May 04, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Conspiracy Theory 

How an unrelenting VCU cop helped clear a murder and bring down 21 drug dealers in Carver.

The Cop

On Feb. 12, 1996, Osvaldo "Ozzie" Rosario, 26, was gunned down in an alley just 500 feet from Carver Elementary School. Crime-scene photos show his body sprawled in a pool of blood, his right arm distended awkwardly where a bullet snapped the bone.

"Ozzie was one of the guys who would hustle and migrate and come back," Preuss recalls.

Preuss arrived on the scene not long after Rosario died. Richmond Police were trying to identify the victim, a Hispanic male. The moment Preuss heard of the killing and where it occurred, he sensed the victim was Rosario. He sensed also that Terrence Norvell Watkins, aka "Little T," pulled the trigger.

As a rookie VCU cop in 1994, Preuss regularly patrolled Carver, a small community north of Broad Street adjacent to Jackson Ward. The neighborhood's urban history, its proximity just blocks away from his alma mater, VCU, and its people fascinated him. Still, he was alarmed by what he saw.

"It was like baptism by fire," Preuss recalls. "I thought, 'Does everybody smoke crack here?' You're dealing with 13- and 14-year-old-guys with no respect for anybody — citizens, police, even themselves. It was about that time I got to know [Watkins] and all those guys. They were a nasty group."

Once he found a man who'd been smashed over the head with a beer bottle. Preuss called an ambulance for him. "He was all laid out, his glasses broken. He wouldn't say what happened," Preuss says. But he knew. He pieced together that the man and many others in Carver "were pressured to buy drugs," he says.

After this, Preuss, 36, found himself drawn to the neighborhood more, whether by a strengthened sense of purpose or nagging instinct. Patrolling the VCU area for drunk drivers or on his way home from a regular shift elsewhere, he'd often wind up in Carver, he says, just to see who was hanging out. He sensed the real problem was in VCU's back yard, and he wanted to do something about it.

Eventually, he found himself spending countless days and nights on stakeouts, hiding in shadows to prove Carver was under siege. He bought hot dogs at a nearby 7-Eleven to stave off backyard dogs, and he peered through pinholes to witness the subtlest drug transactions. In that time, he drew close, as close as he could, to a neighborhood where a white cop stands out. And an overwhelming observation struck him: While the business of dealing and using crack in Carver had changed, the players had not.

"There was a tumor in that neighborhood," Preuss says. "For years, there are 10 guys on the corner selling, and we're doing surveillance. We see one make a buy, we take down that one guy and say, 'Hey, that's great. We got Mike, or we got Little John or we got Grey.' But as soon as we do, there are other guys out there absorbing the 10 guys' business. And they're still terrorizing the neighborhood. They're all totally at ease with spending a year in jail if they get caught for distribution. They serve time and get out. They come back a little more learned about their craft."

And so the tumor grew and spread.

The Break

Five years after Rosario's murder in February 2001, Rashad Queen ran a red light at 12th and Broad streets. When police stopped him, they charged him with possession of crack cocaine and a stolen gun. The crimes were serious and resulted in Exile charges, which meant the possibility of time in federal prison. When Preuss learned of Queen's arrest, he couldn't help thinking there was now enough "hanging over his head" to pressure Queen into cooperating with authorities as he hadn't before. Queen allegedly had been in the alley that night with Watkins. Had he been an eyewitness to murder?

Preuss called the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. He explained to a deputy prosecutor what he knew of the details surrounding Rosario's '96 murder and Queen's suspected role as a possible eyewitness. "Can we make a run of it and see if he'll finally tell us what actually happened that day?" Preuss recalls asking.

The deputy attorney called Richmond's homicide cold-case detectives, and they looked into the matter. A month later he received a call from the deputy attorney, who said Queen had been interviewed and confessed to having been at the corner, having heard shots, but not to having seen Watkins pull the trigger.

Preuss wasn't convinced. "I was like, that is not what happened, he's giving you 50 percent of it." So he pulled in Keith West, a suspect in the drug conspiracy case. Witnesses had told police West had driven the getaway car the day of the homicide. Based on this and Preuss' questioning of West, Preuss picked West up and took him to Richmond Police. West told Richmond officers what he previously had told Preuss, that riding in the getaway car, Watkins indicated he shot Rosario. It was enough to make an arrest. On Aug. 8, 2003, Watkins was picked up and charged with capital murder in the death of Rosario.

