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Jurors in Little Rock drug trial get look at cocaine ring’s operations

by DALE ELLIS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | April 21, 2021 at 6:59 a.m.

During the second day of the drug conspiracy trial of James Richards and Isaac May in federal court in Little Rock, jurors got an in-depth look into the inner workings of the drug trafficking organization they are accused of being a part of through video and audio recordings, nearly 15½ pounds of cocaine worth over $200,000 that was brought into the courtroom, and the minutely detailed testimony of John Steven Garner, the ringleader of the conspiracy.

The two men were among 11 people who were indicted on drug conspiracy and distribution charges in 2018 as part of an organization that federal officials have said was responsible for distributing cocaine and other controlled substances throughout Central Arkansas. Their nine co-defendants, including Garner, have all pleaded guilty in the conspiracy and have either been sentenced or are awaiting sentencing. Garner is currently serving 15 years in a federal prison in Louisiana after pleading guilty in 2019.

During more than three hours of testimony Tuesday, Garner, 52, a Los Angeles native who said he came to Arkansas in 2008, walked Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens through nearly two dozen phone calls and text messages between himself and May or Richards that took place between March and May 2, 2018. All of the calls and texts dealt with impending sales of cocaine.

“I originally came here because things were kind of hot in Los Angeles, meaning the police were looking for me so I came here to kind of cool off,” Garner testified. “But when I got here I saw the market was pretty lucrative.” Garner said once he got established in Central Arkansas, he began selling cocaine in amounts ranging from less than a gram to multipound amounts and that his sales goal was to move a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of cocaine a day. He said that he almost always kept about more than 40 pounds of cocaine on hand, much of which he said was shipped to him in the mail.

He told jurors that a kilo of cocaine contained 36 ounces of the drug, which he said was sometimes referred to as “a bird,” among other terms.

“We didn’t want to use the direct words because we didn’t want people to know what we were talking about,” he said.

Other coded references, Garner said, were used for quantities of 3.5 grams (an eight-ball), 1 ounce (a zip), 4½ ounces (four and a baby), or a kilogram (a brick).

Jurors were shown approximately 15 pounds of cocaine that was obtained by investigators during the federal probe into the conspiracy. Throughout the morning, the cocaine lay stacked on top of the prosecution’s table in the courtroom. At one point prosecutors passed the double-sealed bags around to the jury to let them judge the weight and heft of the drugs.

Garner, who was known on the street as “Unc,” said he met Richards in 2017 and around January of 2018, Richards in turn introduced him to May. At first, he said, he only sold to May using Richards as an intermediary but began dealing with May directly within a couple of months.

“Why did you start going to Mr. May directly?” Givens asked.

“Because of the amount of money he was spending,” Garner said, “the amount of cocaine he was purchasing.” “Why did that change things for you?” Givens asked.

“Because I wanted all the money for myself,” Garner replied. “Instead of me going through Mr. Richards, I would deal with him directly so I could get all of my money right then.” Givens asked if Garner trusted Richards to deal with him honestly.

“I would trust him as long as I was there watching him,” he said. “I didn’t leave it with him unsupervised.” Garner said that May would buy at least 4.5-ounce quantities two to three times weekly, and once bought a full kilogram. He said a “four and a baby” went for $3,600 and a “brick” would sell for $31,000. He said whenever he sold to May, he always met him at Richards’ house or on the street he lived on in Sweet Home, never allowing anyone to come to his house.

“I didn’t allow customers to come to my house for safety reasons,” he explained.

Garner testified about a drug sale he made on March 15, 2018, in which he sold a total of 27 ounces in two sales, one of those to May.

“Why do you remember that date in particular?” Givens asked.

“Well, No. 1, I remember that day because that was the day I made a sale to the informant,” Garner deadpanned.

The informant, Ray Boyd of North Little Rock, made four controlled purchases for investigators — three from Garner and one from Richards — and on one occasion used a hidden camera to record video of a drug sale in which Garner, sitting in the backseat of a car, handed cocaine to Boyd in the front passenger seat, while an undercover police office sitting behind the steering wheel recorded the transaction.

In 2020, in an unrelated incident, Boyd was shot in North Little Rock while attending a funeral and died in a hospital a week later.

Around April of 2018, Garner said, he became convinced an informer was trying to set him up but phone calls between him and Richards indicated that he suspected May of being the informant. He complained to Richards that whenever May would come around, shortly after he would wind up spotting a tail, usually driving a black Dodge Challenger or a black pickup.

In a call played in court that was recorded April 27, 2018, Garner told Richards, “Every time that m---r comes around we see that black truck… If he didn’t put the m---s up on me they were following him.” To escape the surveillance, he said, he fled to California to wait for things to cool off.

On cross examination, Arkie Byrd, Richards’ attorney, tried to shake Garner’s testimony, getting him to admit that he often lied to his clients when it suited his purposes.

Garner, who had appeared calm and self-assured earlier, grew increasingly irritated, his voice rising and his answers sounding more and more defensive as Byrd picked at his testimony.

She noted that on the recordings, Garner used profanity and slang but in the courtroom his speech was more measured.

“I didn’t think profanity was allowed in the courtroom,” Garner said.

“I’m just saying you sound a lot different on the tape… Is the performance for Mr. Richards and Mr. May to seem like one of the guys or is this performance today to try and convince the jury you’re telling the truth?” Byrd asked him.

“No,” Garner said. “I’m trying to talk correctly because the jury might not understand my street terminology… Everybody on the jury might not be streetwise.” “Well, you know when to use that voice and when not to use that voice, don’t you?” Byrd asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Garner answered.

“And that is to make sure that you exploit this situation to your advantage as well,” Byrd said.

“No, ma’am,” Garner said, flatly.

Jurors also heard from co-defendants Cedric Bradley and LaQuentin Nichols, both of Little Rock, who testified to their activities related to May and Richards. Both men pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy counts last August and are facing possible maximum sentences of 20 years in prison.

Under questioning by Byrd and May’s attorney, Theodis Thompson, both men admitted their testimony was motivated by hopes of getting lighter sentences but both insisted they were telling the truth and had no guarantees of favorable treatment.

Jurors heard testimony as well from two Arkansas Crime Lab technicians who explained the process of testing for controlled substances while ensuring integrity of the chain of custody and from two FBI agents who explained how court-authorized wiretaps and remote surveillance techniques functioned to assist in the investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters said after calling one more witness today, the prosecution expects to rest its case.

CORRECTION: Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters was one of two prosecutors in a drug conspiracy trial earlier this week in federal court in Little Rock. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of her name.

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