Opening statements in the trial of Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis began Monday.
Defense attorneys countered that their clients are innocent. They said the government’s case will be based on questionable testimony from men who have admitted being gang members and received reduced charges and sentences in return for their cooperation.
The Lewises, who are cousins, are charged with being members of an organization led by Craig Petties that began as a neighborhood gang in 1995 and grew into an empire that imported drugs from Mexico to sell in Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
The trial in Memphis is the culmination of a 13-year investigation into the ring led by Petties, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering and four murders for hire. He is awaiting sentencing.
The Lewises face life in prison without parole if convicted on charges including racketeering-murder, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering.
They have pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton has described the trial as one of the largest of its kind in West Tennessee. Along with Petties, several other men have already pleaded guilty to being members of the drug ring.
Petties fled to Mexico after his 2002 indictment and was placed on the U.S. Marshals’ 15 most wanted list. He was captured in January 2008 and extradited to Memphis, where he entered his guilty plea in December 2009.
Prosecutor Greg Gilluly said Monday that the Lewises each killed one person who was a threat to Petties’ organization. Gilluly said the gang started with a few young men selling drugs in the Riverside neighborhood of Memphis and ended up working with the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico and being responsible for the deaths of at least six people.
Clinton Lewis, also known as “Goldie,” is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Marcus Turner in September 2006, under orders from Petties. Turner’s body was found in Olive Branch, Miss.
Martin Lewis, also known as “M,” is charged with killing Mario McNeal while McNeal was eating at a Memphis restaurant in March 2007.
Anne Tipton, attorney for Clinton Lewis, said Lewis is innocent and the jury must judge the credibility of admitted gang members who will appear as prosecution witnesses.
One of the potential witnesses, Clarence Broady, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder for hire for the killings of Mario Stewart and Latrell Small. Others on the witness list were associates of the Petties gang in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.
Tipton said her client was being unfairly “lumped in with the rest of the group.”
Marty McAfee, attorney for Martin Lewis, said the jury will hear testimony and see evidence not related to the charges. He also questioned whether potential witnesses will be able to properly identify his client as McNeal’s killer because the shooter was dressed with a hooded shirt, dark glasses and a skull cap.
McAfee also noted that some of the government’s potential witnesses have had charges and sentences reduced after pleading guilty.
“After you look at the quality of the government’s case, you will see it is not built upon bedrock, it is built upon sand,” McAfee said.
Security is tight for the trial, which is expected to last about a month.
The jury is being brought to the courthouse from a secret location every day.
Also, only the four defense attorneys and the two federal prosecutors are being permitted to know the jurors’ identities.
Petties is on a defense list of anticipated government witnesses, but it is not known if he will be called to testify.
Backstory of Craig Petties:
Blood Trade the Story of Craig Petties
by Daniel Connolly
When the officers came to the house, they noticed a distinct smell.
"I smoked a little marijuana to help ease my mind from the fact of my girlfriend cheating on me," Craig Petties said, according to an arrest report.
But this was more than one man dulling his sorrows with weed. In a bedroom closet of the home in southwest Memphis, officers found three duffel bags stuffed with marijuana. Six hundred pounds in all.
That 2001 discovery, big as it was, only hinted at things to come for Petties
In the years that followed, authorities say, he moved to Mexico and, working with a branch of one of that country's most notorious cartels, operated a trafficking empire that funneled hundreds of kilos of cocaine and more than a ton of marijuana into Tennessee and other states.
The enterprise has been described as one of the largest and most ruthless such businesses ever uncovered in the region.
The story of Petties' alleged rise from petty drug peddler to international trafficker illustrates how the drug business works and Memphis' role as a distribution hub. It also shows how an enterprise built on American demand for marijuana and cocaine can spread violence and mayhem from Mexico all the way to middle-class Memphis suburbs.
While in Mexico -- a nation wracked by drug-related violence -- Petties allegedly was ordering the killings of rivals, suspected informants and others in the Memphis area.
The victims include a 28-year-old man who was shot and killed in his garage near Shelby Drive and Hacks Cross while his young children were in the home. Later, assassins executed two men in a car in Hickory Hill, and fatally wounded a man in an afternoon shooting in a restaurant.
In all, the 50-count federal indictment accuses Petties of conspiracy in six murders, as well as an assortment of racketeering charges.
The resulting federal case is a sprawling web involving dozens of defendants and witnesses.
Petties, who could face the death penalty if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He declined a request for a prison interview, and defense attorney Ross Sampson also wouldn't comment.
A trial date has not been set.
But even as he sits in prison, Petties remains the subject of fear, hatred and even mythic lore on the streets where he grew up.
