July 8, 2016, the day that Ronald Hamilton, a used car salesman and frequent gambler with a storied past dealing cocaine, was abducted and robbed by the Baltimore Police Department was a tense one.
On July 5, a police officer named Blane Salamoni killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Baton Rouge man selling rap mixtapes in front of a convenience store, and the next day, July 6, near Saint Paul, Minnesota, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile, after the 32-year-old informed Yanez he had a licensed gun on him and reached for his driver’s license. Castile died in front of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter as Reynolds Facebook Live’d her boyfriend’s death.
Protests exploded across the country. On July 7, following a protest against police in Dallas, a man named Micah Xavier Johnson killed four Dallas Police Department officers and one Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer in an ambush.
It was an election year and both candidates made statements.
“We’ve got to do everything possible to support our police and to support innocent Americans who have encounters with police,” Hillary Clinton said.
“We must stand in solidarity with law enforcement, which we must remember is the force between civilization and total chaos,” Donald Trump said.
As Ronald Hamilton and his wife Nancy rolled around through a bucolic landscape running errands near their home about an hour from Baltimore, all of the chaos felt a world away.
Around 3 p.m., the Hamiltons were strolling through a Home Depot. The DIY superstore smelled of cut wood, and shopping-friendly pop whispered from overhead speakers while they shopped for fixtures for their dream home.
The couple had closed on the half-million-dollar house a month earlier, putting $17,000 down on the $535,800 mortgage. The McMansion had been in foreclosure and it needed some work, and the couple were going to meet a contractor to talk repairs, discuss interior decorating, and buy some blinds.
In a long, labyrinthine aisle full of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, Hamilton noticed a man staring at him. The light-skinned Black man was tall and his arms were strong and his bald head and dead eyes were hard to miss.
When the Hamiltons moved over to the blinds, a maze of eye-level displays showing off wood shades, solar shades, roller shades, and jalousies, the bald man was behind them again.
“Man, that guy is staring at, like, a product for about twenty minutes, just looking,” Hamilton said to Nancy.
Hamilton, a lean, wiry man in his forties with kind eyes and a menacing swagger, got nervous and decided to split, even though the contractor hadn’t arrived. The couple left the store and hurried out to their truck in the parking lot. The bald man, a plainclothes Baltimore police detective named Jemell Rayam, followed the couple out of the store.
Rayam had been following Hamilton for weeks, mostly using a GPS tracker he had put on the undercarriage of Hamilton’s truck to virtually “tail” him. Rayam watched from home or while he was working other drug and gun investigations as Hamilton traveled between casinos and car auctions but the GPS locations didn’t suggest any illegal activity.
But Hamilton was what Rayam’s new boss, Baltimore Police Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, liked to call a “monster”–a big time drug dealer with a lot of cash and likely, some guns and coke stashed in his home.
Hamilton was a big name with a history from way back. Federal agents said he was “the person who controlled most of the drug trafficking in West and Southwest Baltimore City and county” in the late ’90s, and he did almost a decade in federal prison after state police intercepted a four-pound pack of blow sent in a refrigerator from California to Baltimore. They found more cocaine inside his house, along with almost a half million dollars in a gym bag.
In prison, Hamilton demanded the government return the $496,000 they had seized from him, filing the paperwork himself and suing the DEA, though to no avail. When federal sentencing guidelines for drugs changed, Hamilton also filed his own motion to reduce his sentence and won. He got out early in 2009 and was soon back in it, caught with someone else’s ID at the airport and connected to 15 kilograms of coke coming his way. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was locked up until 2013.
So when Rayam wasn’t able to uncover anything to justify a warrant, the sergeant stepped in. Jenkins told Rayam that he saw Hamilton get out of his car with a bag and hand it to a man in a black Honda with New York plates late one night on a side street in Baltimore.
“Man, I know it was money in there or something big in there,” Jenkins told Rayam. “I felt like just hitting him and taking the bag.”
Rayam wrote up the warrant, based mostly on GPS locations and Jenkins’ unconfirmed claim. The warrant was mostly fiction—but a judge signed it because this vaunted squad run by “super cop” Jenkins had put it in front of him.
