By George Anastasia
Jurors deliberating the fate of cocaine kingpin Kaboni Savage heard 13 weeks of testimony full of murder and mayhem. The case, built around 12 homicides, includes a firebombing in which two women and four children were "cooked" alive, the prosecution alleges.
But what the panel of nine women and three men (in addition to six alternates) also got during the trial was an insider's view of the drug underworld, a seldom heard, first-person account delivered in bits and pieces by a series of government witnesses who did business on some of the meanest streets in the toughest neighborhoods in the city of Philadelphia.
"We were like the Black Mafia," said Eugene Coleman, one of several former Savage drug associates who testified against him.
"He would supply the drugs and if there was any problems, he would have my back," said Lamont Lewis, a Savage hitman-turned-witness.
"You need protection in the drug game," added Paul Daniels, another Savage associate who took the stand.
The jury, which began deliberations today, heard from nearly a dozen former drug dealers who had cut deals with the government.
While some of the particulars varied, they all told parts of the same story, a cold and brutal saga of death and destruction played out against the backdrop of what authorities say was a multi-million dollar cocaine distribution network. Prosecutors said Savage, 38, headed a drug ring that dumped hundreds of kilos of the deadly powder on the city during an eight-year period beginning in 1995.
Christian Hoey, Savage's court-appointed lawyer, conceded that his client was a drug dealer. (Savage was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 30 years in 2005 based on some of the same evidence introduced in the current case.) But in his closing arguments to the jury last week, Hoey argued that there was no criminal enterprise or Kaboni Savage Organization, as prosecutors alleged.
Rather, he said, Savage and the witnesses who testified against him were all swimming in the same "shark tank" where one wrong move could result in your execution, where today's ally was tomorrow's enemy and where loyalty was a commodity like drugs that could be bought and sold, a product that usually went to the highest bidder.
Savage (could there be a more appropriate surname for a man prosecutors have portrayed as a heatless and ruthless killer?) and two of his three co-defendants face potential death sentences if convicted of the murder charges.
Eight of the 12 murders were tied to what the prosecution said was witness intimidation, Savage's "scorched earth" strategy of using violence to keep witnesses off the stand. On one of the hundreds to tapes played for the jury, Savage succinctly captured that philosophy: "No fuckin' witness, no case."
Savage's words, picked up on wiretaps and on listening devices planted in his prison cell, helped paint the picture -- a self-portrait prosecutors would argue --- of a major player in the violent Philadelphia drug underworld.
Whether on the streets or in prison, authorities argued, Savage was able to order hitman to carry out his wishes. Lewis and the late Kareem Bluntly were two of the deadliest.
The prosecutors also argued that Savage used murder as a business tool, pointing to the almost inexplicable murder of Kenneth Lassiter in March 1998 as a prime example. Lassister died of a gunshot to the stomach at the corner of 8th and Butler in North Philadelphia.
Minutes before, he had had the misfortune of bumping Savage's car with his own. "Less than a fender bender," a prosecutor said. But after a brief argument over "payment" for the damages, Savage pulled a gun and shot Lassister, a man he had never met, at point blank range.
Cold blooded, to be sure, prosecutors argued. But also calculated. Authorities contend that the shooting had less to do with the fender bender than it did with life on the corner. Eighth and Butler was a notorious drug corner "owned" by Tybius Flower, a drug rival whom, witnesses said, Savage "hated."
By committing a murder on Flowers' corner, authorities said, Savage was able to shut down Flowers' drug dealing. A murder brought police and a police presence made drug dealing impossible. Eventually Flowers got his business back up and running, but he never forgot and that may have been one of the reasons he agreed to testify for the District Attorney's Office against Savage who was indicted for the Lassiter murder.
"Kaboni hated Tibby," several witnesses testified.
Both men were from North Philadelphia. Both had been professional boxers. Flowers' decision to cooperate, while in theory a violation of the code of the street, was viewed by many as an act of revenge for what Savage had done on his corner.
Flowers declined a District Attorney's Office offer for protection. He stayed on the streets. And on March 1, 2004, on the same 8th and Butler corner, he was shot 17 times. The shooting occurred just two days before Savage was to go on trial for murder.
Savage was never worried. From his prison cell, he had taken care of business, witnesses said.
"He told me he ain't sweating it (the trial for the Lassiter murder)," Lewis testified. "He said Tibby would never make it to court."
Wtihout Flowers, the Lassiter case fell apart. Savage was acquitted of that murder in a two-day trial.
Lewis, a hulking, tattooed assassin who is facing 40 years to life in prison under his cooperating agreement, admitted to 11 murders. Eight, he said, were carried out on Savage's orders.
"I never questioned it," he said. "That's what I did for our team."
By taking the stand, he violated the code that was captured on a tattoo scrawled across his abdomen: "Ride Or Die." Savage expected his associates to "ride" out any investigation. The alternative was death.
Other tattoos that were part of the North Philadelphia drug underworld included "MOB," which Lewis and others said stood for "Money Over Bitches." Several witnesses sported "EAM" across their hand or arm. That was for "Erie Avenue Mob."
Women and sex were also part of the life. When Lewis was questioned on cross-examination about a murder he had committed, it was suggested that the motive might have been a dispute over a woman that both he and the victim were "dating."
He scoffed at the idea that he was dating the woman, acknowledged that both he and his victim had had sexual relations with her, but then added, so had "about five other people in the neighborhood."
