MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The leader of a violent Memphis-based drug organization with ties to Mexico's Beltran Leyva cartel has been sentenced to life in federal prison.
Craig Petties was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays, who said Petties' crimes were the most serious he had ever seen.
Petties secretly pleaded guilty in December 2009 to racketeering, money laundering and ordering the slayings of four individuals he perceived as snitches or threats to the organization. His plea was not disclosed until February 2011.
Petties built a multistate drug ring that operated from 1995 to 2008. Cocaine and marijuana were shipped from Mexico to Memphis in semi -trucks, then distributed for sale throughout the South.
Petties fled to Mexico after his 2002 indictment. He was placed on the U.S. Marshals Service 15 Most-Wanted List before his capture in January 2008.
Two of Petties' henchmen, cousins Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis, were convicted in March 2012 of being enforcers for the organization. They were also sentenced to life in prison. About 70 witnesses testified and 300 pieces of evidence were admitted during their trial, one of the largest federal drug trials ever held in Tennessee.
The Lewises are the only two members of the gang to go to trial. About 30 others gang members have pleaded guilty, with some receiving sentences of more than 30 years in prison.
The violent drug ring used Memphis as a home base to distribute cocaine for sale in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. Gang members stole drugs from each other, organized kidnapping plots, and killed suspected snitches.
The gang began as a group of teens selling drugs in the Riverside neighborhood, according to testimony. As they grew older, they sold more cocaine and marijuana and established stash houses throughout the area.
They eventually built contacts with the Beltran Leyva drug organization in Mexico, which provided cocaine that was shipped to Memphis in semitrailers. Gang members met the trucks at area hotels and picked up the cocaine before breaking it up for distribution.
Gang members bought jewelry, multiple homes and vehicles with drug profits, prosecutors said.
During the Lewises' trial, prosecutor David Pritchard said in his closing arguments that Petties worked directly for Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a Texas-born man known as "La Barbie."
Valdez is suspected of using extreme violence as he tried to seize control of the Beltran Leyva cartel following the death of gang leader Arturo Beltran Leyva. He was arrested in 2010.
After fleeing to Mexico, Petties gave orders to gang members via cellphone. He pleaded guilty to ordering the killings of Mario McNeal, Latrell Small, Mario Stewart and Marcus Turner.
Small was slain in August 2004; Stewart in March 2005. Turner was kidnapped and killed in September 2006 and McNeal was slain in March 2007.
In December 2010, Petties pleaded guilty to a separate charge of possessing a weapon while in federal prison in Memphis.