ST. PETERSBURG — Elrick Bernard "Big E" Wynn made millions pushing crack cocaine in the 1990s, authorities say, building the biggest drug syndicate in city history by the age of 27.
The U.S. Attorney's Office called the Wynn organization the "Microsoft" of St. Petersburg when the law broke up the violent drug ring in 1998. But its Bill Gates had already escaped.
Wynn learned the business from the drug kingpins before him, authorities say, then supplanted and surpassed them. But they got caught. He got away, thanks to a last-minute tip.
It has been 14 years since anyone with a badge has laid eyes on Wynn. Those who still see him tell police he's like a "ghost."
Did he fake his death or was he killed? Did he flee to the Virgin Islands? Does he still scratch his gambling itch in Las Vegas and Biloxi? Does he still sneak into town to visit his mother and family?
Deputy U.S. Marshal Lisa Alfonso is pretty sure that last rumor is true: "He's a momma's boy," she said.
Wynn, who is wanted on multiple federal drug charges, will be showcased on Saturday's America's Most Wanted at 9 p.m. on WTVT-Ch. 13. U.S. marshals are also offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest. Authorities hope that will help them finally capture him.
Not only is he considered armed and dangerous, but authorities say the 6-foot-2, 260-pound fugitive may be sporting something else:
A woman's wig, lipstick, fake eyelashes and a blouse.
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In 2009 there were 11 murders in St. Petersburg, the city's lowest number of homicides in 40 years. Compare that with 1989, the height of the crack epidemic: There were 44 murders that year, the highest number on record.
Robert Earl "Wonderman" Lee was the first of St. Petersburg's crack kingpins. When authorities shut him down in 1989, they said the family had already made millions. Lee once lost $30,000 because he forgot he had stashed it in the garbage. In 1990, he and his brother Roy Larry Lee were sentenced to life in prison.
A year later residents lined the sidewalks of Bartlett Park and cheered as officers led away their successor: Ronald Eugene "Romeo" Mathis.
Once a cog in the Lee operation, authorities said, Mathis went on to build a sophisticated machine that sold drugs in three shifts 24 hours a day, brought in $300,000 a week and left residents terrified.
"I'll be back," said a smiling, handcuffed Mathis, according to a 1991 news story detailing his arrest.
He was sentenced to life in prison in 1994.
Next up, authorities say, was Elrick Wynn.
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Wynn worked for both the Wonderman Lee and Romeo Mathis organizations, said St. Petersburg narcotics Detective Mike Celona.
"Elrick Wynn had been an important player," Celona said. "Mathis and Jeffrey Lee were Wynn's mentors. He learned a lot from them and built up a vast organization. He controlled a majority of the crack and powder cocaine in St. Pete."
Wynn wasn't as flashy as his predecessors, authorities say, but he was more productive: They estimate his organization moved a total of one ton — 50 to 100 pounds a month — of crack cocaine in and out of St. Petersburg from 1993 to 1998. Authorities estimate he made $700,000 a month and more than $8 million a year.
Wynn drove with a small arsenal that included grenades. He also carried brown paper bags filled with thousands that he gambled on games of pool and high-stakes poker every night.
But in 1998, it was the Wynn organization's turn to fall.
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Authorities believe they just missed him during the raids that year. He was tipped off, they say, by an associate who was arrested as he got off the phone from warning Wynn.
Detective Celona said there were rumors at the time that Wynn was killed by a former lieutenant or faked his own death (his motorcycle was later found abandoned on the side of a road.) But authorities actually believe he could still be in the drug trade and may be traveling between Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Richmond.
"They call him a ghost," Alfonso said of the fugitive's known associates. "They say he comes and goes."
Money isn't an issue for Wynn, authorities say. He may also have another advantage: impeccable fake credentials. One of the men authorities arrested in 1998 was a driver's license clerk who they say provided Wynn and his employees with legitimate Florida driver's licenses issued to fake names. Authorities say they still have no idea how many of those IDs he may have.
"He's a little more sophisticated than most fugitives," Alfonso said.
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Wynn is 41 now. He is wanted on federal charges of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.
Authorities believe he still likes to gamble. They think he still has a tattoo on his left bicep that says "THE WYNN." He was spotted with a beard two years ago in Ocala. But closer to home he has been spotted in a new disguise:
Witnesses have reported seeing the imposing fugitive wearing a woman's wig, fake eyelashes, makeup and blouse.
"Can he pull it off?" Celona said.
"Some folks say he did lose some weight," Alfonso said.
The authorities believe he uses that disguise to visit his mother and family and drive around St. Petersburg without scrutiny.
His mother, Margianna Speights, once told a federal grand jury she doesn't know where her son is. Alfonso said the U.S. marshals aren't sure of that, but hope she's able to deliver this message:
"My advice to his mother is to get him to turn himself in peacefully," Alfonso said. "We consider him armed and dangerous, and if we get a tip, we're coming with everything we've got."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected].