairs window. He broke his pelvis when he hit the street. He was the only one who made it out. A few days later, never regaining consciousness, he died.
Inside his house his wife and kids were burning to death.
Angela and her five children.
Lawanda, fourteen years old, who liked to draw, and said he wanted to study art.
Juan, age twelve, who was a good reader and a good student.
Carnell, Jr., ten, agile and quick.
Keith, nine, always joking.
His twin, Kevin, affectionate, and a great reader. His school's reading room would be named in his honor.
They lived like stones that the builder refused.
Now they are all gone.
The Dawson family had finally been wiped out.
On the day I visited the burned out remnants of the Dawsons' house, a little girl and her sister came up and led me by the hand across the street to the Dawsons' park. It was a small corner lot, no more than fifteen or twenty feet deep. The girls remembered the children.
"Look there are stones," the older girl said. She and her sister fluttered like butterflies across the tiny lot.
Engraved memorial stones were embedded in the grass.
A stone for each of the kids, Angela and Carnell.
Seven stones, I counted.
No justice like angry mob justice
It's hard to overstate the size of the civic explosion in Baltimore that followed the deaths of the Dawsons. Suddenly everyone was paying attention. Now careers were being destroyed. Any public official who did not want to be destroyed in the blast had to seek cover.
For days, hundreds of outraged citizens gathered at the bombed-out shell of the Dawsons' home. The house still stood, a sore thumb stuck in the sore eye of the city, smoke stains above the knocked-out windows, the roof charred and caved in. It stood like a warning. The meaning of the warning takes moments, yet years, to comprehend. Mementos were left around the burnt-out wreckage. At one rally the childrens' grandmother sobbed inconsolably, and had to be helped into a nearby church.
Speakers demanded an end to what they called a revolving door justice system. Some voiced suspicions that there was more to the arson than met the eye, that Brooks had acted on behalf of darker higher-ups who profit from the drug trade.
Angry residents flooded city hall meetings. Suitably hostile newspaper editorials poured in from around the country, castigating Baltimore's criminal justice system as out-of-control and corrupt.
Baltimore city councilwoman Pamela V. Carter, herself a neighbor of the Dawsons, told the Black News, "All they get is a slap on the wrist and come out the revolving door."
Politicians, prosecutors and police alike postured to escape the torrent of public wrath. Any Maryland public official who had anything to do with law enforcement — from Gov. Parris Glendening on down — felt the heat.
The two officials apparently nearest the epicenter — Mayor Martin O'Malley, and his police commissioner, Ed Norris — faced the most heat, and scrambled to deflect it.
When a community radio station broadcast diatribes against O'Malley, the mayor arrived uninvited at the station's doorstep demanding equal time.
Mayor Martin O'Malley could only look to the state, and its coffers, for help in the wake of the Dawson tragedy. O'Malley asked outgoing Democrat Governor Glendening for an additional one hundred state police troopers. The mayor said the state had promised to hire seventy-five more probation officers. It was Darrell Brooks' probation lapse that supposedly had allowed the tragedy.
"This is our moment of crisis," Mayor O'Malley told the Washington Post.
Someone meanwhile stuck a Believe sticker on the burned-out steps of the Dawsons' home.
Many blamed the local police. Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris' response to all this is noteworthy. Norris was a stocky import from the New York City police department.
"I've never seen anything like this in my entire career," Norris told the Washington Post. Reporter David Montgomery filed a long article in the Sunday paper a month after the arson, on November 17, 2002, compiled with the help of researcher Bobbye Pratt. In many ways the article exemplifies the best and worst of today's newspapers.
"For two generations at least, neighborhoods like Oliver have been dying, but too many stopped noticing," Montgomery writes. "Now some are hoping that the atomic shock of the Dawson case can be harnessed to accomplish change, finally."
What does The Post notice, and what changes are they talking about?
The most ridiculous fallacy in the article is Montgomery's assertion that Angela Dawson simply had been too harsh, that she should have spoken nicely to her neighborhood drug dealers and none of this would have happened.
"Another woman who lived in the same block of Preston said it's a matter of how you talk to the drug dealers," the Post quotes a neighbor saying.
That's right, whip up a batch of brownies, pat them on their behinds, and ask your friendly neighborhood skag dealers to run along, and kindly move their shop. A reading of Warren Grace's case shows this is not true, that the dealers routinely shoot anyone in the way of profits.
