The voice on the other end of Fred Brooks' cell phone in August 2003 was familiar, but the tone was agitated, the words ominous. Brooks had been in business with Mexican drug traffickers for more than a year without major mishap, but now his Los Angeles associate Raul Del Real was telling him that $1 million had gone missing. Someone was going to pay with his life.
"Have you called Jay?" Del Real asked, referring to Jason Getzes, a member of Brooks' East Coast drug crew stationed out in L.A. "Guys are going crazy. Everything comes down to Jay. We know everything about him. To tell the truth, it's a done deal. We can take him out right now. Not even you can help him. We have people worldwide--everywhere."
Days earlier, Brooks had received his usual twice-monthly shipment of Colombian cocaine, which had made its way through Tijuana, into Los Angeles, and across the country to Baltimore in an ingenious manner. An innovator in a high-risk industry, Brooks had become so proficient at selling large amounts of coke--which he stashed in a Roland Park apartment and sold wholesale to Baltimore drug dealers from a hotel room at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover--that he was on the verge of brokering bigger deals.
But having opened a shipment from Brooks 3,000 miles away in a sleazy car wash in South L.A. and finding no money in return for the drugs, which they sold to Brooks on credit, the Mexicans now suspected a ripoff. On the phone, Brooks assured Del Real that he had sent the money as he was supposed to do, and that he did not know what the problem was. Then he had an associate call Getzes to tell him to destroy all evidence of drug trafficking, such as ledgers and shipping receipts, and get the hell out of L.A.
This conversation between Brooks and Del Real, monitored by federal agents with the DEA's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, was a pivotal moment in the lives of both Brooks and Del Real. Del Real, a violent criminal linked to one of L.A.'s most mysterious alleged crime figures, was unaware that he was being set up. Brooks, on the other hand, was about to face the consequences of making one of the hardest decisions of his already complex life: to become a government informant. In fact, Brooks was about to become the catalyst for an international drug conspiracy investigation that had multiple targets on both coasts.
Taking Brooks off the streets of Baltimore was a big enough accomplishment, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick, who described Brooks to a federal jury in 2005 as one of the city's most prolific and resourceful drug traffickers. "I do not recall ever having investigated a matter in which such large amounts of cocaine were brought into this or any jurisdiction," Warwick told the jury, describing Baltimore as a "consumer" city of drugs and L.A. as a "source" city--a symbiotic relationship that enabled Brooks to bring 600 kilos of cocaine into Baltimore from L.A. in a nine-month period in 2003.
With Brooks' help, Warwick also sent Del Real and six other Mexicans from L.A. to federal prison--two of them for more than 40 years. "We've just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of distribution of large quantities of cocaine in the Mid-Atlantic area," he said of the Baltimore-L.A. connection.
Brooks was an atypical drug dealer and a major catch in other ways. A Baltimore City College graduate with a flair for numbers and business, he started dealing in Remington in the late 1980s and built an organization that, he contends, dealt drugs in 17 countries and involved more than 30 employees, with Brooks himself operating under 50 different aliases. In a letter that arrived at City Paper just before press time, he offers details of his early rise as a Baltimore drug dealer that no federal jury has ever heard, including early connections to the Medellin and Cali cartels of Columbia and groups in Sicily, Afghanistan, and the Caribbean.
According to residents in Remington, where he grew up in a middle-class household, Brooks also helped transform the mixed-race neighborhood adjacent to I-83 from a drug-consuming area to a drug-dealing area, with violent results.
With his brother Kelly, he rose above Baltimore's sectarian crime infrastructure in part by recruiting white kids from Remington and training them to go into black neighborhoods and sell drugs, according to sources who observed him build an organization from the ground up. Products of a biracial marriage, the Brooks brothers did not discriminate as they conducted legitimate and illegitimate business, funneling drug money into property, a beauty supplies company, a hair salon, an electronics company, a sound production company, and a popular downtown Baltimore nightclub, Club Indigo.
Yet Brooks had even greater potential for the government. He held the key to taking down Del Real, known as "Ra-Ra" (pronounced "rah-rah"), whom federal court documents identify as a close associate of L.A. grocery king George Torres, best known as the former business partner of Horacio "Carlos" Vignali, whose drug dealer son Carlos Vignali Jr. was pardoned by President Clinton in 2000.
For two decades, authorities had a hard time swallowing the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story that went with Torres' Numero Uno supermarket chain that proliferated in the barrios of South and East L.A., to say nothing of his fleet of customized lowriders, gaudy suits, shaved eyebrows, and dozens of commercial, industrial, and residential properties from L.A. to Santa Barbara.
Vignali Sr. ostensibly was nothing more than a successful parking lot and billboard operator with similarly vast holdings who schmoozed with L.A. politicians--particularly after his son was convicted in the mid-1990s in the largest drug case in Minnesota history. Only after the Clinton pardon of Vignali Jr. did it become publicly known that Vignali Sr. had donated money to prominent local, state, and congressional representatives to write letters on his son's behalf, and also persuaded the U.S. Attorney, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, and Cardinal Roger Mahony of the L.A. Archdiocese to lobby the White House for clemency for his son. The resulting scandal, known as "Pardongate," got uglier when government documents later surfaced that alleged Torres and Vignali Sr. were major Southern California drug traffickers.
The government could never establish enough evidence to charge Torres or Vignali with drug trafficking, however. But when Torres associate Del Real came on the radar as a co-conspirator with Brooks in a drug-trafficking ring, Brooks' stock as a potential asset went up.
Now, Torres is in prison facing RICO charges in federal court in Los Angeles, and Del Real is identified in court documents as one of the key witnesses against him, in a trial scheduled to begin sometime this year. Brooks is serving a reduced 10-year sentence in federal prison.
"Establishing a Baltimore-L.A. connection through Del Real was a big part of the Torres investigation," a veteran Los Angeles law enforcer says. "Ra-Ra was a dope nexus--we knew we could put dope on him, but we also knew he was connected to Torres."
