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    Drug case snitches lie, defense claims

    By LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    TAMPA -- Defense attorneys for three St. Petersburg men accused of running a crack cocaine operation taking in more than $8-million a year told jurors Thursday that federal authorities had no evidence and relied on snitches with poor credibility to build their case.

    Several convicted drug dealers pleaded guilty to drug charges and testified against defendants Bennie L. Phillips, Rashie Witcher and Arthur Coston in exchange for reduced prison terms.

    "Other than the words coming out of their mouths, there's nothing. Nothing," former prosecutor John Fitzgibbons told jurors. He represents Witcher, 28.

    "In America today we need more than just people pouring out of the prisons dying to get here to sit here for the reward they get."

    Jurors will begin deliberations today after instructions from U.S. Judge Richard A. Lazzara.

    The fate of St. Petersburg real estate agent Bibi Bacchus, 54, also is in jurors' hands. She is accused of laundering money for St. Petersburg resident Elrick Bernard Wynn, who is accused of being the leader of the ring.

    Wynn, 31, was indicted, but he fled in 1996 before law enforcement officers could arrest him. He remains at large.

    The defendants on trial are Wynn's associates, and their businesses have been fronts for the drug trade, federal prosecutor Joe Ruddy said.

    Witcher, owner of Nikko Car Rental; Phillips, 46, owner of 31st Street Auto Body; and Coston, a grocer and recovering crack addict, were named in a grand jury indictment in March.

    The indictments allege that the men "did knowingly and willfully combine, conspire and agree together with each other" to distribute 5 kilograms (11 pounds) or more of cocaine and 50 grams (1.75 ounces) or more of crack since June 1993.

    They are the latest results of a federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation that began in 1993.

    Ruddy presented logs of telephone calls, papers from trash and recordings of drug buys. He asked jurors to use common sense.

    "Everybody knows who's in the drug business in south St. Pete," Ruddy told jurors in his closing statement. "This is a doper's flea market."

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