When Rayam got to the parking lot, he confirmed to his partner, Detective Momodu Gondo, that it was Hamilton in the Home Depot. Then he called two other squad members, Danny Hersl and John Clewell, waiting nearby.
“We pull them over, bring them back to the academy, that’s per Sergeant Jenkins,” Rayam said over the radio to the two white cops in another car.
“All right, I got you,” Clewell said, following as Hamilton’s truck pulled out of Home Depot.
This impending stop was to be the first real outing of the core group of the newly expanded Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), which had city-wide jurisdiction and was empowered to “do what it took” to take the city back after 2015’s rioting.
Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, a hard-charging, highly-praised white cop from the county, had only taken over the squad a few weeks earlier and was in the process of turning it into what one of his buddies later called “a front for a criminal enterprise,” stealing cash from citizens, robbing drug dealers, and passing their drugs over to a variety of underworld connects who put them back out on the streets and keeping a cut of the profits.
Three of the detectives had already been engaged in various corruption schemes and, with this sting on Ronald Hamilton, Jenkins was bringing them together, almost like a test. Jenkins had always admired Hersl for his imperious pocket-surfing, stopping people and stealing whatever cash they had on them and then often brutalizing them for kicks, but he lacked a certain level of ambition.
Gondo and Rayam however, had a vision. Gondo worked closely with a Northeast Baltimore heroin crew, and Rayam, his partner, had been involved in a variety of home-invasion schemes—hooking up with a dope dealer’s paramour so he could get into the guy’s house and in one outrageous scheme, dressing up like a postal worker to make his way into a house he wanted to rob.
Back in June, Jenkins, Gondo, and Rayam entered a row house in East Baltimore and stole $17,000 when they arrested a man with 50 grams of heroin. And during a traffic stop, Jenkins, Rayam, and Gondo seized a gun and a pound of weed and Jenkins pushed Rayam to sell the weed.
Gondo and Rayam weren’t quite prepared for how out of control their sergeant was, running through Jenkins’ constant search for more “monsters” and more crime, they often spoke of him in awe and a little terrified.
“That nigga’s off the chain, yo,” Rayam said.
So, that tense July day, as they followed the Hamiltons as they pulled out of Home Depot and into a neighboring shopping center to pick up some dry cleaning, none of the cops knew what to expect.
The two unmarked cars sped up and blocked Hamilton’s truck in.
When the four officers flooded out of their cars, to Hamilton it seemed like there were twice as many of them, all wielding guns—and one of them was the bald guy from the Home Depot.
“Get out the car,” Rayam told Hamilton. “Where your money at?”
Rayam dragged Hamilton out of his truck, shoved him up against a car, pulled $3,400 out of Hamilton’s pocket, and stuffed it in his tactical vest marked “POLICE.”
Nancy was hauled out of the truck, handcuffed, and put in the other car with Hersl and Clewell. She believed they were crooks impersonating cops. She was only half-wrong.
“What’s going on?” Hamilton, handcuffed, asked Gondo from the back seat.
“Oh, that’s not my investigation. I don’t know what’s going on,” Gondo said calmly from the driver’s seat.
“What’s going on?” Hamilton said again.
“I don’t know,” Gondo said.
They all drove off. Gondo called their boss.
“We got, um, we got the package,” Gondo said.
“Is he in the car with you?” Jenkins said.
“Yeah, I got the male, they got the female,” Gondo said.
“Did you tell him anything at all?” Jenkins said.
“No,” Gondo said.
“Then tell him you gotta wait for the U.S. Attorney,” Jenkins said.
“Yeah, we wanna meet up with you, and we wanna talk before anything,” Gondo said.
“And when I get there, treat me like I’m the fuckin’ U.S. Attorney. Like ‘Hey, sir, how are you, we got our target in pocket,’” Jenkins said.
“Got you,” Gondo said.
“And then introduce me as the U.S. Attorney,” Jenkins said.
“I got you,” Gondo said.