By attempting to satisfy Baltimore's insatiable thirst for drugs through contacts in L.A. with representatives of Tijuana's Arellano-Felix cartel, Brooks entered a world that had vexed investigators for years. These days Brooks sits in a cell advising his law-enforcement handlers on matters that he claims are "more complex than what the court records might show." In a recent letter to City Paper, Brooks writes, "Things are ongoing and quite frankly the government was taken off guard by the size and many tentacles of this investigation."
Brooks' cryptic comments leave much to the imagination. But his sworn testimony in 2005 (corroborated by his brother and other co-conspirators) makes clear that he once had a vast network of suppliers and customers--some of whom might still be wondering what happened to him. Brooks' story offers a rare glimpse of the methods of international drug traffickers, and underscores the value to the government of such individuals when they cooperate.
His lawyer, David Irwin, refuses to comment on Brooks' status as an informant but says, "My advice to him would be to keep a low profile, do his time, and hope to get out of prison alive."
Which is a chilling situation for a former undergrad whose journey took him from Remington to Roland Park to L.A. and abroad, whom friends describe as the last person they'd expect to become a drug dealer.
For his part, Brooks, who once aspired to be an actuary, now says he regrets the life he led, and the losses that occurred. He never considered the human toll until it was too late, he writes, mostly because he was too caught up in the grind. Though he describes his decision to cooperate with the government as "my only unselfish act in the last 20 years," it now appears that the government simply owns him.
"When millions of dollars is just a five-minute phone call away, I saw it as a means to the end of solving my family's poverty issues," Brooks writes of his drug-dealing career. "I am not some evil monster."
From the crest of a hill on Miles Street, north of North Avenue, a stone's throw from I-83 and just around the corner from where Fred and Kelly Brooks grew up on Huntington Avenue, you can see the city jail in the distance. Kids around here call it "college."
It wasn't always this way.
Often obscured by its more well-known neighbors of Hampden and Charles Village, Remington--bordered on the west by the Jones Falls Expressway and on the east by Howard Street--historically was a tight-knit, working-class community with tree-lined streets and rowhouses that often feature large porches and generous yards.
Whereas until recent years Hampden was a fiercely white, insular community, Remington was a community where whites and blacks co-existed relatively peacefully. Back in the 1980s, longtime residents say, if there were drug users in Remington, they had to go to nearby Reservoir Hill or Barclay to score.
But still, coming from Remington clearly set the Brooks brothers apart from some of their peers at City College, where Brooks offered his favorite quotation in the class of 1986 yearbook: "You lie like a rug."
John "Scottie" Bowden says Fred Brooks was a friend of his family in the 1980s, and he recalls the positive impression Brooks made on him, his twin brothers, and even his parents: "Fred was not much of a ladies man, not so much into sports, although he was on the wrestling team. He was just an all-around good guy. My folks used to say, `Why can't you be more like Fred?'"
According to Bowden, now an assistant principal at the Crossroads Center school in White Marsh, Brooks did not lack intelligence or family support either. "He did not want for the things that would have prevented the kinds of decisions he later made, Bowden says. "He was good people." Yet the socioeconomic gap made their friendship a one-way street, Bowden adds: "We grew up near Roland Park, and my parents didn't allow us to go over that way [to Remington]. We didn't go to Fred's house to hang--Fred came to ours."
The class of 1986 at City College was a close group, and Brooks was well-liked, says Cindy DuBerry-Keller, a member of the class reunion committee. "Unless you rode the bus together, no one paid a lot of attention to where you were from," she says. "We'd show up at school and just hang together. Fred and I hung in similar but not the same circles. He was nice, kind of funny. He certainly did not struggle with school. He had one of the highest SAT scores in our class."
Brooks was even closer with Scottie Bowden's brothers, Jeff and Paul, twins who saw a transformation in Brooks after he got to Hampton University, in 1986. "I don't know the Fred that's [in prison] now," says Paul Bowden, a sports administrator with George Mason University.
"His father was a stern man, from the Caribbean, I think," Paul Bowden continues. "His mother was white, and I never saw her that much. Fred was an A student who came to our house, played Nerf hoops, and ate dinner with us. He was extremely intelligent. We were good friends. We all had our social issues, and I can only imagine what it was like growing up biracial in Baltimore in the 1980s, but this kid was smart. I have no clue what happened to him from senior year in high school to freshman year of college.
"You don't just come home and decide to deal drugs. There's got to be more to that story." (The Brooks' parents are deceased. Efforts to reach their immediate family were unsuccessful.)
When Brooks and Paul Bowden got to Virginia's Hampton University together in 1986, it did not take long for them to go their separate ways, Bowden says, even though they lived in the same dorm. School officials confirm Brooks attending through the fall of 1988, when he dropped out and returned to Baltimore.
The Bowdens seem to think Brooks had trouble paying for school. "I recall being surprised at how smart he was, and hearing that his family wasn't going to be able to pay for school," Scottie Bowden says.
It was during this period that Brooks came home one summer from Hampton, he testified in federal court in 2005, and decided to deal drugs as a way to make some extra money.
"I think Fred had [a relative] who had something to do with his getting into the life," Paul Bowden adds. Once in, his friends say, Brooks quickly went from a well-spoken, Sebago-wearing undergrad to a streetwise player sporting jewelry and flashing cash. "You'd see him on the street later and you could tell he was making a lot of money," Paul Bowden says. "He got big from that connect in L.A., is what we later heard."
Remington residents who don't know much about the Brooks brothers describe a neighborhood decline that is concurrent with Fred Brooks' rise as a drug dealer.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, longtime residents say, Remington took on all the common characteristics of inner-city decay due to drugs and drug dealing: shootouts, addiction, squalor. And though today's more promising mix of yuppies, bohemians, working class, and questionable characters still leaves room for crime, the neighborhood has come a long way back from where it had sunk during the time when Brooks was "the capo di tutti capi," according to a longtime resident who asks to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
In the 1990s, residents say, turf wars sprung up in Remington and shootings became more common than before, as dealers fought over the burgeoning drug market. Though Brooks, in his communications with City Paper, maintains he did bigger business in other parts of the city, he concedes that his activities had a negative effect on the neighborhood. With crosstown traffic on 28th and 29th streets and close proximity to the Jones Falls Expressway, drug users from all over could be in and out of Remington in minutes, making the streets of the once humble blue-collar neighborhood resemble an open-air drug market.
