I first heard the name Det. Daniel Hersl while working at City Paper, where my colleagues and friends Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods reported on his harassment of Kevron Evans, better known as rapper Young Moose.
Hersl cited Moose’s lyrics and music videos in a warrant to raid the rapper’s home in July 2014, leading to the arrest of Moose’s father, brother and mother. But he did not issue a warrant for the rapper’s arrest until weeks later. Moose’s lawyer, Richard Woods, claimed Hersl was aware Moose was scheduled to open for Baton Rouge rapper Lil’ Boosie at Royal Farms Arena–a huge boost for the musician’s career–just days before police brought him in.
In March 2016, Moose and his family members were acquitted on drug charges stemming from the raid, one of several instances where Hersl locked up Moose or harassed the Evans family.
Only later did we learn that Hersl was part of the Gun Trace Task Force, a corrupt unit of the Baltimore Police Department whose members were federally prosecuted on racketeering, robbery, conspiracy and corruption charges.
Six of the officers–ringleader Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, Sgt. Thomas Allers, Momudo Gondo, Maurice Ward, Jemell Rayam and Evodio Hendrix–pleaded guilty.
Two former detectives, Hersl and Marcus Taylor, took their cases to trial and were eventually convicted.
Today, Soderberg and Woods release “I Got a Monster,” a deeply reported account of the GTTF’s corruption published by St. Martin’s Press. With each detailed entry on a robbery or piece of planted evidence from the rogue unit, Soderberg and Woods put the reader right into the car, the house or the interrogation room where it all went down, showing just how calculating and precise these sworn officers were in their crimes.
Even if you followed the trials and news stories on the GTTF closely, “I Got a Monster”–“monster” being the unit’s code name for potential targets–is an engrossing read and a much-needed compendium of what they call “the rise and fall of America’s most corrupt police squad.”
Over email–under ordinary circumstances, this conversation would have taken place over beers at Mick O’Shea’s, our favorite post-deadline spot in our City Paper days–I talked with Soderberg and Woods about the importance of the details, what shocked even them as they reported more on the GTTF, and what they hope their book contributes to the ongoing national conversation about police reform.
Soderberg and Woods are taking part in a virtual book launch tonight with special guests Lisa Snowden of Real News Network and Baltimore Beat (full disclosure: another colleague and good friend of mine), Johns Hopkins professor Lester Spence, activist Ralikh Hayes of Organizing Black, former BPD officer and current defund the police advocate Larry Smith, “Badges Without Borders” author Stuart Schrader, and Baltimore Youth Public Defender Jenny Egan.
The event is hosted by Red Emma’s and starts at 7 p.m.
Baltimore Fishbowl: I want to go back to City Paper in 2014, when you both reported on Det. Daniel Hersl’s campaign to harass and bring charges against Kevron Evans, better known as rapper Young Moose. Moose’s case is mentioned in the book. Could you have imagined when you were reporting those stories that it would eventually lead to all this?
Brandon Soderberg: Not at all. Although that says as much about my relative naivete about police corruption as a fairly green white reporter at the time as it does about the extent of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. As you know, that was a story about this rapper Young Moose being harassed by a cop (which was really something we knew about because of our friend D. Watkins) and courts being culpable by believing Hersl’s version of events and letting him use lyrics and music videos as evidence. That was something I already understood from my music journalism work: Cops mess with rappers because of envy and racism.
And there were the additional parts of what happened that Moose and his father told us, which included theft and accusations of planted evidence. And I believed them and they often provided evidence to back up their claims. From there, we heard more stories about Hersl but even that felt kind of “contained,” right? A dirty cop and his buddies. That Hersl turned out to be tied to this larger criminal conspiracy, I couldn’t have predicted that. Moose is kind of an unsung hero of this story: You read his raps from 2014 about police harassment and they read like parts of the GTTF indictment from 2017.