“All right, dog,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins was not a U.S. Attorney. Gondo had only been in the squad with Jenkins a few weeks and was still getting used to his sergeant’s lies and double and triple crosses.
The squad drove the Hamiltons to the police training facility in the Park Heights neighborhood, a blighted Black part of town bumping into a Jewish suburb. The training building used to be an elementary and middle school until it closed after the 2007 school year and Baltimore did what it often does—it transferred resources from schools to police. Now police used it to train cops—and plainclothes units like the Gun Trace Task Force used it as a satellite office.
A gray trailer near the building that cops called “the barn” was something like a black site, right there in plain sight, where they sometimes did interrogations.
They took Hamilton inside the barn and left Nancy Hamilton with Clewell. They always left Clewell out of it. They used his investigative skills and the GPS trackers he had registered in his own name, used for police work to cut corners, but for the serious dirt, they didn’t trust him.
“I’m Detective Jenkins with the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Jenkins said to Hamilton. “I’m a federal agent.”
Jenkins told Hamilton they had enough evidence to convict him on federal charges.
“OK, well, just take me down to the federal courthouse,” Hamilton said.
“You don’t tell me what the hell to do,” Jenkins said, before pushing the fabrication further. “We got you under three controlled buys.”
“Man, that’s a lie,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton thought he would probably get the shit beat out of him if he resisted, so he hardened up, contained his rage, and didn’t say much. Jenkins asked Hamilton if he had any guns or drugs at his house. Hamilton said he didn’t. He did have money, entirely legitimate money, he insisted.
“We got you,” Jenkins said.
He hit Hamilton up for the names of dealers.
“I ain’t doing nothing,” Hamilton insisted.
Gondo and Rayam took Hamilton outside and put him into their car with Nancy while Jenkins and Hersl got in Hamilton’s truck. Rayam and Jenkins devised a plan to get Clewell out of the way.
Gondo raced through traffic with the confidence of a cop who can’t get pulled over. From the back seat, Hamilton searched for some clear sense of what was next for him and his wife.
They left Park Heights. The sky grew bigger. Trees lined the road. They were driving away from Baltimore, not toward it.
“Take me down to the federal courthouse,” Hamilton said.
If they were federal agents like they said they were, they would take him downtown to the Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse to a magistrate judge where he would hear his charges, since he was still on federal probation.
“Where are we going?” Hamilton asked.
“We’re going to your house,” Rayam said.
Gondo bobbed through traffic honking his horn, speeding, driving on the shoulder to get around traffic and into quiet Carroll County, where he curled through roundabouts that connected tiny, almost-nothing towns, gliding along twisted, two-lane thoroughfares, a rural blur of corn, soybeans, and cows on both sides and as far forward as they could see.
They turned onto the street where the Hamiltons lived on a couple of acres on the edge of a huge, high-end horse farm. Seething green grass and fluffy cloud bushes hovered in front of the Hamiltons’ brick manse, gingerbread prickly with wildly pitched roofs—five different points jutting boastfully into the country air.
“Just don’t say nothing,” Hamilton told Nancy. “They’re trying to rob me.”
Nancy had to say something about their kids. She told Gondo and Rayam that their children—ages eight, nine, and eighteen—were all in the house. She asked if the cops could let them leave to avoid seeing whatever was going to happen. She could make a call, they said.
In handcuffs, Nancy maneuvered her cell phone and called her eighteen-year-old son, telling him to help the younger kids pack and get them out of there. She couldn’t tell him anything else. They just had to leave—and the police were going to check their bags on the way out.
Hersl, a big, white bruiser who had built a career tormenting the residents of the city and racking up more than 30 Internal Affairs complaints, stood there bald and monumental against the wooded backdrop of the Hamiltons’ new home, watching the couple still in the back seat. He was getting ready to buy a house himself, in the county, north of Baltimore. His new house was not as nice as the Hamiltons’ house.
The floors of the Hamiltons’ house were gleaming hardwood and patterned marble and white carpet. Everything about the place screamed coke dealer or suburban supermom whose kids are finally off to college and out of the house.