Lewis also testified about how he and the victim had stopped at Condom Nation on South Street to pick up "products." The hapless victim, he said, thought Lewis was giving him a ride to his girlfriend's house. Minutes later, on a dark street in Southwest Philadelphia, Lewis said he shot the victim in the head.
Coleman told a skin-crawling sexual tale to the jury -- an underworld version of the "who's been sleeping in my bed" fairy tale. While working for Savage, Coleman was living in an apartment Savage owned of Palmetto Street. But, he said, others also had access to the place.
When asked to explain how he knew that, he cited an incident involving co-defendant Steven Northington. One day when he returned to the apartment, Coleman testified, "the bed sheets were full of crabs."
Norhington, he said, admitted he had brought a woman to the apartment for sex.
"That's that dirty broad I had brought to the apartment," he said Northington told him, adding that Northington "helped me buy another bed."
Lewis also told of another murder he carried out for a paraplegic drug dealer who had been assaulted by his girlfriend. The girlfriend, Lewis said, was trying to extort the drug dealer. At one point, she cut him "a hundred times" with a razor and then threw bleach on the cuts. The dealer wanted her dead and paid Lewis to kill her.
He wanted her shot in the face. Lewis said that's what he did.
Lewis' victims included the family of Eugene Coleman, killed in the 2004 firebombing and drug dealers Carlton Brown and Barry Parker. The firebombing was an attempt to silence Coleman and/or a back pay for his disloyalty.
Brown had killed a friend of Savage's and his murder was revenge. Parker's murder was business. He was dealing drugs on a corner that "belonged" to Steven Northington.
"This is what we do, we handle our business," Savage told associates after Parker was killed.
The business of drug dealing was a big part of the trial testimony. Jurors heard how dealers would "pump" a corner by giving away free drugs for a day or two. This was a way to attract business and establish a reputation.
They also heard how Savage routinely diluted his cocaine, using high-pressure compression machines to pack and seal kilogram bricks of powder for sale after they had been diluted.
The math was simple. Savage was buying cocaine in bulk, authorities said, 10 or 20 kilograms at a time. A kilogram usually cost about $24,000 and, depending on the market, Savage could resell it on the streets for a profit of from $500 to $3,000 per kilogram.
But he discovered a way to enhance his profit margin by diluting the kilograms and recompressing the bricks. According to testimony, Savage and his associates would take 125 grams out of a kilogram (1,000 grams) and replace it with a powdery substance known as "cut." By doing this, seven kilograms could be cut and repackaged as eight kilograms. That eighth kilogram, sold at a market price of from $25,000 to $28,000, was pure profit.
Savage balked and threatened to kill suppliers who were cutting the product they were selling to him, but he had no problem making the recompression process part of his network, prosecutors allege.
"It's only cheating if you get caught," he told an associate.
Mansur Abdullah, 22, another associate, was killed because he had learned of the recompression process and was trying to do it on his own. Coleman, in detailed testimony, told the jury how Abdullah had been paid $25,000 for a kilogram of cocaine that he delivered to Savage's home on North Darien Street.
The money was in a red box that had once contained a new pair of sneakers, Coleman said. Abdullah left the house with Kareem Bluntly. A short time later, Savage got a phone call and directed Coleman to drive to a location and pick Bluntly up. When he arrived, Coleman said, Bluntly was carrying the red sneaker box full of cash.
At that point, Coleman said, he knew Abdullah was dead.
"He didn't deserve to die," Coleman told the jury.
Coleman said Bluntly also killed Tyrone Tolliver in the Palmetto Street apartment where Coleman was living and compressing drugs for Savage. Tolliver was killed, Coleman said, because Savage suspected he was cooperating.
Coleman described Tolliver as one of his best friends and said he had no idea he was going to be killed. Nevertheless, he said, he helped dispose of the body and clean up the apartment after the shooting.
"That was my friend and they killed him right in front of me," Coleman said quietly from the witness stand while admitting that he lied to Tolliver's family and kept silent about the murder when the FBI first questioned him. Even after he began cooperating, he said, he hesitated in linking Savage to the murder, telling authorities it was Bluntly who killed Tolliver.
"Kaboni could do more damage than Bree," Coleman said in a comment that was even more disturbing to a jury that had already heard about the firebombing..
Those who testified against Savage risked not only their lives, but the lives of their loved ones, prosecutors argued throughout the trial.
Tolliver lost his life. Coleman survived, but paid a staggering price for cooperating. His mother, his 15-month old son, his step-sister, two nephews, aged 15 and 12, and a niece, aged 10, were killed in the firebombing.
"Everything Eugene Coleman loved had to go," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gallagher told the jury in a seven-hour summation that outlined the case.
Hoey, in his closing arguments, tried to separate his client from the violence, arguing that witnesses had blamed Savage for many of their own criminal acts.
The prosecution's case, Hoey said, came from "corrupt and polluted sources." The government's witnesses, he argued, "put their hand on that Bible, looked you in the eye and lied to your face."
They all operated in a "shark tank," he said, "diving in, getting what they could and getting out."
If the jury returns with guilty verdicts, there will be a death penalty phase in the trial, setting up the possibility that the case will continue for the rest of the month. And also setting up the possibility that more details about life in the drug underworld will be made public.
George Anastasia can be contacted as George@bigtrial.net.