Buju Banton is innocent
Photo by Jonathan Mannion
On December 8, 2009, reggae singer Buju Banton slipped on his swim trunks, pulled a pair of jeans over them, and, along with two friends — a female companion and his longtime driver and pal, Ian Thomas — jumped into his silver Land Rover with a "Jah One" vanity plate. They left his modest duplex in suburban Tamarac and began the drive to the Gulf Coast for a day of fun in the sun.
As the exit sign for Naples came into view, Buju called a man they were to meet named Junior to give him a heads-up they would soon arrive. But Junior said plans had changed. They needed to drive to Sarasota and meet him at a restaurant. From there they would grab keys for a friend's boat. Buju agreed.
In Sarasota, the three men sipped margaritas at a restaurant while the lady friend sat in the car. A short while later, the trio headed for a dimly lit warehouse, where someone closed and locked the shutter door behind them. Inside, a stranger who was lurking in the corner began speaking to Junior in Spanish, leaving Buju clueless. There was no boat or keys in sight.
With his long dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, Buju paced and swayed, his lanky frame oozing nervousness. He asked to use the bathroom but was told the toilet was broken.
"Let me go do it outside," he said.
Junior and the stranger avoided answering him. Then the stranger walked over to a parked car and opened a hidden compartment in the trunk to reveal 20 plastic-wrapped kilos of cocaine.
"I felt my stomach turn," Buju testified months later. "I tried to play it down and be calm. I keep telling myself... be cool, be cool, it's gonna be, just be cool."
Buju's friend Thomas was cool. He plucked a kilo from the pile and plopped it onto a workbench. Buju followed closely behind, peeking over his friend's shoulder as he made a small incision in the packaging. Thomas dabbed a fingertip of the powder on his tongue and proffered the blade to Buju, who followed suit.
After tasting the cocaine, Buju sank into a chair in the corner. He fiddled and tried to occupy himself while Thomas pulled out a phone and negotiated prices with an apparent buyer in Georgia.
"Yo, find out how much he wants," Buju murmured. He later claimed he had no idea who was on the line and that his remark was just an attempt to appear legitimate, to play it cool. Thomas carried on without pausing.
When the warehouse door screeched open, the men exchanged phone numbers. Buju claims he spent the long drive back to Tamarac throwing up from a combination of stress and margaritas. Later that night, Junior phoned the singer twice. Buju avoided the calls.
The next day, Thomas drove back to Sarasota alone and met Junior at an Applebee's for a round of negotiations. Junior pushed to get Buju involved in that day's antics. "He does not want to do nothing, man," Thomas responded. "That's not him, you know? Music, eat, sleep, shit every day." Junior agreed to sell five kilos to Thomas's connection in Georgia, then left the restaurant, called his supervisor at the Drug Enforcement Agency, and said it was a "miracle" that he held onto the deal.
On the morning of December 10, 2009, authorities busted Thomas and a guy from Georgia named James Mack at the Sarasota warehouse, where the two were caught with a gun and $135,000 in cash while trying to buy several kilos. Cops then pulled Buju from his Tamarac home and placed him under arrest on two charges: conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense — even though the firearm at issue was carried by Mack, not Buju.
It's a case built upon the handiwork of a mendacious snitch — Alex Johnson, AKA Junior — with an extensive criminal history and clear financial motives to see Buju arrested. An aggressive federal prosecutor spent big in two weeklong trials in Tampa to secure a celebrity conviction. The saga sheds light on how far the government will go and how dirty it will play to win the few big battles left in the long-ago failed War on Drugs. Now, while one of the most successful and controversial Jamaican artists — a man who won a Grammy for best reggae album a year ago — sits in a Miami penitentiary, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether unconstitutional tactics were used to nail a man who had no known criminal record.
Mark Anthony Myrie, better known by his nickname Buju ("Banton" is a title applied to storytellers and DJs), was born into the blistering heat of Kingston in July 1973. The youngest of 15, he grew up immersed in the poverty and political strife of a country that had gained its independence from the British Empire only a decade earlier. His mom sold provisions at the local market; his dad was out of the picture. As a young boy, he sneaked out at night and peeked into the nearby dancehalls to watch locals perform.
