‘Money, drugs and violence’: Federal gang trial begins in New Orleans

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Magnolia Shorty, a local rapper who federal prosecutors say was gunned down by reputed members of the 39ers gang in December 2010, is one of several victims whose murder feds have linked to some of the 10 defendants’ whose racketeering trial started in New Orleans.

The rapper, whose real name was Renetta Lowe, “had nothing to do with this gang violence,” Assistant United States Attorney Myles Ranier said during his opening statement. Still, he said, the jury was shown blown-up photos of the crime scene where Lowe was killed outside a vehicle in New Orleans East because on that day she happened to be with Jerome “ManMan” Hampton, who some of the 10 defendants had stalked and ambushed.

Evidence in the approximately three-week federal racketeering trial will include wire-tapped conversations between many of the defendants and one of prosecutors’ star witnesses — Gregory “Rabbit” Stewart — a cooperating government witness who is currently serving four life sentences and faces the possibility of the death penalty after admitting to a dozen murders. U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey is presiding over the case.

In pleading guilty last week in federal court to three separate murder and two heroin trafficking-related charges, Gregory Stewart also admitted to participating in the killing of the popular bounce rapper — whose real name was Renetta Lowe — and rival gang member Jerome “Man-Man” Hampton around 12:20 p.m. Dec. 20 as the pair sat in a Chevrolet Malibu parked in an eastern New Orleans apartment complex, according to the plea agreement.

Stewart and four other men connected to 9th Ward street gangs 3-N-G and G-Strip sought to kill Hampton because of an ongoing gang feud, federal prosecutors said.

Nicknamed “Rabbit,” Stewart and three others pumped more than 50 bullets into Magnolia Shorty’s car, prosecutors said. The 28-year-old former member of the Cash Money Records label crashed the car into a wooden fence in the 6300 block of Bridgehampton Drive, authorities said.

In one recorded conversation, the jury will hear Stewart and one of the defendants laugh over a murder and then the defendant remark how he has to get more ammunition at Academy Sports and Outdoors, Ranier told the jury, offering a preview of the evidence in his opening statement.

In other recorded conversations, Ranier said, a number of defendants will be heard talking about “hunting their rivals,” including their specific efforts “to kill a rival in the Lakeside Mall.”

The crimes prosecutors will attempt to prove the defendants committed occurred from at least January 2009 until September 2011, according to the indictment says.

The jury will hear how gang members nicknamed their “favorite” guns, which they shared with each other, Ranier said. For example,  “Monkey Nuts” was a long gun, which got its name from the double barrel. There was the glock nicknamed “Barack,” and the 9mm gun they called “Michelle,” Ranier said.

Before the trial started Tuesday, U.S. Marshals wheeled in a cart hauling eight approximately 5-foot-long boxes, one which had a diagram of what appeared to be an assault rifle. Some of the boxes read, “evidence – handle with care.” Near the prosecutors table were rows of seven file boxes labeled “exhibits.” The 10 defendants, most of them outfitted in dress shirts and ties, and a defense attorney for each, crowded around tables across from the jury box.

The 12 jurors and four alternates, who were sworn in Tuesday, are expected to sit through the estimated three-week trial. They will hear from Stewart and another gang leader, Darryl Franklin, when prosecutors call them to testify against their alleged former associates.

But Kerry Miller, a defense attorney for defendant Jasmine Perry, said in his opening statement the 10 defendants were set up — “framed” by more powerful gang leaders who had already been convicted and are trying to cut a deal with the feds to shorten their sentences.

Miller called Franklin “the money man” of the gang operation, the man who paid for the heroin and obtained it through his Mexican connection in Houston and had it sold on the streets of New Orleans after cutting every two kilograms with a kilo of fake drugs to stretch the product. Miller said Franklin was also the man who spent money on excesses like parties with strippers, to raise his and the gangs’ profile.

Miller’s client Perry, on the other hand, “doesn’t even own a bike,” Miller said. He and the other defendants, Miller said, were the mules and low-level dealers whose freedom is at stake.

When Stewart and Franklin were “cornered” by federal prosecutors and threatened with the death penalty and life sentences, Miller said, they “became rats” and framed the defendants.

‘Toxic alliance’ 

Ranier, who spent much of this opening statement reviewing a slideshow on a projector screen showing the web of connections between the defendants and the government’s witnesses, likened the gang alliance that formed the 39ers to “a bad marriage.”

The trial centers on violent crimes, including 14 murders and 8 shootings, as well weapons violations and drug dealing allegedly perpetrated the members of what Ranier referred to as a gang “union.” Ranier gave the jury a simple definition of the racketeering charge prosecutors were seeking: “A group of guys got together and decided to repeatedly commit crimes.”

The 39ers, he explained, refers to an alliance between two gangs — the 3NG gang, named for the intersection of Third and Galvez streets where they operated in the Hoffman Triangle in the Central City area, and the G-Strip Gang, which congregated on Gallier Street in the Upper 9th Ward. Prosecutors say the groups are accused of trafficking heroin and crack cocaine to New Orleans from Houston on buses.

“They shared drugs, guns, hiding space and cars,” Ranier said. Moreover, he added, “they now shared rivals.”

