This is the story of how a West Baltimore child-care center that was once a symbol of hope turned tragic, and how nearly $2 million dollars in state funding was diverted into the hands of a convicted felon. And it is the story of how State Senator Catherine Pugh helped make it happen — and benefited from an unreported in-kind contribution to her 2016 campaign for Mayor.
In 2002, Lisa M. Shelton was working as an analyst at area defense contractor Northrop Grumman. While also working to obtain an MBA from Johns Hopkins, she was inspired to open a high-quality childcare center in West Baltimore after observing conditions in another childcare facility in the neighborhood. In 2003, she opened “Sandi’s Learning Center,” named after her young daughter Sandi, in her small rowhouse in the Rosemont neighborhood of West Baltimore.
She quickly had the idea to expand it to serve more kids, and had by early 2004 purchased a dilapidated apartment building at 1701 North Ellamont Street for $58,000 cash — just south of North Avenue, near her home. However, she was unaware that the building was condemned and slated for demolition. Shelton would need additional support to fulfill her vision. She reached out to then-state delegate Salima Siler Marriott.
Marriott helped Shelton secure an arrangement with the city in which it would demolish the existing building on her behalf, while she sought out additional funding for new construction. She attempted, with Marriott’s help, to secure one million dollars in a state bond bill in 2005, but was rejected.
Advised to back the campaigns of the politicians who might help her, Sandi’s Learning Center contributed funds to the 2006 campaigns of Del. Marriott, Del. Marshall T. “Toby” Goodwin, Del. Ralph Hughes, and then City Council President Sheila Dixon — despite the fact that these contributions, intended innocently, were in fact illegal (non-profit organizations are prohibited by law from contributing to political campaigns).
Her second foray to secure funding from the legislature was successful in the 2006 session. House Bill 685, sponsored by Marriott and co-sponsored by Pugh and the rest of the city’s state delegation, was passed and granted Sandi’s Learning Center $1 million to fund construction of the new facility, combined with at least some matching funds to be provided by Shelton. Construction proceeded through an $800K contract with the firm of C.L. Myles, where Shelton also worked as a business consultant to help make ends meet.
In early 2008, to help launch the new location, Shelton sought an additional $1.2M in funding — $600K from the state and $600K in matching funds from several area philanthropies. Sen. Catherine Pugh successfully sponsored SB365 in 2008, providing the desired funding.
Shelton opened Sandi’s Learning Center in its brand-new home in April 2008. Writing for The Sun, reporter Rona Marech wrote at the time, “Yesterday, the preschoolers ate hot dogs, salad, fruit and strawberry ice cream in one room while the 2-year-olds napped and the babies listened to the children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” and gazed at a crayon mobile.” All was off to a good start at Sandi’s.
But by late 2009, the center would need another injection of funds. Shelton went back to Sen. Pugh, who sponsored SB246 in the 2010 session to provide an additional $1.5M in funding, with $750K coming from the state, and another $750K coming from three area philanthropies. However, the bill died in committee.
The End of a Dream
Just weeks later, in April, 2010, Shelton sought elective foot surgery to repair a bunion. Tragically, she died on April 24th, 2010, during recovery. Despite The Sun’s prior glowing coverage of Shelton and her efforts, the paper did not publish an obituary due to space constraints.
Sandi’s Learning Center was left adrift, lacking both funding and its visionary founder. Shelton had died intestate. By this time, the state had contributed at least $1.6 million to the construction and operation of the Center, with at least another $600K from philanthropic organizations — but there was no one to lead it. Sandi’s would not last long without Shelton’s dogged guidance and political connections.
Federal 990 forms show that in 2011, John A. Holmes of York, Pennsylvania took over as “President” of Sandi’s Learning Center. According to multiple sources we spoke with, Holmes was Lisa Shelton’s boyfriend — he claimed to be her fiancé — and he took on this role over the family’s objections.
Lisa’s sister, Angela Shelton, worked initially with Holmes and then by herself with a small team, to keep the center afloat — but it was not to be. Sandi’s was in violation of various state regulations covering childcare facilities, which may have fueled the failed 2010 expansion drive but which also contributed to multiple forced closures that rendered the business untenable. It is unclear why state officials approved funding to a non-compliant facility in the first place.
