When the law listens in

In the past decade, police agencies in Frederick County have used wiretap warrants to help take down gangs, shut down drug networks and catch killers.

Frederick County’s chief Circuit Court judge has approved 19 wiretaps in the county in the past six years, according to a national report. Through the warrants, investigators captured all or some of at least 42,783 phone calls or text messages.

In October 2011, police agencies across Maryland, including the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and Frederick Police Department, announced the takedown of the South Side Brims, an offshoot of the Bloods. “Operation Cardinal Sin” relied in part on wiretap investigations. Thirty-five gang members were indicted in federal court, including 16 people from Frederick.

In April 2012, Roosevelt Harris, of Frederick, was charged with possession with the intent to distribute cocaine after police, using information obtained from a wiretap, stopped his car along southbound U.S. 15 and found 204.3 grams, nearly half a pound, of the drug that he’d tossed out the window during a short chase.

Also in 2012, detectives began tapping the calls of Frederick resident John Patrick Ryan, who they believed was importing large amounts of marijuana from California to Maryland. After Ryan was killed, detectives used a second wiretap to capture calls from his associate, Michael Anthony Stahlnecker, and heard statements that showed consciousness of his guilt in Ryan’s death, a prosecutor said.

Currently, a wiretap warrant case against Antwine Dwayne Snowden, charged in July with murder in the death of his neighbor Gloria Carol Fitzpatrick, is pending in Frederick County Circuit Court.

By the numbers

For every wiretap case, judges and prosecutors across the country are required to disclose certain information to Congress through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The Wiretap Report, as it’s commonly called, is published in late June each year.

The report offers a glimpse into wiretapping activities, but it does not include cases that are ongoing at the time of the report. In some cases, reports to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts aren’t made.

In 2013, 3,576 wiretap warrants were authorized by courts in the U.S., according to the Wiretap Report. Drug investigations accounted for 87 percent of eavesdropping warrants.

In Maryland, there have been 649 state court wiretaps and 177 federal court wiretaps authorized since 2003, which led to 766 arrests, according to the data.

The longest-running state wiretap reported in Maryland during that time was in operation for 129 days in a Baltimore city drug case.

The highest number of people intercepted on a state wiretap in the past 10 years in Maryland is 2,553 people, according to the report.

Seventeen of the 19 wiretap warrants reported from Frederick County were for drug investigations. The remaining two were used to investigate homicides.

The county wires were in operation for a total of 478 days and yielded at least 17 arrests, according to the data.

The Frederick County wiretaps cost $526,283 in total and $24,815 after factoring out manpower costs, according to the Wiretap Report.

In Maryland, state court-issued wiretaps cost $12,465,003 in total over the past 10 years and $1,295,762 after factoring out manpower costs.

Wiretap investigations are costly, but police recover a portion of the cost. Money and property found during drug arrests are seized by the police agencies.

In one county case where Andrew Steven Wilkinson was arrested in an investigation that yielded 26 pounds of high-grade marijuana, he forfeited $92,861 after pleading guilty to one count of distribution of marijuana and one count of conspiracy to distribute in Frederick County Circuit Court.

Money was also forfeited in the South Side Brims, Harris and Ryan cases.

How wires work

A wiretap, or eavesdropping warrant, is a Fourth Amendment intrusion, so judges won’t grant the warrants lightly, said Joseph Pollini, a retired New York Police Department officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“Wiretaps are very difficult to get,” he said. “Basically, what you have to do is exhaust every investigative possibility before a judge will even entertain giving you an eavesdropping warrant.”

Once granted, the warrants are valid for 30 days and can continue to be extended in 30-day increments, according to state law.

Maryland State Police Cpl. Jonathan Martin, the lead investigator in the Ryan homicide investigation, described during the trial in February how police leaked pieces of information to someone who knew Stahlnecker to see how he would react or speak about those details to others.

“It’s just one of those things that’s wise to do when you can hear telephone calls,” Martin said, noting that investigators can listen to what a target says during phone calls and compare that with statements to police.

Closing out cases

At trial, wiretaps can be incredibly convincing pieces of evidence, Pollini said.

“It’s exceptional. You don’t have circumstantial evidence, you have factual evidence,” he said. “I’ve had many cases where we used tapes, and that was the clincher. That’s the thing that convinced the jury.”

In the South Side Brims takedown, all 16 of the members from Frederick pleaded guilty to one or more charges and received prison terms ranging from one day to 84 months.

Harris pleaded guilty to possession with the intent to distribute in Frederick County Circuit Court after withdrawing a motion to suppress the wiretap evidence. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with an additional suspended sentence. One of his associates has cases relating to a wiretap pending in Frederick and Washington counties.

A jury found Stahlnecker guilty of first-degree murder and use of a handgun to commit a felony in February. Earlier this month, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North sentenced him to life in prison on the murder charge, plus an additional 20 years. An appeal is pending.

In February, at the close of the Stahlnecker trial, The Frederick News-Post filed a Public Information Act request for the number of wiretap warrants received by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 and 2013.

The request was denied based on a section of the open records law that allows withholding of certain investigatory records and records that contain intelligence information and security procedures.

Spokeswoman Lt. Jennifer Bailey said the sheriff’s office generally doesn’t disclose investigative techniques but gave basic information about recent wiretap investigations: “We do very few, and the investigators are very selective,” Bailey said.

Follow Danielle E. Gaines on Twitter: @danielleegaines

Danielle E. Gaines covers politics and government in Frederick County, splitting her time between Winchester Hall and The State House. Having grown up in Illinois, she lived in New York and California before settling in Maryland.

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