Baynard Woods: It also happened that a month after that story, the city began to see massive protests in support of Ferguson following the shooting of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson and the failure of the DA to prosecute the cop. As Brandon has said, the protests around Thanksgiving 2014 were, in many ways, the beginning of the Baltimore Uprising. And then, in 2015, that smoldering uprising really erupted in what was almost a revolution. I think at that moment, because revolution always breaks open the possibilities of imagination, we might have been able to get a slightly better sense that the story we had started writing about with Hersl and Young Moose would have very long legs and could be extended into something like a book. But it took the federal trial of GTTF members Hersl and Marcus Taylor to see what shape that would take.
BFB: To report and write the book you gathered wiretaps, body-worn camera footage, surveillance video, trial transcripts, and thousands of documents. And you conducted hundreds of interviews. What was your process for sorting through all that information?
BW: The first thing we had to realize is that we were telling a story, not just dumping out everything we knew about the GTTF. With seven cops originally indicted, with others to follow, and years and years of crime, the story was just too big. So we knew we had to find a lens that would make it clear why we chose certain cases and not others. That turned out to be defense attorney Ivan Bates, who had been battling Jenkins in court for years—and also had a string of big cases against Jenkins during 2016, when most of the book is set. He was able to play the role that detectives play in a lot of stories like this, standing in for the reader, who can figure out things as he figures them out.
BS: At the same time, we had to be open to reading and obtaining anything and everything and talking to whoever because any character detail or anecdote might be useful somewhere and also because we’re trying to understand their world. Like, I spent a lot of time just chatting with people they arrested that didn’t want to really go on the record (sometimes just through Instagram or Facebook Messenger for a few minutes) because they would have some small detail that might be illustrative or might connect to something bigger for us. But once we identified that this book would focus on these cops through 2016 and it would also follow Ivan Bates, it made it easier to sort through all of the information. Then it was about having to find specific pieces of information to flesh out the scenes that fit the part of this sprawling story that we wanted to tell.
BFB: Stylistically, the first two-thirds or so of the book offers vivid accounts of the crimes carried out by these cops, putting the reader right in the car as the officers approach their next victim. How important was that to show just how precise and calculated these corrupt acts really were?
BS: We wanted to really give readers a sense of what this all felt like. I thought of the book as more like a camera following them around. To make that feel visceral and real, you needed a lot of detail. And the detail is also where you saw just how terrible this was: It’s not just that they robbed a couple on July 8, 2016 but that they followed this couple through a Home Depot and that when they drove to the couple’s home, it was in Westminster and that’s a bit of a drive and each turn or exit taken made it worse as the couple slowly realized their house was going to be robbed. So the details build tension too. The robberies were also important to detail because each of them was a way to characterize the cops and their shifting dynamic. These robberies often created small alliances or mini-beefs between the cops and so you want the personal drama to resonate and that only hits when it’s a detailed scene.
BW: Yeah, writing in scenes was really important to both of us. And to go back to the previous question, it was also a way to narrow down some of the cases. If we could make a good scene, then it had a better chance of making it into the book. If we needed information, but didn’t have a scene, we had to find another way to get that in. But it was also important to show all of the calculated ruses and wild improvisations that these rogue cops made because it can serve almost as a handbook for lawyers or other defendants—it’s laying out a compendium of the kinds of dirty tricks cops can play.
BFB: Did anything you learned in the course of reporting this book shock even you?
BW: The way that policing functions in white communities is so much different than in Black communities. So, for me, maybe the most shocking thing was how a lot of the things that seemed outrageous to me, weren’t surprising to Black people who had been telling stories about these things for years. And that’s one reason we have such hypersegregated, redlined communities is to keep these things out of the view of white people. Only after cellphone cameras became widespread did white reporters start believing the things that Black residents had been telling us about policing for years. But it still shocks me that in 2016, you get this squad, the GTTF together, that had so many detectives who were engaged in their own criminal enterprises with their own drug dealers—that kind of criminality within the department is off-the-charts.
BS: Each person who told us about their experience either told us something that we connected to the cops’ typical M.O. (which was shocking because it showed me how premeditated and common this all was) and/or they told us some new ugly detail (which was shocking because there was seemingly no bottom to their cruelty). Sgt. Jenkins of the GTTF stealing a man’s phone after he robbed and arrested him and texting the man’s girlfriend pretending to be the man to get her to send naked pictures is a shocking one just because it’s so petty and cruel.
