TAMPA - Robert Earl Lee and his family built West Florida's largest crack cocaine business from an initial investment of $1,000, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday. "The man they called 'Wonderman,' almost reverently, was in charge of this organization," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Downing.
Lee's family made millions and spent it on a large house, a car wash and 30 vehicles, including a stretch limousine and a semi-trailer truck, officials said.
The alleged ring collapsed in January 1989, when police arrested Lee and nine others. Lee and three others are now on trial for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and for selling the drug to undercover officers in St. Petersburg from August 1988 through January 1989.
Robert Lee is named in nine specific drug sales. Roy Larry Lee, 37, is named in two. Preston L. "Cowboy" Williams, 26, is named in one specific sale and Azell Macon is named in three.
Some other defendants linked to Lee have entered guilty pleas, been convicted by juries or remain fugitives.
In the government's opening statement Tuesday, Downing said that secret tape recordings between the defendants and an undercover FBI agent posing as a Bahamian drug dealer will illustrate the Lee gang's steady business.
"You're going to hear the life of a man who operates day to day as a drug dealer," Downing said. "This case is the farthest thing you'll ever see from entrapment."
But entrapment is what Robert Lee's attorney, Ellis Rubin of Miami, said is at the center of the government's case.
In his opening statement, Rubin questioned why the government targeted Lee, and why they arranged and taped nine meetings, when one would have been sufficient to make a drug arrest.
"It is not the role of government to promote crime and manufacture criminals," Rubin said.
Bud Stansell, court-appointed attorney for Roy Larry Lee, told jurors that the man they will see on videotape is not the same man as his client. "He's a different person, who's intoxicated on drugs," Stansell said. "He simply does not seem to understand what is going on."
Downing objected during Stansell's opening remarks and told U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich that diminished capacity is not a defense in federal court. Kovachevich sustained the objection and instructed the jury not to consider Stansell's comments.
Attorneys for Williams and Macon reserved their opening statements until later in the trial, which is expected to last three weeks.
The government's case began with tapes of undercover FBI agent James Barrow buying six bags of crack cocaine at a duplex the Lees owned at 1725-1727 12th St. S. On the tape, Barrow tells Williams and the Lees that he was at first uncomfortable dealing with three people.
"I know it's cool for you, being all in the family and all," Barrow said.