Detroit Empire: Feds say rap mogul is heroin kingpin
Detroit — A prominent Detroit music mogul allegedly is one of the largest heroin dealers in the Midwest and using his rap label to launder drug money, according to sealed federal court records.
BMB Records owner Brian “Peanut” Brown also is responsible for selling heroin laced with fentanyl, the synthetic pain medication fueling the nation’s deadliest addiction crisis, according to court records that chronicle a sprawling drug investigation involving Brown’s wife, a girlfriend, millions in drug profits and a mansion with a secret “Narnia” room.
The 47-year-old Warren man has not been charged with a drug crime despite an ongoing, years-long investigation that was recently revealed when the government temporarily unsealed a federal search warrant affidavit. The affidavit, obtained by The Detroit News, lists probable cause to raid multiple homes that allegedly are part of Brown’s empire.
The 50-page federal court record contradicts Brown’s redemption story crafted after he emerged from a decade-long prison sentence for drug conspiracy in 2010. On social media, Brown portrays himself as a successful “hood hero” and last month posted a billboard near McNichols and I-75 promoting an upcoming self-help book.
Brown allegedly using his rap label to hide money earned through large-scale criminal activity is a modern twist on a Prohibition-era racket, said Carl Taylor, a Michigan State University sociology professor who has studied drugs and gangs.
“Was selling alcohol a good cover for Al Capone? Yes,” Taylor said. “But even with organized crime — I’m speaking of the Italian and Sicilians — they knew not to be too flashy.”
Brown’s lawyer, Steve Fishman, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment. Brown remained free Wednesday after a federal judge refused to revoke his bond in a related gun case.
The heroin and fentanyl investigation coincides with a 57 percent rise in overdose deaths nationwide in recent years tied to synthetic opioids.
The problem is acute in the Midwest. In 2015, Ohio led the nation with the highest-number of opioid overdose deaths with 2,698 for the second straight year, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Illinois had the sixth-highest number of opioid overdose deaths (1,381), and Michigan the eighth-highest (1,309).
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents say they have seized at least one kilogram of fentanyl while investigating Brown’s alleged drug ring. Agents say Brown’s drug ring is responsible for distributing more than 440 pounds of drugs throughout the U.S. and amassed millions in cash, luxury vehicles, real estate and expensive jewelry.
It is unclear whether the government has enough evidence to file drug charges against Brown, who has remained out of jail after federal agents obtained a search warrant to raid at least six homes and two banks. Inventories of what, if anything, was seized during the raids are sealed in federal court.
It can take years to investigate multi-state, large-scale drug rings.
That is especially true when, like the Brown investigation, the probe spans states, delves into financial records and relies on informants, search warrants and wiretaps, said Jones Day law firm partner Louis Gabel. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney who in 2014 successfully prosecuted three fez-wearing drug dealers involved in one of the largest narcotics rings in Metro Detroit history.
Investigations can be prolonged, especially, if there are money-laundering allegations involving cash, he said.
“And any large-scale drug investigation inevitably takes many twists and turns along the way,” Gabel said. “In many respects, it is like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book and each new page of the investigation presents new opportunities and challenges.”
The DEA would not discuss the case but confirmed the ongoing investigation.
Roots of a drug probe
The roots of the drug case date to 2012 and investigators have seized $550,000 in cash, 8 kilograms of heroin and the fentanyl.
The DEA case started with a confidential informant. The informant told DEA agents that Brown was one of the largest heroin dealers in the Midwest and had accumulated millions of dollars in cash, luxury vehicles and expensive jewelry, according to court records.
Brown buys the drug from a group in California that has direct ties to Mexican drug cartels, the informant said.
Brown was a familiar face to Detroit drug investigators.
He was indicted on a federal cocaine conspiracy charge in 1993 — the case was dismissed — and again in 1999. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
In 2010, Brown was released from his prison sentence. Though one condition of his release was that Brown was not supposed to commit any new crimes for five years, Brown allegedly resumed his drug-dealing career, graduating from cocaine to heroin, according to court records.
In August 2012, Detroit police raided his home in the 4000 block of Fullerton, near Dexter and Davison, on Detroit’s west side. Investigators seized 1 kilogram of heroin, three firearms, $2,365 and three Harley-Davidson motorcycles, according to court records.
The seizure did not send Brown back to prison, but he forfeited a 2007 Harley-Davidson Road King.
“Mr. Brian Brown is well known to the Detroit Police Department narcotics division,” wrote Ronald Robinson, a then-assistant Wayne County prosecutor, wrote in a court filing related to the drug and motorcycle seizures.
Rap game reaps millions
Seven months later, in March 2013, Brown’s entertainment company, BMB Records, was created and registered at the same house raided by Detroit Police.
The independent label’s stable of entertainers includes Ray J, a singer and actor who starred in a pornographic video with Kim Kardashian; rapper Bre-Z, who stars on the hit Fox drama “Empire”; and Charli Baltimore, a platinum blonde perhaps best known for dating the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s.
The roster also includes rapper Kash Doll, a former exotic dancer. She signed with BMB after the label paid for her $15,000 boob job, according to court records.
