TAMPA — The case against Grammy-winning reggae star Buju Banton hinges on one man: Alexander Johnson, a former cocaine transporter turned federal informant who has earned over $3 million helping the government in drug cases in recent years.
Johnson testified during Banton's trial Tuesday, telling the jury how he and the singer met in 2009 in the business-class section of a Madrid-to-Miami flight and how, over drinks, they began chatting about the cocaine trade.
This is Banton's second trial on several cocaine charges, including conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine. The first trial, last year, ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked. If convicted, he could get life in prison.
Johnson said Tuesday that after his eight-hour flight, he went to his superiors at the Drug Enforcement Administration to alert them that he would meet with Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, and tape-record phone calls and meetings.
For several hours Tuesday, Johnson described multiple meetings with Banton in Florida, and prosecutors played tapes and phone calls.
Both Johnson and prosecutors say that Banton never put any money into any drug deal, nor did he make any money.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents recorded the singer inspecting the cocaine and tasting the drugs with his finger on Dec. 8, Preston said. His co-defendant, Ian Thomas, gave the undercover officer $135,000 on Dec. 10; he has since been arrested and pleaded guilty to drug charges.
Banton was not present for the Dec. 10 drug deal — he was at home in South Florida — but he "took a substantial step" in committing the crime by helping negotiate the deal, Preston said.
Banton's attorney, David Markus, said his client did not participate in a conspiracy to sell cocaine and said there is no evidence to link Banton to the Dec. 10 transaction or any of the other charges. Banton was full of talk — and no action — when it came to plans with Johnson, the attorney said.