The Intimidator

Long ago, Preuss' instincts told him that Watkins was more menacing than other street-thug captors in Carver. He had heard on the streets tales of Watkins' ruthless gunplay too often to count. And so it was: Watkins' daily gestures took on added significance. Preuss had good reason to pay close attention to Watkins.

He had been convicted of assault for pistol whipping a man so hard the gun went off, nearly killing him. Once Preuss had responded to a call from a woman after Watkins, who was looking for her son, had shot up her house with toddlers inside. And when Preuss questioned and interviewed suspected drug dealers who knew and hung out with Watkins, he was told Watkins had even threatened "to smoke" him.

According to police reports and witness testimony, in the nine years Preuss had been on Watkins' trail, Watkins had demonstrated so many instances of brutality and lawlessness that he seemed capable of immense bloodshed. Over the years, Watkins had been charged several times with possession of crack cocaine and had spent short stints of time in jail.

Rosario's murder, however, was different. With the help of testimony from 21 individuals charged in the drug conspiracy case, Watkins' alleged involvement in the '96 homicide would finally catch up with him.

The Murder

On the night of Feb. 1, 1996, a Catholic priest who had befriended Rosario drove him to an alley behind the 1104 block of Clay and 500 block of Hancock streets. It was the same spot where, three nights before, Watkins had shot Rosario in the thigh as a warning not to return to Carver until he repaid him $50 for a drug debt. The wound still was fresh and seeped blood through his jeans.

The way Preuss heard it on the streets, the story was always the same. A group of regulars that included Watkins, Keith West and Rashad Queen were hanging out by pay phones next to a now-closed corner market. They saw the priest's black Chevrolet Beretta and assumed it was Rosario coming to score some crack. Watkins told West to get his car. Queen, who was 13 at the time, waited at the entrance to the alley. With $60 he'd been given by the priest to repay the debt, Rosario headed toward Queen and the alley.

About this time, the priest realized where he was. He had been with Rosario when he was shot three days before — in the very same alley and by Watkins, as a warning not to return to Carver until he repaid him $50 for a drug debt. The priest told Preuss and federal investigators that his last words to Rosario were: "My God Ozzie, this is the same spot you were shot at." And the priest testified that Rosario replied: "It's all right, Poppy. I'm a man of steel."

Rosario disappeared into the alley with Queen and, moments later, the priest heard shots and drove away. Witnesses saw Watkins run out of the alley by the store with a gun in hand. West was waiting with the car running. Watkins hopped in, the two sped away. West later told Preuss and prosecutors that he, too, had heard the shots and asked Watkins: "What the hell happened?" West maintains Watkins answered: "I had to lay him down."

Meanwhile, the priest had returned to the alley. Looking down the alley, "He just saw this Kelly green jacket, heard sirens and took off," Preuss says. The priest had bought Rosario the coat and jeans he was wearing just a day or so before. "He was emotionally distraught, Preuss says of his interviews with the priest. Since Rosario's death, Preuss arrested the priest for DUI. According to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond he has "retired from ministry" and currently resides in Southwest Virginia.

Throughout the years, Preuss says, the story of Rosario's homicide remained consistent. "Something might happen here or there, a murder, and if it's not clear in everybody's mind, you might hear different versions. So and so did it, or so and so," Preuss explains. "Down at the corner, people kept saying, 'Terrence killed that Hispanic guy,' and you get tired of hearing that."

The Plan

Preuss calls Operation Crackdown and the drug conspiracy strategy a way to excise the "tumor" he saw in Carver.

Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Anthony G. Spencer agrees. "We could link everybody in this. It wasn't like in the Sopranos with just the guy on top going down," he says.

Preuss met Spencer in 2002, shortly after Spencer joined the commonwealth's attorney's office. The two began devising a strategy to address Carver's drug problem and the homicides — by now there were at least two — police suspected were a result of it.

