By Nicole Hutcheson, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, September 22, 2010
On a summer day last year, reggae star Buju Banton met up with a man for drinks at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant.
After hours of casual conversation, the talk turned to drugs.
"Do you have any contacts where I can get cocaine?" Banton eventually asked.
He didn't know the man he was talking with was an informer, and that part of the conversation was being taped.
The question came back to haunt the four time Grammy-nominated musician Tuesday morning in a federal courtroom in Tampa, where the 37-year-old faces charges of conspiracy to buy and sell 5 kilos of cocaine, and aiding and abetting two others to possess a firearm in the course of cocaine distribution.
Prosecutors presented audio evidence of Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, discussing a wide variety of drug deals over five months, including shipping cocaine from Panama to Europe in crates with frozen seafood.
Alexander Johnson, the government informer, testified he first met Banton in first class on a flight from Madrid in July 2009.
From then on, he said he called Banton several times and met with the star throughout Florida.
The audiotapes and transcripts presented Tuesday included choppy conversations between the men. Drugs are discussed, as are dollar amounts and the best ways to transport, but often incoherently. Alcohol was consumed during most of the encounters.
But prosecutors say what is clear is that Banton wanted to put up money to buy cocaine.
"All I do is finance," Banton told Johnson during the restaurant meeting, transcripts show.
"So you give the money to buy dope?" Johnson asked.
"Yes," said Banton, according to transcripts.
Defense attorney David Markus has argued that while his client talked about drug dealing, he never actually funded any.
"Did Mr. Myrie invest one dollar of money into a drug deal?" Markus asked Johnson during cross examination.
"With me — no," Johnson answered.
During another conversation on Aug. 1 at a South Florida hotel, Banton and Johnson discussed buying kilos of cocaine from Panama and transporting them to Europe in containers filled with frozen seafood.
Johnson told Banton he had a seafood business called Frozen Fish, the transcripts show.
Johnson turned informer in 1996 after being convicted of distributing cocaine and marijuana. He was paid $50,000 in the Banton case, according to testimony.
During a conversation at a Sarasota restaurant on Dec. 8, Banton admitted to Johnson he was having money problems. "My truck is in the shop and I can't get it out," Banton said. "I'm going to concentrate, though; things are going to be straight next year."
It was on that day that Banton brought an associate named Ian Thomas along for lunch with Johnson. Banton described Thomas as a "friend who had contacts to purchase kilos of cocaine," Johnson said in court.
Johnson told Banton he would give him 5 extra kilos of cocaine if Thomas and his associate, a man named James Mack, purchased 20 kilos.
Prosecutors presented video of Johnson, Banton and Thomas entering a warehouse in Sarasota later that day. In it, Thomas cuts a kilo open. Banton approaches, takes the knife, wipes it and tastes his finger.
Another video shows Thomas and Mack being arrested while attempting to purchase cocaine at the warehouse two days later. Banton was arrested later that day at his South Florida home.
"So that 5-kilo deal for Mr. Myrie never happened, did it?" Markus asked Johnson.
"No," Johnson said.
The trial is scheduled to continue today.