Georgia Drug Dealer Turns Up in Fed Case

By Bill Dries

When Torrance Hill testified in Memphis Federal Court this week about his role as a major drug dealer from Columbus, Ga., and the Atlanta area, it was new to the jury in the Petties drug organization trial.

But attorneys for Martin Lewis and Clinton Lewis, the two defendants in the case, already had an idea what Hill was going to say.

It’s not the first time Hill has testified about bringing in $9 million a month as a major drug dealer or his ties to Memphis drug kingpin Craig Petties.

He testified in 2009 in the federal trial of his one-time attorney, Mark Shelnutt, in Columbus.

Shelnutt was tried on federal drug conspiracy and money laundering charges in Columbus in 2009. A jury acquitted Shelnutt on all 36 counts. The federal judge in Columbus took the unusual step of criticizing prosecutors in a 19-page order for making “sweetheart plea deals” with drug dealers.

And Judge Clay Land said the U.S. Attorney’s office there “may have become clouded by its zeal to bring down a prominent defense attorney.” Land also rejected a plea deal agreement with one of the other drug dealers who testified against Shelnutt.

Later, Shelnutt voiced the same theme defense attorneys Anne Tipton and Marty McAfee made in opening statements about the government’s witnesses in the trial of the Lewises.

“They had Torrance Hill, a direct connection to Mexico,” Shelnutt told the Ledger-Enquirer newspaper of Columbus. “Why not try and work to cut off the supply to Mexico?”

Hill was recorded in jailhouse phone conversations played during that trial saying Shelnutt had done nothing wrong but that federal prosecutors weren’t going to accept that.

At the time, Hill was four years into the 24-year, six-month drug conspiracy prison sentence he is still serving.

In the Memphis federal court trial, Hill is one of several witnesses who are serving lengthy prison sentences of more than 20 years for their substantial involvement in selling drugs in several states.

Hill was caught in a storage unit in 2005 with 216 kilograms of cocaine and 1,900 pounds of marijuana.

Tipton and McAfee questioned Hill closely about his motives as well as his role in the Shelnutt case. In their opening statements both told the jury that the Lewises were minor players in an organization in which the major players had already cut deals with the government to make them out to be more than they were to get the benefits of the plea deals.

The Lewises case differs substantially from Shelnutt’s. They are accused of being hit men for the Petties organization.

Hill and Dave Warner of Prentiss, Miss., have testified they were supplied during the boom years of their drug dealing by Petties and his organization and had contact with him during the six years Petties ran his drug organization from Mexico working directly for the cartel run by Edgar Valdez Villareal, the drug lord known as “La Barbie.”

Hill testified Tuesday, Feb. 21, that he continued to deal drugs when he was released on bond in 2005 because he had to pay Petties back the $2 million he said a friend took in the aftermath of his arrest and the seizure.

Hill said he feared what Petties would do if he didn’t repay the money.

“There was just one way in and no way out. I didn’t want to make them mad,” said Hill who met Petties through connections he made among a group of drag racers who financed their “hobby” with money from dealing drugs. “I was afraid for my family. Craig lost a lot of money.”

Hill was arrested again.

Tipton and McAfee suggested Hill feared doing all of the prison time in the federal system where there is no parole and even with good behavior, those convicted serve 85 percent of their jail time. The exception is a motion by prosecutors to a judge to reduce a sentence for substantial cooperation in a case.

They also emphasized Hill’s role as a major drug dealer who ran an apparently legitimate trucking company in Columbus that Hill said went out of business because “the trucks were tearing up and they were old.”

Tipton asked why he didn’t use some of the drug money to fix them or buy new trucks.

“That wasn’t something I really wanted to do,” he said.

She also asked if Hill’s mother knew he was a drug dealer.

“She knew I sold drugs but she didn’t know to what extent,” he said. “She didn’t know I was selling a million dollars of drugs. … I didn’t carry myself like that.”