“White Boy Chris” confessed to moving millions of dollars’ worth of drugs, including 40 kilos of cocaine and thousands of oxycodone pills, as part of New Haven’s notorious “Operation Bloodline” case.
Freeman Bethea admitting buying 7 grams of cocaine every other day, half of which he used to feed his habit.
The two men have something in common: They both testified in court against their former associates in different trials as part of Operation Bloodline, 2012’s federal criminal sweep that resulted in 105 narcotics arrests, the largest such sting in state history.
There the similarities end—forcing the government to make two different kinds of cases.
“White Boy Chris,” aka Chris Morley, served as the government’s star witness last month in the cases of Michael Thompson and Tylon “Bucky” Vaughn, the first two Bloodline defendants to stand trial. (They were found guilty.)
Freeman Bethea served as the government’s witness this past Friday in the case of Michael Smith, who’s on trial in Hartford federal court for allegedly supplying drugs to a separate group of 20 Bloodline defendants.
In each respective trial, Morley and Bethea played a singular role: They were the only co-defendants who agreed to tell on their former associates in court.
Stark differences between the two witnesses emerged Friday, differences that speak to a central challenge in Smith’s case: How do you prove someone is a big-time drug dealer when none of the major players in his circle will cooperate?
That challenge falls to two prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Marc Silverman and S. Dave Vatti. Silverman and Vatti faced similar scenarios in the two trials: They worked with thousands of recorded calls and texts from 22 wiretapped phones, then attempted to corroborate coded conversations with evidence from police surveillance. In both cases, defense attorneys argued that their clients may have sold a small amount of drugs, but there’s not enough evidence to prove a conspiracy amounting to 5 kilos of cocaine or 280 grams of crack.
In December’s trial, with star witness White Boy Chris dishing dirt on his fellow drug-dealers, Silverman and Vatti convinced jurors that Thompson and Vaughn were guilty. In Smith’s case, which is set to wrap up this week in Hartford before U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny, they’re missing a major ingredient: There is no major player taking the stand to help jurors decode cryptic phrases caught on tape.
Instead of a White Boy Chris, they have Freeman.
Freeman, as he calls himself on secretly recorded conversations, walked into court Friday wearing a brown sweater, dark-rimmed glasses, and slacks. The 57-year-old, who grew up in North Carolina and New Haven, confessed that he was feeling hungry. He had refrained from smoking marijuana that day because he knew he had to testify in court.
He smokes a joint every day, he testified, in order to be able to stomach HIV medicines that he has been taking for the past decade. If he doesn’t smoke, he said, the meds make him feel so nauseated that he can’t keep down any food. He said he has a doctor’s permission to use the marijuana. He said he has been living on state aid for 15 years.
Freeman, who had a had a gentle, humble demeanor on the stand, testified that he has been addicted to cocaine for 35 years. In the time period that this case concerns—January 2011 to May 2012—he was living on Social Security disability income and food stamps. He rented a $900 apartment on Fair Haven’s Lombard Street. His entire Social Security check went to pay his rent to his landlord, who was also his drug supplier, he said. His daughter would help him pay food. He bought the drugs on credit, he said, and often ended up in debt.
Freeman presented the picture of an addict who has been worn down by drugs.
White Boy Chris, by contrast, rode the drug trade to a life of wealth and glamor: In his heyday, he told the court, he moved millions of dollars’ worth of drugs. He “partied, gambled, lived the lifestyle, had many girlfriends.” White Boy Chris lived in middle-class Upper Westville, a block from former Mayor John DeStefano’s house.
Their portraits emerged in questioning on the stand in their respective trials.
White Boy Chris: Entered a life of crime at the age of 12. Once sold $1.4 million-worth of hot diamonds on 47th Street in New York. In his late 20s, set up a drug operation with $10,000 seed money from his stepfather. Owned a nightclub between 2001 and 2004, and avoided liquor taxes by pouring tax-free booze into taxable bottles. As a bail bondsman, went to prison for pocketing bond money that was supposed to go to insurance companies. Made tens of thousands of dollars taking bets on football games. Perpetrated insurance fraud at a North Haven car dealership where he worked.
