The Boulder Boys Must Die

When federal prosecutors seek the death penalty in drug-related murders, the defendants are almost always black. Why should Miami's first "kingpin" case be any exception?

In the already humid hours before dawn on June 7, 1993, a heavily armed, bulletproof-vested task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement agents fanned out across northern Dade County. Their quarry: eleven men believed to be members of one of South Florida's most lucrative, murderous, bad-ass drug rings.

The effort was the culmination of a sixteen-month investigation involving the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the police departments of Metro-Dade and the City of Miami. Using confidential informants, undercover agents, and wiretaps, Operation Boulder Boys, as the interagency probe was dubbed, revealed a drug ring that over the course of seven years had come to rule a significant portion of the crack cocaine trade in Dade. Their business, the agents had found, was organized into a rigid, sophisticated hierarchy and raked in millions of dollars each year. They drove expensive cars. They flourished guns. They carved out their turf using violence. They murdered indiscriminately.

At about 6:00 a.m. on that Monday in June, the law-enforcement groups took up positions around their targeted addresses and pounced. The dragnet captured eight suspects, all of whom were taken into custody. One was apprehended as he bolted out the back door of his Miami Lakes home wearing only his underwear. A ninth suspect was arrested later in the morning while working at a construction site at Southridge Senior High School; two more soon surrendered to the FBI. With two others who had been taken into custody over the weekend, there were thirteen captives, the alleged principal Boulder Boys conspirators.

Among other crimes, the men were charged with conspiring to manufacture and distribute cocaine. Several were also charged with murder.

More than two years later, jury selection has finally commenced in federal case no. 93-252-Criminal. Six defendants A 30-year-old Edward Alexander Mack, 30-year-old Kevin Denard Rozier, 28-year-old Mike Riley, 27-year-old Travis Thomas, 26-year-old Chedrick Crummie, and 23-year-old Kevin Alexander A are scheduled to stand trial on drug-related charges. (The remaining defendants negotiated plea bargains; their sentencings are still pending.) Mack, Rozier, and Crummie are additionally accused of two counts of homicide in the furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise. On one of those counts prosecutors are seeking to have them put to death.

With the passage of time, the case file has swollen to include more than a thousand documents. When stacked atop one another, the papers stand four feet high. The trial, which is expected to last four to six months, doesn't boast the types of marquee personalities that would catapult it into the limelight A no fallen idols, no celebrity witnesses, no prominent attorneys in tailored suits. Still, the case is remarkable for its legal precedent, for what it suggests about the time and place we live in, and for what it says about the value of a human life.

The senator was operating on a full head of steam and a full load of bile. "Mr. President, there is a war on drugs ongoing in this country. The drug czars stop at nothing to further their enterprise of death and destruction. They poison our society; they enslave our children; they kill judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers. They destroy anybody who stands in their way!"

The date was June 9, 1988, and Jesse Helms was holding forth on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The matter at hand: a proposed federal death-penalty statute. "Mr. President," the North Carolina Republican plowed on, "we cannot win this war by merely throwing money at the problem. Nor can the czars be dissuaded by fines or light sentences. They laugh at such measures. What's a million dollars to a billionaire drug dealer? We must place the fear of capital punishment in the hearts of a drug czar!"

Even back in 1988, the federal government was no stranger to the controversial business of capital punishment: The death penalty was applicable to a number of federal crimes, including airline hijacking. According to Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that opposes capital punishment, the U.S. government has executed 34 people since 1928, among them Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage. But the last person federally executed was Victor Feuger, a kidnapper and killer who was hanged at the Iowa State Penitentiary in 1963.

The legislation that came to be known as the "drug kingpin" statute was conceived late in the 1988 presidential campaign, as a feature of then-president Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs. It calls for the death penalty for anyone who 1) is engaged in a "continuing criminal enterprise" involving more than five people and raking in a "substantial income," and who 2) kills someone, or orders a killing, to further that criminal enterprise. The law also requires that local federal prosecutors obtain personal written authorization from the U.S. Attorney General before proceeding with a capital prosecution.

At the time of its passage, critics contended that the drug kingpin statute was blatant vote-pandering and that it would deter foreign governments from extraditing suspects to the U.S. Further, they pointed out, although the new law represented no improvement upon capital-punishment statutes already in place in many states, it was a handy way for legislators from death penalty-deprived states to bring home executions.

