By George Anastasia
Drugs, guns and tapes .... lots of tapes.
That's been the story thus far in the racketeering-murder trial of North Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage and three co-defendants.
The trial resumed this morning as it had ended last week with FBI Agent Kevin Lewis on the witness stand. Lewis and his partner, Philadelphia Police Detective Tom Zielinski, have spearheaded the Savage investigation for more than a decade. They are two of the principal players in a bloody drama that prosecutors began presenting to a jury in U.S. District Court last week.
Savage and two of his co-defendants face possible death sentences if convicted. The case lists 12 murders, including the October 2004 firebombing of a North Sixth Street rowhouse in which two women and four children were killed.
In many ways the trial offers a look at the volatile and violent drug underworld, a world where alliances constantly shift, where treachery is common place and where money and guns are in abundance.
His head cleanly shaved, his beard neatly trimmed, Savage, 38, sits each day at the defense table jotting notes on a legal pad and occasionally conferring with his two court-appointed attorneys. He has heard and seen much of this before.
Many of the tapes played so far were part of a 2005 drug dealing case which ended with Savage's conviction. So were the small arsenal of handguns -- nearly a dozen -- shown to the jury last week, weapons seized during that probe.
Savage, a former welter-weight boxer, is currently serving a 30-year sentence for the earlier conviction. He denied the charges in that case and has denied the murder charges in this one. This time, of course, the stakes are even higher -- life in prison or a lethal injection.
Lewis spent most of his time on the stand today undergoing cross-examination by defense attorneys who have tried to deflect the violence away from what authorities call the Kaboni Savage Organization and their clients.
Savage's lawyer, Christian Hoey, argued in his opening that his client was not a major player in a drug ring targeted by Lewis and Zielinski back in the late 1990s and that others had both the motives and the opportunities to carry out the homicides that authorites have placed on Savage's doorstep.
Hoey, as he did in his opening, focused his questions on other drug kingpins, including the late Gerald "Bubbie' Thomas, Thomas' son Paul Daniels and Craig Oliver, a major cocaine supplier. He also repeatedly mentioned Shamsud-din Ali, an imam who operated a major mosque in Southwest Philadelphia and who authorities linked to both the drug underworld and the polital pay-to-play corruption probe that rocked City Hall in 2005.
Ali was convicted and sentenced to nearly seven years on fraud charges. He was never charged with drug trafficking, but attorneys have alluded to allegations that the mosque was used to launder drug money and that drug dealers routinely paid tribute to the imam.
Daniels and Oliver are potential witnesses in the case, two of several former drug dealers who began cooperating after they were indicted.
Hoey took Lewis all the way back to 1996 and a drug war that was part of the investigation. He cited a memo written by the FBI agent describing "a series of violent beatings and shooting that began to occur after a falling out" between Bubbie Thomas and RAM Squad, a notorious drug gang once based in the Richard Allen Homes housing project. Authorities said RAM stood for "Richard Allen Mob."
Ronnie Johnson, the leader of RAM Squad, was killed in that drug war. It was one of several murders Hoey referred to that he said his client had nothing to do with.
The jury, as it had earlier, heard more tapes in which Thomas conducted drug business. Savage is picked up on some of those conversations, but there are many other calls in which he is neither heard nor mentioned, points that Hoey tried to underscore.
In fact, the investigation includes over 16,000 wiretapped conversations and, while not part of the case, Hoey has pointed out that it was a conversation between Thomas and Shamsud-din Ali that led to the political corruption probe and the placing of a bug -- an electronic listening device -- in the office of then Mayor John Street.
"The bug was discovered before the mayor said anything that might get him in trouble," Hoey had said in his opening. Street was never charged, but several top associates and Ali were convicted of fraud in a pay-to-play political scheme.
Thomas, who died of cancer before he could stand trial, has remained the principal voice on the tapes played thus far. On tapes played today, the jury heard him complain about a drought, the lack of availability of cocaine on the market.
"It's fucked up out here...It's gonna get worst," he told an associate in one conversation recorded in October 2000.
On another he groused about the price for a kilo of cocaine, telling an associate that he was being asked to pay "29" when the going price should have been "27."
"Man, I'm telling you man," Thomas said. "They getting silly. Motherfucker called me and told me that his morning."
"Them motherfuckers trying to get rich fast," the associate replied.
Twenty-nine and 27, Lewis testified, were references to $29,000 and $27,000, the price for a kilo of cocaine. The agent also quipped that Thomas complained about the price of or the lack of cocaine, "almost every day of his life."
More tapes and more informant testimony are expected as the trial continues. Authorities estimate the trial will last from three or four months.
Savage's co-defendants include his sister, Kidada, 30, Robert Merritt, 31, and Steven Northington, 40. Each played a role in the Savage Organization, authorities allege. Merritt and Northington face potential death sentences if convicted.
Kidada is accused of setting up the firebombing in which the family members of Eugene Coleman, a Savage associate who became a government witness, were killed. Coleman is expected to be one of the key witnesses at the trial.
Merritt is charged with taking part in that firebombing along with Lamont Lewis, another admitted drug dealer who is now cooperating and will testify.
Northington, described as an enforcer and hitman for Savage, is linked to several other murders in the case. He used several aliases while on the street, according to authorities, and at one point used the name Kevin Lewis, tweaking the FBI agent who was building the case against him.
With a death sentence looming and piles of evidence still in the offing, it could be the FBI agent who has the last laugh.
George Anastasia can be contacted at email@example.com.