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    Three get long sentences for roles in drug ring


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

    TAMPA -- Wearing ankle shackles and orange jail scrubs, Rashie Witcher stood before the federal judge who would decide his fate for dealing crack cocaine.

    As his wife sobbed in the courtroom, 28-year-old Witcher asked for leniency. He said he had a bad attorney. He accused jurors of misconduct.

    "I've done other good things out on the street," Witcher, who owned Nikko Car Rental in St. Petersburg, told the judge. "I wasn't just out there messin' around."

    U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara was not convinced. Witcher lied on the witness stand, the judge said.

    "I recognize this is his first offense," Lazzara told the courtroom. "I also recognize he put a lot of poison on the streets of his community."

    Witcher got 25 years, "the best years of your life," Lazzara told him.

    It was the heftiest punishment so far for four defendants convicted in December after an investigation of a multimillion-dollar drug ring once described as "the Microsoft of south St. Petersburg."

    Bennie Phillips, 46, owner of 31st Street Auto Body in St. Petersburg, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years. He was taken into custody by U.S. marshals.

    Bibi Bacchus, a 54-year-old real estate agent in St. Petersburg, got eight years for laundering up to $350,000 for Elrick Bernard Wynn, the operation's alleged ringleader who remains at large.

    Bacchus is free pending a bail hearing.

    The judge postponed until April 26 the sentencing of dealer and recovering crack addict Arthur "A.C" Coston, 42. He faces 17 to 22 years in prison.

    In March, a federal grand jury indicted the drug dealers and real estate agent, accusing them of conspiring to distribute at least 11 pounds of cocaine and at least 1.75 ounces of crack since mid-1993.

    At Friday's sentencing, defense attorneys did everything they could to lower the sentences. They asked for a separate hearing, citing juror misconduct. The judge denied the request.

    Joe Ruddy, the assistant U.S. attorney, focused on the offenders' criminal records, what he called their lies to secure lesser sentences or their desire to get rich selling drugs.

    "It's greed," Ruddy said.

    Witcher is a father and did not have a criminal record. He even implicated two dozen other drug dealers, his attorney argued.

    But the judge showed no mercy when it came to enhancing Witcher's sentence because he was not truthful during the trial or with investigators and portrayed himself as a legitimate businessman. Witcher inititally said he was not a drug dealer but then wrote a letter to the judge in which he asked for leniency.

    "There's one basic rule," Lazzara told Witcher. "You be up-front. You be truthful. Had you done that, you wouldn't be here facing the better part of your life in a federal penitentiary."

    Up next was Phillips, also a father and the owner of 31st Street Auto Body. He received fewer years in prison because jurors determined he did not sell as much crack and cocaine as the other dealers.

    Bacchus, the real estate agent, was the last defendant to stand before the judge.

    Federal investigators said she laundered money and promoted the drug dealing business allegedly run by Wynn.

    Bacchus sold Wynn a house on 40th Way South that was used for dealing.

    "She was an integral part," said Lazzara, the judge. Since Bacchus is a citizen of India, she faces deportation after serving her sentence. She is appealing the verdict.

    - Staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at (727) 893-8406 or at

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