The chatty man drinking red wine with reggae star Buju Banton on a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Miami in the United States seemed to have important music industry connections so, the singer told a court in Tampa, Florida, yesterday, he tried to impress with made-up ambitions of drug trafficking when the talk turned to cocaine.
Buju, whose real name is Mark Myrie, was giving testimony in a Tampa federal court where he is facing charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and aiding and abetting two others in possessing a firearm during the course of cocaine distribution. He faces up to life in prison.
The man, Alexander Johnson, was an undercover United States government informant. Buju said he liked Johnson, but he was only looking to secure a new distribution contract – not a cocaine deal.
“I’m just a humble musician. I was talking over my head,” the four-time Grammy-nominated musician declared. “I was trying to impress this guy and that’s what got me in this hot seat right now.”
Johnson has testified that Buju admitted involvement in drug trafficking, and he wanted to give Johnson money so he could buy and sell cocaine. Their recorded conversations were played Tuesday for the jury.
The 37-year-old Rastafarian took the stand yesterday in a grey suit jacket, his long dreadlocks tied up in a braid. He said Johnson initiated their conversation about drugs on the plane in July 2009.
Buju said he made up ambitions to deal cocaine to one-up Johnson, who was talking about cocaine and marijuana deals of his own, alongside a legitimate seafood business and music industry contacts in Los Angeles.
Talk of cocaine
When they met for lunch at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant the next day and at a hotel a few days later, it was Johnson who brought up cocaine, Buju said.
Buju said he never wanted nor expected Johnson to set up a cocaine deal, despite what he said in the recordings. The singer had told Johnson that he financed drug deals, wanted to sell drugs in Europe, buy drugs from the Caribbean and South America and use Johnson’s boat to transport drugs.
“I talk too much, but I am not a drug dealer,” Buju told the court.
Buju said he was surprised when the informant presented him with cocaine at an undercover police warehouse in Sarasota on December 8. Surveillance video shows Buju peering over co-defendant Ian Thomas’ shoulder at the cocaine, and the singer tasting the drugs with a finger.
The singer said he thought Johnson was going to show him his boat and offices.
“When I realised this was real drugs, I thought, ‘This is a real drug dealer, and I want no part of it’,” Buju said. “I was in over my head.”
Under cross-examination yesterday by Markus, Johnson said the cocaine was a “surprise showing”.
Johnson said he continued to pursue a cocaine deal with Banton, even though the singer repeatedly cancelled meetings and rushed him off the phone, if he answered Johnson’s calls at all.
“I needed him to come to me,” Johnson said. “I was doing the job I was doing from day one.”
Buju said he avoided Johnson’s calls afterward, and he did not know Thomas would try to set up a drug deal with Johnson on December 10.
That day, Thomas and another co-defendant, James Mack, were arrested at the warehouse. Buju was arrested at his Miami-area home.
Thomas and Mack have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Each faces up to life in prison.
Assistant US Attorney James Preston asked Buju what he thought he would gain by lying about his involvement in drug trafficking.
“I know you want to paint me bad,” Buju replied. “If I was a drug dealer, I would have taken the plea deal you offered me.”
Another reggae singer testified yesterday for Banton.
Stephen Marley, one of music legend Bob Marley’s sons, told jurors that in the 19 years he has been friends and played music with Buju, he has never known him to traffic in cocaine.