One narcotics officer tells of T-shirts in South Memphis emblazoned with Petties' picture. Messages on social networking sites range from calls for his death ("PUT HIM IN THE GROUND") to admiration ("Trying to get that Craig Petties money").
His story is a testament to how the city's deep social problems suck young people into the trade.
Troubles began early
Craig Petties was born in 1976 and came of age in the 1980s just as a new, highly addictive form of smokable cocaine called crack swept through inner cities throughout America. It touched the Riverview neighborhood where Petties grew up in a small, brick, shotgun-style house that his mother had bought for $17,000.
His section of West Dison Avenue was "a well-known drug trafficking area," wrote a police officer who arrested Petties in 1996.
Petties got into serious trouble early in life.
His first arrest came at 15, when he was charged with possession of a sawed-off shotgun. According to juvenile court records, he had set off the gun in his house when he and a friend were looking at it -- Petties called the police and said that he planned to use the gun to scare robbers who had taken his coat.
In the summer of 1993, when he was 16, he was twice arrested and accused of selling crack.
That December, days before his 17th birthday, he was arrested for attempted murder.
He had been with a group of young men who walked up to Eric Cole and started shooting, according to records. Cole was hit in the back, survived, and identified someone other than Petties as the one who shot him.
Still, authorities moved to try Petties as an adult. Records from the case offer a glimpse at his home life.
He was raised by his mother, Ever Jean Petties, and lived with one sister. The whereabouts of his father were unknown.
His mother reported in 1993 that she received $1,279 per month through her position as a foster parent and from her job at the board of education. That put the family income slightly above poverty level.
After Petties turned 18, his arrest record continued to grow. In 1998, for instance, he pleaded guilty to burglarizing railroad boxcars.
In March, Ever Jean Petties declined to be interviewed. "I'm not doing nothing on my son and I'm not talking about anything."
One significant person in this story doesn't show up in the juvenile court records.
According to U.S. Marshals spokesman Dave Oney, Petties is a half-brother of Paul Beauregard, better known as rapper DJ Paul of Three6 Mafia, a group that has sold millions of recordings.
It is known for songs on topics that include drug-trafficking and murder, the very activities Petties is accused of.
A publicist at Columbia Records said Beauregard wouldn't comment.
A rebel and a dropout
Petties belonged to a vast crowd of fatherless children growing up in low-income families in Memphis.
About 57 percent of children in Shelby County are born to unmarried parents, and absent fathers are common, a factor that can lead children into crime.
A psychologist, Robert M. Parr, had evaluated Petties a few months before the shooting. The teenager was 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds, Parr wrote, and was polite throughout testing.
"There is evidence of problems with impulse control, rebelliousness and negativism, as well as resentment of authority," Parr wrote.
He assessed Petties' verbal IQ at 77, a score low enough to be in the "borderline" range.
The adult court later sent Petties' shooting case back to juvenile court. Records do not show what the punishment was.
He attended Carver High School and probably didn't graduate, though the school system wouldn't release records.
Dropping out is common. In 2009, Carver's "cohort dropout rate" -- the number of students who leave somewhere between ninth and 12th grade -- was about one in three.
Those who drop out have few options in the legitimate work force. And there are tempting alternatives.
A history of trafficking
For decades, selling drugs has been an alternative way to earn money in Memphis.
In 1931, federal authorities used undercover agents and telephone wiretaps to smash what the press called "the Gowling ring," named for a 60-year-old trafficker named Jimmy Gowling. Police said the group used Memphis as a base to ship morphine, opium and other narcotics to other states by airplane, car and boat.
This and countless other examples show that Memphis' transportation links and central location have long made it a good place to distribute illegal drugs.
And Memphis has long been a center for drug consumption, not just distribution.
In 1900, cocaine was legal, and some Memphis drugstores stayed open all night to sell small boxes of the powder to addicts for as little as five cents.
The history of drugs in Memphis has long been associated with minority groups, from Chinese opium dealers in the 19th century to African-American and Mexican traffickers today. But whites have long been involved both as traffickers and as consumers.
As The Commercial Appeal wrote in 1900 about cocaine: "The use is not confined alone to the negro, but white people are also using it in large quantities."
A major supplier
By 2000, Petties was already involved in large-scale trafficking, Abe Collins, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, wrote in a 2002 affidavit.
In one case, Petties bought 10 kilograms of cocaine and 200 pounds of marijuana through middlemen who worked with Mexican couriers, he wrote.
Collins believed Petties had become the primary supplier of cocaine and marijuana in the Memphis area and that his partners included several close friends from his old neighborhood.
