As fires raged all over the city on April 27, 2015, two smart Baltimore teens engineered a $100 million drug heist that catapulted them to the top of the city’s gang hierarchy—and led to hundreds of deaths in Baltimore and around the country.
That's the story told in "Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire," a remarkable new book by New York-based, journalist Kevin Deutsch. "Pill City" follows two computer-savvy "honor students" Deutsch named Brick and Wax in fine detail as they develop an encrypted smartphone app they call the "Uber for drug dealing" and enlist the Black Guerrilla Family to muscle aside old-school drug kingpin Jimmy Masters, assassinating his son and his brother, along with everyone else who stands in their way.
But there are inconsistencies that raise questions about the veracity of "Pill City." After The Sun's Justin Fenton reported neither local nor federal officials could confirm many claims in the book, Deutsch responded in a post on Medium. "Until last week, I never knew what it felt like to be on the other end of reporters' barbed — and biased — questions," he wrote. Then he goes on to call out: Fenton; David Simon, who said the book is "by and large, a wholesale fabrication" on Twitter; and Baltimore City Paper, whose story, which you are reading, had not yet been published.
Deutsch is a veteran reporter for Newsday, The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, and The Palm Beach Post, with bylines in The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Village Voice, among others. Two years ago, his first book, "The Triangle," chronicled a Long Island gang war between factions of the Crips and Bloods with great detail, switching from one side's point-of-view to the other's, an omniscient narration Deutsch said was born of hundreds of interviews with gang members and law enforcement.
"Pill City" contains similarly gripping scenes of gang hitmen planning and executing their bloody tasks. You are there when Stephan "Stacks" Masters, the 41-year-old scion of a west side narcotics empire, gets stomped "by a well-aimed Timberland heel" and begs for his life, just before a cat named Slim pumps four bullets into him "from his Kel-Tec P-11 9 mm pistol." You're there again when Brick personally dispatches a junkie who owes his syndicate $7,000, then murders his screaming wife for good measure, while Wax quietly has second thoughts about their endeavor.
Boasting total, near real-time access to his criminal subjects, Deutsch piles details like a pulp novelist.
But what's unclear is where many of these details come from. Although it is non-fiction ("the following is a work of non-fiction," Deutsch begins his author's note), most of "Pill City's" characters are pseudonymous, to protect his sources: "For that same reason, certain locations, physical descriptions, and other identifying details have been altered or obscured."
On page three, Deutsch describes a looted mom-and-pop pharmacy at the intersection of Mosher and North Mount streets—no pharmacy exists there. Deutsch claims that this mom-and-pop pharmacy's proprietor, Fred Sinclair, exists under a different name, as does his daughter, Patti, who briefly becomes a love interest for Jamal Grayson, a buff and square-jawed Baltimore Police narcotics detective trying to track Brick and Wax. Or, anyway, Patti did exist—until she overdosed on some of the opiates the "Pill City" syndicate was peddling.
Also in existence, according to Deutsch, but with changed names: Marcus Elgion, an addiction doctor whose father also OD'd and whose mother committed suicide; Rita Wexler, a New Orleans physician who treats addicts; Corrine Heschel, a Shock Trauma physician; plus minor characters and experts-in-their-field whose anonymity does not make sense, from a "protecting sources" standpoint.
Deutsch writes floridly about the doings inside Shock Trauma, yet Karen Lancaster, spokeswoman for The University of Maryland Medical System, can't find any record of Deutsch's visit, after a week of searching.
"Our department does keep track of our interactions with and requests from journalists," she writes in an email. "We don't have a record of being contacted by this author."
Over email, City Paper asked Deutsch how he accessed Shock Trauma, and he wrote back: "I won't relate any information on this topic that isn't in the book, in order to protect the privacy of medical professionals, patients, and others I spoke with."
City Paper has written extensively about Baltimore gangsters, so we called sources in law enforcement and on the street to see if anyone had heard of a character who resembles Deutsch's Jimmy Masters.
"I'm talking to guys I've known for 20 years and they're laughing at me," Tony Barksdale, a decorated city detective and police commander who retired in 2012, said. "No one has heard anything like this, so I'm reaching out to guys on the federal task force side." City Paper heard from a task force member as well, who scoffed at the book's claims.
The scoffing was not quite unanimous. A lawyer for a high-level Baltimore drug dealer returned our call and said, on behalf of the dealer: "That person did exist, guy looked like one of the Isley Brothers." The old drug wholesaler said the man had been active in the 1990s and 2000s, and had been murdered circa 2015, the lawyer said. If true, Deutsch's Jimmy Masters character could change the way Baltimore understands its drug history.
