Tavon White takes stand in BGF jail scandal trial
Cut a plea agreement with which turned him into a federal witness
By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — The former leader of the Black Guerrilla Family at the Baltimore Detention Center spoke publicly for the first time Monday from the witness stand, describing his unlikely rise to power and the gang's inner workings.
Tavon White, 37, has pleaded guilty for his role at the top of the racketeering conspiracy, fashioning a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against the eight remaining inmates and corrections officers charged in the case.
White told Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding that when he entered the city jail in 2009 on an attempted-murder charge, his chief goals were to "make money" and "run the jail, pretty much."
"I wasn't trying to be some flunky," White testified.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants on trial — two inmates, five corrections officers and a kitchen worker — were part of a conspiracy that involved drug dealing, extortion and witness intimidation. At the center of the allegations is White, who prosecutors have said got four corrections officers pregnant. The revelations garnered national attention and touched off a host of reforms and improvements at the facility.
White was called to the stand late Monday, and his testimony could last all week. In opening statements, defense attorneys said White's deal with federal prosecutors makes him an unreliable witness.
As part of the agreement, White will serve 12 years in prison — a sentence that will run concurrently, or at the same time, with a 20-year sentence already handed down for the unrelated attempted-murder conviction.
White walked into the large ceremonial courtroom of the U.S. District Courthouse on Lombard Street with extra security around him. He wore a dark polo shirt over his stocky frame, along with khakis and tennis shoes. He attentively leaned forward in the witness box, answering Harding's questions with little hesitation.
White said he joined the Black Guerrilla Family gang in 1997 while serving time for murder at the Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown. That was more than a decade before the gang's stranglehold on the state's correctional institutions would be thrust into the spotlight as part of a 2009 indictment about corruption. Harding asked why he joined.
"Because they was, at the time, pretty much running the institution," White testified. Joining was attractive because of the protection afforded, from other gangs and the BGF itself, he said.
At one point, White testified, the gang reconstituted itself after corrections officials obtained paperwork that revealed the gang's inner workings.
As time passed, the gang's influence spread from the inside of the state's jails and prisons to the streets. But White said he wasn't an active member of the gang after his release.
After he was arrested on the attempted-murder charges in 2009 and sent to the city jail, he rejoined the gang, and his reputation carried weight. Even though he wasn't a "bushman" — a term for the highest-ranking BGF members — he was selected to lead the BGF in the jail. Two other ranking members thought they should be chosen instead. White said the matter was settled during a jail cell conference call made over a contraband cellphone.
"They put their stamp of approval on me," White said.
Being a leader allowed a member to "sit back and kick your feet up, so to speak," he said, and meant he wouldn't be called on to carry out attacks.
In one recorded phone conversation played for the jury, an adoring corrections officer, Adena Rice, can be heard asking White how he accumulated so much power.
"I stepped back for the first week, watched who was who, who was doing what, and I made myself into what I was," White told her.
Rice cooed: "That's what's up."
During his testimony, White provided the names of those he said ran the gang on the streets and within the facility — ticking off names like "Doc," "Pinky," and "Fat Will" — and said he knew most of them only through phone conversations.
White would be held in the jail for more than three years after his case twice ended in a mistrial.
A key mechanism for the gang's rise to power, prosecutors have alleged, was taking over the so-called "working man" posts within the jail. Those slots are supposed to be held by inmates displaying good conduct, who are given greater freedom to move within the jail and perform tasks such as cleaning and distributing food.
Instead, prosecutors say, the BGF persuaded staff to put gang members into the positions, which helped facilitate the smuggling of drugs and cellphones.
Defense attorneys have questioned the evidence against their clients but also are building a case that corruption was so widespread as to be "state-sanctioned."
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz expressed bewilderment at one point over where defense attorneys were trying to take the case.
"You can't distribute drugs anywhere," he said. "Suppose I said it's legal to distribute heroin. It's not!"
Defense attorneys countered that the intent of the corruption speaks to the general climate of the facility, and not the furtherance of a gang conspiracy.
Earlier Monday, Wendell "Pete" France, a high-ranking official with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services who oversaw the state-run jail and other facilities, concluded his testimony. France testified last week that he reached out to federal law enforcement in 2011 because efforts to crack down on corruption had been thwarted.
France also said that he specifically asked not to be clued into what investigators were learning, but at one point was asked not to move White to another facility because it would disrupt the investigation.
"I didn't want to be influenced on internal decisions based on what was shared with me," he testified. "Not that I didn't want to know — I didn't want to have undue info that might further impede the investigation."
France said that before the indictments, he hadn't heard of White's grip on the jail.
"You were investigating contraband smuggling for two years and never heard of Tavon White?" defense attorney Richard Bardos asked.
"I heard the name," France said. "I heard a lot of names."