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Reggae artist Buju Banton pleads not guilty to drug charges

TAMPA — Reggae star Buju Banton pleaded not guilty to drug charges during a federal court arraignment Thursday.

The 36-year-old singer, born Mark Myrie, did not seek bail.

"Mark is innocent," defense attorney David Markus said. "And the government's case has got no soul."

Because Banton is not a U.S. citizen, immigration authorities would have taken him into custody if he was to make bail, Markus said. Banton, a native of Jamaica, is in the United States on an entertainer's visa.

The reggae artist, known for his lively performances, appeared pensive during the hearing. His signature dreadlocks were pulled back in a braid and he wore a gray jail suit with red stripes.

The scene was a far cry from the revelry of Nov. 24 when Banton's manager called him at his Broward County home to deliver the news that his latest album, Rasta Got Soul, received a Grammy nomination.

The awards show will air Jan. 31. But these days Banton is busy talking legal defense instead of acceptance speech.

"We won't be cutting any deals. We are confident in our position that Mark Myrie is innocent," Markus said.

That could be a challenge to prove, considering the Drug Enforcement Administration says it has video and audio of Banton and his associates brokering a drug deal for more than five kilograms of cocaine in Sarasota.

The criminal complaint reads like a script from a Miami Vice episode.

On the morning of Dec. 8, a confidential source called Banton and agreed to meet him at a Sarasota restaurant to discuss a drug buy. Later that day, Banton and an associate, Ian Thomas, met with the source at La Tropicana de Havana restaurant in Sarasota.

After the meeting, the men traveled to an undercover warehouse controlled by Sarasota police. Once inside, Thomas cut open a kilo of cocaine with a knife and then handed the blade to Banton, who wiped the blade with his finger and tasted it, according to the complaint. The men discussed the price for the drugs before leaving the warehouse.

The incident was caught on audio and video, according to the complaint.

The rest of the report focuses on Thomas and another man, James Mack, negotiating for the drugs with the source and undercover agents. The men met at various locations over two days, including at an Applebee's restaurant where Thomas told the source his organization would pay $125,000 for 5 kilos of cocaine, the complaint states.

On Dec. 10, Thomas and Mack went to the undercover warehouse and presented a large sum of money for the drugs. The men were arrested on the spot. Banton was arrested at his Tamarac home later the same day.

News of the reggae artist's arrest sent shock waves throughout the entertainment world as well as Tampa Bay's Caribbean community. Banton was a frequent visitor to Tampa.

"Every customer that comes in is like, 'What about Buju?' " said DJ Kirky-C, a Tampa reggae DJ who owns the Poison Dart record store.

Banton often recorded at Kirky C's Nebraska Avenue studio.

"He's a Rasta and, except for a few, most of his songs preach love," Kirky C said. "I don't think he'd be involved in cocaine."

In 2004, Banton was charged with marijuana possession in Jamaica.

Banton's trial is expected to begin in March.

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813)226-3405.

Reggae artist Buju Banton pleads not guilty to drug charges 01/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 11:32pm]
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