A lot of the things we learned from Donny Stepp, the bail bondsman and cocaine dealer, were really shocking. That he was able to use the fact that the Department of Justice was in BPD headquarters investigating BPD as a cover to go into BPD and scheme with Jenkins is pretty wild.
And the biggest shocker was just the sense of how much chaos these cops created. You can’t fully quantify how much crime they created, how many people were hurt or even killed possibly because of their actions. Targeting violence interrupters, robbing people of drugs just about every night—that is going to create more violence. No one has really reckoned with that side of corruption much.
BFB: There isn’t much indication that top BPD brass had much oversight of the GTTF, or even offered direction on how the group should carry out its supposed mission of getting guns off the street. How were there no checks on this rogue unit?
BS: The checks, I think, were not there intentionally. A lot of it was about looking the other way. Not giving them oversight was part of the strategy. By not investigating them or even questioning the staggering number of gun arrests they were wracking up (which anybody who cared to notice would have realized were pretty much impossible to do constitutionally), higher-ups in BPD could take advantage of the GTTF’s “good” results and play dumb and get publicly outraged when this was all exposed.
BW: Former BPD spokesperson Eric Kowalczyk wrote a book where he describes Kevin Davis’ first day as Commissioner and he and Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere told them that the “riot is over” and to get back to doing what they knew how to do. Palmere had been a plainclothes cop and he knew how they operated. Beyond that, when BPD and the Feds started a new “War Room” to deal with the murder crisis, it was run by Sean Miller, another Jenkins mentor—there’s a great picture that Sean Hubbard took of Jenkins and Miller riding in a car together during the uprising. Now, it is true that there were very few checks on them. But that is by design—we hear people every day arguing that putting checks on officers causes crime.
BFB: Are you convinced the Baltimore Police Department has made enough reforms to prevent a different unit from acting in a similarly corrupt fashion?
BW: Clearly the answer is no. I don’t know that they’ve made any real reforms that would stop something like this from happening. I mean, just a couple weeks ago, a homicide detective was arrested by county cops for allegedly using his police powers and his squad, all of whom were on the clock, to force a contractor to write him a $3,000 check for private work he thought was unsatisfactory.
BFB: What did the victims tell you about the trauma they experienced from all this? You describe Ronald Hamilton testifying on the stand that the GTTF raid on his Carroll County home destroyed his family and led to divorce.
BW: Hamilton, who they abducted from a shopping center and robbed, was very clear about some of those impacts. He and his wife had just bought a new house. After the GTTF essentially held them hostage in it, she couldn’t be there alone. She’d go to Wall-Mart to wait until he got home. She was terrified. But in many ways, they were luckier than a lot of others. When Jenkins chased Umar Burley and he crashed into a man named Elbert Davis and killed him, the cops planted an ounce of heroin on Burley. He was in prison between 2010 and 2017. The Davis family sued Burley and won a million dollar judgment—and he has the weight of Elbert Davis’ life on him. That kind of trauma becomes so compounded.
BS: Some people who talked to us for the book said it was cathartic though it also meant reliving it all which was certainly retraumatizing. But we also saw how there was so much work the people who were victimized by GTTF had been doing to keep going and wake up in the morning and deal with that trauma. Part of that was coming to terms with what happened to them and trying not to let it destroy them. Often that involved locating some sense of forgiveness or locating some kind of “peace” within themselves about what happened. I don’t want to make too much of that because it’s a personal choice by the people traumatized but I want to mention the other side of that trauma too: trying to process it and live with it and not let these cops continue to loom over their lives.
BFB: At the same time, you also give the GTTF cops some depth. We learn, for example, that Wayne Jenkins and his wife lost a child, that Momodu Gondo was living kind of a double life as a sworn police officer and a Baltimore native with friends in the drug trade. Did you come out of this with a different understanding of a Jenkins or a Gondo than you had before?
BS: One of the things that made me very interested in this story were the cops because they were complicated people. The trick was showing their lives and being fair to them but not losing sight that there are victims and perpetrators in this story and the GTTF are the perpetrators. There’s a weird dialectic there, right? There’s too much media from the perspective of cops—”copaganda”—and yet to tell this story, to really show you how terrible they were, it meant really getting to know these cops.