Freeman: Has a criminal history dating back to 1977, mostly misdemeanors. Most of the offenses stem from domestic violence incidents between “me and my girlfriends.” Once, he got caught for criminal impersonation. He wasn’t masterminding an insurance fraud scheme: He was trying to duck East Haven cops for driving without a license. He said in 1994, he was driving through East Haven in a car with a hood that wouldn’t properly close. At that time, you didn’t want to get caught driving in East Haven, he noted: cops there would “pull you over for anything.” When he got pulled over, he gave cops his friend’s name, Thomas Robinson. Why? He knew his friend had a driver’s license. He didn’t.
What He Dealt
White Boy Chris: Admitted to smuggling kilos of cocaine from New York City, FedEx-ing pounds of marijuana from California, and shipping oxycodone pills hidden in stuffed animals from Florida. Over the course of six years, he moved 40 kilos of cocaine, he testified. He had as many as 46 different bank accounts, through which he filtered about $2.5 million in drug money, according to the government.
Freeman: Bought 7 grams of powdered cocaine every other day. Each package cost $250 or $300. He would keep half of the cocaine for himself, to smoke. The other half, he would repackage and sell in little bags worth $20, $25, and $50. His goal in selling drugs, he said, was only to scrape together enough money to buy the next order.
What He Knew
White Boy Chris laid out the details of his entire operation, including Vaughn and Thompson’s roles in the ring. Vaughn and Thompson sold crack and other drugs for him, he said. He listened to wiretapped conversations and recounted drug deals for jurors. He testified to selling 2 kilos of cocaine to Thompson, and about 100 grams to Vaughn.
Freeman testified that he bought drugs from Smith on four or five occasions. Each time, he paid $300 for 7 grams of powdered cocaine. In total, that would be 28 to 35 grams. He said he bought the drugs from Smith at 456 Lombard, where they both rented apartments. Freeman lived on the second floor; Smith rented an apartment on the first. Freeman’s knowledge of Smith’s drug operation amounted to this: He saw Smith arrive every morning at around 9 a.m., leave around 11 a.m., come back around 7 p.m., and then go somewhere else to sleep every night. He said he never saw inside Smith’s apartment—which the government has characterized as a stash house.
Freeman also tied Smith to another player, a man named Hernan Varon. Varon—who has pleaded not guilty and is headed to trial at an as-yet-unscheduled date—owned Marketa, a deli and sub shop at 180 Temple St., across from the Omni in downtown New Haven..
Freeman said he was in Marketa one day in 2008 when he met Smith for the first time. Freeman was there to buy drugs from Varon.
“I was waiting for Varon to reup,” he recounted, “to give me another bundle.”
Smith, aka “Smitty” or “Fingers,” was waiting for Varon, too.
“They went in the back of the store,” Freeman recalled. Then Smith “came back out with a bulge in his pants, and he left.”
Prosecutors brought Freeman Bethea to combat a theory that defense attorney Diane Polan has been proffering: That maybe Smith was just visiting Varon’s store to pay his rent.
The “bulge in his pants” suggests otherwise. But Freeman said he didn’t actually see the drugs. Nor did he ever see Smith deal drugs at 456 Lombard St., except to him, he said.
What He Faces
Both White Boy Chris and Freeman testified in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence on narcotics charges they face.
White Boy Chris faces 14 to 17 years in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines.
Freeman faces 30 to 37 months.
Both are hoping that based on their cooperation, the government will submit a 5k 1.1 motion that could help them get less than their recommended sentence. There are no guarantees: The final call is up to the sentencing judge.
The differences between the two witnesses speak to a vast difference in the level of proof the government has in the two cases, Polan said in a conversation outside court.
If you believe their testimony, White Boy Chris was leading a drug ring, while Freeman “was basically a customer,” buying “very small amounts of powdered cocaine,” Polan said.
At most, Freeman’s testimony shows that Smith sold 35 grams of powdered cocaine, she said.
“That’s the best they got.”
The judge didn’t allow the White Boy Chris-Freeman comparison in court Friday. But he did allow lawyers to debate the central point—whether there’s enough evidence to prove Smith was a big-time dealer—outside of jurors’ ears. The discussion served as an impromptu sneak preview of each side’s closing arguments, which are set to take place Monday.