The Carver case was a departure from routine drug busts. In the past, suspects charged with minor drug crimes were prosecuted in state court. They'd be arrested, for instance, with a couple of rocks, go to court, and prosecutors would get whatever they could with each individual conviction. Sometimes a search warrant for a house or a car would turn up a greater quantity of drugs and produce a slightly stiffer sentence. But the process had become predictable and often resulted in leniency.

"What the feds do is develop what's called a historical case where it's not just, on this date, this happened. It's over the past year, this is what's happened," Spencer says. "When [Preuss] came to talk to me about [Carver], it occurred to me that what we have is historical conspiracy."

There were also some key connections. A quietly kept component of Operation Crackdown is that Preuss developed relationships with two confidential informants. Over a period of time, they made what are called "controlled buys" — a buy where prosecutors and police work closely with confidential informants — from suspected drug dealers in Carver. "[Preuss] would find guys … [with] drugs on them and say, 'You can either go to jail or come do some work for me,'" Spencer explains.

With the help of informants, the cases grew stronger. Preuss oversaw eight controlled buys from five individuals. Those individuals reported to authorities that they'd also bought from other dealers. Consequently, the number of those charged in the drug conspiracy grew from 11 to 21. Add to that Preuss' extensive surveillance work and the evidence seemed to swell. Mounting, too, was the capital murder case against Watkins.

"There were two things we did that were different from how things were done previously," Spencer says. There are three ways a person suspected of a crime can be charged in Virginia: by arrest warrant, indictment or criminal information. The first two are used prodigiously. But there are drawbacks to both. The problem with arrest warrants can be the required preliminary hearing in which witnesses must be revealed. In the Carver case, this was a concern to police and prosecutors. Revealing witnesses can lead to more bloodshed.

The problem with indictment can be that it's determined by grand jury that meets only once a month, meaning a considerable length of time for possible mishap.

Then there's criminal information. "The third has never been used as far as I can tell by the CA's office," Spencer says. "It's a great tool. The feds use it all the time." With criminal information, the state law provides that if the commonwealth attorney's office receives a statement under oath by a competent witness that establishes probable cause — basically an affidavit — the commonwealth's attorney can file a paper that looks like an indictment. It's called the information. Once it is presented to the circuit court, the circuit court may order an arrest. The only requirement is that the suspect must be indicted by a grand jury before trial.

Basically, Spencer says, Operation Crackdown succeeded for three reasons. "First and most importantly, the police investigation was the best I've seen in 15 years," he says of Preuss' commitment to the case. "Second, the police worked very closely with the CA's office, and we were able to charge a large number of people all at once with — not just drug charges — but conspiracy charges as well. And third, after the conspiracy's members were charged in state court, the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to take over the prosecution of Terrence Watkins and to prosecute anyone else who was not willing to plead guilty in state court and cooperate with us."

In August 2003, 11 suspects were charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine in a school zone. But with the new strategy in place that number soon escalated. The next time a multijurisdictional grand jury met, prosecutors from the commonwealth attorney's office told those charged: "Here's your opportunity to help yourself if you want to give us any information." With cooperation came better cases. Now, in addition to Preuss' observations and the confidential informants, "guys involved in the actual conspiracy were starting to give up information on each other," Spencer says. And on Sept. 24, 2003, the grand jury indicted 21 people on 70 drug-related charges. "It worked beautifully," Spencer says.

After the indictments were handed out, Spencer approached Stephen Miller with the U.S. Attorney's Office. "This is a really bad drug conspiracy in Carver neighborhood where people are being murdered as part of it," Spencer says he told Miller. Federal prosecutors took the case.

Meetings followed that included an array of people from different law-enforcement agencies. An agreement was reached that the commonwealth attorney's office would prosecute the 21 who had been indicted and the federal authorities would prosecute Watkins. Anyone charged who didn't take what the CA's office offered in state court, agreeing to cooperate, was informed of what would happen. The state would drop the charges and the feds would charge them instead. The sentencing guidelines in federal court are mandatory and much more stringent, typically resulting in more time. Consequently, of the 21 charged in the conspiracy indictment, all but one pleaded in state court and received on average a sentence of three years. "The one who didn't, who turned us down, got 15 years," Spencer says.

The Twist

Originally, Watkins was charged with capital murder in state court. Then Rashad Queen — the one person Preuss thought might be an eyewitness in Rosario's homicide — got shot in the head. Preuss heard about the latest shooting four days after and went to MCV Hospital to check on him. He was told he'd been discharged that morning. Days before that, he'd been shot in the torso. Preuss tried to find Queen with an old address he'd kept for him, but couldn't locate him.

When Preuss finally met Queen again it was in June 2003, when he sat in on an interview Queen had with federal prosecutors. Meanwhile, as the conspiracy case loomed, Queen faced charges in state court. But as a result of the shooting, Queen's mental capacity was in question. He'd been referred to Central State Hospital to see whether he'd be competent to stand trial.

The news, even with the apparent success of the conspiracy case, deflated Preuss. "I'm ready to cry," Preuss says of when he spoke to Queen and realized the severity of his condition. "I'm like, crap, the one guy who was there has issues. Now with Terrence, if we take him to trial, he can say, 'I was there, but [Queen] shot him.'"

Spencer wasn't deterred. "Based on [Watkins'] own statements, the controlled buys we had on him, and what everybody else had been saying about him, we could put him away for 40 years on just the drug charges. And if we can do that, we can clear the murders even if we don't get a murder conviction," he says of at least one other homicide linked to Watkins. And if Watkins went to prison for another crime and received a lengthy sentence, police and prosecutors would — because of explicit evidence, just not enough to convict — consider the homicide cleared. In October 2003, the state withdrew the capital murder charge and the feds picked up the case, just one month after the 21 indictments.

The Outcome

On Sept. 23, Watkins appeared before Judge Richard Williams in U.S. District Court. Watkins' small build appeared further diminished by the two towering defense attorneys who flanked him. He wore a blue T-shirt over a white one, having been outfitted by Pumunkey Regional Jail in Hanover County, where he was being held. Five of his family members were present. He turned to them briefly, his face expressionless. The judge asked whether any educational or vocational opportunities existed at the jail. "He's still a young man," Williams said.

Watkins is a young man now serving 40 years in federal prison.

His attorney, Gregory Carr, says he hasn't been notified of his exact location. "I'd have to advise him not to talk to you," Carr tells Style Weekly.

In the end, Watkins agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy in the distribution of crack cocaine in Carver from 1995 to 2003. While he did not plead guilty to the murder of Rosario, he acknowledged that the feds had sufficient evidence to convict him.

Carr says Preuss is part of the reason. "It was clear to me when I read the discovery, over the course of seven or eight years, Preuss was the common thread" in the case. "His name was everywhere in that material. It's fair to say the work he did prompted us to take the plea agreement."

The 21 indicted previously in the conspiracy, even by cooperating, didn't get off easy, Spencer says. "They got more time than you'd typically see in the city of Richmond on distribution charges," he says.

The last of the dispositions in the conspiracy case came in September. For a while, say Spencer and Preuss, Carver appeared cleaned up and quiet. After serving for months as a VCU Police representative on the FBI's joint terrorism task force, Preuss returned in March to his Carver beat. Some of the faces he's seeing are new, he says, and it concerns him. "There's a market to be filled."

Meanwhile, the fallout from Operation Crackdown continues. Spencer with the commonwealth attorney's office points to numerous crimes, such as a recent homicide, that have been solved as a result of the leads produced by the Carver case. Similarly, Watkins' presence seems to stretch like tentacles, beyond the scope of a few city blocks.

Preuss says Watkins' case, though vicious, is not an aberration. Rather it symbolizes the worst in Carver, the worst in humanity. Miller with the U.S. Attorney's Office says that Watkins is one of the most dangerous people he'd ever prosecuted. It was validation for Preuss. "I felt like saying, 'Thank you!' Somebody finally saw what I saw."

Preuss has seen the world in Carver, he says. "There are a lot of people who live there who aren't fond of what we do," he concedes. For many, family members have been locked up. Sources of money may be dry. "They won't talk about the murders now."

Since he's been back on his beat he's served three warrants in Carver, all drug-related. Last week he arrested a 78-year-old woman for cooking crack in her kitchen. S

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