Yet even after he became a drug dealer, Brooks seemingly had not totally abandoned plans for higher education or even public service. He testified that from 1986 to 1990 he served in the National Guard, and that even after he left Hampton in 1988 he continued to take business classes at local colleges.
Still, court records and law-enforcement documents obtained by City Paper show that Brooks, though not formally charged with a crime until 1992, was arrested as early as 1988 for assault, and again in 1990 for carrying a gun and assault with intent to murder. In 1991, he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to supply wholesale cocaine, common battery with the use of a bottle, and destruction of property. He was arrested again in 1992 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was charged with disobeying a police officer, though the charges were dropped. Brooks contends in a letter to City Paper that he was already one of the largest heroin traffickers in the city by 1992.
One aspect of Brooks' operation was the recruitment of troubled youth from Remington and nearby Hampden, according to neighborhood sources. One such recruit was a particularly violent youth named Timothy McDermott, who managed to get arrested at least a dozen times in a three-year period for a range of assaults and violent felonies that never seemed to stick. "Fred was not a particularly violent person," says a neighborhood observer who is familiar with both Brooks and McDermott. "But if someone crossed him, he found use for Timothy's skills and rage." (McDermott is currently serving out the remainder of a five-year drug-trafficking sentence, imposed in 2005, and could not be reached for comment.)
In October 1992, Brooks was finally arrested on a charge that stuck: possession of heroin with intent to distribute, on the 1600 block of West North Avenue, for which he was sentenced to eight years in jail--all but 18 months of it suspended.
This bump in the road barely slowed Brooks down. Rather, it allowed him to hone his skills of deception.
Convicted in March 1993, Brooks was paroled in November that year, after serving a portion of his 18 months at Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp, court records show. Parole supervision began in May 1994, when he told his parole officer he was gainfully employed at Brooks Beauty Supply Inc. Federal court records show that the beauty supply company was a legitimate family business--started with drug-trafficking proceeds.
By the end of 1994, Brooks also was the owner of Club Indigo. The nightclub was a downtown hot spot located at 204 N. Greene St., incorporated by John Anderson Jr., who was later convicted in a federal conspiracy case for money laundering and selling manufactured substances used to cut drugs. (The the club forfeited its license more than a decade ago for failure to file necessary paperwork, according to Samuel Daniels, executive secretary of the city liquor board.)
While Brooks was hiding drug money in various businesses, he was dealing increasing amounts of cocaine and heroin along the eastern seaboard. Just seven months after his parole supervision began, Brooks, who went by "Dougie," was arrested in New York for conspiracy to purchase four kilos of heroin, in November 1994, along with McDermott. The federal conviction, in 1995, resulted in a 57-month sentence at Fort Dix federal prison in New Jersey--a potential opportunity for rehabilitation.
North Avenue evangelist James E. Roberts Sr. is having memory trouble. "I'm trying to recall Fred Brooks," he says one day in October, when called by City Paper. After some prompting--a reminder that he wrote a reference letter one year ago, in which Roberts claimed to have known Brooks for 13 years--a spark of recognition occurs: "Oh, yeah, now I recall . . . well, if the Lord wants you to remember, you remember."
Roberts says he met Brooks through his daughter, and that all he really recalls is that Brooks would come around once in a while and chat with his wife, eat barbecue and cherry cheesecake, and have a nice time. Brooks simply got mixed up with the wrong crowd, Roberts says: "I'd try to tell him, but some people don't want to listen. They have to learn the hard way."
On a rainy day in November, Roberts answers the door of one of his three adjoining houses on the 1900 block of West North Avenue, which serve as homeless men's shelters. All nervous energy in jeans, a button-down shirt, and white sneakers, he has blue eyes and light brown skin, a little gray at the temples. He sees himself as a modern-day Jeremiah, "the weeping prophet," and complains that greed is killing churches.
Greed may have gotten the best of Fred Brooks, too, Roberts suggests. A stint in federal prison in New Jersey from 1995 to 2000 didn't provide a sufficient wake-up call, Roberts says, but now that Brooks is back in federal prison again, he's taking an 11-part Bible study class. Brooks even has other inmates interested in a more spiritual journey, Roberts says. "He didn't turn to the Lord until the second time."
Maybe that's true. But after coming out of Fort Dix in 2000, Brooks soon turned right back to the street, expanding the scope of his already enterprising career.
In many ways, Fort Dix was an ideal berth for aspiring drug dealers. With 80 nationalities among the inmates, it was "a virtual graduate school of international contacts and drug trafficking expertise," according to a brief by federal prosecutor James Warwick. So it was no surprise that within two years of his release Brooks "had become one of the largest narcotics distributors in the Baltimore area," Warwick wrote.
Brooks claims that he tried going straight after his release but that it didn't pencil out. He told a federal jury that after his release from Fort Dix, he went to work at Arbitron, the Columbia-based radio ratings service, while attending UMBC. (UMBC has no record of Brooks ever attending school there.) But by summer of that year, he testified, "My family was running low on money, so I called some Colombian friends of mine, and I started dealing heroin again."
On probation and required to report his employment, Brooks testified that he maintained straight jobs but did not perform them as often as he represented. One of the jobs he says he had was with Roberts Painting Co.--owned by James E. Roberts Sr. "Were you untruthful in reporting work activity to your probation officer?" Warwick asked Brooks at trial. "Yes," Brooks replied. Law enforcement sources familiar with Brooks say he would splatter paint on himself before going to see his probation officer, to make it look as if he was working as a painter. (Roberts says that Brooks never worked for him, but that his daughter, Tamera Roberts, has a painting company called Roberts II. Tamera Roberts did not return calls for comment.)
