published Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

First of 32 men charged in Chattanooga area federal crack case pleads guilty

EDITOR'S NOTE

At a Nov. 4, 2013, news conference unveiling an ongoing four-year federal crack-cocaine conspiracy investigation, officials called the 32 indicted men the "worst of the worst" criminals in the Chattanooga area and pointed to the local-federal partnership as indicative of future crime-fighting efforts. The Times Free Press has researched the criminal histories of the men charged and will follow developments in each of their cases as they work through the court system.

  • photo
    These 32 men that authorities have called the "worst of the worst" criminals in Chattanooga have been tied to more than 300 crimes, from murder to drug offenses and fishing without a license.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On Tuesday, the first of 32 men charged in a federal drug conspiracy and dubbed the "worst of the worst" following a November news conference pleaded guilty in federal court.

He won't be alone for long.

Today the second guilty plea is scheduled, with six more defendants having filed paperwork in recent weeks to do the same.

Federal judges have set trial dates for 19 of the men. The earliest is scheduled for Jan. 31. There are indications that more people may be arrested and added to the federal cases, the investigation of which began in 2009.

Guy L. Wilkerson Jr., 20, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a single count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison but will likely receive less as federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a reduced sentence in exchange for his plea.

Outside federal court after the hearing, Wilkerson's mother had little information and a lot of questions.

"I don't understand how they're 32 out of 32 worst of the worst and there's still stuff going on," said Yoalanda Satterwhite. "Folks are getting killed out here. People's houses still get shot up."

Satterwhite said she has visited her son in the Hamilton County Jail and she worries that he's not getting medication for his diagnosed mental conditions.

Her nephew, Derrick L. Smith, 22, is scheduled to plead guilty to a single charge of intent to distribute crack cocaine.

Six other men have either reached plea agreements or filed paperwork to do so -- Rahmon Christian, Donte Taylor, Kentarius Nealy, Shannon D. Mitchell, Rodney Harris II and Torrey Gilmore.

Harris faces not more than 20 years in prison, with no minimum required. Nealy faces a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 40. Gilmore faces at least eight years with a maximum of life in prison. Mitchell faces a 10-year minimum and a maximum of life.

On Tuesday no plea agreements had been filed for Taylor or Christian that would have given more detailed sentencing information.

In numerous letters and online comments to the Times Free Press and in public meetings and forums, community members have decried the "worst of the worst" label of the men charged in the drug conspiracy. They've pointed out that all of the men charged are black.

Multidefendant cases with suspects numbering in the dozens are not rare in federal court. And drug conspiracy cases involving methamphetamine are regularly prosecuted involving multiple all-white defendants.

The difference, authorities say, is the city's large number of shootings, violence often associated with the crack cocaine trade.

It was at the Nov. 4, 2013, news conference where representatives including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, the City Council, police department, Hamilton County District Attorney's office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, FBI, DEA and U.S. attorney's office unveiled the investigation.

Immediately following the news conference, then-Chattanooga police chief Bobby Dodd called the suspects the "worst of the worst" and predicted less local crime as a result of the roundup.

Berke pointed to the local-federal partnership that brought indictments against the 32 men as an example of future crime-fighting efforts and the possible penalty for Chattanooga-area criminals under his Violence Reduction Initiative.

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    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to the media from the U.S. Attorneys Office in Chattanooga in this Nov. 4, 2013, file photo.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The initiative is modeled after the High Point, N.C., community-policing strategy used over the course of nearly two decades to reduce violent crime in that city and replicated in other cities across the nation.

The program combines "get tough" policing on repeat violent offenders with community outreach including job training and assistance for those who want to leave the criminal life.

But at a Dec. 19 Times Free Press-sponsored forum, community members called the "worst of the worst" roundup counterproductive, racist and said it did not offer alternatives for career criminals.

The start of the investigation predates Berke's run for mayor and VRI announcement by nearly four years.

Times Free Press research into previous criminal histories of the named co-defendants showed that they have been connected to 103 assaults, 14 attempted murders, 27 robberies, two murders, 160 drug offenses, 42 weapons-related charges and hundreds of lesser crimes.

The federal cases show that of the 32, four face weapons charges, one of which involves an alleged carjacking. Nearly all face the charge of conspiracy, meaning prosecutors believe they planned to make or sell crack cocaine. Prosecutors say in court documents they have evidence that at least 15 of the 32 sold crack. One defendant was charged with distributing marijuana.

Wilkerson admitted in his plea agreement that Drug Enforcement Administration agents intercepted 15 drug-related phone calls involving him in a one-month period. He said he bought powder cocaine by the ounce and cooked it into crack-cocaine to resell.

He has one previous conviction of unlicensed weapons possession in Tennessee state court.

Court documents for Smith, scheduled to plead guilty today, show that on June 23, 2013, Chattanooga police arrested him with 11 grams of crack, $920 cash and a set of digital scales. He also faces a maximum sentence of 20 years but will likely receive less due to his plea.

Smith has Tennessee convictions that include drug possession, a driver's license violation and contraband in a penal institution.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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