As a large daily newspaper is prone to do these days, the Post then marshals its resources to burrow through public records and trash the Dawsons. We read that the cops, at times in the past, had been called to the Dawsons' for domestic disputes: "Twice Angela was arrested for assaulting Carnell, in 1996 and in May 2001, according to court records. Carnell was charged with assaulting Angela in 1997."
We even learn that Carnell Dawson was arrested for buying a vial of crack in December 2001, at an "‘infamous' drug corner a few blocks away from the Dawsons' corner."
Titillating, for sure. Yet there are questions more worthy of the Washington Post. Where are the cops? Where was the FBI? (We know the answer to that one, don't we?) What about the effects of drug profits on police corruption? What about the failed drug policies? These are some of the issues an institution like The Post should champion, investigate, and analyze.
The Post would have been better off assigning a young couple with kids to live in the Dawsons' block for a few months. Interestingly, it's worth remembering that it was this kind of vital reporting that landed the Post in hot water in the past. The Post's infamous "Jimmy's World" series in the late 1970s depicted the supposed life of an under-privileged Washington DC boy. Only after the series was awarded the Pulitzer Prize did editors discover the young reporter had fabricated both Jimmy and his world. This presaged similar, recent scandals at The New York Times and USA Today, where at least two reporters were discovered to have for years been rewriting reports from other newspaper articles, without attribution, or making things up whole cloth, including coverage of the 2002 DC Beltway sniper story. Let's call it, in the vernacular of hip-hop, sampling.
Hoping to atone for its sins of isolation, the NY Times appointed an "ombudsman." An ombudsman writes articles employing the same tone used by the psychiatrist in the Terminator movies ("I'm here because something really bad has happened...."). The newspapers would have us believe this is some sort of public service.
In reality, an ombudsman is the hack they hire when the other hacks are too lazy or out-of-touch to do their jobs.
Newspaper staffs today have largely forgotten, or do not know, that the great calling of our Fourth Estate is to succor the powerless, and make the powerful uncomfortable. Instead they get it backwards. The powerful are made comfortable, while the powerless are further insulted.
In the case of the Dawsons, those whose actions (or inactions) should be examined and criticized for not doing the job of protecting the public include the Baltimore police, the FBI, and the U.S. attorney's office. Not the Dawsons.
In the days following the Dawson tragedy, the Baltimore Sun spilled some ink about Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris's weathering of the fiasco.
In the days after the blaze, the Sun reported, "members of the City Council and the state House and Senate delegations criticized the (probation) system in a closed-door meeting with Norris yesterday morning at police headquarters, participants said. Yelling and cursing at times, they called for drastic action, including calling in state police and even the National Guard."
Norris through it all insisted law enforcement had done everything it could to help the family.
A family member told the Sun, "The police weren't trying to help the way they're claiming."
The Sun reported, "While the community's anger is understandable, Norris said, that anger should be directed at those responsible for the crime, not at the government."
"‘It's about time we get the outrage focused in the right direction,' he said."
Yeah, right. The Sun did not properly follow through.
At the time, Ed Norris had his own distractions keeping him from focusing in the "right direction." In the very months the Dawsons had called police thirty-six times, Police Commissioner Norris was busy covering-up the fact that, for two years, he'd been using a secret police slush fund to finance sexual encounters with more than a dozen women of, shall we say, mysterious origins.
Enraptured as he was with his dozen or so women, Ed Norris was focused on other things.
Norris's supporting role in the Dawson story is interesting. But it's not the most interesting role of these political players.
The deaths of the Dawsons reverberated to the highest levels of Maryland state politics. In recent years the two political parties have been engaged in a particularly acrimonious fight in the state capitol, Annapolis. Running to replace Gov. Glendening in 2002, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend publicly asked Glendening to lift a hiring freeze in the state's probation and parole division. This curiously presaged U.S. Attorney Tom DiBiagio's investigation into Kennedy Townsend's office for what DiBiagio said were unlawful circumventions of hiring freezes in the area of law enforcement. Kennedy Townsend is the eldest child of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, the former U.S. attorney general.
Kennedy Townsend's opponent, Bob Ehrlich, stayed cagily mum on the Dawson catastrophe. "I just don't want to politicize the fire bombing, I really don't,' Ehrlich told the Baltimore Sun. Without comment, The Sun noted that Ehrlich said this on his way to a political appearance at a Dawson rally. When a professional politician such as Ehrlich says he does not want to "politicize" some scandal, it usually means he's vulnerable to attack for a similar scandal.
