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Firebombs and Shootings: Drug Trial a Sensation in Washington

November 4, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The home of a witness’s mother is firebombed. An informant is shot after being accidentally exposed by the prosecution. A judge worries about jurors’ safety so much he debates having them wear masks in court.

Small wonder this trial is being conducted behind bullet-proof plastic 1 1/ 2 inches thick.

The chief actor in this real-life script is 24-year-old Rayful Edmond III who, according to prosecutors, was president and chief executive officer of ″one of the largest business enterprises in the Washington, D.C., area.″

Edmond is alleged by the government to have run the largest cocaine ring in the history of the District of Columbia: $2 million a week, 70 pounds of cocaine a month, 30 killings along the way.

The supporting cast includes Edmond’s mother, several brothers, brothers- in-law and his grandmother, whose home allegedly was headquarters for the enterprise and who has become a fixture on evening news shows with remarks as flamboyant as the trademark hats she wears.

Edmond borrowed techniques from Fortune 500 companies, according to prosecutors: He offered good pay - $500 a week minimum - expensive cars, a company attorney, help in purchasing real estate, lavish trips and clothes and jewelry. There were all-expenses paid trips to the Super Bowl and to heavyweight championship fights in Las Vegas. His payroll swelled once to 150 people.

He operated, the government says, the hottest drug market in the city on two narrow tree-lined blocks in northeast Washington known as ″The Strip.″ At peak hours, cars would be bumper-to-bumper waiting for young street sellers to bring plastic bags of cocaine for $50 apiece.

The trial, which began Sept. 11, has become something of a sensation in Washington, much like the Oliver North case that unfolded two floors down earlier in the year and the John Hinckley trial that took place two floors above.

Security was tight for those cases, but nothing like the Edmond trial. The jurors are anonymous - even to the judge and lawyers - and are identified only by number. Would-be spectators are held down the hall and summoned one-by-one to go through metal detectors.

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey declared in a memorandum that there was a ″substantial likelihood of imminent danger to the safety of the parties, witnesses, and other persons.″ Suspecting the gang was trying to identify individual jurors, he tried to close the trial to the public, leaving only reporters, but was thwarted by an appeals court.

In court, Edmond and his 10 co-defendants are matched one-on-one by U.S. marshals. Add to that a dozen defense lawyers, four or five for the government, the 12 jurors and three alternates, court clerks and stenographer and the court takes on the appearance of a Roman Forum. There are too many lawyers to crowd at the bench for conferences; instead, they listen through wireless headphones.

The 11 are charged variously with cocaine distribution, conspiracy and racketeering. For Edmond, there is an additional charge punishable by life in prison without parole - carrying on a continuing criminal enterprise.

Edmond also is scheduled for trial, along with three other alleged gang members, on three first-degree murder charges. And there will be a third proceeding for others charged with conspiracy, swelling the number of defendants to 24.

Despite the security precautions, Richey’s court had to be emptied once because of a bomb threat. Remote-control video cameras scan the well of the court and the spectator seats. The judge often has armed escorts from home to court.

The chief defense lawyer, William H. Murphy Jr., wrangles constantly with the judge and the government’s lead lawyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Betty Ann Soiefer.

During a shouting match, Ms. Soiefer elbowed Murphy away from the lectern. He, in turn, likened her to football player William ″the Refrigerator″ Perry and demanded an apology. The judge said he had not seen anything wrong with the prosecutor’s conduct.

The trial began with six alternate jurors; it now has only three. One was dismissed earlier this month after it became clear his identity had become known to defense attorneys, another because of family hardship and the third after she allegedly told other jurors she believed all of the defendants are innocent.

There have been violent incidents. In March, prosecutors by mistake mailed a letter to the home of a key informant, detailing her cooperation and warning her life might be in danger. The witness was sharing her home with Edmond’s brother, Emanuel Sutton, a defendant in the trial.

A week later, the informant, Deborah Y. Phillips, was shot in the leg. A month later, she was found by her mother with her mouth taped shut and suffering from an apparent drug overdose. Since then she has refused to testify, citing her rights against self-incrimination.

In her grand jury testimony, she had described counting money for the organization, paying salaries to the workers and preparing drugs for street sale. She said she regularly turned over shoeboxes of money to Edmond, often as much as $60,000 a box.

The trial was three weeks old when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the home of the mother of Kathy Sellers, a government witness on the stand at that time. Nobody was hurt, but U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens said all witnesses would be offered police protection.

Testimony has proved no less sensational than the theatrics surrounding the trial.

Ms. Sellers testified she once watched Constance Perry - Edmond’s mother - use a money-counting machine on thousands of dollars at the home of one of Edmond’s sisters. Both mother and sister are under indictment.

Drug agent John Cornille was surrounded on the stand by so many stacks of cocaine seized during the arrest of one defendant that he was almost blocked from view.

Alta Rae Zanville told of visiting the apartment of defendant Tony Lewis and finding so much money stacked on the floor that it did not fit into three pieces of luggage. ″I would venture to say it was about $3 million,″ she said.

Stevenson McArthur, a 20-year-old serving a prison term for dealing, testified he owned seven cars when he was 17.

He became acquainted with Edmond outside a convenience store when he asked about the black Mercedes-Benz that Edmond was driving. Asked how he knew the car was worth $80,000, McArthur replied: ″I had one of my own.″

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