Brooks testified in federal court that he needed help to negotiate deals during this time, so he turned to his brother Kelly Brooks, who was "like a spokesman and a sales rep as far as my drug dealing." Kelly was an employee, Brooks stated, and was useful in that Brooks could not travel easily because he was on probation. "I basically had him on a need-to-know basis," Fred Brooks testified. (Kelly Brooks, like his brother, cooperated with the government and is serving a reduced five-year sentence in federal prison.)
In the summer of 2002, Brooks began shipping marijuana and cocaine from California through contacts he made in prison, one of them a member of the Bloods street gang, based in Los Angeles.
Brooks was receiving coke from one contact and up to 500 pounds of marijuana every seven to 10 days from another contact named "Bobo," a Bloods gang member. Bobo was buying the pot from a Mexican named Jose Mendoza, known as "Chato"--a business partner of Raul Del Real--with an artificial right leg and a habit of stashing money and drugs at his mother's house in South L.A., according to federal court documents.
"Chato and I both got dissatisfied with the way [Bobo] was doing business, and we decided to just deal directly with each other," Brooks stated in court testimony, "because [Chato] was a better businessman than the people I was dealing with in the Bloods."
One reason why Brooks liked doing business with Chato was that Chato did not force him to assume the financial risk of delivery of drugs from California, which he purchased on credit. So from the summer of 2002 through August 2003, Brooks was buying thousands of pounds of marijuana a month for $250 to $300 a pound, and selling them wholesale in Baltimore for between $550 and $600 a pound, or retail for between $800 and $1,000 a pound.
The shipping process was laborious. Brooks, on federal probation and supposedly working for Roberts Painting Co., tended to it himself by traveling under assumed names and deceiving his probation officer. He rented a place in Pomona, to the east of downtown Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. "I was given the marijuana in L.A., and I would take it out to Pomona and re-package it in electrical cable reels and ship it out" to Baltimore and other points east, Brooks told a federal jury in 2005.
Sometimes the pot would come in blocks, "like giant ice cube blocks or big circular wheels," and Brooks testified that he would use an industrial saw to cut it into smaller sizes. "Then I would vacuum seal it, wrap it with dryer sheets, vacuum seal it again, and place it inside of a false tubing of cable reel," with a layer of industrial-sized cable on the outside to disguise it.
"At first I used UPS, or FedEx, but eventually I went to freight," he stated. He used Forward Air, in El Segundo, Calif. "They'd put it on an 18-wheeler to Baltimore or North Carolina or wherever I had a customer at."
With a distribution network in place in Baltimore, and elsewhere on the East Coast, Brooks would sell the drugs in a matter of days and ship the money back to Los Angeles the same way the pot arrived, hidden inside false cable reels, loaded onto a trailer.
"Was it a lot of work?" the prosecutor asked him.
"Yes," he replied.
"Then why go through it?"
"For the money."
In December 2002, Chato approached Brooks about selling cocaine. A shipment of 18 kilos of cocaine was waiting in Norfolk, Va., and the seller had abandoned it. If Brooks could distribute the kilos, or units, which the Mexicans were selling for $19,000 per kilo, then he could have it.
First Brooks had to meet Chato's boss, a man named Laurencio Gonzalez, known as "Lalo," who had but one question, Brooks recalled: "Would I be able to pay him." Within a matter of minutes, Brooks was on his cell phone with his brother Kelly, instructing him to get down to Norfolk to meet the man who was holding the coke for Lalo. "I finished packaging my marijuana, and headed back to Baltimore," Brooks stated. "Prior to leaving L.A. I made some calls, so I had the units like pre-sold before I got [home]."
Back in Baltimore the next day, Brooks met the man in charge of Lalo's couriers, a man named Jose Jesus Gutierrez, or "Chuy," who told Brooks that his job was to go to various cities across the country to oversee distribution of the Colombian cocaine that was owned by Mexicans who had brought it into the United States and taken it to Los Angeles. Chuy told Brooks that he and Lalo were affiliated with the Tijuana-based group that owned the cocaine.
"I understood that to mean this was an international organization," Brooks said of the Arellano-Felix Cartel that at the time controlled the area between Tijuana and San Diego. "They control . . . immigration and drug shipments" to the United States, Brooks testified.
With 15 years of drug trafficking and federal prison under his belt and a seemingly bottomless pit of customer demand, and with various schemes to avoid detection and a network of employees, Fred Brooks was now playing in a whole new league.
Next week: Fred Brooks moves cocaine for Mexicans from L.A.--and eventually brings them down.
The Orioles had lost another one, a 5-0 drubbing by the Red Sox and their ace Pedro Martinez, and the crowd from Camden Yards was spilling over to Hooters in the Inner Harbor as Fred Brooks sat down to discuss serious business with a Los Angeles drug-trafficking associate.
It was Sept. 10, 2003, and Laurencio Gonzalez, aka "Lalo," had flown to Baltimore from L.A. after discovering that a shipment from Brooks that was supposed to contain $1 million in cash was, in fact, empty.
The restaurant was frantic, Brooks later recalled for a federal jury in Baltimore in 2005-so frantic that drug task force agents seated at a table 10 feet away were worried the conversation would not come through clearly on the tiny microphone hidden in the pager on Brooks' belt.
Brooks had been through a lot in his rise as a Baltimore drug dealer: From the street corners of Remington he'd built an organization with more than 30 employees who dealt drugs in 17 countries; he'd lost friends and associates to the violence that ravaged the city; he'd been to federal prison, where he made contacts that propelled his trafficking enterprise to a $6-million-a-year business, less than two years after his release in 2000.
Though U.S. Customs agents had Brooks under surveillance since 2001 and were on the verge of wiretapping his phone, it seemed like dumb luck a month before the meeting at Hooters when a group of agents decided to have lunch one August day at the Chick-fil-A near Arundel Mills mall-just as Brooks and his brother Kelly were there, too. The Brooks brothers were hard to miss: two African-American men, each weighing more than 250 pounds, Fred with a white patch on his face, the result of vitiligo, a loss of pigmentation of the skin.
