Drug trial witness helps effort to convict ex-friends

U.S. prosecutors say men were members of gang

March 06, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The four young men had grown up together in West Baltimore's troubled Lexington Terrace housing project and considered each other "homeboys," the kinds of friends who were as close as family, who watched out for one another on the street and who stayed in touch even from jail.

In Baltimore's federal courthouse this week, the relationship was much different.

Three of the men sat at the defense table, facing drug conspiracy charges that could mean life in prison or - for two of the men - a possible death sentence. The fourth, Aaron Butler, was on the witness stand, helping prosecutors try to convict his former friends.

During three days of testimony, Butler provided jurors with blunt details about a string of shootings, homicides and efforts at witness intimidation that federal prosecutors say were the work of the loose-knit, exceedingly violent gang known as the Lexington Terrace Boys.

Describing one alleged retaliatory killing that authorities said was carried out by defendant Aaron "Turk" Foster in 1999, Butler told jurors: "He wanted to take care of the situation. ... He wanted to find out who did it and kill him."

Afterward, according to Butler, Foster took credit for the killing, telling him, "Yo, man, I took care of that."

Jurors also heard recordings of Butler visiting another defendant, Michael "Mike Mumbles" Taylor, in the city detention center. On the tapes, the two can be heard discussing a friend from the neighborhood, Travis Burley, who disappeared in spring 2002, and who authorities say was killed by Taylor.

"Yo, I done thought you probably [just] beat Shorty [Burley] up or something," Butler said on the tapes. "Damn. I mean, damn."

Amid the din of the jail's visiting room, Taylor's comments suggest the death weighed on him.

"Every time I go to sleep, I can't get it out of my mind, yo," Taylor said on the tapes. "That [expletive] be keepin' me up sometimes at night, yo."

Butler is considered the government's chief cooperator. His testimony, infused with street lingo and firsthand accounts from his days selling crack cocaine in the streets near the now-razed Lexington Terrace high rises, strung together for jurors the six homicides that prosecutors have laid out in six weeks of trial.

The government's case could conclude Monday. The trial is expected to continue at least through the month.

Defense lawyers sought openings in Butler's testimony. The neighborhood drug business as he described it was a fluid one, with shifting alliances and partnerships. Attorneys for Taylor, Foster and co-defendant Keon "Black" Moses have argued throughout the case that while their clients sold drugs as independent "free-lancers," they were not part of a conspiracy as charged by the government.

The attorneys also attacked Butler as an unreliable witness willing to lie to stay out of jail for his drug arrests.

William B. Purpura, who represents Foster, challenged Butler's word by noting that he had repeatedly reneged on state court plea deals - agreeing not to commit other crimes, then returning to the streets to sell drugs.

"You didn't care [about breaking the plea deal], did you?" Purpura asked Butler.

"It wasn't on my mind at the time," Butler replied.

Defense attorneys focused on Butler's arrest in February last year, at which point he had been working with the government for almost a year as authorities prepared the case against the Lexington Terrace Boys. A city police officer arrested Butler after watching him repeatedly collect money from a woman who appeared to be making drug sales to motorists, according to a police report.

When arrested, Butler had $785 in cash on him. He testified this week it was money from his girlfriend's income tax return.

Defense attorneys noted that Butler had been provided with $30,953 in government assistance, including rent, food and other items, in the roughly 18 months he has worked as a cooperating witness. Among the expenses that are being paid for by the FBI is rent for an apartment in an undisclosed location, where Butler, his girlfriend and his child have been living to protect their safety in a case marked by witness intimidation.

On the stand this week, Butler described how in his old life on the streets he once went looking for a possible witness in an old state case against Foster. The plan, Butler said, was to pay the man or otherwise persuade him not to testify.

"We already knew that he was an addict or whatever, so our intentions were to give him some money and talk to him or whatever," Butler testified. "But if it had gone further, I can't say what would have happened."

In court, prosecutors said Butler this week found himself on the other end. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie A. Gallagher said that a juvenile who had been watching the trial in the courtroom gallery was detained after he located a window into the witness room during a trial break and began making threatening gestures toward Butler.

Earlier in the case, another courtroom spectator was detained and charged after he allegedly pointed his fingers in the shape of a gun and pointed from the gallery toward another government witness, Tavon Brown.

During his testimony, Butler said he was uncertain what his future held.

"The best I can hope for is to get away from all this," he said. "Find a new life for my kid, just get away."

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