Read Mara Shalhoup's award-winning series related to this cover story — "BMF: Hip-hop's shadowy empire."
The bounty hunter came recommended as one of the country's finest, and on the afternoon of June 16, 2005, he was within minutes of doing what he does best: taking a dangerous fugitive down.
The location was a Subway sandwich shop in an upscale L.A. neighborhood. The bounty hunter slipped inside to make sure the guy in line was in fact the man he'd been tracking for the past three months. He then gave the signal to a team of U.S. marshals, DEA agents and local cops assembled in the parking lot. As the fugitive walked out, sandwich in hand, he would claim he was someone else. He even had a California driver's license.
But that was a lie. His slender, 6-foot-5 frame, his narrowed eyes and crooked grin, a style of dress more suggestive of a bank executive than a cocaine kingpin – all of it was hard to miss. They had their man.
Tremayne Graham was done.
But the investigation – which eventually would net a mountain of evidence implicating Graham in crimes from cocaine trafficking to murder – was far from over. At the time they caught Graham, investigators barely knew the half of it.
There's something about Graham that made people believe in him, to become convinced he was someone he wasn't. He sold $150,000-plus cars in the clublike setting of his Atlanta dealership to the type of people who might qualify for an AmEx black card. He counted NBA stars Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan among his friends – friends so close that, when Graham went on the run, authorities found reason to question them. Graham even wooed, and later married, a petite, fresh-faced girl and got himself invited to Christmas dinner with her mother, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Basically, Graham had an uncanny ability to come across as legit.
Even after a 2004 federal indictment portrayed him as a cocaine supplier who used his Cheshire Bridge Road dealership, 404 Motorsports, as a front, he wasn't exactly cast aside as a pariah. Franklin – speaking to the Associated Press not as the mayor, but as a mother – appeared to be empathetic about her then-son-in-law's predicament. "I am saddened to hear of the indictment," she said, a few weeks before her daughter bonded Graham out of jail. "I am hopeful that he will be found innocent, but we must let the legal system run its course.
"My heart goes out to all the families who face this type of crisis."
Yet Franklin's family crisis would pale next to one that, through a tragic turn of events linked to Graham's case, would befall another family.
Five months after the mayor made her statement, Paul and Katie Carter of Fayetteville, N.C., received a terrible call. In the early-morning hours that day, two people had kicked in the door of their daughter's Atlanta townhouse. The men treaded upstairs to her bedroom, where they shot to death the Carters' daughter and her boyfriend. He was one of Tremayne Graham's co-defendants.
"I died that day, too," Katie Carter says of Sept. 5, 2004. "They've taken our life. I will never be the same."
Over the next three years, investigations into the homicides and the cocaine ring would reveal connections between Graham and some of the country's most notorious drug runners. The work of the bounty hunter, federal prosecutors, U.S. marshals, the DEA, the IRS and local law enforcement in Georgia, South Carolina and California revealed that Graham was a major drug dealer. It also would suggest that he devised a near-foolproof plan for moving mass shipments of cocaine across the country; that he worked in concert with the Black Mafia Family and Sin City Mafia, two multistate drug crews with big presences in Atlanta; and that, along with the leader of Sin City, he orchestrated a brutal crime for which he would later feign fear.
Even to the authorities, Graham wasn't what he first appeared. If there's any truth to the evidence against him, he was far, far worse.
In the early 1990s, Tremayne Graham, then a student at Clemson University, met Scott King, a basketball player from nearby Mars Hill College. Graham ran with a crowd that included Clemson basketball players Andre Bovain and Devin Gray -- both of whom would later be convicted on cocaine charges. Those were the same circles Graham revisited when, after moving to Atlanta, he started shipping large quantities of drugs up to Greenville, S.C.
In Atlanta, Graham happened to bump into King again, while partying at a club. The two eventually hatched a business plan. In 2001, they opened a car dealership and customization shop offering $2,000 rims and $350,000 Bentleys. The walls were graced with autographed jerseys from clients such as Atlanta Brave Andruw Jones and Cleveland Brown Corey Fuller. Graham's business was a portal to celebrities. And his wife, whom he married three months after 404 Motorsports was incorporated, was a liaison to Atlanta's political elite.