Kevin McNally, an attorney from Frankfort, Kentucky, who runs the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project (a federally funded organization that provides assistance to federal public defenders and court-appointed attorneys working on death-penalty cases), says the kingpin statute was debated on the floor of Congress without any committee hearings, with Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York) its chief sponsor and most vociferous champion. Having passed in the House by a vote of 346 to 11, it won on a voice vote in the Senate three weeks before the 1988 presidential election and went into effect soon after George Bush's victory.

So hastily was the legislation written that it failed to designate a federal death row or a method of execution, and for the next half-dozen years the U.S. had a law under which a defendant could be sentenced to death but not killed -- purgatory on Earth. President Bush, at the close of his term, approved lethal injection as the method of execution. This past spring, the Federal Bureau of Prisons completed the first national execution chamber at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Though it was touted as a get-tough measure, only seven defendants were prosecuted under the statute in the first three years after its passage, with only one death sentence handed down. The Bush and Clinton administrations have been more active, pursuing 54 capital prosecutions under the kingpin law and the 1994 Crime Bill, which greatly expanded the range of executionable crimes. (The bill allows death-penalty prosecutions for several existing federal offenses, including hostage-taking, carjacking, and deprivation of civil rights, if those infractions result in a death. It also designates a number of new federal crimes -- first-degree murder of U.S. nationals abroad and death resulting from alien-smuggling, among others -- and applies the death penalty to those.) Of the 54 defendants, six have been sentenced to death. Eleven were given sentences short of death. Thirteen had their capital prosecutions discontinued by the government, one died prior to his arrest, and one committed suicide during trial. Twenty-two are awaiting trial.

Three of those are Boulder Boys defendants. Despite this region's dubious reputation as a drug-trafficking nexus, they are the first to stand trial in the Southern District of Florida under the seven-year-old law. And if federal prosecutors here are successful in making their case, the trio will be hustled off to Terre Haute, where a wing of the prison is being renovated to serve as the federal death row.

An FBI snitch triggered the Boulder Boys case. "In approximately February 1992, a confidential informant gave information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a gang of drug distributors that were controlling a major portion of the Liberty City crack distribution business," Assistant U.S. Attorney Luis Perez explained during a hearing not long after the arrests. "The gang had moved into the Liberty City area after being pushed out of Opa-locka, where some of the members had previously been operating."

In their 22-page indictment, prosecutors claim that "the conspirators used intimidation and violence, including murder, to assert their authority in the drug business and to maintain the security of their drug operation. They acquired, possessed, and used guns to carry out these acts of violence and maintain their drug organization's prominence in the area in which they operated."

The Boulder Boys are said to have bought cocaine powder, which they processed into crack -- prosecutors have noted that one wiretap captured the sound of two defendants "actually cooking cocaine-base crack from cocaine hydrochloride" -- and distributed to street dealers at four locations the gang called "weight holes." One alleged site was near a bar called the New Frontier Lounge at NW 58th Street and 22nd Avenue in Liberty City. Another was on Ali Baba Avenue in Opa-locka; the remaining two were in the James E. Scott Homes public housing project, which straddles NW 22nd Avenue between 67th and 74th streets.

According to the prosecution, the organization was run by four men -- Edward Alexander Mack, Kevin Denard Rozier, Tracey Slater, and Samuel Gene Sharpe -- who organized their employees into a clearly defined hierarchy, outlined in the indictment: "Lieutenants" oversaw distribution at each hole; "lookouts" and "gunmen" handled security. "Packers" arranged the packaging of the drugs, while "runners" transported the product and "bombmen" sold it.

Several police raids turned up drugs and a laboratory's worth of paraphernalia.

The indictment, which attributes to each defendant various aliases -- "Cowboy," "Buddha," "Ninja," "Blackboy," "Boojay," "Slick," et cetera -- states that the Boulder Boys used "coded language [on the telephone] in an attempt to prevent detection" and that they "maintained written daily records of their drug deals, detailing which members were involved, and the amounts of money and drugs involved." FBI analysts have calculated that the group took in more than $30 million in its seven years of operation. Slater is said to have grossed $125,000 in one week. "I make $2000 every time I pick up the phone," Mack purportedly bragged during one wiretapped conversation.