Politics, clearly, already were afoot. Ehrlich's ally in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Tom DiBiagio, was positioning himself for upcoming, high profile political prosecutions. Some of these prosecutions involved powerful opponents of Ehrlich's.
With the deaths of the Dawsons, their house still smoldering in the bonfire of town vanities, DiBiagio positioned himself as detached from all that had happened. He decried the revolving door mishandling of Dawsons' killer, Darrell Brooks, who should never have been out on the street. DiBiagio held himself as above all that. But it was all just meretricious posturing.
DiBiagio quickly moved to bring federal arson charges against Darrell Brooks. Of course, DiBiagio could have brought those charges after the first firebombing on October 3.
Before a year would pass, in August 2003, Brooks would plead guilty to the Dawsons' murders in federal court, prosecuted by DiBiagio's office. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"He's got another fifty or sixty years to think about what he did every day he sits in jail," DiBiagio told reporters. "What a colossal waste. Seven people are murdered by this drug punk."
DiBiagio didn't mention the rampaging drug punks under care of his own office. Few people knew about that. Jonathan Luna was one of the few who did.
In the days and weeks following the Dawsons' losing battle with druggies in their hood, DiBiagio's office would launch an investigation of heroin and crack dealers in Baltimore's nearby Parks Heights area. This Park Heights investigation would be kept under wraps for eighteen months, until the spring of 2004.
Park Heights was the area where FBI paid informant Warren Grace was documented on secret memos as terrorizing helpless neighbors.
Jonathan Luna would be kept busy suppressing these Park Heights memos until the last hours of his life.
Savonarola on Lombard Street
So, you see, in the Dawson fiasco, the most interesting high-profile actor was U.S. Attorney Tom DiBiagio.
DiBiagio soon found himself increasingly criticized in Maryland and Washington DC as a politically motivated prosecutor.
The job of U.S. attorney is a political appointment. The top man in any U.S. attorney's office comes and goes. The real continuity in the office rests in the hands of scores of often anonymous assistant U.S. attorneys working there. DiBiagio had a foot planted in both worlds. Before his appointment as U.S. attorney by the Bush administration, DiBiagio worked in the Maryland office as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1991 to 2000. So he was a longtime internal operative. He's a graduate of Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the University of Richmond, where he earned his law degree.
From the earliest days since his elevation as U.S. Attorney in 2001, Republican DiBiagio emphasized prosecution of cases involving public corruption and white-collar crime. In a state historically dominated by Democrats, that means prosecuting Democrats. Early on, U.S. Attorney DiBiagio found himself at odds with the Baltimore office of the FBI, notably former Agent-in-Charge Gary Bald, who soon left to oversee FBI counterterrorism efforts. In 2002 DiBiagio wrote a memo scolding the Baltimore FBI field office for failing to investigate white-collar crime.
Before long, DiBiagio launched a probe of the Democratically controlled Baltimore city council. He subpoenaed the financial records of every council member. In his sights, everyone understood, was Democratic Mayor Martin O'Malley. O'Malley was seen as Gov. Ehrlich's chief threat and rival.
U.S. Attorney DiBiagio would soon reveal a penchant for writing embarrassingly ill-conceived and revealing letters, memos and e-mails, many of which were leaked to the press.
A written agenda for a May 2004 staff meeting detailed several goals DiBiagio set for his staff to achieve by November 6, 2004 — four days after the general election. The Baltimore Sun reported that DiBiagio's goals included obtaining, "Three ‘Front-Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments." Talk about cops with quotas. It would be funny, if it wasn't so dangerous to democracy. In any country where elections determine who goes to jail, bullets soon fly.
Another stated goal of DiBiagio's was to improve his office's relations with the FBI. For the purposes of this story, that's revealing.
The nadir came on July 1, 2004, when DiBiagio sent his assistant prosecutors an e-mail calling attention to high-profile federal indictments of Democratic city officials in Philadelphia. The handling of the Philadelphia case, involving associates of Mayor John Street, in fact caused embarrassment for the U.S. Justice Department in late 2003. Philadelphians came to see the investigation as a politically motivated Republican witch hunt launched against an incumbent black Democrat. In what had once been a tight race for re-election, Street won handily in a campaign suddenly re-energized as Mayor Street vs. The Man.
The lesson was lost on DiBiagio. "Why aren't we doing cases like this?" DiBiagio complained to his staff, citing the headlines in Philadelphia. "Am I the only one embarrassed by the fact that this Office has not convicted an elected official of corruption since 1988?" Two days later, DiBiagio sent an e-mail saying this was the wrong message to have sent, that he simply was frustrated and wanted action.
