Cocaine trafficking trial starts Wednesday

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The 2,000 kilograms of powder came via the Postal Service, private carriers, tractor trailers, chartered flights and often commercial airlines, bringing to Pittsburgh over a decade "enough cocaine for every man, woman and child resident of Pennsylvania to have their own $20 rock of crack," as assistant U.S. attorney Ross Lenhardt put it.

As complicated as the delivery system was, the job of imprisoning accused traffickers allegedly led by Robert Russell Spence has proved at least as labyrinthine. It has included two acquittals -- rare in federal court -- one defendant's murder, efforts to recapture sensitive documents and novel allegations by Mr. Spence against prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The next step is Wednesday's trial, in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, of five California men accused of playing roles in getting cocaine from there to here, and carrying money back to the Golden State. Burned by two acquittals in a trial that ended Oct. 30, prosecutors have rushed to assemble more evidence so they can strengthen connections among the members of the alleged conspiracy and ensure that others aren't acquitted.

Prosecutors "are going to critically analyze [the October trial] and ask themselves why" they couldn't convince jurors of the guilt of two defendants, said Bruce Antkowiak, a former assistant U.S. attorney and now a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "Where were we weak?"

Mr. Lenhardt and co-prosecutor Gregory Nescott "are both hard chargers from the gate, and they don't pull any punches," said Almon Burke, a former prosecutor who worked with the two for years, and is now a defense attorney. "Without a doubt, they're tightening [the case] up even more for the next group."

The case began in 2008, when Drug Enforcement Administration agents focused on Mr. Spence, 38, of Coraopolis.

Mr. Spence was running a luxury car rental firm called Highest Galaxy LLC out of Monroeville and renting an Oakmont warehouse, according to investigative reports filed in court.

When agents searched the premises, according to the reports, they found a digital scale, a vacuum sealer, 18 rolls of cellophane wrap, blenders, steel molds, packaging material, computer components, a hydraulic press, 23 empty bottles of the dietary supplement Inositol that can be used to dilute cocaine, and "61 empty kilogram wrappers containing cocaine residue."

A subpoena to Sam's Club revealed that Mr. Spence bought digital currency counters, a computer and a video security system, according to the reports.

Mr. Spence has pleaded not guilty, and his separate trial date has not yet been set.

The DEA pulled in IRS Criminal Investigations agents who "began collecting flight records, shipping records for packages, credit card records, cell phone records and other related records" to identify his collaborators, according to an affidavit.

The first indictment came in 2009, and eventually 23 defendants were charged in the main case, with nine others charged separately.

Normally, such indictments are followed by a slew of guilty pleas, then a few convictions at trial. "When the feds come to your door, the automatic assumption is that you're wrapped up tighter than a drum," said Mr. Burke.

But while some of the defendants in the so-called Spence conspiracy have pleaded guilty, many have not, leading to the scheduling of a series of trials starting with the Californians.

The first trial, held before U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone in October, ended in the conviction of Ruben M. Mitchell, then 45, of Stockton, Calif., but the acquittals of Errick L. Bradford, 42, of Oakland, Calif., and Anthony Bursey, 39, a Homestead native now of Sacramento.

Prosecutors said that Mr. Bursey carried money for the crew, and accused Mr. Bradford, who worked at Oakland International Airport, of shepherding drugs through security.

Prosecutors "just couldn't tie [Mr. Bursey] to the alleged conspiracy," said his attorney, Mark Sindler. "Their primary evidence was one accuser, somebody who had cut a deal with the government."

That kind of result "absolutely emboldens a co-defendant," said Mr. Burke.

Though four other defendants in the case have pleaded guilty since the Oct. 30 acquittals, five have opted for trial. The four Californians are Herbert Platt, 45, of Hercules; Kenneth V. Michael, 45, of Stockton; Kenneth R. Douglas, 65, of Hayward; Anthony London, 56, and Eric A. Barnett, 43, both of Oakland. Most are characterized in court documents as couriers who smuggled cocaine to Pittsburgh and money to California. Mr. Douglas is also accused of sneak- ing drugs past security when he was employed at San Francisco International Airport.

None of their attorneys could be reached for comment.

Over the past two months federal agents took steps to avoid a repeat of the October acquittals.

A DEA agent got a warrant to look at 11 cell phones previously used by Mr. Bradford, Mr. Platt, Mr. Douglas, Mr. London and one other defendant. That step was a reaction to the acquittals.

"Several jurors spoke to the prosecution after the verdicts and indicated that they believed that all the defendants were involved in drug trafficking but they wanted more evidence connecting the acquitted defendants to each other and the conspiracy," the agent wrote in an affidavit. "Since the next group of defendants ... are set for trial ... this application is made to help provide this connection."

Mr. Burke said it's not typical for agents to seek new information at this point in a case.

"Clearly they're worrying from the first trial as to what some of the hurdles might be, and trying to compensate," he said.

Mr. Lenhardt filed motions suggesting that Mr. Bursey took back to California three DEA reports on witnesses at his trial. Those reports aren't supposed to leave the justice system, he wrote, because their dissemination can result in "unnecessary danger to government witnesses and their families."

Mr. Lenhardt noted that one co-defendant, Todd Lamar White, was murdered during the course of the case. White's death certificate indicates that he was "shot multiple times with a handgun" in 2010 while in the backyard of a home in Vallejo, Calif.

Police in Vallejo said there have been no arrests in that case and the investigation remains open.

The murder of a co-defendant "does not happen a lot," said Mr. Antkowiak, but it can occur when "the other defendants are worried that this guy's going to cave. ... Is this guy a weak link?"

Documents filed by prosecutors and agents in the case indicate that several defendants have cooperated with prosecutors -- a step usually taken in connection with a request for leniency in sentencing. At one time, that included the man referred to by prosecutors as the "local fulcrum" of the group, Mr. Spence.

"Spence began providing historical information based on his participation in the local distribution of cocaine," a DEA agent wrote in an affidavit. "Spence later stopped cooperating with the government."

Now he is handling his own defense, and filing scores of handwritten motions alleging misconduct by federal agents and collusion between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

He has claimed, for instance, that "DEA agents are posing as defendants' attorneys speaking to [Mr. Spence's] witnesses." He also filed motions claiming that he had paid around a dozen private attorneys $700,000 to represent him or various co-defendants, only to have them do "no work" or cooperate with prosecutors.

"That's usually not something anybody admits to," said Mr. Burke. He added that drug defendants sometimes pay defense lawyers with the help of some "obscure relative that comes out of the blue with $100,000" that probably came from a kingpin.

Mr. Spence's claim that he had hundreds of thousands of dollars available to spend on other accused dealers' defenses, Mr. Burke added, is probably "devastating -- for the defendant."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.

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