STAFFORD, Va. — A Cecil County man is facing 23 years in prison after a Virginia jury found him guilty in a gang-related drug case.
Maryland State Police Cpl. Cox, who often works in Cecil County, helped prosecutors convince jurors that the defendant, Berry Petion, 35, is an active gang member, according to Edward Lustig, who is a prosecutor with the Stafford County (Va.) State’s Attorney’s Office.
Lustig and his colleague, Alexandra Vakos, prosecuted Petion during last week’s two-day trial in Stafford County Circuit Court.
Cox is a 16-year MSP veteran who has spent the last seven years with the agency’s Gang Enforcement Unit and, for some of that time, he and fellow GEU members focused on Petion and his activities in Cecil County.
(Petion’s list of past local addresses includes residences in Lakeside Mobile Home Park near North East and in and near Hollingsworth Manor in Elkton.)
“Cpl. Cox testified for us as a gang expert witness. He had been following Mr. Petion, who is a member of the (MOB) Piru, which is under the umbrella of the Bloods (gang). Evidently, there is a part of Cecil County that is known as their turf,” Lustig told the Cecil Whig during a phone interview.
The part to which Lustig referred includes Hollingsworth Manor and Lakeside Mobil Home Park, according to Cox, who noted that there are other places, too.
Cox testified for approximately one hour as an expert witness on Oct. 23, providing crucial information concerning his professional knowledge of Petion, according to Lustig.
The prosecutor reported that a portion of Cox’ expert-witness testimony focused on “tattoos, clothes and gang signs” associated with the MOB Piru. (“MOB” is an acronym for “Member of Bloods,” although other interpretations exist.)
That testimony enabled prosecutors to take evidence linking Petion to such body markings, clothing and gestures and connect them to the MOB Piru, which, in turn, showed Petion’s ties to that gang.
“We are very familiar with Mr. Petion. He’s a gang member — absolutely — and he’s connected to our county. This guy had been building a gang in Cecil County for years, but he kept falling through the cracks for one reason or another,” Cox told the Cecil Whig.
Cecil County crimes
Law enforcement officers in Cecil County were able to arrest Petion once.
In January 2018, after accepting a plea deal, Petion received a six-month jail term for possession of heroin and a consecutive five-year sentence, which was then suspended, for a related illegal possession of a firearm conviction, according to Cecil County Circuit Court records and Cecil Whig archives.
As part of that plea agreement, prosecutors dismissed several related charges against Petion, including possession of heroin with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime.
Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Brenda A. Sexton ordered Petion to serve three years of supervised probation, after completing his six-month term in the county jail.
At the time of Petion’s plea bargain in June 2017, possession of heroin was punishable by up to four years in prison for a first-time offender, which Petion was considered.
After the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) went into effect in Maryland on Oct. 1, 2017, however, the penalty for possession of heroin had been reduced to a maximum one-year jail sentence for a first-time offender.
That one-year maximum penalty applied when Petion was sentenced in January 2018, three months after the new law had gone into effect.
The intent of JRA is to depopulate Maryland’s jails and prisons by lowering the penalties for simple drug possession and then to take the money that would have been used to incarcerate those offenders and spend it, instead, on drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment.
Petion’s two convictions and his six-month sentence in that Cecil County case stem from Elkton Police Department officers raiding Petion’s then-residence in the 100 block of Huntsman Drive on Nov. 7, 2016, with the assistance of the MSP detectives, according to local court records, which also indicate that agents arrested him there.
In addition to seizing 76 baggies of heroin and a .357-caliber revolver, officers confiscated ammunition and “numerous drug paraphernalia items indicative of drug distribution activity,” police reported at the time.
Shortly after the raid, Capt. Joseph Zurolo, an EPD spokesman, told the Cecil Whig that detectives believed Petion was a “main supplier and distributor of narcotics within the town of Elkton” after an investigation “into illegal sales of narcotics within the Hollingsworth Manor (neighborhood) community.”
Petion’s then-residence on Huntsman Drive is in a neighborhood adjacent to Hollingsworth Manor.
MSP helps Virginia prosecutors
Cox wound up as an expert witness in Virginia’s criminal case against Petion in a roundabout way, according to the corporal.
After Petion allegedly violated his supervised probation in his Cecil County criminal case, Cox and his GEU colleagues tracked him to Tennessee, where, without permission from his probation officer, Petion was trying to establish residency.
“There was a VOP warrant for him. When we notified authorities in Tennessee about it, they placed him under arrest,” Cox outlined.
During the investigation to find Petion, Cox and his fellow GEU agents learned that Petion was wanted in Stafford County (Va.) in connection with a gang-related drug case there, Cox said.