Getting more information about their lives means you inevitably find some qualities you might relate to at least a little or understand if only because you have to understand them to write this. However, we wanted to avoid locating a single piece of personal info and blowing it up as simple motivation. Jenkins was undoubtedly deeply affected by the death of his child and we had evidence of that but we didn’t want to use it to explain why he was who he was. That’s lazy storytelling and bad reporting, and it’s too simple.
BW: Just to add one little bit to that—Jenkins and Gondo, for instance, are very different people not only in terms of character, but in terms of demographics. Jenkins is white and grew up in the county and Gondo is Black and grew up in the city. Their corruption was driven by very different factors. But for both of them, just like for the drug dealers they robbed, the drug war was the economy in post-industrial Baltimore. We kind of have this expectation as a society that cops should really believe in the mission they’re engaged in. So, when we get rid of that, we’re going to see a lot of complex motivations and complicated decisions made on the job every day. If we’re going to understand that, we can’t pretend they’re all somehow the same person.
BFB: This book arrives in the middle of this national conversation about policing. What do you hope it adds to the discussion–particularly for people outside of Baltimore, who are possibly learning about a lot of these cases for the first time?
BW: As post-uprising cities around the country are dealing with crime spikes, it complicates the argument—which we saw recently in Bret Stephens’ risible piece about Baltimore—that asking police to follow the law leads to crime. It does, but not for the quasi-magical reasons that people like Stephens suggest—morale! Or whatever. In this case, it led to an increase in crime in part because the cops were causing the crime. This leads to a cycle—the more crime there is, the longer leashes and more overtime we give cops, giving them a chance to create more chaos and crime, ramping up the cycle.
BS: I think the story shows that while the GTTF’s actions were exceptional—I mean, we call them “America’s most corrupt police squad”—they are also the logical extension of contemporary American policing and therefore, a strong argument against simple reform. If you don’t radically change policing, you will keep seeing GTTF-like cops.
We wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post last month that argued that Baltimore Police sabotaged reform and the GTTF scandal is a great example of the limits of reform. During the period our book covers, body cameras were introduced, the Department of Justice was here investigating BPD, and you couldn’t go a week in 2016 without some kind of panel about community relations and the cops. None of that stopped GTTF. If they got away with such brazen criminality amid a moment of reform, then you can assume more conventional corruption and brutality wasn’t stopped either.
BFB: The book is dedicated to defense attorneys fighting for the Fourth Amendment and its protections against illegal searches and seizures. Following the killing of Breonna Taylor, activists have been pushing for an end to no-knock warrants. Are there other reforms you would like to see to uphold Fourth Amendment rights?
BS: The Fourth Amendment in particular goes out the window when we give police more leeway to police us. By dialing back what police can get away with and by taking away their responsibilities and power and giving that responsibility and power to people more equipped to handle a lot of societal problems (“defunding the police” pretty much), the right to a reasonable search and seizure might begin to be more easily exercised. “Proactive policing” where plainclothes cops like GTTF go around the city essentially hunting for people to arrest is straight-up an exercise in violating Fourth Amendment rights (and often Second Amendment rights too). Getting rid of—or if you want to be more moderate about it, at least reducing—the power plainclothes police have would protect the Fourth Amendment.
BW: It’s astounding to me that we still refer to anyone on the Supreme Court over the last generation as a “strict constitutionalist.” We have, as a country, essentially done away with the Fourth Amendment for the sake of the drug war. We’ve had plenty of fights over the First and Second Amendments, but then we fall silent about illegal searches and seizures as long as we aren’t the ones being illegally searched and detained.
Getting rid of no-knock warrants is really important and should be important for cops, too. They are extremely dangerous for everyone involved. But we need far higher standards for warrants in general. For instance, it’s not just that they shouldn’t have been able to raid Taylor’s house with a no-knock warrant—they shouldn’t have been able to get a warrant for it at all. There was no evidence presented to justify any kind of warrant. Part of the problem is with the cops, but a large part also lies with the judges who sign warrants. They should be held accountable.