Friends in Low Places

The feds suspect that Tony Martin, Miami native and NFL star, helped his childhood pal launder drug proceeds

In early spring a stranger showed up at "Touchdown" Tony Martin's home in Escondido, California. No doubt the wide receiver, a Pro Bowl veteran and Miami native who started his career with the Dolphins, is accustomed to occasional visits from strangers. That's the price of fame. But Michael Medrano was different. Medrano appeared at Martin's Misty Meadow Lane home during the evenings of April 27 and May 2, 4, 6, and the morning of May 10. There was never anybody home.

Medrano was not a fan but a process server toting a summons. Prominent Miami criminal-defense attorney Milton Hirsch had filed suit in mid-April against the 33-year-old Martin (who was then playing for the San Diego Chargers) for breach of contract. Hirsch alleged the gridiron star agreed to pay a $175,000 fee for an accused drug dealer named Rickey Brownlee, then reneged. On May 12 Medrano mailed the papers to Martin's home and left a second set with a secretary at Chargers headquarters.

Hirsch's lawsuit is only the beginning of the football star's worries. Three law enforcement sources told New Times that the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration are investigating Martin to determine if he laundered drug profits for Brownlee. In January the feds accused Brownlee, Martin's childhood friend, of running one of South Florida's largest drug rings. The Opa-locka businessman -- who owns a well-known restaurant, a car wash, and several buildings in the area and who was the subject of an April 23 New Times cover story -- faces seven counts of cocaine and heroin trafficking. He is now awaiting trial in the downtown Federal Detention Center without bond.

The investigation of Martin comes at a time when he should be celebrating. Last year he inked a $9.4 million, four-year contract with San Diego. This spring the Chargers traded him to the Atlanta Falcons, bringing him closer to his family in South Florida. And he's been playing some of the best ball of his tumultuous ten-year career.

If the feds charge Martin with a crime, it could jeopardize his National Football League standing. Moreover, the NFL could punish him just for hanging around with Brownlee, who was convicted twice in the Eighties for cocaine trafficking. "Improper associations would be a cause of concern and could lead to action from the commissioner's office," says NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, speaking generally about NFL policy.

Martin didn't return three messages left at the Falcons' training camp. His father Harold Martin told New Times only: "I will not discuss a sensitive issue involving my son." Kieran Fallon, Martin's Miami lawyer, was similarly mum: "Now that it is apparent that my client is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office, I don't think it's appropriate to comment.... It's no secret he and Brownlee have known each other for a long time. Mr. Brownlee owned restaurants and stores, and if you lived in that area, you know who Rickey Brownlee is. [Tony] still considers Brownlee to be a good guy."

The U.S. Attorney's Office has not requested to talk to Martin, according to Fallon. "I can't comment on an ongoing investigation," says Ron DeWaard, the Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting Brownlee. "I can neither confirm nor deny [the allegations]."

In a brief phone interview from prison that was ended abruptly by prison officials, the charismatic 41-year-old Brownlee acknowledged he turned to his friend Martin for help after his arrest. "I knew Tony when he was a kid, since before he played for the Dolphins. If I'm broke, can't I ask a man to help me out?"

At Miami Northwestern High School, Martin was in many ways an average kid, according to acquaintances. He had poor grades and kept to himself, but he stood out on the field. "Tony always had the athletic ability to do well," asserts Brett Perriman, who played with Martin at Northwestern, then went on to a ten-year pro career. "I saw him throw the ball 70 yards. He was the only one then who challenged me."

From the start Martin was quick, resourceful, and very determined, says Roger Coffey, who coached the Northwestern Bulls during the mid-Eighties. Coffey now coaches the Miami Central High Rockets. "He didn't talk a lot, but in practice he was a real leader. Tony was a very determined young man. That was the basic ingredient to his success, his determination not to be denied."

Off the field Martin was low-key, Perriman adds. "He was never one of those tough, hard-nosed guys like myself. He was always well dressed and well manicured. Kind of quiet."

Martin met Brownlee, a familiar figure in the inner city, during high school, friends say. Brownlee knew hundreds of people, from his businesses as well as from community barbecues and turkey giveaways that he sponsored. To many in the neighborhood, he had an aura of both success and danger: Brownlee has spent seven years in prison. The current case against him alleges offenses dating to 1986.

Perriman also knew of Brownlee. "I just heard his name around," he recalls. "I don't know about Tony's relationship with Rickey Brownlee."

According to Hirsch, Brownlee was a sports fan who tried to positively influence Martin. "Rickey knew Tony from the neighborhood, from when they were young. He encouraged Tony to keep working toward his professional career," Hirsch says.

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