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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trial Of 2 Linked To Tree Top Piru Blood Gang Begins

TTP blood gangDuring opening statements in a federal gang trial Tuesday, prosecutors promised to unveil the "violent" world of the Tree Top Piru, a deadly set of the Bloods gang formed, they say, in a Maryland jail to gain territory and respect through fear.

Members are dealers, murderers and robbers, said prosecutor Christopher Mason, who plans to prove it in part through the testimony of a key witness: the gang's founder.

It's an ironic arrangement, given that Bloods have appeared in the two "Stop Snitching" underground videos, which threaten would-be informants. The government plans to introduce the second DVD as evidence, claiming Tree Top Piru used it as a recruitment tool to expand the gang's reach.

Nearly two years after 28 people were charged in a 20-count indictment that alleged drug dealing, weapons possession and five murders, trial for two of the defendants began Tuesday. Most others have entered guilty pleas, and 14 of them have been sentenced to a combined 188 years in federal prison.

Some, like TTP founder Steve Willock of Hagerstown, made deals with the government, exchanging testimony for whatever it was worth. In Willock's case, he was sentenced to 25 years instead of life.

Both Baltimore's Ronnie Thomas, who appears in "Stop Snitching 2," and Salisbury's Sherman Pride are charged with racketeering for their alleged gang affiliation, while Pride alone is also charged with drug dealing, which carries a maximum life sentence.

Their attorneys told Judge William Quarles and the jurors on Tuesday that the government didn't have a case.

Thomas was in jail for most of the time period outlined in the indictment, said lawyer Michael D. Montemarano, adding that there was no "substantive evidence" against his client, just "bought-and-paid-for Bloods" testifying with little credibility.

But prosecutors say bars don't always prevent illegal activity. The indictment broke open the gang's secret world, providing a glossary of terms and highlighting the problem of cell phones smuggled into jail.

Law enforcement agents say Willock ran the gang from his cell in a Cumberland jail, often through a contraband cell phone.

Department of Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard testified about the issue in Annapolis before the state legislature Tuesday, hoping to make it a felony to possess a cell phone in jail, punishable by up to five years in prison.

In court, attorney Harry D. McKnett said Pride met Willock in jail, and McKnett acknowledged that "from time to time," the young man associated with gang members.

"So what?" he added. "Simply identifying yourself as a Blood does not make you a criminal."

It's a frequent defense raised for people charged with racketeering under federal law, which allows gang members to be held responsible for their associates' crimes. The prosecution method commonly leads to sweeping arrests and lengthy prison terms.

Three-quarters of the 28 people indicted in February 2008 faced maximum terms of life in prison on various charges. But the longest term doled out so far is 30 years, and the shortest is probation.

Public records show at least 18 defendants have pleaded guilty in the case so far. A trial for the remaining defendants is scheduled for March.

January 20, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,

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