"I can remember there was a particular song by a great singer from my country by the name of Mr. Dennis Brown, and this song was called 'Promised Land,'" Buju would later testify. "In those days, we lived in a — what is called a board house, and we had... like metal sheets on top of our roof. Whenever the sounds would be playing across the street, our neighboring community, it would shake the very foundations of this house. And I always admired that song and tell myself one day I want to be part of the... creation of this kind of music."
Curly Cash, a Jamaican-born musician now living in Miami, remembers when Buju didn't have a pair of shoes and owned few clothes beyond his khaki school uniform. They would hang around Kingston, Buju climbing orange trees to pluck his lunch. There was something pesky about him, Cash says. His confidence and determination seemed absurd for such a young boy. The older Cash once lent 20 bucks to Buju. He also suggested the boy spend some time looking for a job. But poor, hungry Buju just laughed. It was music or nothing.
In the '80s, it took months if not years for an artist to get into a recording booth in Jamaica. Aspiring performers waited around the gates of studios praying that a producer would give them a break. It was a rainy day when Buju's chance came. He ended up in a taxi with an older DJ named Clement Irie who was going down to Blue Mountain studio. Irie wrapped up his set and asked the producer to give the boastful teenager a shot. The producer told Buju, who was then toasting under the moniker Gargamel, to sing when the red light came on.
"I didn't stop singing until the rhythm itself stopped playing," Buju recalled during court testimony. "When I opened my eyes and looked, they were all jumping around here like they liked what I was singing. Yeah, and that is where I really got my first start."
He was pure dancehall, spitting out lascivious boasts over pummeling beats. His roaring delivery quickly became a trademark many would emulate. Buju began churning out singles, and in 1992, he broke Bob Marley's record for number one hits in a year.
But also that year, "Boom Bye Bye," a single he had recorded while still a teenager, was re-released. It is a violent antigay song that, among other things, discusses shooting homosexuals and burning them "like an old tire wheel." The song opens with this declaration: "World is in trouble/Anytime Buju Banton come/Batty bwoy get up an run/At gunshot me head back/Hear I tell him now crew/It's like, boom bye bye/Inna batty bwoy head. " Batty bwoy is a derogatory term for gay men.
Buju's old friend, silk-voiced reggae star Wayne Wonder, remembers how "Boom Bye Bye" came about. He and Buju blew up in Jamaica around the same time. In the early days, Wonder says, they would "campaign," or party, through the dancehalls to build up their following. They collaborated on numerous hits at Kingston's Penthouse Records and went on to tour Japan, Europe, and dozens of other places together.
"We were listening to Punanny Riddim [a popular reggae beat] in my two-door Civic [and] just picked up Buju," Wonder recalls while working at his home studio in Davie. "We were driving back down and pick up one of my little girlfriends. And she gives us dis story about two guys who got caught in a bathroom. 'Boom Bye Bye' wasn't intended for any animosity or to incite violence 'pon gays and lesbians. It was just a personal thing, you know. And a vibe come out in the car, and Buju just says, 'a boom bye bye in a batty bwoy head,'" Wonder recalls to the beat of the song as he rises out of his chair.
It is widely reported that the song was inspired by the rape and murder of a young boy by a gay man in Jamaica. While the song grew popular as a way for Jamaicans who were enraged by that incident to funnel their anger, it had the opposite effect in the United States and Europe. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and dozens of other groups denounced the violent lyrics as hate speech. His airplay abroad diminished. Labels took a step back. Even years after the song's release, sponsors would back out of festivals when they learned Buju was on the bill.
Carolyn Cooper, PhD, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of West Indies, explains, "The Jamaican language is very metaphorical. I try to make the argument that when Buju says all homosexuals must die — it sounds very literal — it's an indictment of homosexuality and not an incitement to actually kill all homosexuals."