Gondo went upstairs and into Hamilton’s bedroom. That’s where he found the money—a block of cash in a heat-sealed bag and $20,000 in loose hundreds under a towel in the closet.
Gondo counted out the money—$5,000, $10,000, $15,000, finally $20,000—and then put it back in the closet under the towel just like he’d found it. He took some pride in his ability to count cash correctly. It could be a matter of life and death. Rayam was with him. Then Hersl came in.
Rayam went and found Jenkins, who was calling the Carroll County Drug Task Force to come in and assist since they were well out of Baltimore Police Department jurisdiction. Rayam told his sergeant about the loose bills.
Jenkins said to take the money.
There was still the heat-sealed $50,000 to put into evidence.
And there had to be more. They continued to interrogate the Hamiltons, moving them around the house, questioning them, never allowing them to talk to each other.
“There’s no drugs in here, man. I don’t sell drugs,” Hamilton said.
“Listen, ain’t nobody telling,” Gondo assured Hamilton.
“Man, I’m not doing anything, man. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hamilton said. “I don’t be with no one. I be with my wife and my kids. Take me back upstairs.”
They took Hamilton back upstairs.
“They playing a good cop, bad cop,” he told Nancy when he passed by her as they brought her into the basement to be interrogated.
In the basement, all the questions from Rayam made Nancy cry. She didn’t have any information they wanted.
Rayam worked Hamilton next.
“Listen, if it’s some drugs in here, just give it, just tell us. We’ll put it up for you,” Rayam said.
“There’s nothing in here,” Hamilton said.
The Carroll County cops were all instructed to wear black bands on their badges to commemorate the dead Dallas officers. They arrived with drug dogs, going through the house and putting everyone on edge, especially Nancy. Her husband’s temper was tipping, she could tell, her kids were elsewhere, worried, and one cop stalked around handling a drug dog—it was all too much, a nightmare.
Jenkins handed Hamilton a piece of paper confirming that money was seized in the house and said he had to sign it. Hamilton demanded they write an amount on the form.
“We can’t put an amount on it,” said Jenkins, who did not mention that he had stolen an expensive watch while searching the house.
“I’m telling you what I had in here,” Hamilton said, mentioning his $70,000.
Hamilton stood up, angry. He wanted to talk to the Carroll County cops. Jenkins pushed him back down into his seat.
“Just sign the paper,” Jenkins said.
“Man, put the amount,” Hamilton said. “I want to see what’s the amount.”
Reluctantly, Hamilton signed the paper. The dogs hadn’t discovered any drugs in the house, and the squad hadn’t located any firearms, so the Hamiltons weren’t arrested and they weren’t charged with anything. Civil forfeiture laws allowed the Carroll County cops to seize Hamilton’s sealed $50,000 anyway. He’d have to go court and prove he made the money legitimately if he wanted it back.
When the real cops were gone, Rayam walked outside and stuffed the $20,000 under one of the seats in Gondo’s car.
Gondo asked him what he was doing with the money.
“Yo, G, I’m taking it,” Rayam said.
“Why would you take it?” Gondo said. “There’s nothing in the house.”
Back inside, Jenkins took Hamilton’s cuffs off.
“Clap,” Jenkins said.
“For what?” Hamilton said.
“Because we don’t usually miss,” Jenkins said.
“Man…” Hamilton said.
“Just be honest, man. If you know. If you can help us, we can help you,” Jenkins said.
He asked Hamilton who was “big-time as far as drugs.”
“Man, I’m not in the streets,” Hamilton said.
“Who would you rob?” Jenkins asked.
“What?” Hamilton asked.
Jenkins repeated the question.
“I’d rob President Obama,” Hamilton said.
“You want to be a smart-ass,” Jenkins said.
He hinted that he could get drugs for Hamilton if he played along.
“Man, you can wake up,” Jenkins said. “You got twenty keys laying in your yard.”
Hamilton still said nothing.
Before they left, Rayam handed Hamilton a business card.
“Man, if you change your mind, here go my card,”
When Hamilton looked at it, there was no name, just the letter “J” beside a phone number.
