LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Defense attorney Tom Weldon asked his client to rise Monday afternoon.
Travis Amos Wellborn — all 5 feet, 9 inches and 160 pounds — pushed up from his seat at the defendant's table. For about 30 seconds, he stood, his tattooed arms and skinny body an exhibit. Wellborn is accused of occupying one of the top spots in the Northwest Georgia division of the Ghostface Gangsters, an all-white gang that a prosecutor argued has migrated from the prison system into the rural and suburban community.
Wellborn himself is on his fourth prison stint since 2008, his current trial notwithstanding. He first went away for a 2007 robbery in Walker County, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
But, Weldon said Monday, just because a man is in a gang in prison does not mean they are leading one on the outside. And, he argued, who can blame a man like Wellborn for requesting protection? He asked Darrell Reynolds, the Georgia Department of Corrections' assistant statewide security threat group coordinator, to assess Wellborn. Reynolds conceded Wellborn is small.
"If they don't [join a gang], they're like a man without a country," Weldon said. " They don't have anyone else standing up for them."
He added: "There are a lot of big people, correct?"
"Correct," Reynolds said.
"And they've been sent there because they committed a crime," Weldon said. "Some of them are very, very harmful."
Wellborn and Thomas Clifton Gaines are on trial this week on charges of violation of Georgia's street gang terrorism prevention act. Wellborn faces seven counts. Gaines faces five counts, plus a charge of affray. For a jury to convict defendants for violating the street gang act, a prosecutor is supposed to prove they took some action to increase the gang's strength in the community.
In the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, law enforcement rarely pursues this specific charge. But in November, the circuit's drug task force arrested 16 supposed members of the Ghostface Gangsters for participating in "beat-ins," an initiation ritual in which seven members beat up a new member. (Of the 16, prosecutors have not pursued a street gang act case against some, while they have later prosecuted other people not initially arrested.)
On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Deanna Reisman said Wellborn and Gaines both led initiations at 68 W. Reed Road in LaFayette, a home owned by Wellborn's father. Reisman will rely on pictures and videos a Department of Community Supervision officer found on another supposed Ghostface Gangster's cellphone during a parole visit in October. She also will call five men who allegedly will testify that Wellborn and Gaines are high-ranking members of the gang.
"These are not just some guys hanging out in the backyard, being bros," Reisman said during her opening statement.
Weldon argued that the men testifying this week are only trying to get mercy in their own criminal cases. Weldon also said the state will not be able to show evidence that Ghostface Gangsters has an impactful presence in the community.
"They act like this is some huge gang that's taking over, and no one's heard of them," he said "Haven't taken over my neighborhood, and apparently haven't taken over a lot of neighborhoods in Walker County."
He said the prosecution takes the "beat-ins" out of proportion. More or less, he said these were boys being boys.
"I did enough of that when I was their age," he said. "With some of my brothers and my friends. That's entertaining to them. Not entertaining to me anymore. It hurts."
Thomas Blevins, the attorney representing Gaines, also argued the "beat-ins" were not such a big deal.
"Nobody was forced to do anything they didn't want to do," he said. "Nobody went to the hospital."
Reynolds, the only witness to testify Monday, said Department of Corrections investigators have tracked an increase in the Ghostface Gangsters over the past five years. He did not provide actual figures. He said the gang members have become players in methamphetamine trafficking.
Jeremy Keener, a Catoosa County Sheriff's Office captain who previously investigated drugs, told the Times Free Press last week he first saw the Ghostface Gangsters' presence here in 2015. He said membership increased. The source of their strength comes from relationships in prison, where some members allegedly have built connections to cartel members from Mexico.
The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @letsJett