“I need a Vick,” says a voice on a secretly recorded cell phone conversation.
Does that really mean 7 grams of crack? And is that kind of statement enough to prove the existence of a massive drug conspiracy?
That hypothetical scenario arose Monday on the first day of Michael Smith’s trial before Judge Robert Chatigny in U.S. District Court in Hartford.
Smith, aka “Smitty” or “Fingers,” is the third man to stand trial as part of Operation Bloodline, the largest federal criminal drug-gang sweep in state history.
The day provided the all-white jury determining a black New Havener’s fate with a primer in the A to Z of urban drug-dealing. And it brought into focus a central question in the case: Are wiretapped conversations enough evidence to prove that the participants were part of a massive drug ring?
Operation Bloodline, an 18-month investigation involving 22 wiretapped phones, came to a dramatic close in May 2012, netting 105 arrests. The feds claimed to have dismantled a massive drug ring connected to the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood’s violent Tre Bloods gang. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have argued that the government swept up small-time dealers, then used the tapes to exaggerate their roles.
Many of the Bloodline defendants have pleaded guilty. The first two men to stand trial, Tylon “Bucky” Vaughn and Michael Thompson, were found guilty in December of selling crack and weed. Seven more are set to be tried in upcoming months.
Smith, the alleged “ring leader” of one group of 19 defendants, faces two charges: A specific allegation that he sold a small amount of crack to an undercover officer on Oct. 27, 2011; and a broad accusation that he supplied a drug ring that sold more than 5 kilos of cocaine or 280 grams of crack cocaine.
Smith, who’s 43, showed up in court Monday wearing a black suit and a swirling blue tie. The third of eight siblings, Smith grew up in New Haven and has two kids. He was living with a girlfriend in Hamden before his arrest in May 2012. Five family members—his mom, dad, and two sisters, one of them cradling a child—trekked from New Haven through the dense fog to see the day’s proceedings. Sixteen jurors, five men and 11 women, filed in at 9:30 a.m. and sat in front of blank notepads.
The question lawyers began to debate Monday wasn’t whether Smith sold drugs. It was how big a dealer he was. Jurors heard two versions of Mr. Smith. One was a major supplier to drug-dealers throughout the city. The other was a low-level dealer who, when police raided his stash house, had only $2,000, in dollar bills.
V is for Vick
To lay the groundwork for the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Dave Vatti brought in an expert witness, Michael Zuk, to give the jury the primer on drugs.
Zuk came to the podium through an unusual career path: He used to be a federal prosecutor. Now he’s a special agent for the FBI. For the vocab lesson, he drew on his experience reviewing or listening to “tens of thousands” of wiretapped conversations of drug dealers in Bridgeport in New York.
Zuk (rhymes with “book”) started with the basics.
Cocaine powder. The white stuff, shipped in hard-pressed bricks, manufactured from the coca plant in South and Central America. You snort it.
Crack cocaine, or base. “A simple mixture of water, baking soda, and powder cocaine.” Once cooked, it turns into a hard cookie, which crumbles into small “pebbles” that fit into a smoking pipe. Smoking base “allows the drug to go into your lungs, into your brain,” getting you higher than powdered coke.
The regular. Drug dealers and buyers often use coded language that makes sense only in context, Zuk said. “They’re placing a reorder, like you would contact lenses.”
The other way. If a buyer usually purchases crack, “the other way” would be powdered coke. And vice versa.
Re-rock. To break up a kilo of pure cocaine, cut it with less-pure cocaine, then re-press it back into a brick with a large metal press. “You just crank the jack like you were going to” raise a car to change a tire.
Then Zuk tackled the measurement system. It’s tricky, he said, because it starts in U.S. measurements and switches to metric.
Onion. An ounce.
Half-onion. Half an ounce.
Ball. An 8-ball—an eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams, of crack. The 8-ball gets broken up into smaller pebbles for street sale. You can buy an 8-ball for $150 and re-sell it for $350, making ten or 20 bucks per rock, Zuk said.
Iverson. An 8-ball. Quantities of cocaine are often named after celebrities and athletes, Zuk explained. Allen Iverson played for the Philadelphia Sixers, and his number was 3. So “gimme an Iverson” means “please may I have 3.5 grams of crack.”
Vick. That’s Vick, as in Michael Vick, the NFL quarterbacker who did time for illegal dog-fighting. “Vick” stands for 7 grams of crack. That’s two 8-balls, if you’re counting.
