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Federal prosecutors say Saladin and Fareedah Mahdi knew their sons were running a ruthless crack cocaine ring out of their D.C. home and did nothing to stop it.

Now the government is trying to seize the two-story brick Columbia Heights row house owned by the Mahdi family for the past 19 years. As part of the same case, prosecutors are seeking to confiscate a second property two blocks away that was not owned by the family, but allegedly used by the Mahdi gang as a crack house.

But with real estate values at an all-time high in the D.C. area — and the Columbia Heights business district in the midst of a revitalization — even former crack dens are considered prime properties.

The civil forfeiture action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last year, has mushroomed into a full-scale battle. More than 20 people have come forward claiming rights to the properties — each valued at more than $200,000. And D.C. lawyers from several large firms, such as Crowell & Moring, Jenner & Block, and Baker Botts, are working mostly pro bono to keep the homes from the federal government.

“This is certainly a significant piece of real estate,” says lawyer Kenneth Loewinger, who represents the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which has a $47,000 lien on the Mahdi family house.

Loewinger notes that Saladin Mahdi purchased his home in the 1300 block of Randolph Street, N.W., in 1985 for $80,000. It was recently assessed by the D.C. government for tax purposes and found to be worth $255,000.

Saladin Mahdi’s lawyer, Julie Carpenter of Jenner & Block, says the government is overreaching by going after her client’s home.

“I think it is a pity that the government isn’t satisfied with what they have,” says Carpenter, referring to the criminal convictions of the Mahdi brothers. “There is no evidence that anything like that will continue going on in that house.”

Stephen Silver, an associate at Baker Botts who represents Saladin’s wife Fareedah, says there is no evidence his client was aware of any criminal activity on the property.

“We are confident that we will prevail at trial, if it comes to that,” Silver says.

The second house, located on the 1300 block of Taylor Street, N.W., is owned by Annette Nicks and the estate of Lula Nicks, who died in 1994. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says the Mahdi gang, known as the 1-4 Mob, used the Taylor Street house as “a situs for innumerable and illicit drug sales.”

Nineteen people now say they are heirs to the Taylor Street property — some of whom are serving time in prison for burglary and murder. The Taylor Street house is worth nearly $218,000, according to D.C. tax records.

“It wasn’t a crack house,” says 38-year-old Lavanghda Tabron, who has made a claim on the property as a granddaughter of Lula Nicks.

Forfeiture cases almost never make it to trial. Most matters are settled or resolved by summary judgment. In order for the government to prevail, prosecutors must show that the Mahdis knew about the criminal activity on their property and did nothing to stop it. The same goes for the owners of the Taylor Street house.

All claimants have raised the “innocent owner” defense, meaning they had no idea the properties were being used by drug dealers.

Channing Phillips, chief of staff to U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr., declines comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

TROUBLED HISTORY

The Mahdi brothers, who led the 1-4 Mob, were a well-known outfit to local police and federal prosecutors. The crew operated in the northern section of the Columbia Heights neighborhood, along 13th and 14th streets. The gang was known not just for its dealing, but also for its bloody feud with the nearby Delafield Mob that led to the drive-by shooting death of a bystander.

In early 2000, federal agents and local police targeted the gang, purchasing guns and drugs from its members. By the time the criminal case was filed in 2001, the government says it had seized 32 firearms, three kilograms of cocaine, 150 grams of marijuana, 65 grams of heroin, and $40,000 in cash. Some of that evidence was found in the Mahdi household, according to court papers.

Indictments were handed up against 16 members in November 2001 — five were brothers from the Mahdi family. Abdur Mahdi, 26, also known as “Chief” or “Big Chief,” was considered the leader. He also was the lone defendant to go to trial. The other 15 pleaded guilty. Abdur Mahdi was convicted of 48 counts of racketeering, murder, assault, drug, and weapons charges in July 2003. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In May 2003, prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the Mahdi home on Randolph Street, claiming that it was used as “a base of operations” for the 1-4 Mob’s drug organization.

The complaint states that between 1997 and 2001, the Mahdi brothers received cocaine and marijuana shipments at the parents’ home on more than 40 occasions. The drugs would be placed in a vehicle stored on the property, usually in the backyard, the complaint alleges. The drugs would later be taken into the home and packaged for the street. Cocaine would be cooked in the family’s kitchen and turned into crack.