The government backs its claim of the drug gang's "continuing pattern of indiscriminate violence" with a detailed list of armaments seized by agents: a 9mm Ruger pistol, a .38 caliber Taurus revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, a Winchester twelve-gauge shotgun, an Armi Tanafoglio-Gardone .380 revolver, a Smith & Wesson .32 caliber revolver, a Rossi .22 caliber rifle, a Winchester .22 caliber rifle, a Davis Industries .380 caliber pistol, an Armalite rifle, a Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum and another Smith & Wesson pistol, a SIG Sauer pistol, a BB air gun, and a hunting knife, as well as hundreds of rounds of ammunition and one bulletproof vest. (No fully automatic weapons were seized, but police did find receipts for the purchase of one AK-47.)

The two homicides at the center of the case took place within four days of each other and allegedly stemmed from the burglary of one of the drug holes. Neither of the victims was the intended target.

The first murder occurred on the evening of September 18, 1991. According to prosecutors, the Boulder Boys were looking for a man named Nathaniel Daley and heard his white Cadillac had been spotted in the Scott Homes area. Daley, though, no longer owned the car; he had sold it.

Prosecutors say the Cadillac's new owner, 21-year-old MacDonald Carey, had gone out to purchase crack that night and subsequently got a flat tire near the intersection of NW 24th Avenue and 73rd Terrace. "He decided to just smoke the rocks there, not far from where the seller was standing," Assistant U.S. Attorney Luis Perez stated during a pretrial hearing.

Moments later, the prosecution claims, Chedrick Crummie walked over to the Cadillac and riddled its occupant with bullets, then climbed into a car, which Kevin Rozier drove to Edward Mack's drug hole at Scott Homes a few blocks away. There Crummie is said to have announced to a group of bystanders who had heard the gunshots, "I just killed me a fuck nigger [sic]." A year later, a confidential informant allegedly was told by Rozier that Mack had delegated the murder to him and he had turned over the job to Crummie.

The second murder took place September 22 at a small Liberty City rooming house on a dingy street off Fifteenth Avenue, where Nathaniel Daley was staying. Daley's friend Cornelius Foster was nearing the house when he saw a white Lincoln Continental drive up. Foster later told police that Crummie got out carrying an automatic weapon and that Travis Thomas emerged from a back seat, also armed.

Crummie allegedly approached Foster and asked, "Where's Nate?" then strode to the front of the house and began spraying it with gunfire, while Thomas approached Foster, who had fallen to the ground and was trying to crawl away; he shot Foster five times in the back and legs (Foster survived), whereupon both shooters got back in the car and left. A few minutes later, prosecutors say, a Ford Mustang 5.0 drove past the house and more shots were fired into the building. Nathaniel Daley, who had come out of the building to see what was happening, is said to have spotted Rozier, Crummie, and another defendant, Terrence Reed, in the Mustang.

According to police, a hail of bullets pierced the front of the house, passing though interior walls and ending up in back rooms. Several of the bullets, however, hit 30-year-old Alfhea Barron, who was lying on her bed watching television. She died instantly.

Barron is thought not to have been acquainted with any of the alleged gunmen or the intended victim.

Defense attorneys have gone so far as to dispute the existence of a gang called the Boulder Boys. "It's been our position that there was no such thing as the Boulder Boys," says Reuben Camper Cahn, the chief assistant federal public defender who is representing Edward Mack. "That was created by the FBI so they could have a catchy name for their press conference."

At any rate, according to court records (including the federal indictment, pretrial testimony, police interviews, and lists of evidence collected during the investigation), the suspects weren't living the jet-setting highlife stereotypically associated with drug kingpins. All but one of the original defendants are young black men who ranged in age from 20 to 32 at the time of their arrests. (The exception was a 32-year-old Hispanic who lived in Miami Lakes and allegedly was the group's supplier.) The gang is said to have comprised about twenty members who controlled a portion of the drug trade in Liberty City. Most lived in middle- to low-income neighborhoods -- primarily Liberty City and Carol City -- some in apartments, others in modest single-family homes with their relatives. The last known address of 30-year-old reputed kingpin Mack is a small ranch house he was renting in a middle-class Carol City neighborhood south of Joe Robbie Stadium.