"It doesn't ring like anything I know," said Simon, who spent more than a decade chronicling the life of gangsters and police on Baltimore's west side.
In an interview at City Cafe earlier in the month, Deutsch told City Paper that Jimmy Masters "was known to law enforcement" but had not had all that much contact with the criminal justice system. He insisted that all his characters were real people, and the actions he described were true. He said he did not alter the timing of events. "There's a lot of shit that I had to do," he said, "but that wasn’t one of them."
"Certain details had to change," Deutsch later reiterated, "but chronologically, it's correct."
After the publication of this story online, Deutsch emailed to insist: "The dates listed in your story are not the dates of the murders—they're simply the dates on which particular chapters open. I purposely did not include precise dates of murders, so that I could protect the identities of certain homicide victims and their associates, whose anonymity I'd guaranteed."
The murders Deutsch writes about in "Pill City" do not correspond to the murders that are publicly known to have happened in Baltimore.
In a chapter that begins on June 5, 2015, for example, was the day Jimmy Masters' son, Stacks, was killed, but there were no murders reported in Baltimore that day.
Police records show that there was a body found on the afternoon of June 6. Police called to the 500 block of Dolphin Street found Malcolm Alonzo Rogers, a 38-year-old African-American man, dead inside a house. He had "trauma to his body," the police said. Rogers' criminal record included several drug cases, the most recent in 2007, according to online court records. It is at least conceivable that he could have been an underworld princeling. But his death was the about the closest Deutsch's narrative comes to reflecting known Baltimore crimes that we could find.
Deutsch writes in "Pill City" that he was "in a nearby vehicle" at the time of the murder of a character he calls Tyson Ed Sperry. They were meeting for an interview at his parents' home in Sandtown. Sperry, a 20-year-old gangster, drives up with some "fresh chicken from Lexington Market" for dinner and gets his face blown off by a BGF guy with a "TEC 9," in Deutsch's account. Sperry's mom screams when the police officer pulls her son's ID from his pocket.
On June 25, 2015, a 20-year-old African-American man named Tommy Thomas was shot multiple times in the head on the 1300 block of N. Stricker Street, in Sandtown-Winchester. He had been arrested previously for armed robbery and car-jacking, and had beaten those charges. Maybe Tommy could be Tyson Ed, but he was killed at 2:13 a.m., eight hours or so after Lexington Market closes.
According to "Pill City," soon after Sperry died, Jimmy's kid brother, 52-year-old enforcer Zeke Masters, got whacked by a team of four BGF hitmen, right at Jimmy's clubhouse, as Jimmy and his men sat at a poker table. And it was loud and brazen, the BGF gunmen dropping two of Jimmy's bodymen before felling Zeke with a special gun one of the BGF soldiers had looted from a dead Iraqi militiaman.
Detective Grayson and his sergeant arrived seconds after the hit, Deutsch writes. But there were no triple shootings recorded in Baltimore the last week of June and first week of July 2015. In the entire month of June 2015, there were no reported murders that come close to Deutsch's description of this hit.
Hit after hit in "Pill City" plays out the same way with Deutsch detailing it right down to the hit-man's catchphrase ("Should've stayed in KC, nigga," Slim taunts Zeke as he guns him down). After an exhaustive search of existing, factual records of actual shootings, murders and human bodies discovered near streams, City Paper unearthed nothing that could possibly be the event described in "Pill City."
In a chapter that starts on Sept. 14 Deutsch writes that Jimmy Masters died, felled by Slim and his BGF crew at his only granddaughter's birthday party.
The public record of Baltimore murders says that at 2:30 a.m. that day Darris Darnell Davis was shot to death on the 5100 block of Arbutus Avenue. He was 39 years old, though, and "Jimmy Masters" had a son who was older than that.
Deutsch, who says he used City Paper's "Murder Ink" as a reference in his reporting (he also thanks the Baltimore Sun's coverage and cites it in the book), did not explain the timeline discrepancies.
"I'd have to go to my records," he said at City Cafe. "If you give me a chance, I have a room full of records, in fact, you're invited to come look at them. Any time you want." In a follow-up fact-checking email, City Paper asked how he kept his records and if there were any PDFs or anything he could provide.
"I obtained and kept records the way any reporter working on a large scale investigative project would. I got them however I could, wherever I could, from any agency or source I could. And they were key to telling this story," he wrote.
