Michael Smith rented six cars in four and a half months.
Was he an automotive enthusiast? Or was he going under cover to move kilos of cocaine through city streets as part of a dangerous drug ring?
Those questions emerged Thursday in Judge Robert Chatigny’s federal courtroom in Hartford, where jurors are weighing the fate of one of the last remaining defendants arrested through 2012’s Operation Bloodline. The state’s largest criminal sweep in state history, Operation Bloodline targeted crack and cocaine drug rings in New Haven’s Dwight-Kensington and Fair Haven neighborhoods.
The questions added a new twist to an ongoing challenge emerging in the courtroom this week: How, in the absence of catching a dealer in the act of selling lots of drugs, to prove that he is a big-time supplier. Earlier this week, the government used some new math, street-lingo translation, wiretapped phone conversations and recovered text messages to try to paint that picture. Thursday, the conversation turned to rental cars and baking soda.
The defendant, 43-year-old Michael Smith, faces 10 years to life in prison on drug-selling and drug-conspiracy charges. He was one of 105 people arrested in the operation, which police claimed dismantled a large and dangerous drug operation in New Haven affiliated with the Bloods gang.
So far, over 90 defendants have pleaded guilty. Two were found guilty by trial. Five, in addition to Smith, are heading to trial this month. Charges were dropped against a few others.
To win a guilty verdict against Smith, the government is trying to prove two accusations: That Smith sold 6.6 grams of crack to a cooperating government witness on Oct. 27, 2011; and that he took part in a broader conspiracy that distributed at least 5 kilos of cocaine, or 280 grams of crack, between January 2011 and May 2012.
Defense Attorney Diane Polan intends to argue that even if Smith was a small-time dealer—she has not conceded in court that he was—the government doesn’t have enough evidence to prove he moved a large amount of drugs.
The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Marc Silverman and S. Dave Vatti, on Monday, they used an expert witness from the FBI to give jurors a vocab lesson in the ABCs of street drugs. On Wednesday, they plunged into some of the 3,100 recorded calls and texts the government deemed pertinent to Smith’s alleged drug-dealing.
On Thursday, they presented new evidence about rental cars and an alleged stash house that aimed to corroborate a picture suggested by the coded wiretapped conversations: That Smith was running a robust drug-dealing operation. Again, Special Agent Eric Ndrenika of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, who led Operation Bloodline, served as the government’s witness and jurors’ guide through the evidence.
Ndrenika recounted how his team of federal and local cops got warrants to attach GPS tracking devices to Smith’s cars. Six cars.
Smith had six rental cars in four and a half months. Prosecutors didn’t explicitly draw conclusions in court—conclusions will likely come in closing arguments Monday. But the implication was made clear by a previous witness. An FBI witness testified Monday that drug-dealers often change cars to avoid detection from police and others who might raid their stash.
Ndrenika’s DEA task force, which included federal agents and local cops, slapped GPS devices onto six cars. The warrants lasted 45 days, but in most cases, the cops didn’t need to use the warrant for that long, because Smith swapped out cars.
Ndrenika said cops snuck into Smith’s driveway and a parking lot to hide the monitors on his cars. The first one was a burgundy Ford Taurus (like the one pictured at the top of the story). Smith also owned a white Acura and a black Range Rover. In one case, cops put the device on one of Smith’s cars while he was working out at a gym in a strip mall, Ndrenika said.
In cross-examination, Polan suggested cops didn’t know why Smith was trading cars so frequently. Maybe he had one-month rental contracts. Did Ndrenika review his rental contracts? No, he replied.
The GPS tracked Smith’s movements for four and a half months, from December 2011 to April 2012, Ndrenika said.
With a hidden GPS, “we’re able to track the vehicle’s movement throughout the day and night, 24-7,” he testified.
“Were there locations to which Mr. Smith regularly traveled?” Silverman asked.
Yes, Ndrenika said.
Ndrenika said the GPS showed him staying at his girlfriend’s house at 70 High Top Circle in Hamden every night. Every morning, he would head to Apartment 102 at 456 Lombard St., a brick building in Fair Haven that used to be the Ezekiel Cheever School.
Smith followed a regular routine: He would spend some time at 456 Lombard, leave, return to 456 Lombard in the late afternoon, then head back to Hamden to sleep.
At Polan’s urging, the government refrained from calling the apartment a stash house. But the implication was clear.
In cross-examination, Polan offered another interpretation: 456 Lombard wasn’t a stash house. It was Smith’s apartment. He paid rent there. Sometimes guys have one apartment where they live and another place where they stay at night with a girlfriend, she offered.
Ndrenika didn’t buy it.
Ndrenika testified that a cooperating witness—who is not testifying in this trial—bought 6.6 grams of crack from him while wearing a body wire. But the agent conceded that despite watching Smith for months, police never observed him making a hand-to-hand buy.
Attorney Silverman noted that seeing a drug deal in action is difficult.