After agents followed them to their rooms at the nearby Hampton Inn and Suites, where they had been wholesaling kilos of cocaine for days, it was only a matter of time before the Brooks' lives were turned upside down.
Now, a month after being caught with 30 kilos of cocaine, large amounts of marijuana and heroin, close to $1 million in cash, and numerous tools of the trade-cutting agents, scales, strainers, and packaging materials-Fred Brooks was working for the government. (Kelly Brooks also was arrested in August 2003 and also cooperated as a government witness.)
Lalo, a representative of Tijuana's Arellano-Félix cartel, played it cool during the meeting at Hooters. He simply wanted assurance that Brooks was truthful in claiming ignorance about the missing money. Brooks was too good a distributor to lose. The Tijuana bosses had already decided they wanted to meet him in person, to see if he could be trusted with even more cocaine. During the meeting, Lalo placed a call on his cell phone and handed it to Brooks. At the 2005 trial for Lalo and an associate, Brooks testified that he spoke briefly with an older gentleman from Tijuana, who absolved him as well: "He asked me if everything happened the way I said it did. And I said, `Yes.' And he said `Everything will be OK.' And that's it."
Having squashed the disappearance of the large sum of money, the two men got back to discussing "another shipment of money [from Baltimore] and a possible continuation of sending cocaine from Los Angeles," Brooks told the jury.
The meeting concluded with Lalo asking Brooks for $5,000 as a show of good faith, so he and his associate, Jose Jesus Gutierrez, aka "Chuy," could relax in Baltimore for a few days. Brooks agreed, walked out of Hooters, and went back into custody. U.S. Customs agents sent an undercover agent to deliver the cash to Lalo, so he and Chuy could kick back for several hours at the Goddess Bar, a strip club on Eutaw Street in the shadow of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.
That was the last Lalo, Chuy, or any of their associates-Jose Mendoza, aka "Chato," Raul Del Real, aka "Ra-Ra," or Victor Jimenes, aka "Picachu"-heard of Fred Brooks. That is, until a year later, when Los Angeles-based drug task force agents began arresting them as well.
Today, Lalo and Chuy are just into their 45- and 40-year prison sentences, respectively; Mendoza is doing 13 years; Del Real is sentenced to 15 years and is identified in federal court documents as a key witness in the upcoming RICO trial in federal court in Los Angeles of George Torres, one of L.A.'s most notorious alleged crime figures.
Meanwhile, Brooks sits in a federal prison cell serving a reduced 10-year sentence and wondering if he will make it out alive, having taken down such well-connected drug traffickers. "There are more Mexican gangs in this prison than you have fingers or toes," Brooks wrote City Paper in December. "Last week a guard was stabbed and a guy from D.C. was murdered."
On its own, Brooks' story is a compelling journey down the path of a Baltimore narcotics trafficker. Brooks' letters leave little doubt that he had a prolific drug-dealing career before he got hooked up with the Mexicans, and that his cooperation with the government did not end with testifying against them, either. Yet despite his substantial cooperation with the U.S. Attorney's Office, documented in multiple volumes of corroborated testimony before a federal jury in 2005, gaps remain.
For instance, it remains unclear exactly who groomed Fred Brooks for his rise from the streets of Remington to the center of an international narcotics network that, in his words, "consisted of 17 countries from England, Bermuda, the entire Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico" ("The Dealer, Part 1," Feature, Jan. 9). It's also unclear exactly where the Brooks brothers fit in the pantheon of Baltimore's more infamous drug traffickers.
What is more certain is that with the arrest of Fred Brooks, U.S. drug enforcement and customs agents caught a break in a two-decades-old investigation of George Torres, the Los Angeles-based magnate of Numero Uno grocery markets, and the former business partner of Horacio "Carlos" Vignali, of President Clinton "Pardongate" fame. And that, with Brooks' cooperation, federal agents were able to take Raul Del Real, a close associate of Torres, off the street.
Torres is described in law enforcement documents as one of Southern California's largest drug traffickers of the 1980s and 1990s, and as an alleged former associate of the Arellano-Félix cartel. Though court papers filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles concede that the government had never been able to establish enough evidence to charge Torres with drug trafficking, his association with Del Real and knowledge of Del Real's drug-dealing activities cannot be disputed, according to portions of wiretap transcripts on file in federal court in L.A.
Likewise, Del Real's violent nature is without question. In August 2002, he and an associate were caught with a half-million in cash, a loaded Smith and Wesson, and 40 pounds of marijuana, according to court documents. On Dec. 26, 2002, Del Real visited a suspected member of the Mexican Mafia named Armando "Pericho" Ochoa in Los Angeles County Jail, where a recorded conversation suggested both men, as rivals, had been involved with deadly disputes. A wiretapped call between Del Real and his sister in August 2003 has him pondering an incident in which he "broke a guy," a possible reference to murder, according to an affidavit by law enforcers listening to the call.
Del Real has told federal authorities that Torres enlisted him to seek violent revenge against his enemies on more than one occasion. In 1998, according to a federal indictment in Los Angeles, Torres asked Del Real to kill another drug dealer associated with Torres whom Torres believed had stolen $500,000 from one of his Numero Uno grocery stores. The associate, Ignacio Meza, has been missing since 1998 and is presumed dead.
Del Real's brother Albert, a drug addict, actually worked for Torres in the grocery business, as a warehouseman and a delivery man; both Albert and Raul Del Real were engaged in a drug conspiracy with Fred Brooks at the time Brooks was arrested in Baltimore in 2003. When the feds arrested Brooks, he implicated Raul Del Real, who then pleaded guilty and rolled on Torres.
In the end, Brooks represented more than the start of a chain reaction that has led to confessions and accusations on both coasts: He gave investigators-and a federal jury-a candid look into the multibillion-dollar drug connection between Baltimore and Los Angeles, including a detailed description of some of the many ways that drugs flow east from L.A., as the money flows west from Baltimore.