But people like Brian Winfield, managing director for Equality Florida, contend that "Boom Bye Bye" couldn't be a clearer incitement of violence against gay people. "The lyrics talk about shooting gay people; they call on listeners to shoot gay people in the head and burn gay people with acid and fire," he says. "[Buju] has been profiting off the song for 20 years."
Buju apologized for how the song was interpreted and the angst it stirred, but he never disavowed the idea homosexuality is wrong.
In 1995, his career took off with the release of 'Til Shiloh, a deeply spiritual album that analyzes global inequity and the legacy of colonialism and contains a few dancehall classics for safe measure. Buju had begun embracing Rastafarianism.
Around that time, he met Father Abba Tekle Mariam, a priest from the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church in London, and invited the older man to teach for a day at his Gargamel Studio. They strolled around, and Mariam remembers seeing dozens of people waiting outside, some looking for help, some just hoping to catch a glimpse of the "Voice of Jamaica," as Buju was then known. The priest says Buju had become a one-man social service.
"A lady, her son was just murdered, came asking for money to do the funeral service. And he called some of the people that worked at his studio and had them give her money to cover the expense. Then there was a lady with her baby who couldn't eat, and he just gave her dollars," Mariam says, rattling off several other examples. "I asked him how he became the social service, how he would manage. And he just said God gives to him, so he should give to the people."
Buju began leveraging his fame to improve his homeland. He helped fund a hospice for HIV-positive children — which had to be done covertly given the stigma of the disease in Jamaica — and when Puma approached him to be a brand ambassador for the Summer Olympics, he made the sportswear company hook up the local kids with new soccer gear and a field.
In spite of his generosity, it's difficult to estimate how much wealth Buju accumulated. Like many reggae artists, he traveled frequently between Jamaica and South Florida. Here, he lived in a simple condo that was appraised at only $100,450 this year. Presumably, he had plenty of expenses for the 13 children he had fathered over the course of his career.
Between 1997 and 2009, Buju put out six full-length albums and made dozens of appearances on various mixes. In 2009, he released Rasta Got Soul and began touring to promote the album.
Roy "Gramps" Morgan opened for Buju on the seven-week U.S. tour, which snaked from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Florida. He remembers long drives between shows chatting about girls and politics, laughing till their faces hurt. Buju is a machine on the road; his energy is second to no one, Morgan says. He describes Buju's schedule thusly: wake, pray, work out, eat porridge prepared by his chef, travel, perform, and repeat. Many mornings, Buju would bound to Morgan's bus and bang on the door before anyone else was awake.
Buju, Morgan says, never drinks on tour. One glass of wine and he's gone.
On July 26, 2009, Buju boarded a first-class flight from Madrid to Miami. He had just finished the eight-and-a-half-week European leg of the Rasta Got Soul tour and decided to celebrate by watching Ben-Hur and kicking back with a mimosa. The man seated next to him told Buju to try red wine because "that's a man's drink." The two hit it off. They drank for eight and a half hours, going from wine to Scotch to beer. They got so drunk and loud the flight attendant asked them to settle down. When a tipsy Buju was stopped coming back into first class from coach, the stranger vouched he was indeed supposed to be there, a gesture that made a lasting impression.
The guy — his name, he said, was Junior — told Buju he ran a successful fishing business. He also had a passing knowledge of the reggae industry — he name-dropped Lloyd Evans, a manager whom Buju had looked up to as a young man — and said he had powerful friends in the L.A. recording industry. Those were the first of many drunken lies Alex Johnson would tell.
As the plane neared the American coast, Johnson pulled out a wad of cash and gestured to Buju that he was bringing money in from illicit ventures. This piqued the musician's curiosity. A boozed-up Buju, not wanting to be outdone by a fisherman, bragged he too had his hand in something on the side — a drug ring that moved kilos from Venezuela through St. Martin to Europe. At the end of the flight, they exchanged numbers and went their respective ways.
The next morning, Buju's phone rang.
"You want to get something to drink? You want to get something to eat?" Johnson said, asking if Buju was still jet-lagged. Buju agreed.