The damage, unfortunately, was done. Two weeks later, on July 16, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey reprimanded DiBiagio for risking the "credibility" of his office by pushing the pelt-seeking, quota agenda and writing the e-mails. Comey wrote DiBiagio that the U.S. attorney was "directed, until further notice, to submit to me for review any proposed indictment in a public corruption matter. You may not bring such cases without my personal approval." DiBiagio was also warned to make no attempt to learn the identity of the party or parties responsible for leaking the memos and other internal documents. Fear of retaliation exists in DiBiagio's office.
The Justice Department in Washington released Comey's letter of rebuke to reporters. They were hanging DiBiagio out to twist in the wind. "Md. Prosecutor Accused of Playing Politics," read one Washington Post headline. The Post quoted former Maryland U.S. Attorney Stephen H. Sachs as saying DiBiagio's e-mails were "a woefully inartful and stupid way of expressing his desire to do as much as he can to establish his legacy." And an increasingly troubled legacy it is.
So DiBiagio was put on a short leash by his overseers in Washington. Speculation flew in the press that DiBiagio wouldn't be reappointed should George W. Bush win reelection. "If Bush is reelected," the Post noted, "he will decide whether DiBiagio is reappointed, though presidents frequently defer to the top elected official of their party in the state — in this case, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. Ehrlich's spokesman said the governor would not comment on this controversy."
That's the realpolitik: DiBiagio was soon seen as Ehrlich's catspaw. Republican Ehrlich wanted, and needed, Democrat O'Malley gone. For this, Ehrlich needed DiBiagio to prosecute O'Malley, or people close to O'Malley. These days, it's inconsequential whether O'Malley had broken any laws. Ask Philadelphia Mayor John Street. They're prosecuting O'Malley already, leaving the trifle of finding any offenses for later. That's the dangerous and cancerous form of "justice," and government, we've allowed to fester and spread in early twenty-first century America.
DiBiagio's office would not only prosecute where there was no crime. He'd stoop lower than that. When DiBiagio's neck was on the line, his office would protect lawbreakers, even murderers, to protect DiBiagio and, by extension, Ehrlich.
On the night of Jonathan Luna's death, DiBiagio's office would protect Walter Poindexter from prosecution for the murder of Alvin Jones, which would serve to protect DiBiagio.
Jonathan Luna, the unlawful plea agreement left undone on his laptop at the stroke of midnight, also found himself in the way.
DiBiagio, it turns out, had a terrible secret of his own. DiBiagio's own office gave kid-glove, revolving door treatment to a heroin dealer every bit as threatening to innocent Baltimoreans as Darrell Brooks, the murderer of the Dawsons.
The dealer's name was Warren Grace.
Grace was not just shooting up his neighborhood, nor was he merely escaping home confinement. While receiving money from the FBI, under supervision of Tom DiBiagio's office, Warren Grace was dealing heroin.
The fickle-finger of fate was about to come crashing down.
On the very day the Dawsons died, October 16, 2002, FBI Special Agent Steve Skinner and his unreachable "Safe Streets Task Force" sent Warren Grace into Stash House Records to buy heroin.
Afterwards, as planned, Warren Grace met the task force at the rendezvous spot. Grace's vehicle was searched.
While the Dawsons' house still smoldered, a package of heroin was found hidden in Grace's Explorer, in a storage compartment.
Paid FBI informant Warren Grace, on the very day of the Dawsons' mass murder, was caught with a heroin stash. For months he'd been secretly marketing heroin on the side, while under FBI employ and supervision.
Suddenly people were paying attention. Very close attention. Hundreds of people screamed for official accountability at neighborhood rallies and town council meetings.
An unsupervised, paid FBI informant caught dealing heroin in the hood would not have looked very good. In fact, had the truth been made public in that incendiary moment, U.S. Attorney Tom DiBiagio would certainly have found himself under attack, if not driven from office. He would have had his head handed to him in a Fell's Point picnic basket.
A young assistant U.S. attorney in DiBiagio's office, responsible for Warren Grace, suddenly found himself sitting on a political scandal of the first magnitude. He would now have to cover it all up. To protect himself. To protect his boss. To protect the FBI.
The young assistant U.S. attorney's name was Jonathan Luna.
This is an excerpt from the book The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna, by William Keisling. © 2004-2005 William Keisling. All rights reserved.
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