A text message flashed across a courtroom monitor on the second day of a trial stemming from New Haven’s biggest-ever drug-gang investigation.
“14s 36h,” the text read.
“Don’t have that much,” came the reply.
Thus began a laborious mathematical challenge: To piece together hundreds of intercepted phone calls and messages in effort to add up to at least 5 kilos of cocaine or 280 grams of crack.
The piecing together began Wednesday in Judge Robert Chatigny’s federal courtroom in Hartford. It was the second day of the trial of Michael Smith, one of 105 people arrested in 2012’s Operation Bloodline, the largest federal criminal sweep in Connecticut, which targeted crack and cocaine drug rings in New Haven’s Dwight-Kensington and Fair Haven neighborhoods.
Smith, who’s 43, faces 10 years to life in prison on two charges: a specific charge that he sold a small amount of crack cocaine to a cooperating government witness, and a broad charge that he participated in a larger conspiracy.
Smith’s defense attorney, New Haven lawyer Diane Polan (pictured outside the courtroom), intends to argue that even if Smith sold drugs on one occasion, there’s no evidence he was participating in a large conspiracy.
To prove Smith guilty, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Marc Silverman and S. Dave Vatti need to meet a numerical goal: Show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Smith was involved in a drug ring that distributed at least 5 kilos of cocaine, or 280 grams of crack.
The math began in court Wednesday, displayed on various video monitors in the pyramidal courtroom. Silverman took jurors through dozens of wiretapped cell phone conversations and intercepted text messages. Special Agent Eric Ndrenika of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, who led Operation Bloodline, served as the guide.
To attempt its mathematical proof, the prosecution is drawing on the following numbers:
• 5 months. How long the government spent secretly listening to Smith’s phone calls.
• 3 phones. How many cell phones the government tapped that were allegedly used by Smith.
• Over 200,000. The number of wiretapped recordings from the entire Operation Bloodline trial.
• 3,100. The number of recordings the government deemed pertinent to a drug conspiracy associated with Smith.
• 130. The number of recordings the government has chosen to play in court as a representative sample. That’s 115 wiretapped phone calls plus 15 conversations recorded either by body-wire or by one-party consent on the phone.
• January 2011 to May 2012: The time period of the alleged conspiracy.
To tally up the amount of drugs sold, the prosecution is working with snippets of conversation overheard on the wire. The numbers appear in coded language. To succeed at its mathematical quest, the government will need to convince jurors to make deductions from language they hear, translating slang like “Vick” into a quantity of drugs (in this case, 7 grams). To facilitate that translation, the government led the all-white jury through a primer on the ABCs of drugs on Monday. (There was no court on Tuesday due to the weather.)
“Get Me A Half Onion”
Jurors spent the entire day Wednesday listening to audio recordings such as this one:
“I’m about to cook me some cube steak. … Could you go to the store and get me a half onion?” said one voice on the wire.
“Yes,” came the reply.
One day later:
“Mommy is cooking some liver … Mommy said bring, bring a half onion,” the chef asked.
“All right, tell mommy I be there,” came the reply.
Ndrenika identified the onion-requester as Anthony Brown, aka “Rassconi,” a co-defendant in the trial. The onion-fetcher was Smith. He made that conclusion after having observed them and recognizing the voices, he said. Ndrenika was prohibited from interpreting the coded words on the tapes; he simply identified the voices, numbers, and dates and times.
Monday’s vocab lesson offered an interpretation: “Onion” often refers to an ounce of crack or powdered cocaine. (Another tip-off: Who buys just half an onion at a store?)
An ounce of crack is no small amount, prosecutors suggested. Undercover police paid $1,200 to buy an ounce of crack cocaine from Robert Lee, Smith’s alleged right-hand man, according to court testimony. Lee, who has pleaded guilty in this case, was caught four times selling drugs to undercover police between April and July of 2011.
Defense Attorney Polan noted in court Monday that “onion” could refer to anything. Even if it refers to one ounce of cocaine—as prosecutors have suggested—the government still has to prove what kind of drugs were being sold, she said.
Jurors heard conversations between Smith and seven men with whom he appeared to be arranging deals. The prosecution’s goal is to identify Smith not just as a small-time dealer, but as a significant supplier to other others.
“Curtis” = 50 Cent = 50 grams of coke?
Some were cryptic.
“Curtis me,” asked one person calling Smith’s phone.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Did you get it… Curtis. Babypowerder” came a subsequent text message.
Referring to the government’s A to Z drug primer, “Curtis” stands for “Curtis Jackson,” aka the rapper 50 Cent. That could stand for 50 grams of cocaine, but prosecutors didn’t specify what the 50 stands for. The above exchange took place between Smith and a dealer named Anthony Moore, Ndrenika testified.
Many of the conversations played in court involved Lee, who lived in West Haven. In the recordings, Lee, who goes by the nickname “B.O.,” frequently refers to Smith as “boss” and, in one case, “big dog.” Most of the language is coded.
“I dropped, um, George, off at, um, Cicily’s house,” the caller identified as Lee said at one point.
In a few instances, Lee’s communications were more overtly numerical.
“14s 36h,” read one text message sent from Lee’s phone, displayed on courtroom monitors.
“Don’t have that much,” came the reply from Smith’s phone.
Smith and Lee then jumped on the phone together, according to DEA Special Agent Ndrenika.
“What you got on that policy?” said the voice Ndrenika attributed to Lee.
“Nothing on the soft,” said the voice attributed to Smith.
The phone call held a hint at what the text might have meant: The “s” in “14s” appears to stand for “soft,” or powdered cocaine. The “h” stands for “hard,” or crack. Fourteen grams is a common amount of cocaine sold on the street, according to the government’s expert witness who testified Monday. That’s because it’s a multiple of 3.5, which is an 8-ball, or an eighth of an ounce.
In other calls, Smith’s associates arrange to meet him at locations around New Haven, such as up Whalley Avenue or at Winchester and Lilac in Newhallville. One associate complains that he got “38 2-0s out of one seven and 46 out of another 7.” Translation: The 7 grams of cocaine didn’t yield much crack, a sign the quality wasn’t high.
Listening to the tapes, it would be hard to argue the participants are not dealing drugs.
But what exactly they are they selling? And how much? And how do you prove it?
In one call, one of Smith’s associates tells him a guy from Guilford wants to meet him and arrange a deal.
“You’re talking about snow white?” the voice attributed to Smith asks. The man from Guilford should “come with 24,” he directs.
How much “snow white” did “24” buy?
Answering that question—and turning coded lingo into hard numbers—will be key to the government’s case.
Past Independent stories on Operation Bloodline:
• 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