The complaint alleges that on four occasions, cocaine was left in the kitchen and discovered by Saladin, the father. The government also alleges that the brothers would routinely store drugs and money in a dropped ceiling in the basement. Another hole in the basement was used to store ammunition, according to the complaint.

The government claims that Saladin received money and a white Cadillac for allowing his sons to conduct their drug dealing business out of the home. The complaint makes no mention of Fareedah Mahdi, Saladin’s wife.

Between 1999 and 2001, police and federal agents searched the home four times. Each time, drugs, money, and guns were found on the premises, the complaint states. Saladin Mahdi was present for one of the searches, according to the complaint.

In court papers, Saladin Mahdi claims he had no idea that his sons were using his house as a headquarters for a drug gang. The 74-year-old also denies receiving money and the car, court papers state.

PROPERTY WAS RENOVATED

Looking at the house from the sidewalk, it’s difficult to picture 30 to 40 crackheads and dealers shuffling in and out of the Taylor Street duplex on a daily basis.

Since receiving notice of the government’s intentions, Lavanghda Tabron says she has worked extremely hard to renovate the property — installing a new roof, painting the brick and siding, laying down new carpeting. Tabron, a food services worker at the D.C. Convention Center, moved into the house in December, along with the six children she cares for.

Tabron says her grandmother Lula Nicks lived in the house for many years. When Lula died in 1994, Tabron says the place was mostly used by family members who were just getting out of prison or those who needed a place to stay for a while. She insists the property was not a haven for crack addicts.

Prosecutors, however, say the Taylor Street house — two blocks to the north of the Mahdi home — was allegedly used by the 1-4 Mob as a place to sell their cocaine and marijuana. It was also a spot for users to hang out. According to the government’s complaint, 30 to 40 people would go to the Taylor Street house daily to buy drugs, and in many instances used them there. At the time, the government claims there was no apparent owner of the home, though several people stayed there on a regular basis.

“I can’t say who came in and out of the house, but when I went to pick up my cousins who went to school right around there, I would go past and wouldn’t see anybody out there,” Tabron says.

In December 2000, police raided the home and found two loaded handguns, marijuana, and a scale, the complaint states.

Initially the Mahdis, who did not have lawyers, were the only ones to challenge the government’s action against their home. Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle eventually ordered that the Legal Services Corp. find pro bono counsel for Saladin Mahdi.

Nearly three months passed before people started coming forward to make claims on the Taylor Street property. In fact, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Humphreys sought and received a default judgment against the property in July, claiming that the Taylor Street owners were properly notified and 60 days had passed without any opposition to the government’s case.

A month later, Lavanghda Tabron filed hers. In a handwritten submission to the court, Tabron says she contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in July after receiving notice of the lawsuit. She says she was told to get an attorney and file a claim.

Judge Huvelle lifted the judgment and ordered the Legal Services Corp. to also find pro bono counsel for Tabron. David Kindermann of Regan & Associates, who represents Tabron and Annette Nicks, declines comment. Annette Nicks, a titleholder of the property since 1988, lives in an apartment about a mile away from the Taylor Street house.

Soon after, more and more relatives of Tabron came forward claiming an interest in the property. They too were assigned pro bono counsel. Joseph Nicks, who’s nearly completed serving a 30-year sentence for murder, filed his action from jail, as did Cornell Nicks, who is serving three years for burglary, according to court records.

Elizabeth Newsom, counsel at Crowell & Moring who represents 17 of these claimants, including Joseph and Cornell Nicks, says the government did not do a good job of seeking out people who may have had an interest in the property.

“All of our clients are entitled to a fair adjudication of their rights,” Newsom says.

Newsom unsuccessfully tried to have the case severed, noting that criminal activities alleged at the Randolph Street house have no connection to the alleged crimes at the Taylor Street home. The judge, however, said she may reconsider the issue.

The parties are in the midst of discovery, which is set to wrap up in October. According to Loewinger, Magistrate Judge John Facciola has been assigned the matter and has been trying to get the government to settle the matter with the Mahdi parents in some way that would ensure the couple has housing.

As for the Taylor Street house, problems with the property reach beyond the federal case. Tabron recently received notice that nearly $20,000 in back taxes owed on the home was sold to a Gaithersburg, Md., man who is now seeking ownership of the property. Tabron says she thought that the tax matter was cleared up a year ago when she paid the city nearly $4,000.

“What happened to the money I gave them?” Tabron asks.

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