A few hours later, he and a friend met Johnson in Fort Lauderdale and headed to the now-defunct restaurant Bova Prime. There, they sucked back drinks and laughed, the whole conversation surreptitiously recorded on a wire worn by Johnson.
"We were drinking for eight and a half hours nonstop," Johnson bragged about the flight from Spain to a realtor who had stopped by the restaurant to show Buju some listings. "He's drinking champagne, and I'm drinking red wine. We were drinking and laughing, and everybody is looking."
For more than two hours, the men drank while talking about family, women, cars, home buying — the beginning of a blooming bromance. Then Buju's low tolerance hit him.
"Too much red wine," he slurred. "I need water."
Realizing he was bombed, Buju cut himself off. He went outside to smoke a spliff and catch a ride with his friend. Johnson rushed over before they could leave.
"Excuse me, excuse me. I hate to, I hate to bring up the cocaine," Johnson said. It was the first mention of drugs all day.
Just as he had done on the flight, Buju began rambling about his supposed drug-dealing ventures. He portrayed himself as a Bond-like villain, leading Johnson to believe he toured the world with his band by day and moved thousands upon thousands of kilos throughout the world by night. The drug talk quickly fizzled, though, and Johnson started chatting about his boat and how much fun they would have on it one day.
After that night, the calls kept coming. Johnson said he had told his wife all about Buju and asked how he could get backstage passes. Though at times Johnson sounded like a desperate hanger-on from summer camp, Buju didn't totally write him off. Hanging out with him was fun, and perhaps his music-industry contacts could put the "Boom Bye Bye" legacy to rest.
After a few days, Buju agreed to meet for some more drinks at a nearby Marriott. The day progressed as it had at Bova Prime and on the plane. Buju brought a friend, and the threesome started in on the booze. It wasn't until everyone was lubed up with liquor that Johnson steered the conversation toward the coke trade. Buju, again, bragged. Again, the conversation was taped.
Johnson said he did $30 million deals, and Buju countered he did $50 million deals. Buju claimed he would never get caught because he was only an investor. He threw out figures on the price of kilos in Panama and Suriname. Looking to really outdo everyone, Buju expressed interest in the African diamond trade because, well, "diamonds are king."
Yet at these meetings, Buju stumbled on details that might be common knowledge to an international drug trafficker. He mixed up kilos with pounds and underestimated certain costs. Johnson corrected him on several points. After the Marriott, Buju's appreciation for Johnson came to an end.
"When I leave Mr. Johnson, I am going, like, 'Idiot!'" Buju would testify later, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
Buju had enough of hanging out, getting drunk, and playing Scarface. Johnson called him throughout August, September, October, and November. Buju politely made himself unavailable until the fateful day when he accepted an invitation to Sarasota, talked more about coke over margaritas, and then got locked in a warehouse with 20 kilos and two men he presumed to be armed Colombian drug dealers.
On Valentine's Day 2011, hours after winning the Grammy for best reggae album, Buju stood up from a small wooden table in a Tampa federal courtroom and bumped fists with David Oscar Markus, his Harvard-trained, Miami-based attorney. To their right, at a separate table, sat their opponents: James Preston, an archetypal federal prosecutor with thick white hair; and Dan McCaffrey, a buzzed-cut, goateed special agent with the DEA.
This was the second time the lawyers would face off over the fate of Buju. In September 2010, the government's first attempt to prosecute him ended in a hung jury stalled at 7-5 in favor of not guilty. Buju faced only two charges that time. In between the first and second trials, prosecutors tacked on two more: attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine and using the wires to facilitate a drug-trafficking offense. The basis for the wires charge was that Buju had said one line — "Yo, find out how much he wants" — in the warehouse.
Over the weeklong retrial, Preston teased out details trying to prove Buju was a legitimate player in the international drug trade. He showed jurors the grainy, green-tinged surveillance video of Buju dabbing his tongue with government-issued cocaine at the Sarasota warehouse and played tape recordings of his slurred drug talk. He labeled Buju a broker who expected to get a cut of the money from whatever deal Ian Thomas and Alex Johnson reached.
