Robert Earl "Wonderman" Lee, accused of running West Florida's largest crack cocaine ring, worried about keeping lots of cash in his St. Petersburg home, so sometimes he stashed it in the garbage can. But as he went to retrieve some money on his birthday in 1988, Lee discovered the garbage truck had already been by, and he was out a cool $30,000.
"I'll never forget that," Lee said on videotape. "I paid for a big birthday present."
Lee's comments were seen and heard by federal jurors Wednesday during his trial along with three others on drug distribution and conspiracy charges. Federal prosecutors are presenting recordings of meetings between the defendants and an undercover FBI agent posing as a Bahamian drug dealer.
On the videotape of the Dec. 7, 1988 meeting, Lee described other aspects of his drug business, including other major losses. Once, he said, police randomly searched luggage on a bus in Fort Lauderdale, and confiscated 20 pounds of cocaine. That taught him not to use public buses to move drugs again.
"You gotta have your own railroad," Lee told the agent, adding that the stretch from Tampa to Atlanta is very "treacherous" for drug couriers. "Stay off that turnpike, and go through Wildwood," Lee said.
But the losses never stopped the growth of his business, Lee said. "When you take a loss, you get a better grip on yourself," he said. "You don't get here by being stupid."
At the time, prosecutors say, "here" was the top of a large family organization that controlled most of the crack cocaine trade around West Florida. The group made millions of dollars, the government alleges, and invested it in real estate, businesses, 30 cars and a semitrailer truck.
On the tape, the undercover agent asks Lee why he built a large, well-appointed home at 926 Union St. S, a residence that stands out in an area of smaller, more modest homes.
"I needed a place to park my cars," Lee replied. He said the iron gate would prevent the police from coming in unannounced.