Fleming "Ill" Daniels had been warned. His friend and alleged cocaine customer, Glenn "Gino" Hamilton, saw it coming. The two men were standing on the balcony of a Miami hotel back in 2004 when Hamilton spoke up about his sinking suspicion.
"I was like, 'Man, you don't think hanging with that crowd is going to lead to crashing into a brick wall?'" Hamilton said last week, testifying in front of a federal jury in Atlanta.
Daniels' response, according to Hamilton, invoked the oft-tattooed motto of the Black Mafia Family, the massive cocaine empire over which Daniels was believed to be third in command.
"Go hard or go home," Daniels told him. "Death before dishonor."
On June 16, that premonition proved true. Daniels was convicted in U.S. District Court on one of two BMF-related counts: conspiracy to distribute cocaine. After two days of deliberation, the jury could not reach a verdict on his second charge, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. There is no parole in the federal prison system.
The three-day trial – the latest development in a 10-year investigation that has so far netted 150 BMF members in seven states – shed new light on the crew's legendary excess.
It also unearthed a stunning allegation. According to another witness, BMF distributed several kilos of cocaine in 2004 to Atlanta hip-hop superstar Jay "Young Jeezy" Jenkins, aka "the Snowman."
Jeezy built a career on his poetic ability to depict life on the streets, and his none-too-subtle moniker hinted at his coziness with the cocaine trade. But aside from a minor arrest in his late teens, Jeezy never faced accusations that he participated in the drug game he so eloquently raps about.
Over the years, Jeezy cemented his connection to the Black Mafia Family by appearing with BMF members in documentaries and music videos, and giving them shout-outs in his Top-10 tracks. Back then, in 2004 and 2005, BMF was still holding onto its image as a record label and promotions company – and not the $270 million cocaine empire it was later revealed to be.
During Daniels' trial, his attorney, Dennis O'Brien, dropped Jeezy's name several times in an attempt to cast BMF – and his client – in a more favorable light. O'Brien asked several witnesses about Jeezy's vaunted reputation in the music industry in an attempt to show that BMF was involved in at least one legitimate enterprise: the music business. And he hoped to show that his client earned a living as a record producer and bodyguard, not a drug dealer.
But O'Brien's strategy to use Jeezy to legitimize BMF backfired when a government witness named Ralph "Ralphie" Simms took the stand.
Simms, a lower-level BMF member and convicted murderer, testified that his job was to unload BMF's cocaine from limos outfitted with secret compartments. He said he hauled as many as 100 kilos at a time. He said he piled the "bricks" inside the basement of one of BMF's stash houses, an ultramodern Buckhead mansion nicknamed "Space Mountain." And he said that on one occasion, he was ordered by high-ranking BMF members Chad "J-Bo" Brown and Martez "Tito" Byrth to set aside several kilos for two customers.
When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney who the customers were, Simms gave two names: William "Doc" Marshall, a co-conspirator who testified earlier in the trial, and "Jeezy."
"Young Jeezy the rapper?" McBurney asked.
"Yes," Simms answered.
Jeezy has not been charged with a crime in relation to Simms' testimony. When asked whether the U.S. attorney's office has an open investigation into the rapper, Justice Department spokesman Patrick Crosby said there would be no comment.
Scott Leemon, the New York-based lawyer who successfully represented Jeezy on weapons charges out of Miami in 2006, told CL, "Obviously, I am not going to comment on anything. I will look into it."
Simms and Hamilton are among seven government witnesses who've been indicted in other jurisdictions and testified in Atlanta in the hope of receiving reduced prison sentences. Of those witnesses, Hamilton offered perhaps the best summation of BMF's legend on street corners and nightclubs in Atlanta, Miami, New York and L.A.
"I have seen a lot of people spend a lot of money in my time," said Hamilton, who admitted to selling 100 to 200 pounds of marijuana every week before he began buying kilos of cocaine from BMF. "But I never seen anybody go as hard as the Black Mafia Family."
Testimony in the three-day trial described a world in which $20,000 bricks of coke were piled 100-strong inside several Atlanta mansions, $700 bottles of Cristal were consumed in clubs by the caseload, and $6 million in drug money was counted in a single sitting.
With Daniels' conviction, the investigation into BMF's upper echelon is coming to a close. BMF was headed by Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory, who lived in Atlanta, and his brother Terry "Southwest T" Flenory, who lived in L.A. The Flenory brothers pleaded guilty last year in Detroit, where they grew up and later birthed their drug organization. They both face a minimum 20 years in prison. The government is pushing for 30-year sentences.
Terry Flenory's underboss, Eric "Slim" Bivens, and Meech's underboss, "J-Bo" Brown, also pleaded guilty in Detroit. Bivens has not been sentenced. Brown received a sentence of 15 years. Daniels was described during the trial as holding the position directly below Brown.
Fifteen people were indicted in Atlanta last year along with Daniels, but he was the only one to go to trial. Eleven of his co-defendants, including the rapper Barima "Bleu DaVinci" McKnight, entered guilty pleas days before the trial began. McKnight was the only co-defendant who didn't sign a cooperation agreement. Another four of Daniels' co-defendants remain fugitives.
Daniels' legal saga will not end with the jury's verdict. He's also under indictment in Fulton County on charges that he shot and killed Rashannibal "Prince" Drummond and beat Drummond's cousin into a coma. The attack occurred in 2004, behind the now defunct Midtown club the Velvet Room.
Three years passed before Daniels was charged with the killing, a delay that law enforcement attributed to the difficulty in convincing witnesses to testify against BMF.
Judging from Daniels' federal drug trial, that difficulty has eased. But, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney McBurney, putting convicted criminals on the stand always presents challenges.
"There's a certain stigma attached to those who share info with the government," McBurney admitted in his opening statement.
Daniels' attorney put it differently. "They line up at the doors of their cells and say, 'What can I do to help?'" O'Brien claimed. "These witnesses are like puppets on a string."