The sun was setting and the midsummer landscape rose up in washed-out color beyond the road and all that corn and all those cows as GTTF drove off. They stopped at a bar about fifteen minutes from the house they had just robbed together.
Rayam was his side partner and all, but Gondo was not always cool with the way he operated.
“With me, if you’re going to skim money or take money off the top, it’s better to have some type of evidence,” Gondo said. “That’s just my personal feel. You know, it’s just basically a better cover-up than just taking the money boldly and there’s no drugs; there’s no guns, nothing at all.”
Jenkins acknowledged the sensitive situation. They had taken over $20,000 and a watch.
“We can do this three times a year,” Jenkins told his new crew. “But don’t be greedy.”
Ever since Gondo joined a plainclothes police unit almost a decade earlier, he’d been stealing. He saw that it was a way of building trust among cops—and a way to make sure no one could rat on another since they were all implicated. Still, this seemed different. They were now entering into what he thought of as “a pact.”
As GTTF dined on Hamilton’s dime and crammed into their car for the long drive back into the city, a few hundred people with signs and megaphones surrounded police headquarters in Baltimore as part of the “Justice for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, & All Victims of Police Terror” march.
Baltimore Police put snipers on buildings in Baltimore during the protest, worried about a copycat attack against police. As protesters gathered, a Black teenager with a scuffed-up face and a limp explained how just days earlier, he had been chased and beaten up by Baltimore police.
“I ain’t mad, I’m happy,” he said. “This is making me stronger.”
The group applauded.
“They killing us,” he said. “They see a thug when they look at me.”
Protesters soon marched and bunched around BPD headquarters and chanted, “Fuck the police.”
And then it got more specific as a few East side teens who had joined the protest shouted out, “Fuck Hersl!”
Hersl’s name was a symbol. All bad cops were Hersls. The name was also a verb. Even cops used it sometimes. An Eastern District commander once asked a detective who’d made a bust in his district if it was a good arrest or if he had “Hersl’d” the suspect caught with a gun. A rapper named Young Moose had really put it all out there for years, spreading word about Hersl through his songs (“Detective Hersl, he a bitch, I swear to God he ain’t right / Heard about my rap career, he trying to fuck up my life”). In turn, Hersl used lyrics and videos as probable cause for warrants to raid the rapper’s house. Hersl had been out of the East side for eight months, but the East side would never forget his petty brutality and petty theft.
“Fuck Hersl, man! He a snake!” a teen screamed at the protest, his voice rising above hundreds of others, trying to be loud enough that somebody inside police headquarters might hear him.
Rayam sat in his car in the police headquarters’ parking lot, counting Hamilton’s money. The plan was to meet back up and split the $20,000 and celebrate at Looney’s Pub, one of many bars in the Canton neighborhood. Jenkins was big on celebrating after a serious bust—or a robbery—and the formerly industrial waterfront of Canton was one of the new-money party spots in the city for white folks. It was a cop-friendly neighborhood too.
Rayam counted only $17,000. Gondo either miscounted the $20,000 back at the house or stole $3,000. Or Hersl lifted a little bit for himself.
Rayam called Gondo, who insisted there had been $20,000.
Gondo had other things on his mind. He was supposed to go visit a woman named Lee in New York, but the Hamilton robbery, which began around 3 p.m., with all its back and forth—from Home Depot to the dry cleaners to the barn to the Hamiltons’ and then back to Baltimore—had taken all night, and he hadn’t called her.
It was 10:35 p.m. when Gondo called Lee, his car stereo blasting Migos’ springy summer hit “Pipe It Up.”
“You in bed?” Gondo asked.
“I mean, I’m laying down,” Lee said.
“Oh,” Gondo said. “What’s up, what’s your problem with me, man?”
“I don’t have a problem with you,” Lee said.
Rayam called back.
“Hey, listen, don’t hang up, this is a two-second conversation, hold on,” Gondo said to Lee.
“Real talk, I’m counting and counting and counting,” Rayam said when Gondo switched over.
“No! Negative. I would never, come on, man, I would never lie to you,” Gondo said.
“I’m-a count it again,” Rayam said.