The nagging question that remains for local drug traffickers and others close to the dope trade is, what is Fred Brooks telling the authorities now?
Kelly Brooks was enjoying the famed Morgan State University choir at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall one night in December 2002 with his girlfriend and her family when his cell phone went off. His brother Fred was with some Mexican associates in South L.A. and was calling to tell Kelly to get down to Norfolk, Va., right away. A large package of cocaine was waiting for him.
Fred and Kelly had been shipping thousands of pounds of marijuana from Los Angeles to Baltimore in hollowed-out reels of electrical cable for months now, but this was a potentially more lucrative opportunity. "He told me in street slang to pick up 15 to 20 units in Norfolk," Kelly Brooks testified in federal court in 2005. "Units" meant kilos, Kelly stated, and the code word for cocaine was "Nissan."
Within hours, Kelly was headed down I-95 to Norfolk, where he met a man named "Chuy"-Jose Jesus Gutierrez-in a minivan in the parking lot of a motel. Chuy was not ready with the cocaine, so Kelly booked a room and rested until Chuy returned, this time in a pickup truck, with a Hispanic female. Chuy gave Kelly a gym bag full of cocaine, which Kelly placed in his trunk, and they followed each other back to Baltimore, to wait for Fred Brooks, who by then was on a plane from Los Angeles.
Once they neared Baltimore, Kelly directed Chuy and his female companion to the Fairfield Inn at Route 175 and U.S. 1, in Odenton, adjacent to Fort Meade. He assured Chuy that his brother Fred would be by in the morning with a substantial amount of money, "and that under no circumstances would [Chuy] be in town waiting more than a day for the balance." Kelly then took the cocaine-wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic packages with black lettering that read soto-to a stash house at 30th Street and Guilford Avenue, in Baltimore.
About 10 days later, Chuy returned to Odenton and met Kelly at a woodworking shop Kelly rented behind what is now a tattoo parlor at 1588 Annapolis Road, also known as Route 175. He was driving the same pickup truck. "My brother [Fred] used [the woodworking shop] as a place to manufacture containers for drug smuggling," Kelly testified.
Chuy pulled the pickup into the shop and cranked down a spare tire from beneath the truck bed. They cut it open and removed 10 more kilos of cocaine marked soto. But the Brooks brothers wanted more. "We wanted to be in the 50- to 100-unit range . . . every two weeks," Kelly testified.
Chuy was skeptical. "He found it hard to believe that we could transport those amounts [of cocaine] safely from California to Baltimore," Kelly stated. Fred Brooks had handled larger amounts of drugs in the past, however, and Kelly was one of his most trusted employees. A 12th-grade dropout from Baltimore City College with a GED, Kelly was not as accomplished as his brother Fred, who had both attended college and done time in federal prison, but Kelly had skills to go with his 1991 assault conviction and his '99 conviction for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Kelly told the jury that he dealt drugs before Fred did. The brothers had a cousin that was a midlevel heroin dealer in Baltimore in the 1980s, Kelly testified, so at age 14 he would go to his cousin's house before school and package heroin. When he branched into dealing marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy-drugs he obtained from Fred-he was promoted to running the various businesses the brothers established to conceal their drug money. Kelly testified that he ran several businesses with drug proceeds: a beauty-supply company, a hair salon, a DJ service called Cold Sounds, and an electronics company, In Phase LLC, in which he invested $200,000. Kelly also worked in freight transportation, with Hogan Brothers and Safeway Delivery Service. He was dependable.
In February 2003, Kelly Brooks flew to Los Angeles to meet with Chuy's boss Laurencio "Lalo" Gonzalez. They met at the Real Deal Car Wash in South L.A. owned by Jose "Chato" Mendoza and Raul "Ra-Ra" Del Real. (The car wash at 3113 Maple St. was in a densely populated Hispanic neighborhood a few miles south of Los Angeles City Hall, less than six blocks from George Torres' flagship Numero Uno market.)
Up until that point, the group had been transporting cocaine from Los Angeles to Baltimore in spare tires, hidden under sport-utility vehicles driven by two women, with Chuy following in a separate vehicle. Often the couriers would switch vehicles in Oklahoma or Wisconsin to avoid traveling with California tags.
"Chato was speaking to Lalo about that we had a pretty ingenious way of transporting narcotics," Kelly testified, referring to the false electrical cable reels he built in his Odenton wood shop for shipping marijuana. The Brooks brothers proposed filling the reels with cocaine in L.A., sealing them with industrial sealant, and shipping them back and forth cross-country via freight company.
Kelly called Fred, who was in Baltimore, to get assurances that they could move 100 kilos of coke every two weeks. The meeting with the Mexicans in L.A. went well, Kelly testified, and afterward Chato told Kelly that the group, which received its cocaine from the Tijuana cartel, had such faith in the Brooks brothers that they were considering how to fill a trailer with 1,500 kilos and ship it to Baltimore.
"Now that we were in the area, they were also servicing people in Virginia and in Washington, D.C., and they needed to get a larger amount on the East Coast," Kelly stated.
Jason Getzes was expecting to get laid off from his job at the Philadelphia Electrical Co. and he needed money to launch a new career as a real-estate investor. In December 2002, he contacted his old prison mate Fred Brooks.
Getzes and Brooks had done federal time together at Fort Dix federal prison in the late 1990s, but whereas Brooks had been a successful drug dealer in Baltimore before going to jail, Getzes, according to court records, had been alternating between classes at Penn State University and working at DuPont when he was busted in 1996 for trying to manufacture ecstasy for a party.
Getting a job when he was released from federal prison in 1998 had been hard enough. So now, fearing a layoff from his $35,000-a-year job, Getzes looked to Brooks for a loan.
But Fred Brooks had other plans for Getzes, a white guy in his early thirties from suburban Philadelphia who could be trusted with large quantities of drugs and money. Brooks proposed that Getzes join his drug conspiracy and relocate to L.A., to oversee packaging and shipment of large quantities of marijuana, at a salary of $3,000 a week.
