'The Wire' dealer and a real-life drugs bust

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Felicia Pearson's criminal past won her a part in the gritty Baltimore drama. Now she's in trouble with the law again

Small and ruthless, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson was so convincing when she played the role of a cold-blooded drug-land assassin in The Wire that critics declared the arrival of a major new acting talent. Author Stephen King described her as "perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series". Three years later, with the show – along with her breakthrough performance – consigned to the annals of TV history, Pearson once more finds herself playing the role of villain. But this time, it's for real.

Police in Baltimore announced yesterday that the actress was among roughly 30 people arrested in a series of pre-dawn raids aimed at dismantling one of the region's major drug gangs.

Photos of the "bust", which followed five months of surveillance, showed a dreadlocked Pearson frowning anxiously as she was led from her luxury apartment in the Downtown area of the city by two armed officers from the Drug Enforcement Agency. She was handcuffed and wearing a black Puffa jacket of the variety often worn by her famous alter-ego.

After being taken into custody on a State warrant, the actress was last night being interviewed in the company of a lawyer. Investigators were unwilling to reveal details of the charges she might eventually face, saying only that yesterday's arrests marked the culmination of long-running probe by several law-enforcement agencies into a "large-scale" heroin and marijuana operation.

For 30-year-old Pearson – who never trained as an actress – the brush with the law represents a case of life imitating art which was already imitating her life. Like many of the cast-members who took minor roles in The Wire, she isn't a trained actress, but was instead plucked from the obscurity of Baltimore's housing projects to star in the series.

Her lucky break came in 2004, when she was spotted in a local nightclub by Michael K Williams, the actor who plays a homosexual gangster called Omar on the hit series, which explores urban Baltimore's drug-addled underworld through the eyes of its inhabitants and the various detectives attempting to catch up with them.

He invited her to audition for the role of a contract killer in the third season of the hit series. After she won the part, the show's creator, David Simon, was so taken by Pearson's personality that he decided to name her character "Snoop". She survived until the fifth and final series of The Wire, which aired in 2008, when she met with a sticky end: being shot in the head by a colleague. Like many standout actors in the gritty show – which neatly blended real-life with fiction – Pearson had at least some connection with her screen character: shortly after she achieved fame, it emerged that she had spent nearly seven years in prison as a teenager, after being convicted of a gangland shooting at the age of 14.

In an autobiography called Grace After Midnight, which was published in 2007, she recalled the troubled childhood which had led to the conviction. Born to a drug-addict in the impoverished eastern quarter of the city, she weighed just three pounds at birth and was fed with an eye dropper because her mouth was too small for a bottle. As a toddler, she was taken into foster care after social services discovered that her mother had sold her clothes to fund a purchase of crack cocaine and locked her in a wardrobe.

Pearson's book later tells how she owes her nickname to her childhood mentor Arnold Loney, a Baltimore drug dealer who decided that she bore an uncanny resemblance to the dog from Peanuts. By the time she was a teenager, he'd helped her become a fully-fledged member of his gang, with a male "crew" under her command. In 1996, she was convicted of the second-degree murder of Okia Toomer – a local girl who was shot in a street-fight – and sent to Maryland Correctional institute. There, she cleaned up her act, embarked on a lesbian affair with a prison officer and gained academic qualifications. After her release, she claimed to have decided to give up her previous life of crime.

In interviews, Pearson has often said that her troubled past was essential to her success in The Wire, which has been praised for the authenticity with which it captures urban culture.

But since the show wrapped its final series, it has at times been a burden: she and many of her co-stars have struggled to find gainful employment in other areas of showbusiness.

Her arrest yesterday wasn't the first time an alumnus of the show has got attention for the wrong reason. In 2009, a baby shower in New York organised by co-star Jamie Hector – with whom Pearson founded the youth charity Moving Mountains – descended into chaos when a gatecrasher opened fire, killing one guest and injuring two others.

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