Rivals included the Ride or Die gang, a group that operated at Press Park in the 9th Ward, and a group that operated in the Florida neighborhood.

With the proceeds of the illegal drug operation, Ranier said, Franklin established Dusty Money Entertainment. One of the defendants, Ashton Price, recorded rap songs with the label. Lawyers assured the jury they would be shown related rap videos at trial.

After Stewart, Franklin and the now-deceased Merle Offray got together, Franklin’s heroin was able to infiltrate the Uptown area, Miller said. Like Miller, many other defense attorneys acknowledged their client dealt drugs, many noting their client had already served time in jail or prison after pleading guilty to drug charges. Most defense attorneys said, though, that the government could not link their clients to the violent crimes without relying on the testimony of convicted murderers and known liars.

In more than one case, Ranier and defense attorneys pointed out, NOPD arrested someone different for a murder that Stewart later claimed to have perpetrated himself, with some of the defendants.

On trial over the next week in U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey’s courtroom are Ashton “Pound” Price, Leroy “Lee” Price, Alonzo “Wood-die” Peters, Jasmine “J-Real” Perry, McCoy “Rat” Walker, Terrioues “T-Red” Owney, Evans “Easy” Lewis, Curtis “Pooney” Neville, Solomon “Black” Doyle and Damian “AD” Barnes.

Each of the 13 defendants named in the 45-count indictment were implicated in at least one murder.

Three other men who were initially also named as co-defendents in the 58-page indictment, Rico “Freaky” Jackson, Tyrone “T-Bone” Knockum and Washington “Big Wash” McCaskill, pleaded guilty before trial and are also expected to testify.

Each of the 10 defendants is linked to at least one murder, Ranier said. At trial they’ll try to prove Peters was responsible for one murder, Ashton Price for Lewis for four murders, Leroy Price for five murders, Doyle for one murder, Perry for five murders, Owney for for murders, Barnes for one murder, Walker for two murders and Neville for two murders.

“The toxic alliance between 3rd Ward and 9th Ward drug dealers were responsible for a trail of blood” across New Orleans, Ranier said.

Defense attorneys question government’s case

Miller said the government has no DNA, fingerprints, or independent eye-witness identifications to present as evidence in the violent crimes. Defense attorney Arthur “Buddy” Lemann, who represents Doyle, said during his opening statement that the ballistics evidence prosecutors will present “is not as conclusive or reliable as the government would have you believe.”

The problem with the federal government’s case, Miller and several other defense attorneys told a jury in the downtown courtroom, is that so much of it relies on “despicable” jailhouse informants, primarily Stewart and Franklin.

Ranier sought to address gripes from 10 defense attorneys about the jailhouse witnesses’ credibility by addressing the issues head-on, before any defense lawyer stood up to give his or her opening statement.

Ranier said the witnesses — at least five who have already been convicted — didn’t cooperate with the government out of a “sense of public service” or because their “conscience” pushed them to do so. Rather, he said, “they all want to get out of jail some day” and are hoping to have their sentences cut short.

“The six witnesses are bad people, they’re gang members who committed horrible crimes,” Ranier said. But the federal justice system is designed to encourage cooperation,” he said.

“The currency that we negotiate with people for information is liberty,” Ranier said.

Despite Ranier’s attempt to address the problems with the government’s witness from the get go, most of the eight defense attorneys who gave opening statements Tuesday seized on them.

“Not only do they have defective credibility,” said Eric Malveau, defense attorney for defendant Leroy Price. “But they have a reason to lie.”

“Don’t let these desperate people get away with their final desperate plan,” Michael Raspanti, Curtis Neville’s defense attorney, said of the government’s witnesses.

Ranier, during his opening, gave a summary of the 14 murders and of some of the shootings the jury will hear about. The victims included Lowe, Hampton, Anothny Charles Brown Jr., Kendrick Smothers, Gregory Keys, Kendall Faibvre, Rayshon Jones, Lester Green, Donald Daniels, Elton Fields, Terrence Dennis, Littlejohn Haynes, Floyd Moore and Michael Marshall.

Owney and Walker are accused in the murders of Lowe, aka Magnolia Shorty, and Hampton. They were involved in the murder along with government witnesses Knockum and Stewart, who were convicted of the crime, prosecutors say.

In one of the murders, he said, Lewis and other defendants killed Brown, Lewis’s “old friend,” because Lewis believed Brown stole a gun that had gone missing. After Brown was shot dead, Ranier said, Lewis found the gun. A picture of  Brown’s bloodied body was shown to to the jury.

On April 12, 2010, three people were killed in different locations in the city during a battle between rival groups.

Ranier said Michael Marshall was gunned down by Leroy and Ashton Price near his job at a Bywater scrap yard because another drug dealer paid one or both to kill Marshall after learning Marshall cooperated with the DEA. McCaskill, one of the government’s witnesses, was also implicated in the murder.

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“His life was only worth a few thousand bucks,” Ranier said.

In the Marshall murder, the defendants are also being charged with murder of a government witness.

“Human life was cheap to the 39ers,” said Ranier. “Money, drugs and violence,” he said, referring to what he called the group’s core values. “A staggering amount of violence.”

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