BMB’s videos are cinematic, dramatic and occasionally star Brown. In one video co-directed by Detroit rapper Trick Trick, Brown steps from a luxury sedan in slow motion, smooths wrinkles on his suit and attends a clandestine meeting in an industrial ruin.
A BMB Records publicist declined comment.
Brown had access to vast sums of cash after creating the rap label. The rap mogul and wife Akia Brown have established several businesses, including BMB Records, to hide and disguise drug profits, the DEA alleges in the search warrant document.
More than $1 million flowed into the rap label’s two bank accounts between June 2013 and October 2015, according to court records.
And since January 2015, more than $345,000 was deposited through ATMs in Detroit and Baltimore.
Brown owns multiple homes in Metro Detroit and lived in a $500,000 home near Atlanta with wife Akia Brown, 41, according to court records.
“Akia Brown is a member of the (drug ring) and is instrumental in hiding and concealing the money that is derived from narcotic sales,” DEA Special Agent Stephen Popp wrote in the court filing.
Akia Brown is a real estate agent, motivational speaker and author. She was an unemployed mother of four and $540,000 in debt when she filed bankruptcy in 2009, the year before her husband finished his prison sentence.
Today, she is a self-described CEO with her own memoir, a billboard on the city’s west side and an active life on social media, posting photos of herself in furs shopping at Chanel and sitting on a gold throne with armrests shaped like a ferocious beast.
While promoting her memoir, Akia Brown claimed in a recent interview that she conceived two children with her husband while he was in federal prison.
“I ran through the cornfields with a blowup mattress on my back,” Brown told celebrity news magazine Rolling Out.
Akia Brown declined comment and referred calls to her lawyer, John Royal. He declined comment Tuesday.
Agents conducted undercover surveillance on the couple’s 6,900-square-foot house, which includes a secret “Narnia-themed” room hidden behind an armoire, and spotted Brown’s stable of luxury cars.
The collection of 20 cars includes a $94,000 Maserati, an $88,000 Cadillac Escalade, an $81,000 Porsche Panamera and two Corvettes.
The car collection cost $519,000, or about 14 times as much money as Brown reported on his 2011 taxes, according to the search warrant affidavit.
It is inconceivable that Brown’s rap label generated millions of dollars to acquire expensive homes and vehicles, said hip-hop industry expert Regan Sommer McCoy, a Columbia University community scholar and founder of the New York-based archive project, The Mixtape Museum.
“I am not convinced that these artists are actually making him that much money. It’s not adding up,” McCoy said. “I don’t want to say these people are washed up, but...”
A business dispute with one of Brown’s rappers, Kash Doll, offers a peek inside Brown’s entertainment company.
Kash Doll, real name Arkeisha Knight, sued Brown and BMB last year, accusing him of welching on a $5,000 signing bonus.
“Brown coerced (Knight) into signing a recording agreement with his company BMB stating ‘If you don’t sign with me, I will destroy you and any career you think you may have,’ ” Knight alleged in a Wayne County Circuit Court lawsuit.
Brown pursued her for his rap label because he has a penchant for “big boobs and butts,” Knight alleges.
According to the civil lawsuit, the FBI raided Kash Doll’s home as part of the Brown investigation.
The lawsuit repeats some of the same allegations contained in the sealed federal search warrant, namely that Brown is a large-scale heroin dealer in the Midwest and that he is using BMB Records to launder drug money.
Brown’s legal team denied allegations contained in the lawsuit, which is filled with references to violence, drugs and federal raids.
The lawsuit “appears to adopt scenes from the critically acclaimed movie ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ ” Brown’s attorney Alanna O’Rourke wrote in a court filing.
The references to drugs and and raids, however, are echoed in the DEA’s overview of the investigation outlined in the federal search warrant document.
“BMB Records (is) one of Brown’s companies that he uses to disguise his involvement in drug trafficking,” Popp wrote in the court filing.
Drug pipeline details
DEA agents allege Brown was a hands-on leader of the drug ring.
Twice in 2014, Brown allegedly arranged to have a large amount of cash picked up and sent to a large drug ring, according to the DEA.
In February 2014, an undercover DEA agent negotiated with Brown to pick up money at an Olive Garden restaurant in Livonia.
“Brown said that the money was going to be delivered by a man driving an older model gold-colored Buick,” Popp wrote.
During the meeting, the agent received a black duffel bag filled with $236,900 from a man linked to Brown’s alleged drug ring, according to the court file.
“I therefore believe that the $236,900 were from Brian Brown and were proceeds from his drug trafficking operation,” the DEA agent wrote.
Within months, the investigation spread to California.
In May 2014, DEA agents interviewed a drug dealer who was ordered to travel from Los Angeles to the Chicago area and stay at a home in Skokie, Ill. While there, the dealer sold drugs and collected money with another man.
Agents learned the rent for the Skokie home was being paid for via money orders. The money orders arrived in an envelope with the return address of a 1,900-square-foot ranch-style home near Masch Avenue and Eight Mile in Warren.
The home is owned by Akia Brown’s property management company and is the address on Brian Brown’s driver’s license, according to Warren property records and the search warrant affidavit.
The dealer also identified cars used to haul drugs money between California and Detroit. The fleet included a gray Nissan Altima, the DEA alleges.
DEA agents in California hid a GPS tracking device on the Altima in June 2014 and traced the car to Brown’s wife, Akia, according to the court file.
Within days, the tracking device showed the Altima at a home on Tracey Street on Detroit’s west side.
Brown owns the home, according to the DEA and property records.
The home is a “narcotics stash location,” otherwise empty except for heroin packaging equipment and two pit bulls in the basement, the informant told DEA agents, according to the search warrant filing.
A few weeks later, in August 2014, the Altima was back at the home in Skokie before returning to California.
“I believe that the Altima had been loaded with drugs that were transported from California to Detroit for distribution by Brian Brown and members of his (drug ring),” Popp wrote.
Besides the Altima, the California drug dealers loaded narcotics in a Volvo C70.
In October 2014, DEA agents tracked the Volvo from Redford Township to California and arranged a traffic stop. Inside, officers found $69,980 in a secret compartment underneath the passenger seat — and a pay stub belonging to another alleged member of Brown’s drug ring.
Investigators tracked the alleged drug trafficker to a hotel next to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus days later.
FBI task force members set up surveillance nearby and watched the man for seven days.
On Nov. 5, investigators watched the alleged drug trafficker and a second man leave the hotel in a silver Cadillac DTS. The Cadillac was registered to Brown’s wife, Akia, according to the DEA.
Agents shadowed the Cadillac along southbound I-75 before arranging a traffic stop. Inside the Cadillac, Michigan State Police troopers found $143,940 hidden in a secret compartment.
Three weeks later, investigators tracked the alleged drug dealer to the Los Angeles area. When agents found the man, he had the same Nissan Altima linked three months earlier to Brown’s wife Akia.
Police towed the car and opened the trunk. Inside, investigators found 6 kilograms of heroin.
The next month, in December 2014, the investigation’s focus returned to Michigan.
DEA agents learned a large drug ring needed money picked up from a Detroit-based drug dealer. A DEA informant called the alleged drug dealer’s cellphone and arranged to pick up the cash at a Bob Evans restaurant near Dequindre and 10 Mile in Warren.
Agents listening to the phone call determined the voice belonged to Brian Brown after comparing the voice to videos Brown posted on social media, according to the DEA.
“Brian Brown ... agreed to deliver the money to the Bob Evans restaurant in the Detroit area,” the DEA agent wrote in the search warrant filing.
The DEA informant traveled to the Bob Evans restaurant at the prearranged time and met with a man who handed over a green bag filled with $100,060.
A probation officer concluded Brown violated conditions of his release from federal prison, but Brown remained a free man.
Probe heads south
A month later, in January 2015, the investigation led to Birmingham, Alabama, where agents raided a home and arrested Eric Young, who banking records showed had wired money to Brian Brown.
During the raid, agents found heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic substance that makes smaller doses of heroin more potent.
Young told agents Brian Brown was his heroin supplier, according to the search warrant affidavit. Since 2013, Young consistently received 2 kilograms of heroin from Brown every month and paid $75,000 per kilogram.
“... Brown would send the heroin to Alabama in vehicles equipped with a concealed or secret compartment ...,” wrote Popp, the DEA agent.
Brown also supplied heroin to a convicted felon in Baltimore, a confidential source told DEA agents.
A family affair
The alleged drug conspiracy also involves Brown’s “main girlfriend” in Detroit, according to a DEA informant.
The woman helps hide cash from drug deals, according to the court filing.
On Nov. 30, 2015, the DEA was ready to raid Brown’s alleged drug empire, including at least seven locations across Metro Detroit.
The list of properties included Brown’s home in Warren, the house on Tracey, a Detroit riverfront loft and a home on West Parkway in Detroit used by Brown.
During a Dec. 2 raid at the West Parkway home, agents found his girlfriend and an infant. They also found a loaded and stolen .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun on a nightstand in the master bedroom, a commercial money counter and drug packaging materials, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court.
The gun belonged to Brown, his girlfriend told agents, court records show.
Brown was indicted in March 2016 on a gun charge, released on bond and placed on house arrest with a GPS tether.
Two months later, while free on bond, Brown allegedly beat one of his rappers, Charli Baltimore, whose real name is Tiffany Lane-Jarmon.
“I was brutally beaten by Brown when I walked in on him with another woman,” Lane-Jarmon, 43, wrote in an court affidavit. “He choked me, blacked (sic) my eye, bruised my arm while I was still in a cast.”
Despite the federal drug investigation, the gun charge, and accusations by Charli Baltimore, Brown remains free on bond.
In November, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds gave Brown additional freedom. She removed the GPS tether, freeing him to travel for business purposes.
While Brown is free on bond, his wife says on social media that she is filming a Lifetime reality show.
The alleged reality show — Lifetime officials did not respond to a message seeking comment — has a name.