The jury is tasked with determining Smith’s guilt on two counts: A specific charge that Smith sold 6.6 grams of crack to a cooperating government witness on Oct. 27, 2011; and a broad charge that he took part in a conspiracy that distributed at least 5 kilos of cocaine, or 280 grams of crack, between January 2011 and May 2012.
In the discussion, both sides revealed their answers to a central math problem in the case: How do the 105 recorded calls and text played in court, plus a handful of controlled purchases of drugs, add up to 5 kilos of cocaine or 280 grams of crack?
Prosecutors need to reach that numerical goal in order to convince jurors to convict Smith of a conspiracy charge that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Polan challenged the prosecution to reveal its math through a last-minute motion common in criminal trials: After the government rested its case, she asked the judge to toss out the charges based on insufficient evidence.
“There really is not the evidence that you typically see in a conspiracy case,” she said—“no evidence of anyone working for Mr. Smith, nor him working for anyone else.”
Except for two cases—Tyrell Gary, who fled from cops and tossed “white chunks” of crack out the window of his car, shortly after ordering “42” from Smith and meeting up with Smith in Newhallville; and Bethea, who admitted to buying at most 35 grams of powdered cocaine—“there’s no evidence of drugs, either,” Polan said.
In months of surveillance, cops heard Smith setting up suspicious-sounding meetings, then saw him meet people behind closed doors—but they never saw him actually sell drugs, except for one controlled purchase of 6.6 grams of crack.
Silverman announced he could solve the drug-math problem, at least with respect to crack cocaine.
Start with Robert Lee, he said. Lee—an associate of Smith’s caught on the wire arranging deals with him—has pleaded guilty to selling three ounces of crack cocaine, or 84 grams. The government attributes these drugs to Smith’s conspiracy, while Polan argues they happened before the government substantiated that Lee knew Smith…
+ several half-onions (half-ounces) that Smith talks about picking up for a co-defendant named Anthony Brown.
+ some more “Curtises”—50 grams of crack—sold to another man named Anthony Moore.
+ one “big boy,” or 100 grams of crack, also allegedly sold to Moore.
+ the crack found at Lee’s house in the raid, and the 6.6 grams a cooperating witness bought from Smith.
“The jury could add up these quantities and easily surpass the 280 grams,” Silverman asserted. (He didn’t show his work.)
He offered one equation for powdered cocaine: 5 kilos = “a whole one for 34” + “snow white” for 24 + baby powder (multiple references) + cocaine seized from Tyrell Gary.
Polan called that fuzzy math.
“I don’t see how a jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt, 5 kilos of cocaine,” she argued.
“Inchoate references to snow white and baby powder” should not be considered hard numbers, she said. The phrases Silverman referred to don’t refer to drugs seized; they are words heard on the wire, followed by meetings observed by cops.
As for crack cocaine?
Polan said the only crack in her math equation are Lee’s sales in April, plus 6.6 grams her client got caught with. She started tallying them in her mental calculator.
As she stalled for a moment, Smith provided her the number: 88.6 grams.
Even if you consider wiretapped conversations as proof of drugs sold, you still don’t know how much was sold, she argued.
“The jury would have to be speculating to get from that 88.6 grams of crack” to “the threshold of 280 grams,” she said.
Silverman countered that Moore and Lee make clear references to crack on the wire, including this text from Lee: “14s 36h,” where “s” stands for “soft.”
“The jury may” reach 280 without speculating “even a little bit,” Silverman declared.
He did concede that jurors may have more difficulty finding numbers that add up to 5 kilos of cocaine.
So he asked the judge to offer a menu option of lesser charges. Jurors will get to choose if Smith is guilty of conspiracy to sell:
• 5 kilos of cocaine (Punishment: Mandatory minimum 10 years in the slammer.)
• 500 grams of cocaine (5 years minimum).
• Less than 500 grams of cocaine.
• 280 grams of crack. (Punishment: Mandatory minimum 10 years.)
• 28 grams (5 years minimum).
• Less than 28 grams.
Jurors will read that menu—and do their own drug math—when they begin deliberations, which could be as soon as Monday afternoon.
Past Independent stories on Operation Bloodline:
• 6 Rental Cars + 1 Stash House = Big Drug Dealer?
• 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