Brooks promised Getzes he would pay for an apartment and a storage facility, provide him with a GMC Yukon, and set him up with the contacts in L.A. to begin working. When Getzes got to Los Angeles in January 2003, he found a structure of management and labor already in place. He would team up with Hispanic workers from the same South L.A. neighborhood where George Torres' flagship Numero Uno market had flourished for decades; some of them worked for Torres' grocery business. Once there, Getzes would report to "Chato" Mendoza, a business partner of "Ra-Ra" Del Real.
Usually, according to search-warrant affidavits, Ra-Ra and Chato would store their drugs and money at their girlfriends' or mothers' houses, but their principal staging area for drug transactions was the Real Deal Car Wash.
Kelly Brooks soon arrived in Los Angeles and showed Getzes how to package the large shipments of marijuana that Fred Brooks was buying from Chato and Ra-Ra at the time. Getzes, testifying in federal court in 2005, said that they would cut 150-pound blocks of marijuana into 30-pound parcels; wrap them with alternating layers of plastic and dryer sheets, to mask the smell from drug-sniffing dogs; seal them in plastic with Seal-a-Meal machines from the supermarket; and stuff them into hollowed-out reels of electrical cable. They placed the reels into boxes, drove the boxes to Staples, and used the office-supply chain's in-house United Parcel Service pickup system to send the drugs to Baltimore.
Once Kelly went back to Baltimore, Ra-Ra's laborers, including Victor "Picachu" Jimenes, and Ra-Ra's brother Albert Del Real, would come to Getzes' Santa Monica apartment to meet him, and the group would go to a U-Haul storage facility Getzes had rented on Pico Boulevard, which runs from the Pacific Ocean through downtown L.A. They used a white panel truck with hidden compartments to conceal tools and ledgers.
At first, the money for the marijuana came from Baltimore in hollowed-out computer hard drives, but eventually the cable reels came back from Baltimore filled with cash. In the meantime, Fred and Kelly Brooks had also begun to accept courier shipments of cocaine from Ra-Ra and Chato. In May 2003, however, police in Nashville, Tenn., stopped an SUV and searched underneath, discovering 20 kilos packed into an oversized spare tire. Lalo had paid the couriers who were arrested $50,000 to keep their mouths shut. Still, the timing was right to switch up the routine.
By then, Kelly, an electronics enthusiast, had designed false electrical cabinets that looked like concert equipment, to ship even larger amounts of drugs. They also upgraded their packaging, moving to an industrial-sized sealing machine called a "Super Mutt."
Fred Brooks flew to California to supervise the transition, and the whole crew-Kelly Brooks, Getzes, Chato, Ra-Ra, and Picachu-had dinner at the Pacific Dining Car, a vintage steak joint less than a block from the Drug Enforcement Agency task force offices in L.A., to discuss the plan, according to Getzes' federal court testimony in 2005. Afterward, Fred instructed Getzes on how to package the cocaine and ship it inside the electrical cabinets. He wanted extra layers of packaging, Getzes testified, and also suggested a new shipment method: Forward Air, a ground-freight company located near Los Angeles International Airport, in El Segundo. The money would come back the same way but via a different company, Airway Express.
Once at Forward Air, employees of the freight company would use a forklift to hoist the electrical boxes from the truck, put them on a pallet, and wrap them with shipping wrap. (Though it is unclear whether Fred Brooks had accomplices at these legitimate shipping companies, in a letter to City Paper he contends that in his career he has used various methods of shipping drugs, including paying off baggage handlers at airports and employees at FedEx. "You name it, I did it," Brooks writes. "Planes, cargo boats, FedEx, cruise ships.")
Soon, Getzes was shipping 400 pounds of marijuana and 40 kilos of cocaine per month using the electrical cabinets-all headed to Fred Brooks and his East Coast customers.
Then, in August 2003, something went wrong. Getzes received a call early in the morning on Aug. 20 from one of Brooks' Baltimore-area associates known as "Pus Boy," who said there was a problem back East. Pus Boy told Getzes to dispose of all documents, vacate his Santa Monica apartment, and await further instructions. Getzes had just sent two shipments totaling over 60 kilos of cocaine to Brooks and was expecting the return shipment of money, so naturally he was concerned.
Soon Getzes' cell phone also was blowing up with calls from Chato, who was wondering when the money shipment would arrive. Getzes remained in the dark for much of the day, wondering about the money, wondering about this mysterious problem Pus Boy had alluded to. Later that afternoon, Getzes reached Pus Boy on his cell phone and learned that federal authorities executed search warrants at both Fred and Kelly Brooks' houses, and that Fred was being charged with a probation violation. (That was was only partially true. In reality, Fred was being held on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.) Getzes reported what he knew to Chato, who seemed relieved to be told it was just a probation violation, and went to the meet the drug crew in person to see if the money Fred was supposed to have sent had arrived.
That night, Getzes climbed into the panel truck with Chato, Ra-Ra, Picachu, and another associate and drove to the airport, where they picked up the electrical boxes Fred Brooks had sent from Baltimore. However, when they got back to the Real Deal Carwash in South L.A., posted lookouts in the parking lot, and unloaded the boxes from the truck, there was no money. "Mr. Mendoza was frustrated," Getzes later testified. "Mr. Del Real was agitated to the point where he was making accusations that Fred Brooks had kept the money and tried to trick him. He was so agitated spit was flying from his mouth."
Though Getzes didn't know exactly what was going on, he kept his wits and tried to dissuade Ra-Ra from sending people to Brooks' home looking for him: "I explained I knew Fred to be a drug dealer, but not a thief. He was interested in business, not in a hijack or double cross."
Ra-Ra was not easily satisfied. "He told me to put my money where my mouth was to prove to them that Fred was in legal trouble and that he didn't hijack them," Getzes testified in 2005. At that point, he gave out the Brooks brothers' real names-until then they had been known simply as Kelly and Dougie-so that a Los Angeles-area lawyer could run a background check.