Gondo switched back to Lee. Her television was loud now. A black man spoke stridently about money and power and police brutality. It was Atlanta rapper Killer Mike on BET talking about recent police shootings and black economic empowerment.
“We cannot go out in the street and start bombing and shooting and killing, I encourage none of us to do that. I encourage none of us to engage in acts of violence that will encourage more peril to our community and others that look like us,” Killer Mike said. “I encourage us to take our warfare to financial institutions. If you are truly angry, keep your big bank account with one of the national banks because you may have to travel in and out of state and out of country but make sure that you take a portion of your money—”
“What is that,” Gondo said. “What are you listening to?”
“I’m watching—what does it say? ‘Deescalate, Don’t Kill,’” Lee said.
“Oh, that’s what the killings, the killings and all that that was going on?” Gondo said.
As a Black man who grew up in Baltimore and later became a cop, none of this was new to Gondo. When he was shot during his first year on the force, the department made it into a “war on police.” And Rayam his partner shot three men in one year. But after Baltimore Police killed Freddie Gray in 2015, Gondo saw the department differently. He told his drug-dealing friend Wells that he didn’t “sign up to be an enemy of his own people.”
“Yeah. It’s a town hall on BET and MTV,” Lee said.
It seemed like she was actually interested in the issues, but Gondo was distracted and went back to thinking about the missing money.
“This nigga saying I’m three grand short, though, I’m just so mad about that,” Gondo said to Lee.
“Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you called me, so I would, I would think you ought to be talking to me and not counting money or whatever you’re doing,” Lee said.
Rayam called Gondo again.
“Hey, listen, let me, let me, let me—I’m-a call you right back, baby,” Gondo said. “This is business. Let me handle this business real quick.”
“Oh my God,” Lee said, laughing at Gondo.
Gondo and Rayam met at a 7-Eleven parking lot and recounted the money together.
There was $17,000. Had to be Hersl who’d taken it.
Rayam snagged his share, and Gondo took his along with the rest to give to Jenkins and Hersl and headed into Canton’s Friday-night parade of loud, barhopping drunks.
In front of Looney’s, Gondo handed Jenkins a stack of bills and told him about the missing $3,000 and suggested Hersl took it.
“Don’t say anything to him. Just leave it alone,” Jenkins said. “Just give me his half.”
The $3,400 Rayam took from Hamilton when he’d pulled him out of his truck never even came up. When it came to money, no one in the GTTF trusted anyone else, not really.
Inside the bar, the squad spent more of Hamilton’s money on booze.
After that, the cops split up by race. Gondo and Rayam went to one of the local casinos and Jenkins and Hersl went to another.
The next day, Ronald Hamilton called the county and discovered that they had seized $50,000. Even though he had been charged with no crimes, he would have to fight to get that money back. But that left $20,000 that the Gun Trace Task Force had taken.
“You robbed me,” Hamilton texted to Rayam.
Rayam did not respond to Hamilton’s text.
The next time Hamilton saw the group of dirty cops, their faces were splashed across the television screen on March 1, 2017, the day that seven members of the GTTF were federally indicted on RICO charges. Jenkins, Gondo, and Rayam pleaded guilty, along with two cops not involved in Hamilton’s arrest. But Daniel Hersl, the other white cop who’d been in his house, and another cop named Marcus Taylor, who hadn’t been there, went to trial. And Ronald Hamilton was a witness.
On the witness stand, Hamilton exploded.
“This destroyed my whole family. I am in a divorce process right now because of this bullshit. This destroyed my whole fuckin’ family, man,” Hamilton said. “My fuckin’ wife stays in the fuckin’ Walmart every fuckin’ night until I come home. If you want to know that, worry about that. That’s what the fuck’s the matter in here, man. Everybody’s life is destroyed, man.”
On September 4, the City of Baltimore reached a settlement with Nancy Hamilton, who had initially sued the GTTF back in 2017 for $900,000 for false imprisonment, battery, false arrest and malicious prosecution and emotional distress. Hamilton’s settlement was one of a dozen suits settled by the city.
From I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg. Copyright © 2020 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.