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VOL. 126 | NO. 38 | Thursday, February 24, 2011

Drug Case Gets Stranger With Plea Revelation

By Bill Dries

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It is not unusual in Memphis federal court for a grand jury indictment to be sealed by a judge. And there are times when a guilty plea may be sealed.

But the revelation this week that alleged drug kingpin Craig Petties pleaded guilty over a year ago to 19 counts including murder for hire charges in Memphis federal court is unusual.

The case that began in 2002 with 600 pounds of marijuana in a house with Petties in the Riverview-Kansas part of South Memphis has been unusual in many other ways.

The sealing of the guilty plea was part of a larger pattern of secrecy and sealed documents surrounding the largest drug case ever brought in Memphis federal court.

The allegations in seven sets of indictments since 2002 name 40 people including the indicted and those not charged in the case.

The six murders in the indictment also make it the most violent drug case ever tried in the jurisdiction.

Several of those murdered were killed because they were cooperating with federal investigators or because they were suspected of cooperating with authorities.

Because of that, prosecutors argued the sealing of documents and proceedings was necessary to protect the safety of others who were still cooperating.

That has included three unnamed confidential informants who, according to court documents, were members of the drug organization including one who kept a journal of drug transactions.

Petties pleaded guilty Dec. 8, 2009, in a closed hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays. No details of a plea deal or of what Petties said in court were included in the docket listing of the guilty plea.

It had been about two years since Petties was captured in Mexico after being on the run there for six years and running the Memphis-based drug operation largely by cell phone.

At the time of the plea, then-U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi was weighing recommendations to the U.S. Justice Department on seeking the federal death penalty.

Mays had appointed additional legal counsel for Petties and four of his eight codefendants at the outset in anticipation of such a decision. The additional attorneys were all capital counsel, meaning they were specifically qualified for death penalty cases.

Laurenzi met with the attorneys for the other four codefendants a week after Petties pleaded guilty.

The matter then went to Justice Department officials in Washington who make the ultimate decision in such cases. In a formal process called “mitigation” they heard from prosecutors as well as attorneys for the defendants who were allowed to argue that their clients’ backgrounds and other mitigating factors should be considered.

In July 2010 the Justice Department notified the attorneys for the four codefendants – Demetrious Fields, Clarence Broady, Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis – that the government would not seek the death penalty.

Petties’ Memphis attorney, Ross Sampson, said he had received a notice from the Justice Department as well, but neither he nor prosecutors would say anything about the notice.

Attorneys for the other four codefendants have complained about the secrecy at times.

The case involves more than a violent multi-state drug ring making millions of dollars for bringing tons of cocaine and marijuana into the region.

Petties was part of the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel, according to the affidavit of a federal drug agent that is part of the case file. At the time of his capture, the cartel has splintered in a bloody feud between the Beltran-Leyva family and international drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman.

Mexican authorities have said Petties was doing more than hiding in Mexico. They allege he was working closely with the Beltran-Leyva family, helping it improve the drug operation.

One Mexican news service reported the druglords paid a Mexican national to infiltrate the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to feed them information from the embassy on the U.S. search for Petties.

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