Not long after Lisa Shelton’s death, Angela Shelton said that Ron Owens — a Baltimore diabetes clinic entrepreneur, self-described Reverend, and “venture capitalist,” with an office in the 2300 block of Charles Street — “stalked” the young Sandi Shelton, who was barely 18 at the time, reaching out to her privately and even arranging a private tour of the facility with her. Angela Shelton interrupted that tour, demanding that Owens delete photos taken from his camera. Still, Owens persisted and eventually provided enough capital to convince the center’s Board to be its chair.
Multiple sources described Owens as a political power player. Originally from Maryland but having spent time in Tennessee and Missouri, he returned to Baltimore with the goal of meeting powerful characters. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he attempted to establish relationships with multiple mayoral campaigns with an offer to make introductions to Baltimore’s religious ministers.
With Ron Owens at the helm, Sandi’s Learning Center officially filed for bankruptcy in February 2014.
In May 2014, Owens attempted to broker a deal between First Mariner Bank, who held an original loan on the property, and the Y of Central Maryland which contemplated taking over the Sandi’s location and using it as a childcare facility paid for with federal Head Start program funds. However, the bank rejected this deal as unrealistic, and Sandi’s Learning Center proceeded with its bankruptcy filing.
In April 2015, Ron Owens helped to organize the Freddie Gray funeral.
Connections to Milton Tillman, Jr.
About a year after the bankruptcy filing, on June 2, 2015, Sheena Tillman, the daughter of convicted bail bondsman Milton Tillman, Jr., created a new LLC called Priority Adult Medical Day Care Center, with offices at 1701 North Ellamont. The business never opened, and it is unclear that Tillman had the licensing or background to open such a facility. However, this established that there was at least some connection between the Tillmans and Ron Owens.
From the initial opening as Sandi’s Learning Center to today, the property has been owned by the same legal entity — “Sandi’s Learning Center, LLC,” suggesting that control of that LLC which was started under Shelton may have shifted to include control by, at a minimum, John A. Holmes, Angela D. Shelton, and Rev. Ron Owens.
As of January 2020, the city property tax bill for 1701 N. Ellamont goes to 3210 E. Monument Street, the address of an east-Baltimore auto repair garage. This is also the address of Monument Ventures, LLC. The resident agent and filing signatory of that company is Milton Tillman, Jr.
This suggests that Tillman’s current involvement with the property goes back to at least June 2015, when his daughter registered Priority Adult Medical Day Care Center, LLC with an address at the location. As for Owens, he registered a company called Diversified Management Services, LLC at the same address in May 2017.
In Pugh’s failed 2010 funding bill, the legal contact for Shelton was Gary Maslan, an east-side attorney whose website claims he “does it all.” Maslan is known as an expert in the domain of liquor licensing, and according to a 2012 article by Van Smith writing for City Paper, had done work with Milton Tillman Jr.’s son — Milton “Moe” Tillman, III — on licensing for the downtown music venue Club Sonar, in which he was a partner. Maslan had also been reportedly hired by Shelton to represent Sandi’s Learning Center.
Sandi’s Becomes Pugh’s “Shadow” Campaign HQ
Just six months after Sheena Tillman contemplated opening an adult day care there, the building would become Pugh’s secondary campaign headquarters. By early 2016, Pugh was using the site to coordinate field work, including canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations. The location was the site of some controversy and violence on election day in April 2016 when some of nearly 1,500 potential campaign workers expecting payment and free chicken wings were turned away, and trash piled up outside.
Pugh’s 2016 publicly disclosed campaign expenditures for “Office Rent” total $42,687 — all of which was paid to Khan Realty for use of her 1030 N. Charles St. headquarters. No one was compensated for the use of the 1701 N. Ellamont location, and she does not list any associated in-kind campaign contribution from Sandi’s Learning Center, LLC, Milton Tillman, or Monument Ventures, as is required by law.
Had Pugh disclosed this gift, it would likely have been disastrous for her campaign. Tillman Jr., along with his son Milton “Mo” Tillman, III, are notorious figures in Baltimore. The pair was convicted and sentenced in 2011 for tax evasion and for profiting from a no-show job at the port of Baltimore.
