When cops become robbers

Inside one of America’s most corrupt police squads

Parts of this story are reconstructed from trial testimony, evidence and publicly available records. It contains strong language throughout.

Four vehicles fly down a darkened, rain-soaked street. It’s summertime, nearly midnight in downtown Baltimore.

The lead car, a white Chevrolet, is driven by a 34-year-old man, his foot pressed to the pedal. On his tail are three unmarked police cars driven by members of the Gun Trace Task Force, a plainclothes gun recovery unit.

The chase started after the Chevrolet ran a red light. Pursuing the vehicle would be a violation of Baltimore Police Department policy, but the detectives suspect the man in the Chevy has guns, drugs, cash or all three.

“Might be able to get somethin’ dirty,” detective Daniel Hersl says excitedly.

“Light him up,” detective Jemell Rayam responds.

The pursuit proceeds to the sounds of revving engines and heavy rain pelting the windows – there are no sirens.

The Chevrolet blows through another red light. He almost makes it across the intersection when a Hyundai Sonata going through the green collides with the driver’s side of the Chevy, launching both cars up on to the pavement. The Chevy crumples into a motionless wreck.

“Shit!” exclaims detective Momodu Gondo from behind the wheel. “Damn.”

“Keep going,” responds his partner, Rayam. “I don’t know.”

“Shit!”

“I don’t know,” repeats Rayam. “I don’t know.”

Without stopping, the detectives radio back and forth between their cars.

“We ain’t look too crazy, did we?” asks Gondo. “They got cameras all up and down that shit.”

“I can get on the air and say I just got a report of an accident,” says Rayam.

“No, Wayne said – I wouldn’t say nothin’ yet,” responds Hersl.

Several blocks away, two of the three police vehicles pull to the side of the road and the officers confer. Gondo thinks he only had his lights on at the very beginning of the chase – maybe no one noticed them.

“That’s the thing with Wayne. He’s a little too much with this shit,” says Hersl. “These car chases. This what happens.”

Eventually it strikes the officers that they never called for aid.

“How about we just go on scene and just act like, ‘Oh, is everything OK?’” asks Rayam.

“That dude unconscious, he ain’t sayin’ shit,” responds detective Marcus Taylor.

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Listen to the Gun Trace Task Force before and after the car crash (WARNING – contains strong language)

Over half an hour after the crash, they’ve still done nothing. Hersl suggests they change their time cards to make it appear they stopped work hours earlier. Wayne Jenkins, the unit’s leader, stops to scope out the accident, but also does nothing to help.

“I wonder what was in that car,” says Hersl.

“I don’t care,” Jenkins snaps. “Go back to HQ.”

A year and a half later, in a federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore, a prosecutor switches off the audio recording from that night, captured on a FBI listening device hidden in Gondo’s police vehicle. On the witness stand sits Rayam, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a smooth pate. Instead of his police uniform, he wears bright orange prison garb.

Facing him from the defendants’ table are two of his former colleagues, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor.

“None of us stopped to render aid or see if anyone was hurt,” Rayam tells the courtroom in a faltering voice. “We were foolish, I don’t know, we just didn’t… we just didn’t stop.”

In the case of United States versus Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, the car accident is the least of the men’s legal worries. They are facing multiple counts of extortion, racketeering and fraud for their part in what prosecutors call a “perfect storm” of police officers gone rogue. Rayam, Gondo, Jenkins, as well as two other officers from the Gun Trace Task Force have already pleaded guilty.

When the prosecutor finishes his questions, Rayam seems to completely fall apart. He shields his eyes from the jury.

In an already exceptionally dramatic trial, it is a disorientating moment. As Rayam – a once-respected police detective, a college-educated father with a nice house in the suburbs – sobs silently on the witness stand, it is impossible not to wonder…

What happened to these police officers?

Trackers
David McDougall

19-year-old Alyssa died of a heroin overdose in Harford County in 2011

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Bodycam footage of a GTTF arrest

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Shawn Whiting

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Gondo on the stand. Court sketch by Tom Chalkley

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