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Jailing of Baltimore officers shakes criminal justice system

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Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis, center, shakes hands with U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein after a news conference in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, to announce that seven Baltimore police officers who worked on a firearms crime task force are facing charges of stealing money, property and narcotics from people over two years.

BALTIMORE >> They were just seven officers on a police force of more than 3,000, but the Baltimore detectives charged in a federal indictment with theft, fraud and conspiracy had an outsized crime-fighting role in a city plagued by violence.

The U.S. Justice Department document calls into question each and every case touched by these men, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the city’s already fragile criminal justice system.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Natalie Finegar, Baltimore’s deputy public defender. “There’s going to be hundreds and we’ll sort through every story.”

They were members of the Gun Trace Task Force, a unit dedicated to getting illegal guns off the streets of Baltimore, and were involved in hundreds of cases in the past two years. Federal prosecutors say they used their position to terrorize the community.

The indictment describes them threatening the innocent, detaining people on false pretenses, stealing their money, faking police reports, lying to investigators and defrauding the department.

The fallout had begun even before Finegar arrived at her office Thursday morning. Less than 24 hours after their surrender, a man waiting for her in the lobby said he’d been wrongfully arrested by one of the officers.

The indictment announced by U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday says the accused officers roamed the streets robbing residents, filing phony reports to cover up their crimes and flagrantly disregarding reform efforts by turning off their body cameras.

Prosecutors said in court Thursday that witnesses are “terrified” that the officers or their colleagues will retaliate against them, and that some of the officers had been “tipped off” to the federal probe investigation by other police officers and an assistant state’s attorney.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise also said one witness the detectives dealt with testified that she didn’t even realize they were police: “She said she thought they were ‘thugs who were going to rape and kill” her,” Wise said.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was not informed of the probe until the indictment was announced on Wednesday, Rosenstein said. Shortly thereafter, her office issued a statement saying the charges would have “pervasive implications on active investigations and pending cases.”

Mosby told reporters Thursday that she hadn’t heard about a member of her staff communicating with the officers. A spokeswoman for Mosby did not return multiple calls for more detailed comment.

The officers charged with racketeering are detectives Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix, Daniel Hersl, Wayne Jenkins, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward. Gondo also is charged with participating in a drug conspiracy.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Gallagher ordered six of the officers to remain jailed pending trial due to the “egregious breach of public trust.” The seventh will have his detention hearing Friday.

Rosenstein on Wednesday said his office “quietly” dropped five federal cases in which one or more of the officers were involved in arresting or charging the suspects, and indicated that there could be more.

Defense attorneys are reviewing their cases to see what to do about any involving the officers.

“First, to make sure anyone with an open case — if they’re incarcerated or if they’re on the street and their lives have been on hold — there could be false allegations,” Finegar said.

“Then, there are cases we’ve just recently handled while the investigation was ongoing, and there’s substantial, credible evidence that these officers shouldn’t have been allowed to testify and represent the police department,” she said.

“In some cases, individuals took plea bargains because they thought they’d never be believed over a police officer. Or they’ve gone to trial and the attorney hasn’t had the benefit to cross examine the officers about their credibility. It’s so pervasive,” Finegar said.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Wednesday that the officers represent only a tiny fraction of a force full of good and honest officers. But because the Gun Trace Task Force was responsible for removing guns from the streets, their fingerprints are everywhere.

And as word of their charges spread in the department, officers weren’t surprised, Davis said.

Some of the officers have already cost taxpayers in settlements over abuse allegations.

The Baltimore Sun reported in 2014 that the city settled three cases involving Hersl, including a complaint brought by a man who accused him of breaking his nose and jaw and a woman who said he broke her arm.

Attorney Brian Bishop said Ward and Jenkins robbed hundreds of dollars and a Rolex watch from one of his clients, then took his car for a joy ride. A prosecutor suggested their credibility was in question after the officers’ case against the client was dropped in November, Bishop said.

Defense lawyer Ivan Bates said he’s represented eight or nine clients arrested by these officers in the past two years. In one, he said they turned off their body cameras and threatened his client; in another, he said they illegally searched a home without a warrant.

The state’s attorney’s office should never have allowed these officers to testify, Bates said.

“They knew these officers are dirty,” he said. “It’s not as if these officers haven’t been doing this for years, and the state’s attorney’s office should be ashamed to call the officers as witnesses.”

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