“Is it fair to say that surveillance officers can’t see through walls?” he asked Ndrenika.
Yes, Ndrenika said. They can’t see into dark places, or behind buildings, either.
To further its “stash house” theory, the government let jurors see what was behind the door on one special day, dubbed the Takedown Day. That was May 22, 2012, the day a wide network of cops from New Haven and beyond teamed up to round up the alleged participants in the Bloodline scheme.
Meriden Police Sgt. Christopher Fry came into town for the occasion, as did other cops from nearby towns. On the witness stand, he recounted conducting a search and seizure warrant on Smith’s Lombard Street apartment.
As photos flashed before jurors’ monitors, Fry outlined the bounty collected at Smith’s apartment:
• 3 Pyrex cups
• One big box of baking soda
• Several small plastic bags
• A digital scale
• A hot plate.
• About $2,000, most of it in bundles of dollar bills, bound with rubber bands.
To the government’s eye, these are all clear signs of a drug den—they are objects typically used to cook and package crack cocaine, according to the government’s FBI-agent witness. But at Polan’s urging, Fry was not permitted to describe the goods as drug paraphernalia. He said that police went into the house to search for drugs and drug paraphernalia, and seized these things. Police can seize any amount of money if they have probable cause to believe it resulted from the sale of narcotics, according to Ndrenika.
Other police seized Smith’s bank accounts and found a total of $6,100.
Polan downplayed the bounty as ordinary items people have in their kitchens. She picked up a big box of baking soda and walked it over to the stand where Sgt. Fry was sitting. She asked him he had ever tried to lift it to see how full it was.
Fry said he hadn’t—he was afraid to touch it without wearing gloves.
At Polan’s request, he held the box in his hands Thursday.
Does it feel full? Polan asked—implying that it was barely used.
Fry said it felt like it could have been full, though he didn’t know for sure.
Attorney Vatti later brought the box to the front again for reexamination.
Is the seal broken? he asked Fry.
Yes, it was, Fry testified.
Polan seized every inch she could in her quest to downplay the evidence. At one point, Vatti held up a bag of evidence. He said it used to contain three Pyrex containers. Now shards of glass were protruding from the bag. He asked Fry if the bag contained two intact Pyrex containers and one shattered one. Fry said yes.
Polan objected. She held up the bag for close inspection. The evidence—which had been broken in transit or in storage—was too damaged for her to properly see three Pyrexes, she said.
Vatti agreed to label the evidence it simply as “Pyrex containers,” without specifying that there had been three.
“White Chunks” Thrown Out The Window
Officer David Rivera, a New Haven cop, also testified about a wild ride on Jan. 18, 2012, in which he chased after an associate Smith had just dealt with.
In a recorded phone call on that date, a voice Ndrenika identified as Tyrell Gary (a co-defendant in this case) called Smith’s phone to “see if I could get like 28.” Then Gary upped his order: “give me 42.”
“I gotta do the math on that.. um … let me see, um, hold on, um. 16 even,” a voice Ndrenika identified as Smith replied.
The two arranged to meet at Winchester and Lilac in Newhallville.
Rivera testified that he knew the deal was about to go down. Ndrenika dispatched him to pull Gary over after the deal for identification purposes. Rivera didn’t aim to arrest him, just see who he was.
Rivera saw Gary fail to put on his turn signal as he made a turn. Rivera flipped on the lights on a police cruiser and tried to pull him over. Gary, however, kept driving—and led Rivera on a pursuit, chucking “white chunks” out the window as he drove.
The “white chunks” turned out to be crack cocaine, Rivera testified. Gary was arrested on narcotics and driving charges—charges that were later dropped when he was prosecuted federally for the drug-dealing conspiracy.
After the episode, Smith stopped using the cell phone he had used to arrange a deal with Gary. Smith started making calls on a separate phone “to all of his customers,” Ndrenika explained.
Polan objected: It’s not fair to call them “customers.”
That’s a conclusion extrapolated from the data, she argued—not a hard fact.
Past Independent stories on Operation Bloodline:
• TXT From B.O. To Big Dog: “14s 36h”
• Bloodline Jurors Learn The Drug-Dealing ABCs
• YouTube, Facebook Helped Bust The Bloods
• Biggs’ Jailhouse Plea: Don’t Believe The Rap
• Wiley Don Raps Feds From Prison
• “Bloodline” Cop Wiretapped Sister’s Boyfriends
• Guilty Verdict In “Bloodline” Trial
• Bloodline Defense Lawyers: That’s All You’ve Got?
• Drug Trade’s “Great White Hope” Grilled
• “Bloodline” Trail Leads To White Boy Chris
• Judge To Feds: Fix Your “2nd Class” Mess
• “Top” Blood, Rapper’s Pal, Pleads Not Guilty
• Feds Indict 105 In Tre Bloods Probe
• “Operation Bloodline” Nets Alleged 61 Tre Bloods