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Drug trial begins in Tampa for reggae star Buju Banton

TAMPA — Words or actions — which is more significant?

That is at the crux of the drug trafficking trial of reggae star Buju Banton, which after months of delays started Monday in a Tampa federal courtroom.

Prosecutors say they have video and audio of the musician discussing ins and outs of drug smuggling with an informer, and asking that informer to help him in other illegal endeavors.

"The evidence will establish the defendant's clear intention to engage in drug trafficking," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston Jr. "His other occupation aside from entertainment."

Defense attorney David Markus said his client may be heard talking about drug smuggling — but didn't do it.

"Yes, he talked a lot. Yes, he tasted, but he's not a drug dealer," Markus said. "He was not a part of that deal."

Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, has been held in the Pinellas County Jail since December on the federal drug charges.

The 37-year-old reggae star from Jamaica is considered among genre's elite. Since his debut album in 1992, Banton has earned four Grammy nominations — the last one coming while he waited in jail, for his Rasta Got Soul album. His 1995 album, Til Shiloe, garnered a spot among Rolling Stone's "Essential Recordings of the '90s."

Prosecutors argue there was a side to Banton besides his music — trafficking drugs. And while on a flight from Madrid in July 2009, Banton divulged this to an informer named Alexander Johnson.

"Myrie said he was involved in a smuggling venture from Venezuela, to St. Maarten to Europe," Preston told jurors.

Over the next five months, the informer and Banton talked on the phone several times about drug dealing, Preston said. Many of the conversations were taped.

A deal came to a head on Dec. 8, when Banton and Ian Thomas, his driver at the time, met with Johnson at a warehouse in Sarasota. There, prosecutors say, they have Banton on video tasting cocaine.

Over the next two days, Johnson, Thomas and a Georgia man named James Mack are accused of brokering a deal with undercover agents to purchase 11 pounds of cocaine.

Mack and Thomas were arrested Dec. 10 while attempting to finalize the deal. Banton was arrested at his Broward County home later that day.

Defense attorney Markus argued his client was not directly involved in the drug buy. It was Mack, not Banton, who put up $125,000 for the cocaine, Markus said.

Mack and Thomas have agreed to a plea deal.

Markus also questioned Johnson's credibility.

Johnson, a native of Colombia, has been employed by the government since 1996 after being released from prison for drug smuggling. Prosecutors verified that Johnson has received about $3.3 million in government money for information.

Johnson, who lives in South Florida, faces a dispute with the IRS over taxes.

"Alex Johnson has never held a job, instead he's been setting people up and been paid for it," Markus said. "When you make that kind of money you're supposed to pay taxes. He has a million dollar home, credit card debt and he's filed for bankruptcy."

Johnson is set to testify in the case, as is Banton. If convicted, Banton could get life in prison.

Drug trial begins in Tampa for reggae star Buju Banton 09/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 9:38pm]
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