One of the last loose ends in the largest drug case ever brought in Memphis federal court was rounded up last week, with a 15-year prison sentence for a childhood friend of drug kingpin Craig Petties.
Chris Hamlet fled to Mexico at about the same time that Petties did in 2002, after they were indicted in separate drug cases that proved to be the beginning of a federal investigation into the organization that would grow through seven sets of federal indictments.
While Petties was turned over to U.S. drug agents in January 2008 shortly after his capture, Hamlet wasn’t turned over. He spent five years in a Mexican prison before he was escorted to Houston by Mexican authorities in December.
U.S. authorities were anxious to hear what Hamlet had to say about the violent drug organization. By the time they did, it only corroborated what they had learned from others in the intervening five years.
Hamlet and Petties knew each other as children in the Kansas-Riverview neighborhood in South Memphis, watching cars line up at night on the streets to buy crack cocaine.
In Mexico, they were protected and sheltered by the Beltran-Leyva part of the Sinaloa cartel. And Petties worked for the cartel – with Hamlet as part of his inner circle south of the border – as Petties ran the Memphis part of the organization by cell phone and through occasional trips to Mexico with other local leaders of the organization.
Hamlet’s five years in a Mexican prison figured prominently in the decision by prosecutors not to make a motion indicating Hamlet had provided “substantial cooperation” in their investigation.
But it was Hamlet’s choice.
It’s a detail that indicates there are still dark corners of the drug organization’s approximately 15-year saga that haven’t been fully revealed. Some details of murders beyond the six laid out in the federal indictments that authorities have suspected were the work of the organization were talked about in general last week as Hamlet was sentenced.
That includes a 2005 triple murder in South Memphis for which no one has ever been charged.
Federal drug agents in the U.S. were willing to swap prisoners with Mexican authorities to get Hamlet to and across the border, according to a court filing by Hamlet’s attorney, Robert Parris, the day before Hamlet was sentenced.
Hamlet wouldn’t make the deal, according to Parris.
Hamlet insisted Diedre Williams, his girlfriend, who was jailed with Hamlet in an adjoining prison complex, had to be part of the deal. And U.S. prosecutors would not agree to that.
“They were permitted occasional visitation. Mr. Hamlet maintains that those visits were what sustained them through their five-year imprisonment,” Parris wrote in the Aug. 7 court filing, the day before Hamlet was sentenced to 15 years in prison. “Mr. Hamlet refused to leave Ms. Williams alone in Mexico and turned down the government’s offer for that reason.”
Williams was released in Mexico and has returned to the U.S.
Before Hamlet left the city in 2002 with Williams for the self-imposed exile, he had indicated he might cooperate in the early stages of the federal investigation.
Petties became suspicious that someone was cooperating and ordered Antonio Allen, another childhood friend, murdered.
Allen wasn’t cooperating. But his death, shot multiple times while in his car, with Petties among the honorary pall bearers at his funeral, prompted Hamlet to instead join Petties in Mexico.
By the time Hamlet was turned over to federal drug agents in Houston last December and then sent back to Memphis in custody, the drug case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee had just about run its course.
Everybody indicted in the case, except Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis, had pleaded guilty and the Lewises had been tried and convicted of drug and racketeering conspiracy as well as murder for hire charges that later netted each of them automatic life sentences.
Petties is awaiting sentencing later this month before Mays in a sentencing process that so far has involved sealed motions. Petties’ guilty plea to drug and racketeering conspiracy and murder for hire charges was taken in 2009 in a sealed hearing and not revealed for more than a year.