But Buju and his defense attorney swore the singer was just a boaster who talked a good game. Markus set out to destroy the credibility of the government's star witness, Alex Johnson. For that, the attorney had plenty of ammunition.
Johnson was born in Colombia in October 1949. "This con artist, Alexander Johnson, imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine and marijuana into this country in the '80s and '90s. Not a little here, a little there. Thousands," Markus explained to the jury in his opening statement.
At the time, Johnson operated under the street name "El Gordo" and worked as a transporter for the Colombian cartels. Then, in 1993, U.S. authorities arrested him while he was trying to import 700 kilos. Facing life in prison and overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Johnson decided to cooperate. He was able to get the sentence reduced to 20 years, but that was still too long for his liking. So he pointed a finger at others and got another ten years knocked off. Then, after serving fewer than three years, Johnson convinced the feds that he would be of greater use on the outside. He walked from prison in 1996, getting his probation waived in the process. Johnson was a free man with a new job title: confidential informant.
He has excelled as a CI, working for the DEA, the FBI, and other national and local law enforcement agencies. Johnson isn't paid a salary for this gig; rather, he gets a cut of the money seized in the busts he arranges. It's like a commission, and he has earned nearly $3.5 million in commission — enough to buy a plush home with a swimming pool for $890,000 within a secured, gated community in Davie.
"Now, you will hear when people make money and when they work, they pay taxes. Not Alex Johnson... He owes almost $200,000 to the IRS," Markus said to the jury. "Alex Johnson isn't going to pay the IRS, isn't going to pay his mortgage, isn't going to pay his credit cards. You know what Alex Johnson did? Filed for bankruptcy last year."
Markus noted that the snitch earned $50,000 for the Buju bust. He then revealed that Johnson isn't a U.S. citizen and will never be one. Immigration and Customs Enforcement permanently barred him from obtaining citizenship because of his felony conviction. But he can't go back to Colombia because of a potential bounty on his head for snitching, so he got the DEA to request that ICE not deport him. Unless he keeps bringing in cases, there's little incentive for ICE to keep good on its favor.
Markus isn't the first to uncover those flaws. About a decade ago, Johnson had set up a young man by the name of Andrew W. Smith on a cocaine deal. Smith did not fight the accusations. In a lengthy sentencing hearing, the judge on the case, Ann Aldrich, blasted the government's reliance on Johnson.
"The court found Mr. Johnson's testimony not to be entirely truthful based upon Mr. Johnson's extensive criminal history, his career of defrauding others, his financial incentives to provide testimony favorable to the government, and his demeanor during his testimony," Aldrich said. "In fact, the jury declined to believe Johnson's testimony that Mr. Smith possessed cocaine. The court, like the jury in this case, has no reason to take Mr. Johnson's word over Mr. Smith's."
In Buju's case, the judge blocked this tidbit from entering his courtroom. The jury would also never learn that the prosecutor and the informant have been working together for at least a decade and have never lost a case. (Prosecutors did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
In court, Johnson wore a tan-on-tan suit. He incessantly stroked his chin and cleared his throat, keeping his answers as short as possible.
"You made more as a confidential informant than you did as a drug trafficker, right?" Markus asked.
"Yes," Johnson said.
"You wanted [Buju] to have another glass of wine, didn't you?" Markus asked, discussing the meeting at Bova Prime.
"Yes," Johnson said.
"Why?" Markus pressed in a biting tone.
"It's part of the game I'm playing there," Johnson said.
"This isn't a game, is it? This is a man's life," Markus wailed, sparking murmurs throughout the courtroom.
When DEA Special Agent Dan McCaffrey took the stand, he acknowledged that the agency never produced a single piece of evidence to prove Buju's boasts that he had previously moved drugs from Venezuela or invested in coke deals. In fact, the government did not bother to search his home, bank accounts, computers, or text messages after arresting him. McCaffrey also explained that getting Buju into the warehouse without ever mentioning that he would be seeing kilos was a strategic move called a "flash show" that's used to mitigate the chances of snitches getting robbed.