The next day, Aug. 21, Getzes met in person with Lalo, the boss of the crew, and persuaded him that he was on the level. The meeting was tense at first, Getzes testified in 2005, but eventually everyone relaxed, then went for Thai food on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica and afterward walked across the street to check out an antique car showroom, as Lalo was a collector of vintage lowriders.
Later that night, Fred Brooks, knowing that he was out of the game for good, that there would be no chance of making up for the disappeared money, and that Del Real and the others were still suspicious of a ripoff, let Getzes know that he should get out of town immediately and destroy any remaining evidence of drug trafficking.
Somewhat rattled but unharmed, Getzes flew back East to find out what had really happened.
Veteran U.S. Customs agent David Albrecht had been on to Fred Brooks since 2001, after receiving information from a source in the Caribbean that Brooks' cell-phone number was showing up on surveillance of a place associated with drug smuggling. The Mexicans were not Brooks' only suppliers.
By August 2003, based on the investigation he had built from that tip, Albrecht had obtained a wiretap order for Brooks' phone and was getting ready to set it up when he discovered that Brooks and his brother Kelly were dealing kilos of cocaine out of the Hampton Inn at Arundel Mills, thanks to task force agents stumbling across the brothers while they were eating at the Chick-fil-A near the mall.
With Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport less than five miles away, and convenient exits for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 100 right in the mall parking lot-not to mention Kelly Brooks' woodworking shop and storage facility just minutes away in Odenton-the Brooks brothers had quite a hands-on operation going.
Albrecht's crew set up surveillance and followed one of Brooks' customers from the Hampton Inn; after an exchange down the line with a second party, Baltimore police arrested a suspect with of a kilo of cocaine with the telltale markings soto, indicating it came from the same Tijuana cartel that had been supplying Brooks for much of 2003.
On Aug. 18, 2003, Albrecht found out from a hotel manager that the Brooks brothers had checked in again, and, he testified in 2005, "unfortunately, or fortunately for everybody-unfortunately for my wiretap-we're not allowed to let drugs go on the street, so we had to take action."
Task force agents followed Kelly to the parking lot of a Bennigan's in Woodlawn, where they watched him hand a kilo of coke to a customer, and followed Fred to the storage facility on Annapolis Road, then to a stash house he kept at 5107 Roland Ave., just blocks from the Gilman School in well-to-do Roland Park.
After arresting Fred Brooks, the agents found $700,000 in black bags back at the hotel room, another $136,000 in the trunk of his Mercedes, and a cache of drugs at both the hotel room and the Roland Avenue apartment, where Brooks used a rear entrance off a quiet street and kept supplies for cooking up crack.
Brooks agreed to cooperate with the investigation "almost immediately," Albrecht testified in 2005, and spent the next couple of weeks after his '03 arrest making a series of telephone calls-50 in all-to various customers and suppliers all over the world. Law enforcers monitored those calls, including calls to the Mexicans in L.A., to arrange the meeting at Hooters between Brooks and Lalo, who, along with Chuy, Chato, Ra-Ra, and Picachu, was now a target of a bicoastal investigation. (After the meeting at Hooters, the Mexicans would never see or hear from Fred Brooks again until he faced them in court in 2005. Search-warrant affidavits on file in federal court in Los Angeles show the Mexicans continued their drug-dealing activities under surveillance well into '04, until they were arrested.)
In fact, after Brooks had been out of the picture for more than a year, Lalo was unfazed when drug cops showed up in October 2004 at the apartment he rented behind his parents' house on Otis Avenue in South Gate, a small, mostly Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles known for its corruption and drug trafficking. That is, until police executing a search warrant came across court records and personal background information for Fred Brooks and Jason Getzes, sitting in plain view on the kitchen table. At that point Lalo slumped down in his chair and let out a heavy sigh, according to an agent who testified at the '05 trial for Lalo and Chuy.
"Ra-Ra" Del Real, "Chato" Mendoza, and the other co-conspirators pleaded guilty, forgoing a trial. Del Real agreed to testify against George Torres, who has been indicted in Los Angeles on a variety of racketeering charges, including conspiracy to murder Ignacio Meza, among others. Picachu Jimenes fled and was a fugitive until recently, when he turned up in Ohio under an assumed name, serving time in a county jail for drug-related offenses. (Law enforcement sources also are investigating the disappearance of Meza, further raising the significance of Del Real's role in the case.)
As for Getzes, after the moneyless containers arrived in Los Angeles, he returned to his parents' house in Philadelphia, and a few days later took a train to Baltimore, where he met with Fred Brooks, on Aug. 26, 2003, in a parking lot next door to the Knight's Inn on Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville. They drove around in Brooks' truck, and Getzes told Brooks what had happened in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to Getzes, however, Brooks had worked with the feds to set up the ruse of the shipment of electrical boxes containing not cash but worthless newspaper and was now wearing a wire. (Getzes later testified he never would have gone to such a meeting had he known Brooks was arrested on new drug charges.)
By the time the two men finished their talk, they were in an Embassy Suites parking lot, Getzes testified: "We got out of the truck, and at that time [Brooks] told me that he had recorded the conversation, that he had a new narcotics charge, that the government knew all about me, and that I basically needed to cooperate to help myself and him."
A minute later, police arrested Jason Getzes. After cooperating at the trial for Lalo and Chuy in 2005, he's serving a reduced seven-year sentence in federal prison.
In letters to City Paper from prison Brooks contends he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he did not cooperate with the government and go along with the deception that would allow Getzes to get away from the Mexicans, then his friend would have been killed. "I didn't cooperate to save myself," he writes. "I did it because millions of dollars was missing. How would I face myself when I thought about the lives of my friends I could have saved?"
Now, at age 40, Fred Brooks worries about his well-being. One could wonder if he would do it all any differently. "I never took into account the `chain reaction' of events that would occur," Brooks writes. "I never felt anyone else's sense of loss, until I looked back at all my losses along the way. I would say that 95 percent of the people in prison are just sorry they got caught. But I am sorry that my life went this way."