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VOL. 123 | NO. 64 | Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Portrait of Violent Drug Ring Emerges In Petties Case

Judge treads cautiously in light of witness deaths

By Bill Dries

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Craig Petties

One of the largest federal drug cases in Memphis Federal Court has taken another turn. It's been nearly six years since a grand jury indicted Craig Petties on charges of possessing 600 pounds of marijuana.

Since that indictment, there have been five new sets of charges, each adding to the outline of a complex and violent four-state drug organization headquartered in Memphis and with direct ties to drug distributors in South Texas and Mexico.

The latest superseding indictment was returned last week by a grand jury. The case now has grown to include Petties, eight other defendants, allegations of seven murders for hire - including that of a one-time defendant in the case - and the possibility of the federal death penalty for five of those charged, including Petties.

The lid's on tight

By the time Petties was indicted on the first set of federal charges in 2002, he had fled to Mexico, where he allegedly ran the operation in exile until his capture by Mexican and U.S. government authorities in January. The case still is considered so sensitive that prosecutors won't say where in Mexico Petties was captured.

Petties was the only defendant in the case until August 2007, when four others were included in the second superseding indictment. That set of charges included the first details of murders tied to the organizations and allegedly ordered by Petties.

The charges included conspiracy to commit murder for hire, which carries with it the possibility of the federal death penalty.

"Members of the enterprise and their associates committed, attempted and threatened to commit acts of violence, including murder to protect, and to expand, the enterprise's criminal operations," the new indictment reads. "Members of the enterprise and their associates promoted a climate of fear through violence and threats of violence."

Assistant U.S Attorney Scott Leary told U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays last week that five of the defendants are eligible for the federal death penalty.

Prosecutors have not decided yet to seek the death penalty. In federal cases, that decision is made only after a formal conference with U.S. Justice Department officials at which defense attorneys are allowed to make their case against the death penalty.

A tangled web

In anticipation of such a decision, Mays has appointed two attorneys for the defendants who qualify for court-appointed attorneys.

The situation has been complicated by the long criminal histories of most of the defendants and some of the people who are expected to testify against them. Some attorneys have had to disqualify themselves because they represent or have represented other defendants and potential witnesses in the case.

The normally routine and brief court appearances of the defendants also have come with elaborate security measures. The defendants usually do not appear at a time when Mays is hearing other cases and there is usually extra security from the U.S. Marshals Service.

In one case, two of the defendants remained handcuffed even as they appeared via a video screen from the federal prison in Mason, Tenn.

Petties' first court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge James Allen was moved to a larger courtroom and no one was allowed to sit on the front row as Petties was led in handcuffs and leg chains just a few steps into the courtroom from a side entrance. He arrived at the federal building in an armored car.

Live by the sword ...

Some of Petties' codefendants joined him in Mexico with his help as local and federal authorities continued over the years to seize drugs and money from the organization in Memphis. A new tier of Memphis leaders of the organization took their place, according to the charges. They, in turn, were replaced as some went to prison for related offenses.

U.S. Attorney David Kustoff made it clear in January that he could not say much beyond referring reporters to the text of the indictments.

"So far we've had seizures of almost $3 million ... and something like 40 vehicles and over $600,000 in cash," he replied when asked to gauge the size of the organization.
Petties allegedly headed the drug organization for 13 years, including the six years he lived in Mexico and right up to Jan. 11, the day he was arrested.

By then, Petties had made the U.S. Marshals Service's top 15 most wanted list and had been featured several times on the television program "America's Most Wanted."

His arrest came about two months after a series of arrests on both sides of the border. Chris Hamlett, a codefendant in the case who fled to Mexico with Petties in 2002, was arrested in Mexico that November.

That same day, Ricky Evans, a key member of the organization not charged in the indictments but mentioned in them, was arrested in Dallas. That same Thanksgiving weekend, codefendant Fermando Johnson was arrested in Southaven after a woman in the house was charged with aggravated assault for firing several shots at federal agents and local police serving search and arrest warrants.

It's not mentioned in the indictments, but DEA officials have said Petties is a member of the Gangster Disciples street gang.

"It depends on how you define gang," Kustoff said when asked if the organization was tied to street gangs. "But it was an organization. It led to some significant seizures."

The drug ring had ties to Texas and Mexico, where the pot and cocaine came from and where some of the money from its sale was sent. The drug distribution network included not only Memphis, but Mississippi, North Carolina and Georgia as well, according to the charges.

The charges in the federal case and a whole web of related state court and other federal court cases outline a far-reaching and violent drug organization in which seven people, four of them members of the organization accused of cooperating with authorities, were killed as authorities succeeded in finding large amounts of marijuana and cocaine in Memphis. One of those killed had recorded conversations with one of the alleged hitmen while working with federal agents.

Latrell Small and Kalonji Griffin were killed in 2004, according to the charges, because Small, along with others, had dressed up like police officers and robbed Vacha Vaughn, a member of the Petties organization. Vaughn was shot in the attack.

Petties allegedly ordered the murder of Vaughn three years later because he believed Vaughn was cooperating with authorities. The indictment doesn't say whether Vaughn was cooperating.

Petties also lived a lavish life that included a home in Las Vegas and several apparently legitimate businesses. Authorities contend Petties was laundering drug money with the purchase of cars, real estate and other items.

PROPERTY SALES 81 277 20,909
MORTGAGES 85 329 24,074
BUILDING PERMITS 219 672 43,265
BANKRUPTCIES 64 238 13,418