Knowing that Petion would be extradited to Virginia to face those gang and drug charges, Cox contacted the Stafford County State’s Attorney’s Office, which is how he met Lustig, and asked if he could help prosecutors with that case, he added.
“I reached out to them (Virginia prosecutors) and told them that we are very familiar with Petion,” Cox said.
After delving into the gang aspect of the criminal case against Petion, as they prepared for Petion’s trial, Lustig and Vakos accepted Cox’ offer.
The Virginia case
Petion was one of five suspects arrested in October 2018, after an associate of Petion’s approached an undercover agent in the parking lot of a Days Inn in Stafford and offered to sell him drugs, according to Lustig.
Lustig confirmed that evidence and testimony produced by the state during Petion’s trial last week support the following following events:
Stafford Det. Josh Scott and his colleagues were undercover at that Holiday Inn while working an unrelated case on Oct. 9, 2018, when one of Petion’s co-defendants, Rachel Figueroa of Stafford, walked up and asked “Are you looking for something?”
Then she left.
A short time later, Figueroa returned with another co-defendant in the case, Voshon O. Carpenter, also a Virginia resident, who used street terms to ask Scott if he wanted cocaine or heroin.
“He asked if (Scott) wanted white or brown,” Lustig told the Cecil Whig, explaining that ‘white’ is a street term for cocaine and ‘brown’ means heroin in that vernacular.
After Scott specified heroin, he was escorted to a nearby parked truck, where Figueroa was holding that drug. Detectives arrested Figueroa and Carpenter on the spot.
Meanwhile, Det. R. Mervil was outside two motel rooms in which, based on investigators’ suspicions, drug and prostitution activities were occurring.
Mervil was pulled into one of those rooms by another one of Petion’s co-defendants, Jacob Dougherty, of Rochester, N.Y., because Dougherty perceived him to be a potential customer.
Dougherty cautioned Mervil, unaware that Mervil was a covert police officer.
“He said, ‘It’s hot outside’,” Lustig said, explaining that “hot” is slang to indicate that there is a police presence in the immediate area.
Once inside that motel room, Mervil easily noticed cocaine and he saw Petion walking out of a bathroom.
“There was cocaine on a scale in plain view,” Lustig commented.
Officers released Petion shortly after he had been taken into custody, however, because his connection to that cocaine was murky and because his gang affiliation, at that point, had not been detected or revealed. Petion maintained that he was there only to make a music video.
“They cut him loose,” Lustig told the Cecil Whig.
Case against Petion
But further investigation by detectives in Virginia resulted in several criminal charges against Petion and an arrest warrant for him, although he no longer was in the area.
Figueroa, for example, later told investigators that she saw Petion hand heroin to other co-defendants in the case and overheard them talking about their gang affiliation, according to Lustig.
She also contended that a childhood friend, who now is facing unrelated murder charges in Maryland, had offered her heroin to pick up Petion and drive him to that Holiday Inn in Stafford.
At some point after officers had released him, Petion wound up in Tennessee, where Cox and fellow GEU investigators located him while working the Cecil County VOP case.
That led to Cox offering his help to Stafford County State’s Attorney’s Office prosecutors, once he learned about the Virginia criminal case against Petion.
And, in turn, that led to Cox testifying for the state as an expert witness on gangs during Petion’s jury trial last week.
“He (Petion) was way more involved (in the gang) than we thought,” Lustig said.
Other state witnesses supplemented Cox’ testimony regarding Petion’s connection to the MOB Piru, Lustig reported.
For example, a correctional officer at the Virginia jail where Petion was held while awaiting his trial noticed pronounced changes at that detention center after Petion had arrived there.
“He started seeing (MOB) Piru graffiti in the jail, more and more of it. He had not seen it before (Petion) got there,” Lustig said.
It also was revealed that Petion’s gang nicknames include “Bless” and “Hollywood Haiti,” a reference to Petion being Haitian.
At the conclusion of last week’s trial, the jury found Petion guilty of gang participation, conspiracy to distribute heroin and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Jurors recommended that Petion receive a 23-year sentence for his convictions, after another deliberation. (Unlike in Maryland, juries in Virginia make sentencing recommendations.)
“The judge cannot exceed that recommendation, but he can go lower than the recommendation,” Lustig said, adding, however, “Typically, judges follow the jury’s recommendation at sentencing.”
Petion’s sentencing is set for Jan. 9.
As for Petion’s co-defendants, Doughtery is serving a six-year sentence for his role in the case, while Figueroa and Carpenter are awaiting sentencing after accepting plea bargains.
The fifth co-defendant, Shamara Cashwell, is listed as a fugitive after she allegedly failed to appear for her Oct. 9 trial.