City Paper asked to view redacted documents to honor Deutsch's commitments to anonymity.
"You can come in person," he wrote. "I can't hand over public records for you to copy or keep, but I'd allow a reporter to take notes from what records are shareable."
In the Medium post Deutsch explained further: "These reporters asked me to hand over information that would corroborate parts of my account — an unusual request for crime journalists to make from their competitors, especially since a reporter's work product is privileged, and the drug looting spree remains under investigation."
The chapter titled "The Interrupters" raised more questions. There, Coach Larry Booker (who Deutsch writes coached Zeke back when he was supposed to be going straight), walked up Pennsylvania Avenue and with him is Rev. Grier, who is also ex-BGF, with a million dollar stash from a drug deal gone bad in Cali way back in the old days. They're asking junkies to pray with them, trying to save souls. The first guy they get is Otis Washington, the very same guy who, years ago, took out the eye of the other addict character we've already met, Derek Curry, in a fight over Washington’s role in Curry's wife's overdose.
It is one of several coincidental plot points in "Pill City" that would strain the credulity of a soap opera fan.
As is Deutsch's style, the scene is detailed. Coach and preacher, along with their posse, wear orange vests with "Life Saver" emblazoned on them. Booker is 62 years old in khakis, an Orioles cap, and "neon green Nikes." Grier is 69.
"This is the street where he sold his first bag of dope," writes Deutsch, who never mentions Little Melvin Williams, the infamous gangster who actually did control that scene back in those days. A guy with Grier's past—even if obscured by Deutsch—would be well known far beyond Upton and Sandtown. But none of the addiction specialists, doctors, community leaders, or violence interrupters City Paper spoke with had an idea who he might have been.
"We do not have any evidence that corroborates the book," BPD spokesman T.J. Smith wrote, after City Paper sent detailed character sketches of Grier and Jimmy Masters.
Sean Naran, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Health Department, said Deutsch's interrupters sound like the Safe Streets violence interrupters, except that none of the Safe Street violence interrupters got shot, and none of them were leading prayer circles. He added that none of them—including the squad that works Sandtown-Winchester—saw or heard of anyone doing what Deutsch describes in "Pill City."
"That's what they think," Deutsch said. "I bullet-proofed the book to protect the people who spoke to me."
In the scene, BGF comes after the interrupters. A character named Damage is supposed to whack Booker, but the old coach and former star player recognize each other. Up rolls Slim and Train in a GMC Yukon, fresh from their assassination of Jimmy Masters. They confront Booker and Grier, and of course, they know Grier's O.G. rep. Slim is just about to cap Grier when cops arrest Slim and Train for guns, on Pennsylvania Avenue. This chapter starts near the end of September 2015.
City Paper reviewed BPD gun arrests reported in September of 2015, and could not find any that correspond to this scene. So we checked August and October, as well. No dice.
In a chapter that starts on Nov. 10 Deutsch writes that Brick shot Grier in the head, saying the self-ordained reverend who presided over his mother's long-ago funeral (another amazing coincidence in this narrative) was whistling 'Amazing Grace' when Brick shot him in the head, and that Brick then took up the tune as he walked away.
There was no murder like that in Baltimore that month, according to BPD records. The closest possibility is James Myers Dews, 69, who was killed around 10 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2015, in the East Arlington neighborhood.
Police were initially called to the 5000 block of Reisterstown Road for an assault. The victim told them he had been assaulted on Grantley Road, and when the cops got there they found Dews, bearing "obvious signs of trauma," which they did not detail. A week later they arrested Jamison Michael Deberry, age 33, and charged him with the murder. He is currently scheduled for trial on May 23.
Dews was the only man over the age of 44 killed in Baltimore in November 2015, according to police records. His online memorial did not say he was a street preacher and made no mention of any of the "interrupter" or drug treatment activities that Deutsch's Rev. Grier was nationally famous for in "Pill City." Dews was not a former gangster, but an Air Force veteran who made his living as an accountant. His funeral was in Virginia.
"People from all over Maryland come to pay their respects to Marvin Grier: clergy members, cops, Black Lives Matter activists, and, of course, his fellow interrupters," Deutsch writes. "They trade stories about the fallen preacher, marveling at all he's given this wounded city—his time, his fortune, and, finally, his life."
