TAMPA, Fla. -- Minnesota Vikings kicker Donald Igwebuike pumped his fists in the air and broke into tears yesterday when a federal jury acquitted him in a scheme to import $1 million worth of heroin from his native Nigeria.
"It's been rough -- I went through hell," a teary-eyed Igwebuike said as he puffed a victory cigar outside the federal courthouse.
Defense attorney Frank Winkles blasted the government's case for relying on the testimony of convicted heroin smugglers and secretly recorded phone conversations full of oblique references in which the player was alleged to be talking about drugs.
The verdict followed a two-week trial that focused on the relationship between Igwebuike and two Nigerian friends who pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme.
Ibezim Ofedu agreed to cooperate with authorities, recording several phone conversations with Igwebuike that became the cornerstone of thegovernment's case.
Drugs are not specifically mentioned on the scratchy tapes, spoken mostly in the Nigerian language Ibo, but they show Igwebuike referring to numbers that coincide with the numbers of heroin packets seized in the case:
"How many are they?" Igwebuike asks on the tape. "So he had 31. . . . OK, 30 would amount to how much?"
Ofedu testified that the football player directed him to pick up the drugs from Madawuba Ibekwe in Tampa, sell them in New York and then bring Igwebuike the profits in Philadelphia, where the kicker was to play a game.
And Igwebuike himself, in four hours of testimony, charged the government twisted innocent phone conversations to link him to the smuggling scheme.
"I have never been involved in any heroin deal," Igwebuike testified during the trial, "and I would never ask someone else to participate in something like that."
Those numbers mentioned on the tape had nothing to do with heroin packets, Igwebuike explained, they were just Nigerian shorthand for the $310 or $300 the player expected to receive from Ibekwe as pay back on a loan.
"Nigerians don't use zeros,' he said. "That's the way Nigerians talk."