Collins also wrote that Petties was a leader of the Ganster Disciples street gang and that the murder of a past member of Petties' organization, Antonio Allen, remained unsolved.
The organization used various front businesses. Drugs were dealt out of an auto repair business on Elvis Presley Boulevard, Collins wrote. And in October 2000, Petties turned in a business license application to launch a company called C's Trucking.
Trucks play a key role in the drug business in Memphis. Most of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine that arrives in Memphis is smuggled from Mexico and delivered on Interstate 40 or Interstate 55 by 18-wheelers or cars with secret compartments, said Keith Brown, resident agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Brown said Memphis is a major market for drug consumption.
"It's hard to measure," he said. "But there are thousands and thousands of pounds of marijuana coming into this city every year. There are thousands of kilos of cocaine. There are probably hundreds of kilograms of heroin."
There are specialists who handle transportation, others who build secret compartments in vehicles and houses, and others who launder money, he said.
Memphis is a distribution hub for regional drug markets like Jonesboro, Ark., but isn't a major multistate hub like Atlanta, Brown said.
And he said Mexican cartels act as suppliers to local groups but usually don't exert local control.
Others have reached somewhat different conclusions. U.S. Atty. Larry Laurenzi says Memphis is becoming a hub both for local distribution and for transshipment to cities like Chicago.
He also said traffickers are bringing drugs into the Memphis area directly from Mexico, rather than the old pattern of using middlemen in states like Texas.
"I don't think any community wants to have that type of business," Laurenzi said.
As of this writing, Laurenzi's office was seeking to have the government declare Memphis and nearby territories a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a designation that would bring in additional money.
Neither Brown nor Laurenzi would talk about the Petties case in detail. The Memphis police, who were involved in the investigation, also declined comment.
A lucrative business
Records suggest Petties was making large amounts of money at a very young age.
In June 1999, the 22-year-old Petties signed mortgage papers for a $185,000 house in Hickory Hill. He quickly paid off the debt, becoming one of many in his circle who bought houses in the suburbs.
Drug-trafficker Ruben Laurel later would tell authorities that he and others had counted more than a million dollars on the pool table on the second floor of the house, according to an affidavit from Collins.
A federal indictment accuses Petties of using drug money to buy numerous luxury cars and trucks, including a Mercedes-Benz worth nearly $112,000. An earlier version of the indictment says he once bought a Bentley worth $339,000, and that he also purchased property in Las Vegas.
Petties isn't the only one alleged to have become rich from drug sales.
Forbes magazine estimates the net worth of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera at one billlion, making him one of the world's wealthiest individuals.
Petties allegedly worked with a branch of the Sinaloa cartel.
Colombians, not Mexicans, used to be on top of the Latin American drug-trafficking scene.
But law enforcement cracked down on a smuggling route favored in the 1980s -- shipping cocaine from South America to the Caribbean and south Florida.
Drug organizations now find it easier to smuggle cocaine from South America to Mexico, where it can be shipped over the 2,000-mile land border into the U.S. Other drugs, like marijuana and methamphetamine, can be produced in Mexico itself and shipped over the border.
Mexican cartels fear U.S. law enforcement because it is usually more competent and less corrupt than Mexican institutions, said Alex Posey, an analyst with the global intelligence company Stratfor.
That's why America hasn't seen mass cartel killings. "As long as you're not involved in the drug trade, it's in their best interest to leave you alone," he said. "Because the more scrutiny they draw upon themselves, the worse for business it is."
Source of trouble
A small conflict got Petties in big trouble.
On April 4, 2001, police were called to a house in southwest Memphis by Petties' girlfriend, Latosha Booker.
Petties and Booker said they had been in an fight, but that everything was fine, according to an arrest report.
But there was a strong smell, and a marijuana cigarette was in plain sight on a coffee table, according to an affidavit by Collins. Other men emerged from elsewhere in the house, and the homeowner, Tino Harris, signed a consent to search form. Officers quickly found the 600 pounds of marijuana.
Petties and several others were arrested. An arrest sheet listed his occupation as "C-Trucking," presumably commercial trucking. His girlfriend was charged with simple assault, but it was never pursued.
A judge set bond at $250,000. Petties made it and was released. The state, for reasons that aren't clear, later dropped charges against Petties and some of the others. It wasn't the end of the matter.
In June 2002, officers searched a Bartlett property belonging to Harris and turned up 38 kilograms of cocaine.
In November 2002, the federal government filed an indictment against Petties under seal.
The federal system gives long sentences. But even before the indictment was filed, Petties had disappeared.
Since the preceding story was published in 2011 Petties pled guilty to the following counts in his case: