Local

MARK SHELNUTT TRIAL | Testimony ends for day after law firm secretary testifies

A former secretary for Mark Shelnutt's former law firm testified in federal court Thursday afternoon that the Columbus attorney was "like my big brother."

Joanna Strickland worked for Shelnutt's firm for about 15 years. She was put on the stand by the prosecution to describe, in part, a financial transaction she made through her personal Wachovia bank account on June 30, 2006.

Shelnutt faces a 40-count indictment in U.S. District Court. The charges include aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery. The trial, which is expected to last two weeks or more, started Monday.

After Strickland's testimony U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land adjourned the court for the day.

That day in June, Strickland said she had "a strange conversation" with Shelnutt. He asked her to deposit $7,000 in cash in her personal account and write a check back to him, she told the jury. He gave her the money in a Sirius radio box, she said.

"I have never held that much money," she said.

About 30 minutes after making the deposit, she wrote Shelnutt a $6,500 check.

"Mr. Shelnutt gave me $500 to help with my daughter's wedding," she said. "... He said if anyone asked questions say you cashed a CD and mutual funds."

In July 2008, Strickland received a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury that was hearing testimony about Shelnutt.

Strickland told Shelnutt she received the subpoena.

"His response was 'oh, my God; oh, my God; oh, my God,'" she said.

Strickland said Shelnutt repeatedly told her it was a loan after learning of the subpoena, she testified.

Land asked Strickland if Shelnutt made any threats against her.

"No, he just kept repeating this was a loan," she told the judge.

One of the counts in the indictment involves witness tampering. After Strickland's testimony, Land asked lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne if this was going to be all of the evidence on the witness tampering charge, to which he responed it would.

Defense attorney Thomas Withers pointed out that Strickland's testimony in front of the grand jury changed. She originally told the grand jury the amount of the transaction was $5,000. She changed her testimony after reviewing her bank records.

Convicted drug dealer Torrance Hill spent the entire morning and part of the afternoon on the witness stand.

Shelnutt's May 21 indictment alleges a connection between Hill, who pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2006 and was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison. Hill, who ran one of the largest drug organizations in the history of the Columbus, was on the witness stand more than four hours. He endured a lengthy cross examination by defense attorney Thomas Withers when U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land ordered a break.

Hill told jurors his drug organization, which was connected to the Guzman Cartel in Mexico, was making about "$9 million a month."

"I was selling hundreds of kilos of cocaine," Hill said.

Shelnutt had represented Hill on state and federal drug charges dating back to 1999.

Hill, 34 and one of the prosecution's key witnesses, then described his "close relationship" with Shlenutt. He testified he paid Shelnutt more than $250,000 to represent him. A lot of that money came, "$8,000 here, $9,000 here and sometimes $10,000."

"I thought he was my friend," Hill said. "The only thing I did was pay him money and give him a list."

After Hill's arrest in May 2005 for his role in the largest drug bust in the history of Columbus -- 484 pounds of cocaine and about 2,000 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $30 million to $40 million -- Hill said Shelnutt helped him collect drug debts.

"Mark would come to the jail and get a list of names," Hill said.

It was drug dealers whom Hill needed to collect from so he could "finish paying" Shelnutt, Hill testified. Tamika Hill, Hill's former wife who was picking up the money, got the names from Shelnutt, Hill testified.

Hill's relationship with Shelnutt broke down in April 2008 when federal agents played a recorded conversation Shelnutt had with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Ferguson. It was more than a year after Hill plead guilty to federal charges was sentenced to 24 1/2 years. Hill was in the federal courthouse in Macon to where a grand jury was hearing evidence against Shelnutt when the tape was played.

On the tape, Shelnutt told Ferguson he was the one who set Hill up.

"How did that make you feel?" lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne asked Hill.

"Hurt," Hill said.

Hill said he called Shelnutt after he heard the tape and questioned his attorney about it. Shelnutt told Hill his comments had been taken out of context, Hill testified.

"It is kind of hard to take that out of context," Hill said. "It was straight, blunt and clear. He then told me he couldn't represent me any more."

Hill denied he made a death threat against Shelnutt after hearing the tape.

"Why would I put out a death threat if I was going to cooperate?" Hill said. "That wouldn't make any sense."

Withers spent a lot of the cross examination playing recorded phone conversations from jail where Hill was defending Shelnutt. In those conversations at the time the federal agents were pressuring Hill to provide information on Shelnutt, Hill was talking to his girlfriend, Latea Davis and his mother.

"They want me to roll on him," Hill said in one tape.

In another tape, Hill said. "If they think they are going to get me to answer questions for free, they are wrong."

The tapes also brought out conflicts Hill had with U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Steve Ribolla. When Hill was arrested in February 2006 while he was one bond, Hill testified that Ribolla promised that Davis, who was in the North Columbus apartment with Hill, would not be arrested. She was about a week later.

Withers questioned Hill intensely about any possible deal he had for the testimony. Hill said his only obligation was to tell the truth. He did talk about a meeting a couple of months ago with Ferguson, the assistant U.S. attorney They were talking about the 2007 federal guilty plea in which Hill was represented by Shelnutt.

"Mr. Ferguson felt the plea was tainted," Hill said.

The possibility of re-entering the plea was brought up.

Land then asked, "Was anything offered to you?"

"No, sir," Hill said. He then said the plea with be on the same cocaine charges from the 2005 drug bust and the sentence would be up to the judge.

There was tight security on Hill as he took the stand shortly after 8 a.m. Hill, wearing orange and white Harris County Jail medical scrubs and orange Crocs, took the stand shortly after court opened. He was was escorted to by at least two U.S. Marshals. He took the stand before the jury of seven men and five women were brought into the courtroom.

The third day of testimony is scheduled to conclude about 2:30 this afternoon.

  Comments