Something like this large funeral did happen with Little Melvin Williams in December 2015. But Williams died of stomach cancer, and Deutsch is adamant that he did not model any "Pill City" characters on Little Melvin or create any composites. He also says that Grier was not an accountant. City Paper asked Deutsch to put us in touch with anyone who might have known the real Grier. He refused, citing his promise to protect his sources.
Brick is murdered near the end of "Pill City," in another homicide scene with no publicly reported real-life analogue that City Paper can find.
On Feb. 15, after The Sun's skeptical review of "Pill City" prompted Deutsch's former Newsday editors to begin a review of his work there, Deutsch published his self-defense Medium post, where he called out Fenton, Simon, and City Paper, saying we had attacked his work "without any veneer of objectivity." He defended the book without revealing sources and by citing anonymous law enforcement sources who, he writes, told him their bosses were colluding with reporters to undercut his work.
"To have one's reporting wrongly attacked by fellow journalists is one of the most disheartening experiences I can imagine," Deutsch wrote.
The New York Times is now reviewing Deutsch's work as well.
Calling "Pill City" a true tale while obscuring every character, place, and scene so it bears little likeness to known events is unusual in the world of journalism. Robert Boynton, director of New York University's literary reportage program and author of "The New New Journalism," said Deutsch's book is curious. "It sounds to me like the author wants a free pass," he wrote in an email to City Paper.
That police agencies have attacked his reporting, Deutsch told City Paper, is "a badge of honor."
But if Deutsch is hiding his sources' identities in order to protect them (he says he has received death threats from gang members since the book's publication), what of the core story? The looting of some 30 pharmacies on a single night—an event well documented by reporters and law enforcement—is significant. The question is, how significant?
Deutsch writes that Brick and Wax, with BGF, stole some 315,000 doses of pharmaceuticals, and another 300,000 to 400,000 doses of other gangs' opiate stashes, a total worth $100 million, by Deutsch's estimate. This put "enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year," as then-BPD Commissioner Anthony Batts proclaimed. "Pill City" repeats Batts' claim unquestioned. Batts' proclamation was mathematically impossible, as City Paper calculated in 2015 back when Batts made the claim: If Baltimore had but 20,000 addicts, the total alleged theft of 315,000 doses would amount to just 11 hits per addict, not even a week's supply. With 60,000 addicts copping just once a day, you're down to a three- or four-day supply. There was never any way to tote-up the looted drugs so that it made sense to say it could keep the city high for a year.
The stolen doses, divided by the claimed 60,000 addicts, would only last a week at best, and to add up to $100 million, the per-dose price would have to be more than $140, more than double the actual street price of the most expensive pills.
Later in the book, Deutsch undercuts his "100 million dollar" estimate, saying the whole stolen stash grossed the gang $29 million. It's a more reasonable estimate of what the stolen drugs sold for, but Deutsch refuses to back down from his $100 million estimate, telling City Paper during our interview that it's what his reporting showed.
"To arrive at the approximate $100 million total used in the book, I calculated the total approximate street value of drugs stolen by Pill City's associates overall. That number includes opiates and other drugs the group's members stole from pharmacies as well as rival's stashes in Baltimore," Deutsch said. "Again, the book purposely omits any specific breakdown of what drugs were procured through which means (drug store thefts or targeting of illicit stashes), or what part of the approximate $100 million total each accounts for."
In the book and in his Medium post, Deutsch repeats the claim that "not a single looted pill from the riots had been recovered."
Over email, Deutsch referred City Paper to an Aug. 17, 2016 story in the Baltimore Sun that reads, "Many of the facilities were heavily damaged and some had kept paper records that made inventory assessments difficult, said Todd C. Edwards, a DEA spokesman...Edwards said none of the drugs were recovered."
A federal case says otherwise: In September 2015, cops busted Rashad Robertson, age 26, with a cache of pills from the burned-out CVS at Penn and North. The case went to federal court, and Robertson pled out quickly, after serving about three months in jail. He was assessed a $25 fine. An affidavit filed in that case by DEA agent James Weeks estimated that the pharmacies paid $590,000 for all the pills that were looted on April 27, 2015.
Back at City Cafe, Deutsch said he had more stories to tell.
"Believe me, what I left out of the book was a lot more sensational than what’s in it," Deutsch said. "I understand it's an explosive book, it's controversial. But I left a lot out of it. Probably 70 percent of what I heard, I left out because I vetted it and I wasn't sure if it was true. What I left in the book I believe to be the true account of what happened after those drugs were looted from those pharmacies. I stand behind that 100 percent."