First-year law students skipped class at Stetson University to watch the trial unfold, and prayer circles echoed through the courthouse corridor. Stephen Marley, who put his house on the line to spring Buju from lockup between trials, testified as a character witness that Buju is a born braggadocio, a toaster who would try to outtalk anyone, no matter the topic. Reporters on assignment from Jamaica sprinted out of the building during recess to file stories on their BlackBerrys.
Then, on the third day of the trial, Buju waived his Fifth Amendment right and sat in front of the jury to emphatically declare his innocence.
"I had no intention of doing a drug deal, from the sincerity of my heart," Buju said. "I was just talking, drinking with this guy, talking, talking because that's what he always talks about. Now I know he was doing it with a motive in mind."
He told the jury that he had never been to Venezuela, had never seen $50 million in his life, and had no idea he was going to see cocaine when he drove to Sarasota. He said he talked the talk but did not walk the walk. He acknowledged that the transcripts and recordings looked bad, though, and apologized repeatedly.
"I'm very ashamed of myself. I'm very ashamed of myself for behaving in that manner, and I feel like I'm receiving a public flogging, and I'm readily accepting.
"It's my faith that keep me sitting here now, 'cause I'm an innocent man," Buju said.
After closing arguments, Buju, with his manager and legal team, gathered in an empty dining room at a Courtyard Marriott. Everyone looked worn. Buju, knowing he could be sentenced to life in prison the next morning, sneaked a stiff drink from a plastic juice bottle. He told Markus he'd better visit when all of this is over — in Jamaica or jail — and reiterated his innocence. The few sips of whatever was in that bottle made his tongue loose. He started mixing metaphors, rambling about gods coming down from a mountain for a day of judgment. It was a firsthand demonstration of how little the man could drink.
"I'll take anything but guilty," Markus said, his head cocked toward Buju.
"Will you charge for a third trial?" Buju asked, cracking a smile and prompting everyone at the table to explode with laughter.
The next morning, a Friday, the jurors marched into deliberation. Their debate stretched over President's Day weekend and into late Tuesday afternoon.
Markus had been acutely aware of the risks Buju faced when they passed on a plea and decided to fight the government. Wrangling with federal prosecutors before a jury is a dangerous and dying art form. Markus once testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that in 1984, when the Sentencing Reform Act was passed, about 18 percent of cases went to trial. In 2007, a mere 3.7 percent went to trial. A possible cause, he noted, was that those who argued in court and lost received sentences that were 500 percent longer than those who copped a plea.
The jury found Buju guilty on three of the four charges, including using the wires to facilitate a drug-trafficking offense. Ian Thomas and James Mack, the two who were on the phones and caught trying to buy kilos at the Sarasota warehouse, never faced that charge. They got four and six years, respectively, through plea deals. Buju was sentenced to ten years.
Anyone watching the trial would have had questions. Buju never gave a dollar to anyone for cocaine, nor did he take a dollar. No one offered him the drug, and he didn't offer it to anyone. There wasn't even hard evidence that Buju expected to earn a dime. The government simply bombarded the jury, which included three African-Americans, with the video footage from the warehouse and audio recordings of a drunken Buju boasting about drugs — something many dancehall artists get paid to do. Perhaps most important, the second trial's judge prohibited the introduction of evidence that the key informant is a hired liar who has been deemed untrustworthy in the past.
The "Voice of Jamaica" is now silenced, confined to a cell in the Federal Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade, where he is one year into his sentence. His Tamarac duplex has been foreclosed on, and his community in Jamaica no longer has its one-man social service. His last-ditch hope is that an appeals court in Atlanta throws out his case because of one of the nearly ten issues raised in his appeal, ranging from entrapment to prosecutorial vindictiveness. But that could take another year at least.
Meanwhile, Alex Johnson is free to wander the world in pursuit of his next target. His life goes on in his gated community. He is dragging out his fight with the IRS so he'll never have to pay a cent in taxes on the millions he earned by urging other people to commit crimes.
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