A March 2000 DEA memo asserted that “the family has been active for the past 20 years in the Baltimore, East-side based, heroin traffic.” In 2002, Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Luna claimed in open court that “Mr. Tillman (III) is the son of one of the most notorious drug dealers in Baltimore City history. That is a fact.”
Luna also stated that “there is no question that Mr. Tillman’s father is a reputed drug dealer, a violent type of guy.” Luna was found dead in a streambed with 36 stab-wounds and a slit throat near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2003, however there is no known connection between Luna’s claims about Tillman and his grisly death. Luna’s death was ruled a homicide, but federal investigators believe he committed suicide, and there are renewed efforts to re-open that case.
In 1993, Tillman Jr. pled guilty of trying to bribe Giovanna “Gia” Blatterman, another Pugh-world character, who was at the time a city zoning officer. He attempted to pay her a $30,000 cash bribe in exchange for her vote to keep open Odell’s, a popular North Avenue nightclub he owned.
Gia Blatterman has since been implicated in Pugh’s 2016 campaign finance scandals for her apparent connections to the writing of at least $66,000 in checks that Pugh alleged were later returned for insufficient funds. Several of the individuals who were alleged to have written the checks appeared to have had no knowledge that they had done so. The source of the funds behind these checks, if indeed those funds ever existed, has still not been publicly identified.
Fire in 2017
Records obtained from the Baltimore City Fire Department confirm that there was a fire at the facility on August 20, 2017, causing an estimated $130,000 in damages. The fire report does not reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire, but the report states the building “is a 2 story brick/block building approximately 100 feet by 75 feet. The building was idle at this time but is having work done and supplies brought in for the opening of an adult day care center,” presumably referring to Sheena Tillman’s proposed enterprise. It is unclear if this fire event resulted in an insurance claim, or if such a claim was paid.
The fire report also lists Ron Owens as the primary contact, and states that he lives at an address on East 35th Street near Lake Montebello — an address not otherwise associated with him, and where he is not listed as an owner of the property.
How did this happen?
In November 2019, Pugh was charged with perjury by State prosecutors, on top of multiple federal charges already brought this summer. If she did accept unreported campaign gifts in the form of in-kind use of the Sandi’s Learning Center facility, this would be a clear violation of Maryland campaign finance law. Her decision to withhold this information from public view in 2016 likely had a positive impact on her Mayoral chances.
Currently, Sandi’s Learning Center is boarded up and vacant, with its broken windows and once-cheerful, bright block exterior a forlorn reminder of Shelton’s ambitions for neighborhood children.
According to city water billing records, the facility is currently racking up about $4,000 annually in water bills — perhaps due to a sprinkler system leak cited in the BCFD fire report — along with about $27,000 in property taxes. Both tabs are apparently being paid by Tillman’s Monument Ventures, and appear to be up to date as of this writing — even as the building is now blighting the neighborhood that everyone hoped it would improve.
How exactly a $1.6 million investment of taxpayer funds found its way into the hands of a convicted felon with alleged ties to the city’s drug trade is anyone’s guess. But there’s one person who had knowledge of the situation and made sure the public wouldn’t find out about it by reading her campaign finance reports: former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Reached for comment about the campaign’s use of the Ellamont address in December 2019, former Pugh campaign spokesperson Anthony McCarthy said, “If I recall correctly, that was the field operation headquarters. I never went there and didn’t know about it until later in the campaign. I worked out of the main HQ on Charles Street.”
Pressed further McCarthy said, “That was such a strange situation. I try not to think about it. They kept a lot of things from me.”
In 2008, City Paper reporter Van Smith inquired repeatedly if then-delegates Salima Siler Marriott and Catherine Pugh knew Milton Tillman, Jr. They both denied it. “Nope,” Pugh said, “never heard of him.” Marriott also asserted that she had never heard of Tillman.
However, one Baltimore politician was willing to own up to his relationship with Tillman, Jr.: then-12th District City Councilman Jack Young — now Mayor of Baltimore.
“We grew up in the same community, East Baltimore,” Young told Van Smith in 2008. “He’s a nice guy.” Regarding claims that Tillman, Jr., has ties to the drug trade, Young said, “I’ve heard about the drug allegations before. Any response I make, the government can come after me. So I have no comment.”
This story relies in part on prior reporting by City Paper reporters Edward Ericson, Jr., and Van Smith, and Baltimore Sun reporter Rona Marech.