By George Anastasia
His name is Robert Wilks, but on the streets and on dozens of secretly recorded conversations he is frequently referred to by his nickname, "Miami."
He grew up in the notorious Richard Allen Homes public housing project in North Philadelphia, was dealing small quanities of drugs by age 17 and by his mid-twenities was moving half kilos and kilos of cocaine.
In 2004, already in jail on a drug charge and facing a broad federal drug racketeering indictment, he decided to cooperate. This morning, for the second time, he took the stand against one of the men who he said supplied him drugs -- Kaboni Savage.
One week into the trial of Savage and three co-defendants, the jury finally heard from a player in the violent, volatile and highly profitable drug underworld that authorities say Savage dominated through fear, intimidation and murder.
Savage, 38, and two co-defendants could be sentenced to death if convicted of any of the 12 murder charges that are part of the current case.
Wilks, a soft-spoken 43-year-old dressed in jeans and a dark hoodie, was the first of at least a half dozen former drug dealers and alleged Savage associates expected to take the stand. Much of what he said was a repeat of his testimony in a 2005 trial in which Savage was convicted of drug trafficking, Savage is currently serving a 30-year sentence for his conviction in that case.
But for the 18-member jury panel (six are alternates), Wilks' testimony was brand new. What Wilks provided was a street-level account of the business of drug dealing.
Wilks, who served nearly six years after pleading guilty in 2004, acknowledged that he lived well when he was dealing drugs. After his guilty plea he was forced to forfeit a home and two cars, a BMW and a Acura, that authorities alleged were purchased with drug profits.
He described how he had a carpenter build "a hidden compartment" in one of the steps of his home. Using a remote control device, he said he could raise the step, located on stairs leading from the basement to the first floor, to gain access to the compartment where he would stash drugs while awaiting a sale.
He talked prices and marketing, explained the stove-top cooking process used to convert powdered cocaine to crack, and descibed the adavantage of "compressing" cocaine -- diluting the purer drug with a common, white powder solution and then using a press to turn the expanded product into kilogram size blocks for resale.
That recompressing, he told the jury, could turn a normal $500 profit on a sale of a kilo of coke into a profit of $2,500 to $3,000 by creating more product to sell.
Wilks told the jury he came up in the drug world under Gerald "Bubbie" Thomas, a major drug dealer who was indicted along with Savage, Wilks and more than a dozen others back in 2004. Thomas, whose voice has been heard repeatedly on wiretap conversations played for the jury thus far, died of cancer shortly after he was indicted and never stood trial.
He said he knew Savage from the neighborhood, but was introduced to him as a drug dealer through Thomas and Thomas's son, Paul Daniels. Daniels is also expected to testified later in the trail.
Savage, he said, sold him drugs on at least three occasions in quantities ranging from a half kilo to two kilos. The most he ever paid Savage, he said, "was between $40,000 and $50,000."
During cross-examination, Wilks' credibility was challenged repeatedly by defense attorneys. He admitted that while he was facing a sentence of from 12 to 15 years when he agreed to cooperate, he ended up being sentenced to just 41 months. That sentence, coupled with time he was already serving for an unrelated drug conviction, turned into a six-year stint in prison.
While he did not say where he currently lives, he said he is now holding two jobs, one as a medical assistant and the other as a "security officer."
When asked how he got the nickname "Miami," Wilks said, "I made it up."
Defense attorneys implied that he made up much more in order to cut a deal with the government, including testimony linking Savage to the Gerald Thomas drug underworld.
George Anastasia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.