Maryland DEA Agent details investigation, bust of one of Baltimore's biggest drug kingpins
9:17 PM, Jan 31, 2014
11:44 PM, Jan 31, 2014
BALTIMORE - Working women have to balance a lot of demands. But most of us aren't doing that while tracking one of the Baltimore area's biggest known drug dealers. DEA Special Agent Michelle Winkis did, taking down a multi-million dollar drug organization with an investigation that took years.
His file includes fancy cars with price tags higher than a house, gold chains and necklaces with jewels as big as your hand and luxury condos that rent for about $5,000 a month. The case of Garnett Smith shows dealing drugs can get you all that and more.
You just can't keep it.
Take a look at the haul of Mr. Big's cars, cash and clothes seized by DEA Agents. ( GALLERY )
"People see what appears to be the upside of drug dealing, people living the high life. What they don't realize is that's very short lived," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.
Rosenstein's message is not a scare tactic. It's a true story—the real life riches-to-rags tale of one of Baltimore's biggest drug kingpins. It's about a man the feds call Mr. Big.
"He's a big guy, he's large. He's physically big and kind of intimidating," DEA Special Agent Michelle Winkis said. "But he's also a big cocaine dealer."
Mr. Big, known to friends and family as Garnett Gilbert Smith, is considered one of the biggest cocaine and heroin dealers in the Baltimore by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The feds say they can prove the 44-year-old from Baltimore brought at least 1,000 kilos of cocaine, worth tens of millions of dollars to the region.
The trade helped Smith, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, become a multi-millionaire. But it cost him his freedom.
"Guys like this don't come around every day so when you get someone like this who has been doing it for so long and doing it well, it's like a chess game," Winkis said.
Winkis is no pawn. In fact, she's the agent who helped bring down Mr. Big, a dealer with prior convictions, including a felony bust in Texas for possession of between 5 and 50 pounds of marijuana.
"He kind of came on the periphery of a lot of cases but he was in nobody's front sights so to speak," Winkis said.
Smith was able to fly below the radar until a random traffic stop in Arkansas in 2011. State troopers pulled over a car carrier and found something unbelievable. Hidden inside one of the cars was $2.3 million in cash. The feds say it was money with ties to Smith and Baltimore.
Winkis said it was an unexpected tip that agents jumped on.
"When you get something like that you cannot waste any time," she said.
The investigation, which started with just a nickname and a phone number, spanned two years. Agents used the tip to eventually track down Smith, building a case as he sent drugs and money crisscrossing the country, often hiding it out of sight in hidden compartments or "traps."
Smith was eventually arrested in Baltimore after agents set up a controlled delivery, nailing Mr. Big with $300,000 worth of heroin he'd pulled from the hidden compartment of a Toyota FJ Cruiser.
But it was what agents found after Smith's arrest that may be the most stunning part of the investigation. Searches and seizures of his assets turned up proof Smith was a major drug player living the high life in locations as close as Baltimore and as far as the United Arab Emirates.
"He was living ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'. We have pictures of him in Dubai holding a gold brick, a solid gold brick," Winkis explained during an interview with ABC2 Investigators.
But back here at home is where agents hit pay dirt. Agents seized more than $740,000 in cash inside a tool box inside a Gambrills townhouse with ties to Mr. Big. They also found nearly $500,000 in jewelry.
Searches of other homes turned up $250,000 worth of high end shoes, approximately $500,000 worth of designer clothes from Gucci and Louis Vuitton and 19 cars, SUVs and motorcycles valued at more than $1.1 million.
Smith had purchased a Lamborghini valued at more than $262,000 and a Maybach valued at $219,000. He also owned an Aston Martin, a collection of exotic motorcycles and a Volkswagen Beetle.
But none of it belongs to Mr. Big anymore. He lost it all in an instant. All his assets are now official property of the U.S. government and will eventually be auctioned off to the public.
"That brief period driving a fancy car, wearing fancy jewelry, he's going to pay for that for the rest of his life. For a quarter century or more Mr. Smith is going to spend his life in a concrete cell. It just isn't worth it," Rosenstein said.
Smith was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in federal prison. He pleaded guilty last year in the case. During sentencing Smith apologized to the community, saying "I'm not the type of person I've been depicted to be."
Smith asked for leniency in his sentencing, saying he's "a work in progress", pointing to his positive involvement with a program at the Chesapeake Detention Facility that mentors inmates. The judge handed down the 25 year sentence, saying Smith's conduct was motivated by greed.
With Smith behind bars, the agents who brought him down say their years of investigation were worth it. Gary Tuggle, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Baltimore Field Office, said his team is ready to take down anyone who chooses to assume Smith's position.
"If there are people out there look to step up and take this guy's place, they need to beware because we're going to be coming after them," Tuggle said.