By Dan Horn and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One of the city's biggest drug investigations in years began with a $100 purchase of crack cocaine in the heart of Cincinnati's West End.
The buyer was an FBI informant, authorities say, and the seller was a member of the Tot Lot Posse.
From that modest beginning in August 2002, federal and local investigators built a case against the Tot Lot gang that now links its members to drug trafficking, intimidation, violence and as many as 16 homicides during the past two years.
Eight suspected gang members were indicted on federal drug charges last week, and three of the accused leaders pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court.
Attorneys for the men claim the charges are exaggerated and say the suspects are decent men and caring fathers who did nothing wrong.
But court records and sworn statements from FBI agents paint a different picture.
They portray the suspected gang members as aggressive, violent criminals who were so greedy they kept selling drugs even after they knew police and the FBI were on to them.
At times, authorities say, the men played a cat-and-mouse game with investigators, stashing cocaine in secret locations, throwing out cell phones they feared were being monitored and evading FBI agents who tried to follow their cars.
The accused gang leader, Antwynne Beavers, kept tens of thousands of dollars in his home and once hid a half-kilogram of cocaine behind a picture frame in his dining room, authorities say.
FBI surveillance linked Beavers, 30, to several different drug sales and tracked 5,228 calls made to or sent from his cell phone during a seven-week period in early 2003.
"This defendant is a drug dealer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Springer said Tuesday at Beavers' arraignment. "There is nothing to indicate he would not go back to doing that if he were released."
Magistrate Timothy Hogan ordered Beavers and the others held without bond.
The charges against Beavers accuse him of obtaining "multi-kilogram quantities" of cocaine from Rosario Leyva Corrales, Joaquin Sotelo and Ampelio Haro Rodriguez. The three, who remain at large, are among the eight men indicted on drug charges.
Prosecutors say Beavers then conspired to distribute the drugs with Jonte Sanders, 22, Eric Johnson, 27, Jimmar Long, 21, and Raymone Johnson, 24. All but Sanders have been arrested.
Authorities said Tuesday they initially thought Eric and Raymone Johnson were brothers, but that is not the case.
According to the indictment, Beavers arranged to rent apartments where he and the others would "cook" the powder cocaine, transforming it into crack cocaine, and would then package the drugs for sale.
Police say the Tot Lot gang, which took its name from a children's playground in the area, has terrorized residents there for years.
Court records show police have told the FBI that as many as 16 homicides are linked to the gang, although they have not said which ones. None of the men charged last week is accused in a homicide case.
Kenneth Lawson, the lawyer for Beavers and Eric Johnson, said police, the media and Mayor Charlie Luken have hyped the case so much that suspected gang members are blamed for almost every problem in the West End.
"I think what's trumped up is the media coverage and the stuff coming out of the mayor's office," Lawson said Tuesday. "All this stuff coming out of the mayor's office is bull."
He said Beavers, who has six children, did nothing wrong. "He has very strong community ties," Lawson said in court. "The courtroom is filled with members of his family."
As Beavers left the courtroom in shackles, several of his children cried and waved to him. "Bye, Daddy," said one. "I love you."
But prosecutors say the evidence gathered over the past two years reveals Beavers, also known as "T.Z." and "T-Zoney," as much more than a family man.
Based on electronic surveillance and testimony from confidential informants, the evidence includes numerous telephone conversations between Beavers and other suspected gang members.
Authorities say one such conversation featured Beavers asking Sanders to bring him baking soda - used in the production of crack cocaine - so he "can do some cooking." They say other conversations involved illegal three-way calls to prison that allowed Beavers to keep in touch with gang members who were locked up.
Once, investigators say, Sanders called Beavers on his cell phone as police raided his home. FBI agents, who monitored the call, later said in sworn statements that Beavers demanded to know if Sanders "had anything there."
"Only half an ounce and the heat," Sanders replied, according to the FBI.
The "ounce" referred to drugs and the "heat" to a gun, authorities say.
The court records also noted that gang members were "conscious of law enforcement activity." FBI agents tried to follow the suspects on several occasions with little success.
"(Agents) were only successful in following them for a short period of time due to their driving techniques, which include: driving at high rates of speed, weaving in and out of traffic, running red lights and stop signs ... and dangerous and erratic driving," one FBI agent said in a sworn statement.
Authorities have since seized some of the cars once used by the suspects.
They say Beavers, described in court as an unemployed barber, owned at least six of them.
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