“Why is Michael Vick associated with number seven?” Vatti asked Zuk.
“He wore seven,” Zuk replied. “No one is going to say, I would like 7 grams of powdered cocaine, please. They’ll say, ‘I need a Vick.’”
Other drug amounts are named after other celebrities, such as rapper 50 Cent, Zuk explained.
“You just referred to a rapper by the name of 50 Cent. Do you happen to know that individual’s name?”
“I knew it. I lost it, sorry,” Zuk said.
He did recall the name of a 62.5 grams of cocaine: Maybach. That’s named after a fancy German car, the Maybach 62 (pictured at the top of this story).
When drugs weigh over an ounce, Zuk explained, the terminology switches to the metric system, because the drugs are shipped by the kilo from Central and South America. Sixty-two and a half grams of coke is a sixteenth of a kilo.
Different “Onion” Varieties
Smith’s lawyer cast doubt over how reliably the expert’s lesson can be applied to the courtroom, where a guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Smith is being represented by Diane Polan, a crusading, 62-year-old criminal defense lawyer from New Haven. Polan, the only woman among a dozen government and court officials, changed out of rain boots and slipped on dress shoes before addressing the court.
She warned against extrapolating too much from coded conversations on a wire.
If you just hear someone say “I need a Vick,” she said, how would you know which drug they were talking about?
You can’t know, she argued, until you directly intercept the drug. That, of course, could blow an investigation.
“Onion” “often means an ounce,” she noted, but “you can’t tell what drug they’re talking about, can you?”
“Just those words, divorced from everything else, no,” Zuk said. But an investigator could, through listening through many recorded conversations, figure out the quantity and type of drugs used, Zuk argued. He said he isn’t familiar with the facts of this case—he works in Bridgeport now—but in his opinion, it is possible to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a crime based on wiretapped conversations.
A Big Fish?
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Silverman gave jurors a hint of the evidence against Smith.
Silverman stood straight, wearing a black suit and wide-striped socks. In a gesture of confidence, he left his printed notes behind as he approached the jury, reciting his opening statement from memory.
Standing before the jury, Silverman gestured towards his target.
“He was the ringleader of a drug-trafficking ring of cocaine and crack in the New Haven area,” Silverman said, pointing an accusatory finger toward the defendant.
He outlined the arc of the government’s investigation.
The New Haven police first approached the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in December 2010 in response to an uptick in crime. They focused on investigating drug dealing in certain areas. In its initial stages, the probe focused on a man named Robert Lee, according to Silverman. Lee (the son of former Alderman Robert Lee, Jr.) was caught selling crack to undercover officers four times, according to court documents.
Using wiretapped phones, police noted that Robert Lee had “frequent contact” with Smith via cell phone. The probe then shifted focus to Smith as an alleged supplier to Lee’s operation.
Lee was initially going to stand trial next to Smith. Then he and another defendant pleaded guilty right before the trial began. They won’t be testifying against Smith, according to prosecutors.
On Oct. 27, 2011, an undercover officer bought 6.6 grams of crack from Smith, Silverman said. When police arrested Smith the following May, they recovered the phone that had shown “frequent contact” with Lee. Smith also had the keys to 456 Lombard St., an apartment in Fair Haven. Police searched the apartment and seized alleged drug packing paraphernalia and $2,000 in dollar bills. They concluded it had served as the that “headquarters” of the drug-trafficking operation. Later, they seized three bank accounts Smith had been using, despite having reported no income to the IRS, Silverman said.
The prosecution plans to bring forward one witness, a man who bought cocaine from Smith and lived above the alleged drug headquarters on Lombard Street, Silverman said. Prosecutors also plan to play conversations secretly recorded through wiretapped phone lines and body wires. And they plan to bring in the drugs and drug paraphernalia seized in various raids. This will all add up, Silverman argued, to show that Smith is guilty of supplying drugs to a wider ring of co-conspirators.
After Silverman finished, Polan approached the jurors.
“Don’t be fooled,” she said.
The government may have evidence that Smith sold a small amount of cocaine, she conceded. But there is “no real, solid evidence” connecting him to a larger conspiracy. Instead, she said, “they’re going to try to convince you of guilt by association.”
She tried to get the judge to throw out evidence of undercover agents buying drugs from Lee, arguing that the connection to Smith was too tenuous. Judge Chatigny declined to do so.
As for whether the wiretaps are enough to prove Smith guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? That’s for the jury to decide, he said.
Past Independent stories on Bloodline trials:
• 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