Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

April 12, 2012

Drug conspiracy case heard in federal court


VALDOSTA — Jurors heard arguments from Assistant United States Attorney Leah E. McEwen Wednesday in the case involving Martin Terrell Tillman who is charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine in excess of five kilograms.

Court documents state that Tillman conspired with others to possess a Schedule II narcotic with intent to distribute.

Testimony began with the establishment of a large network of narcotics dealers in South Georgia, spanning between Valdosta, Lakeland, Brunswick, Ray City, where Tillman is a resident, with evidence of phone calls with a Mexican supply source.

Lowndes County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Picciotti began with testimony of extensive surveillance of Tillman’s activities in Lakeland and Ray City, along with his association with various individuals. These included meetings that would later be subject to search warrants, including an apartment where a steel pressing machine used to press kilograms of cocaine was used.

Rick Collum, Tillman’s defense attorney, asked why there were no photographs or video evidence of Tillman at any of the locations. Picciotti explained that his surveillance activities would have been compromised beyond the occasional drive-by in his vehicle.

Informant Christopher Phillips, 38, took the stand where he detailed and supported audio/visual evidence of two recorded transactions between himself and Tillman for the purchase of cocaine. He stated that he was “trying to change his life.” He had been previously convicted of two felony forgery charges in 2001 and 2010. Phillips was also paid $1,500 for his testimony, according to Picciotti.

Phillips stated that he had been a habitual user and purchaser of methamphetamine, powder cocaine and crack cocaine for 10 years. He approached officers and stated he would be able to purchase ounces of cocaine from Tillman. Phillips said he had known Tillman for about 12 years through fishing and playing softball.

On Nov. 15, 2010, Phillips purchased two ounces of cocaine for $2,300 from Tillman at a convenience store. Two days later, he purchased three ounces for a reported $3,000. The first transaction involved phone calls and the second transaction included text messages which were provided to narcotics agents from Phillips.

Picciotti explained the lengths taken to ensure a “closed box” operation, meaning that Phillips was escorted, searched before and after the transaction and was under surveillance to prevent him from being able to tamper with evidence or electronic surveillance equipment.

Tillman’s defense attorney argued that in the video provided by the prosecution, there was never footage of his defendant in possession of cocaine. He asked Picciotti if it was possible Phillips had placed the cocaine in a location in the convenience store. Collum also questioned Phillips’ “altruistic” motives for cooperating with narcotics agents.

Picciotti stood by the validity of his operation and implications based on his intent to eliminate variables. Phillips later stated he did not place cocaine at the convenience store at an earlier date.

Collum also questioned the content of the text messages and phone calls and asked Picciotti when the word “cocaine” was ever used by either Phillips or Tillman. Picciotti explained that the word had not been used, but it was typical for dealers and users to use code words to avoid detection or implication.

Further testimony from retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Jim Brady linked Tillman indirectly in two phone calls between two individuals who were under surveillance for narcotics distribution. Although Tillman was not the operator of either telephone, Brady stated that after listening to the recording “500 times” he was able to determine without a doubt that Tillman’s voice could be heard answering a question from one of the individuals who was in the same area as Tillman.

Near the end of the court proceedings Wednesday, United States Judge Hugh Lawson warned the audience against threatening witnesses.

After spectators left, Gerald G. Williams, one of the witnesses, arrived shackled by his hands and ankles after he had been apprehended attempting to flee from taking the stand.

Williams had one foot on the plane before agents arrested him, Lawson said.

After the judge informed Williams it might not be in his best interest to speak without counsel from his lawyer, Billy Folsom, Williams apologized for his actions.

“I got scared,” Williams stated. “I was trying to get back to work. I don’t have any excuses, but sometimes you do crazy things when you’re scared.”

Lawson was pleased with this statement and said that it might help Williams in contempt charges, since he was already out on supervised leave from prison.

Court will resume 9 a.m. today in the federal building located on North Patterson Street.


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