In terms of the trappings of luxury and wealth, law enforcement agents netted little: a total of about $100,000 in cash and a few cars, including a 1990 Lexus said to have belonged to Mack and two Ford Mustangs, a 1990 and a 1987. At trial, all six defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys. (Though it does not involve a homicide, another current South Florida federal case provides a stark contrast to the alleged Boulder Boys operation: The U.S. government accuses Willy Falc centsn and Sal Magluta of running a $2.1 billion cocaine distribution network, the largest on the East Coast. The defendants owned fast cars, high-speed racing boats, aircraft, and extensive real estate, including apartment complexes and waterfront mansions in Dade and Broward.)

Defense lawyers and critics of the federal death penalty argue that the drug kingpin law is not being applied as originally advertised. "Al D'Amato and various other legislators pitched it as a means of rooting out and punishing the most violent of large-scale drug traffickers," asserts David Bruck, a Columbia, South Carolina, defense attorney who works with Kevin McNally on the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project and is perhaps the nation's leading defense authority on the kingpin law. But the statute, Bruck contends, has been used "against relatively small organizations, and within those organizations, against lower-level people. It would be easy to understand if these folks were [former Medellin cartel kingpin] Carlos Lehder, international traffickers who fly around in Learjets. But they're not. Murder is a blue-collar job. The higher up you go in an organization, the more deniability there is because real kingpins don't get their hands dirty with killing."

Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice maintain that the law was conceived to go after anyone at any level of a drug enterprise. "From kingpin to foot soldier," is the way spokesman John Russell puts it. "Anybody who works in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise."

Yet startlingly, the statute is nearly always invoked against minorities, particularly blacks. Of the 54 defendants the government has sought to kill as kingpins since 1988, only nine are white. Five are Hispanic, two are Asian. Thirty-eight are black.

Justice Department officials assert that race plays no role in their decisions. But despite repeated requests from Congress, they have refused to discuss their decision-making process or the criteria by which they determine whether the statute should be applied.

Last year a congressional subcommittee released a report about the racial imbalance among defendants. "Racial minorities are being prosecuted under federal death penalty law far beyond their proportion in the general population or the population of criminal offenders," the investigators noted. "This pattern of inequality adds to the mounting evidence that race continues to play an unacceptable part in the application of capital punishment in America today."

Shortly after the report was published, a judge presiding over a federal death penalty case in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ordered the Justice Department to explain why it wished to execute the defendant, who was black. The order, made in response to defense requests, sought access to hitherto confidential documents, marking the first time a federal judge had tried to pull back the Justice Department's self-imposed veil of secrecy. After privately reviewing the paperwork, the judge declared that she was "troubled by the skewed statistics revealing that most [capital] defendants...[are] black." She ruled, however, that she had found no evidence of racial bias infecting the process by which federal prosecutors choose which defendants they desire to be put to death.

Defense attorneys in the Boulder Boys case have undertaken a similar gambit, filing a motion to throw out the death penalty because they say it is applied in a racially discriminatory manner. They cited about 50 federal cases nationwide in which nonblack defendants could have faced the death penalty under the kingpin law but did not. Among the cases mentioned in the motion is that of Fredric Tokars, a prominent Atlanta tax lawyer convicted last year of racketeering, conspiracy, cocaine possession and distribution, money laundering, and using interstate telephone calls to arrange the murder of his wife in order to ensure her silence about his drug trafficking. (The murder was carried out in front of the couple's two children.) Tokars, who is white, was sentenced to life in prison. The list also included a 1994 case involving a large Hispanic drug gang in Brooklyn that reportedly took in ten million dollars per month peddling heroin and cocaine in the borough's poorest neighborhoods. Defendants were accused of kidnappings, beatings, and torture (including tooth extractions and a finger amputation), as well as five homicides, but were not tried under the kingpin statute.

Early this month U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages denied the defense request, thereby rendering the "race issue," as the defense attorneys have come to call it, moot.

So far the legal proceedings have unfolded in an atmosphere of tension and profound seriousness. Amid the swirl of race and murder and justice, at a time when crime is at the top of every politician's agenda, both sides are treading carefully, sometimes laboriously so. While observers say no careers are going to be made on the basis of the Boulder Boys case, some reputations could be fumbled. And, of course, lives are at stake.

