Prologue for Eyes of Justice

My alarm was set for 4:45 a.m., but I suspected I had awakened earlier. I felt on the night table for my talking wrist watch and listened. It was only 2:37 a.m. I tried to fall back to sleep, but it was hopeless. Not wanting to wake my wife, Laura, I quietly pulled off the covers and firmly planted my feet on the carpet. I felt for the bureau, then the wall that led to the bathroom. I didn’t bother to turn on the lights. That would be silly.

Once showered and shaved, I opened the door. Laura was awake. “Should I call you an early bird or a night bird that doesn’t sleep?” she asked. “Yeah,” I sighed. “I guess you haven’t had the chance to lay out my clothes, have you?” The night before, I told Laura I would need my black suit, a white button-down oxford shirt and my red power tie.

She knew nothing about the raid planned for this morning and knew not to ask. Very sensitive matters, I always believed, must operate on a need-to-know basis. In my many years in law enforcement I had become a master at keeping secrets; when I worked as a deep covert for the Baltimore Police Department, I did not even reveal my true identity to a previous wife. For two years, she thought I was a taxi driver.

When Laura walked into the kitchen, she said, “What, no coffee?”

“Not this morning. I would appreciate it if you would drive me to the office.” Once we arrived in Towson, Laura parked. As I did every day, I waited for her to grab my arm to walk me to the elevator where she punched the button for the fourth floor. We arrived at the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, the agency that investigates political corruption, theft of government funds and election law violations. I was the agency’s chief investigator.

As we said our goodbyes, I heard Laura’s voice turn back to me. “I am thinking that if you told me what’s up, you would have to cut my head off and put it in the oven.” My wife can always make me laugh. “Have a nice day,” I told her with a chuckle. “I love you.”

My colleagues have described me as a person of above-average intelligence with a gifted memory, streetwise and blessed with the ability to change my behavior like a chameleon. In police uniform, in the precarious days before bulletproof vests, I got drug addicts to inform on their dealers and captured a fleeing armed robber. In a coat and tie, as polite as could be, I gained confessions of theft from elected officials—a sheriff, a state legislator and more than one county councilman. Calm and collected, I pretended to take bribes from a Baltimore sheriff—and caught it on audio tape. I turned the filthy job of sifting through trash for evidence into an art form. As a deep covert working the sleaziest block of Baltimore, I grew long hair with a Fu Manchu mustache and spoke a dialect called “Balamerese” to earn the trust of strip-club owners, prostitutes, drug addicts and outlaw bikers.

Throughout my career I was honored to serve my city and my state as an honest Baltimore police officer and investigator, working alongside many other principled cops. I am equally as proud to have survived and outsmarted the many corrupt, racist and inept cops I met along the way who tried their damnedest to prevent me from doing my job. For years I kept a little figurine of the lion from “The Wizard of Oz.” It reminded me that it takes courage to do the right thing.

During all my dangerous years in law enforcement, I had no fear. The only thing I ever feared was blindness. I knew, since I was a child, that I would one day go blind. There were so many cruel reminders in the decades that followed: the blurred and cloudy vision, the early cataracts, 15 surgeries and each dreaded detached retina, moving—like a black curtain—across each eye, shutting me off from the glorious world of sight.

Blindness stripped away my independence, one agonizing step at a time. My last trash rip, my last raid on a suspect’s home. My ability to drive, to watch a movie. I would never again see my wife’s beautiful face, never watch my grandchildren grow.

Some people ask, “Why me?” I say, “Why not me?”

No one is immune to tragedy; but I am a man who learned to turn misfortune into opportunity. When I was going blind and could no longer carry a firearm, I found a career investigating political corruption and became a lawman without a gun.

I am in fact a lucky man, forever grateful to the many talented doctors who kept me seeing for years. I even had a devoted boss who found me a talking computer and kept me in my job after a government doctor tried to violate my rights as a disabled worker and end my career.

Cutting my career short because of my disability would have been especially cruel for a workaholic like me. Still, there were parts of the job I had to give up. As a blind criminal investigator, a raid with a search and seizure warrant was the investigative tool I missed most. In the years when I could see, it was my favorite day of a criminal investigation, coming months after we painstakingly collected other evidence: subpoenaed bank records, informant interviews, wiretapped phone conversations, evidence of secret business dealings found in a suspect’s trash, irregularities in campaign finance records and financial disclosure statements signed by elected officials under penalty of perjury.

Before I went blind, I led many successful raids that gathered thousands of dollars in stolen cash, guns and drugs, valuable photo equipment, hundreds of illegal gambling machines, even sticks of dynamite.

I investigated and helped prosecutors win convictions of business owners and bureaucrats who stole millions from the government, and elected officials who took bribes and raided their campaign accounts. Once, we caught Baltimore’s third-highest elected official siphoning tax dollars through a fictitious employee.

On this day, June, 17, 2008, though, the stakes were even higher because of the prominent person we were investigating.

Instead of being on the scene, I would be in the office, monitoring events by phone. Investigator John Poliks would lead the raid in my absence. John and I had known each other for almost 30 years, going back to our days in the police department. He had been an investigator for the Maryland Prosecutor’s Office for more than a decade.

There was no one I trusted more than John to be my eyes.

As we gathered in the state prosecutor’s conference room early in the investigation, I made it clear to the staff the importance of this case.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no room for a single mistake,” I told them.

“If we are right, no one can hurt us. If we are wrong, no one can save us.”

Now, two years later, we were ready for the final search. Later he would describe the scene to me in copious detail.

A little after 6 a.m., John led the small team of investigators and state troopers to the scene of the raid on a quiet street in West Baltimore.

Before he knocked, John could not help noticing the red front door with a large decorative oval window. “This is a really nice door,” he thought. He knocked hard. A few minutes went by before it opened.

The mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, stood in a plain nightgown.

“I have a search warrant for your house,” he said.

“You’re not coming in here this time of the morning,” the mayor told him. She slammed the door.

A few minutes later she reappeared.

“I have a search warrant,” John repeated. “We have to come in one way or the other.”

“I need an hour,” said the mayor.

John knew a person could destroy a lot of evidence in an hour.

“No” he told her.

Again, she slammed the door.

John called me with the bad news.

“Take the door down if you have to,” I told him, raising my voice.

John hesitated. This door, he thought, is almost too nice. What if it was a gift from a developer doing business with the city who might be under investigation, he thought.

“I can’t destroy evidence.”

The door opened again. Mayor Dixon handed John a cell phone.

“Hello Dale,” said John before he heard a voice on the line.

“What do you have?” asked Dale Kelberman, a well-known white-collar criminal defense lawyer.

John told him about the warrant and handed the phone back to the mayor so Kelberman could tell his client she had no choice. Finally, the mayor stood back.

In went the team, to search for evidence of theft, embezzlement and misconduct in office. The list of items they were looking for filled ten pages of our search and seizure warrant: a burnt umber mink jacket, a coat of Persian lamb and mink, an Italian leather coat, Giorgio Armani shoes and Jimmy Choo sandals, an Xbox, video games, and many gift cards purchased by developers doing business with the city.

Here I was, overseeing one of the most significant investigations of my career.  If anything went wrong, we would face catastrophic political fallout. Not to be part of every single step was frustrating. I felt very, very cheated. Still, I knew we were prepared and that the raid would go well.

Once inside, John called to tell me the mayor had left the house with her gym bag and that the search had begun.

I loosened my red power tie in the darkness.

“Here we go,” I said to myself.