Commercial Appeal Article:
Craig Petties is used to being in control.
Before his arrest, the infamous drug lord, believed to be one of the richest and most deadly dealers in Memphis history, had an organization of people who followed his orders or paid the price, sometimes with their lives.
Petties, a high school drop out who grew up in the impoverished Riverside neighborhood in South Memphis, emerged as a multimillionaire and ran an international trafficking empire that funneled hundreds of kilos of cocaine and more than a ton of marijuana from Mexico into Tennessee and other Southern states. Anyone who was perceived as a threat to the business — including one of Petties’ beloved cousins — was silenced with bullets.
Now, through two lawyers, the 36-year-old is angling for control of his court case, a dozen years after his initial arrest.
The man who remained a federal fugitive for five years is asking a judge to force prosecutors to shave time off his sentence because he spared them the expense of a trial by pleading guilty in 2009 to racketeering and murder charges, and because he spilled secrets about other crimes to aid other investigations.
U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is expected to sentence Petties, who faces life in a federal prison, during a hearing Thursday.
Prosecutors are fighting back, arguing during previous court hearings that while Petties has cooperated to some extent, he still isn’t revealing all he knows about murders and other crimes in Memphis or in Mexico.
For instance, Petties claimed he was in bed asleep on April, 21, 2002 when one of his hit men fired 10 shots at Petties’ cousin, Antonio Allen, outside a South Memphis home. Investigators say they’re sure Petties gave the orders to kill Allen, erroneously thinking Allen had become a government witness.
Petties and the hit man served as pallbearers at the victim’s funeral.
Another problem for Petties, because he remained a federal fugitive for years, is that much of what he has said came too late — after his minions disclosed many of the same details about the drug ring to reduce their own sentences.
Through the years, more than 40 Petties’ associates have pleaded guilty and received prison stints, causing members who were friends since childhood to turn against one another.
Many secrets of their underworld still remain hidden in sealed court documents, further protected when Mays closed portions of hearings to reporters and the public. Yet a glimpse has been gradually revealed during the past decade in police reports, hearings and unsealed court records.
Organization members have testified how they followed Petties’ orders to kill an associate who became a key government witness. And police listened in on jail phone calls between drug-ring members who were discussing plans to kill the lead investigators, Abe Collins, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and Memphis police detective Therman Richardson.
A jury convicted two of Petties’ enforcers, the only ones who demanded a trial, last year, and both were sentenced this summer to life sentences in federal prisons. A sign of the volatile nature of the drug ring: jurors’ names were shielded even from the judge, and armed deputy U.S. Marshals escorted them from an undisclosed location before and after court each day of the six-week trial.
Spectators, including the mother of a victim who was kidnapped, tortured for days and murdered, watched the trial eight floors below the courtroom in a room protected by an additional security checkpoint and rigged with video conference equipment that never showed jurors’ faces.
Prosecutors had to wait to prosecute one lingering associate, Christopher Hamlett, a childhood friend of Petties who became part of the drug leader’s inner circle. Hamlett, 36, who spent five years in a Mexican prison, was sentenced in Memphis earlier this month. As part of his plea deal, which landed him a 15-year sentence, he connected several murders in Mexico to Petties, Asst. U.S. Atty. David Pritchard said. Those are murders Petties didn’t tell prosecutors about.
A third factor that could have hurt Petties’ chances at a reduced sentence: He has caused problems behind bars.
He was initially held at a federal jail in Memphis, but was caught with a 6-inch shank hidden in the mattress in his jail cell. Even while standing before the judge in December 2010, he tried to minimize the crime — saying it was a piece of “plastic off my tray,” before agreeing with prosecutors’ assertions that it was made of metal and sharpened into a crude knife. Petties was moved to a jail in Atlanta, but prosecutors filed a request, in a document that still remains sealed, to move him. According to a copy of the judge’s September 2012 order, Mays agreed there was “good cause” Petties should be sent to a federal jail in New York, where he was placed in solitary confinement.
Petties, caught by Memphis police with an estimated $300,000 worth of marijuana in 2001, fled the country in 2002. He lived a life of luxury in Acapulco and central Mexico under the protection of his drug suppliers, the violent and powerful Beltran Leyva cartel, and had a personal trainer, chef, maid, nanny, driver and armed security detail. When police in the country pulled him over for any reason, after Petties made a quick call to the cartel, the officers ended up apologizing to him.
Despite landing on the U.S. Marshals Service 15 Most Wanted list, Petties could avoid capture by keeping on the move and bribing corrupt Mexican officials. But in January 2008 he feared his phone calls were being intercepted so he threw the phone away, preventing any officials from tipping him off.
The military blocked off streets, sent snipers crawling on rooftops of area homes, positioned a helicopter to hover above and stormed Petties’ homes in the upscale suburb of Queretaro, 136 miles northwest of Mexico City. Petties, speaking Spanish, tried to bribe his way free, but was arrested. Four of his children, twin 4-year-old boys and girls ages 10 and 16, were taken to a facility. The children’s mother, Latosha Booker, 35, who was taking their 10-month-old girl to the nanny at the time, eventually returned to the U.S. with her children.
Petties was quickly deported to Houston before being brought to Memphis.
He immediately began to cooperate with federal prosecutors, who initially had considered pursuing the death penalty against him. In exchange for his cooperation, Petties wanted help safeguarding Booker and his children from a vengeful cartel.
Petties pleaded guilty to 19 charges, including ordering four murders, during a secret hearing in 2009. Much of the court case remains sealed.
His sentencing will end the 12-year-old case of a drug-trafficking organization believed to be one of the largest and most deadly in Tennessee history.