The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Luis Perez, is an earnest, stocky man, a 35-year-old former state prosecutor who now works in the narcotics division of the U.S. Attorney's Office. On the other side are a pair of federal public defenders and a covey of defense attorneys from the private sector. Nine in number (death-penalty defendants are entitled by law to two attorneys apiece), they include Steve Potolosky and Jayne Weintraub, both of whom defended cult leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh in his 1992 murder trial, and William Matthewman, who defended one of six Miami cops accused of covering up the 1988 beating death of Leonardo Mercado (Matthewman's client was acquitted). Presiding over the case is Ursula Ungaro-Benages, an ambitious jurist who in 1987 became a Dade circuit judge at age 36, and in 1992 became the second woman ever to have been appointed to the federal bench in the Southern District of Florida.

Recent pretrial hearings have been palpably tense, with tempers flaring between defense and prosecution, and also between the defense and the judge. On one occasion, a defense attorney apologized to the court for an irascible outburst, citing the twelve- to fourteen-hour days they had been devoting to the case.

Over the summer, the prosecution requested a gag order to keep defense attorneys from airing their views in the press. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chairman Benjamin Waxman, who promptly filed a challenge to the motion, says the effort amounts to a coverup. "I think part of their motivation was that they don't want aired in the press this contention that the death penalty was being sought discriminatorily based on race," says Waxman. Judge Ungaro-Benages denied the motion but warned both sides that she would hold them in contempt if they strayed outside the rigid guidelines of the local rules of the Southern District of Florida, which prohibit attorneys from making subjective observations about a case.

The judge's admonishment appears to have prompted a bout of media-wary catatonia. Neither side will discuss any matters that have not been aired in open court (and, for that matter, pitifully few that have). Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney's Office, moreover, refuse to comment about why this case was chosen as South Florida's first drug-kingpin murder prosecution.

Death-penalty specialist Kevin McNally sees no "rational reason" for bringing this case in federal court. "Frankly, it's a pretty run-of-the-mill drug-conspiracy case," says McNally. "A terrorist bombing case or an international drug conspiracy that involves law enforcement officers from different countries is the kind of case rationally brought in federal court. Not low-level, street-level drug dealers. That's not traditionally been the function of federal courts -- it's time-consuming and expensive." McNally suggests the decision is politically motivated: "Death-penalty prosecutions draw attention," he notes.

Although defense attorneys won't speculate about the matter, public defender Reuben Cahn told the Miami Daily Business Review on January 7, 1994, "The federal government, the U.S. Attorney in this district [Kendall Coffey], has specifically made clear his intention to go after street-level crime. It's a grandstand. It's really a political matter. It allows politicians to stand up and talk about how tough they are on crime."

One advantage to trying a case in federal, as opposed to state, court is that federal prosecutors can shelter their witnesses from defense scrutiny. While state prosecutors must turn over all incriminating evidence to the defense well in advance of the trial, their federal counterparts aren't obligated to release witness lists until 48 hours before the start of a trial. "I think there are substantial advantages for the government to prosecute in federal court," says the ACLU's Benjamin Waxman.

Five of the defendants are being held at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami; the sixth, Mike Riley, is free on bond. Neither the defendants contacted by New Times nor their family members were willing to be interviewed for this story. (A spokesman for the detention center says that Edward Mack and Chedrick Crummie initially agreed to a New Times request for an interview but changed their minds after consulting with their attorneys.)

The massive court file contains scant personal information. Court testimony indicates that Mack and Riley graduated from high school but pursued no further education. Crummie got only as far as the ninth grade and is illiterate. Most of the defendants had prior run-ins with the law, ranging from vehicle theft to drug possession. Prosecutors say Rozier, one of those facing the death penalty, has been convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, robbery, and violating probation.

An attorney representing Crummie, the accused gunman in both homicides, who prosecutor Perez has described as "the most dangerous defendant" and "Mack's most trusted hit man," says his client has no previous convictions of any kind. As for Mack himself -- the alleged kingpin of a $30 million crack-dealing enterprise, and the man accused of giving the order that resulted in at least two murders -- never in his 28 years before the Boulder Boys arrest had he been charged with anything more serious than a traffic violation.

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