How cartel drugs are smuggled at the border
Torrance “Bookie” Hill was a self-made man.
Raised in Beallwood, a Columbus neighborhood just off Veterans Parkway and Manchester Expressway, Hill dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and began selling $20 rocks of crack cocaine.
By the time he was 30, Hill was the “biggest drug dealer Columbus has ever seen,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlton Bourne Jr.
And, by Hill’s own account, the drug organization he built was moving $9 million worth of illegal drugs a month in 2006. But it dissolved with two large busts, the first in May of 2005, then a second 10 months later as Hill ran his operation while out of jail on bond and awaiting trial.
Hill’s drug ring reached across state lines and deep into Mexico. He claims to have had a direct connection to the powerful Guzman Cartel, one of the dominant forces in the Mexican drug trade. The Columbus operation also had close ties to drug organizations in Atlanta and Memphis, Tenn.
Mark Shelnutt, Hill’s former attorney, now faces 39 charges — and 10 years to life in prison — in a federal drug and money laundering trial that began last week in U.S. District Court in Columbus. A witness tampering charge was dismissed by Judge Clay Land on Friday afternoon, and the trial continues Monday.
As the prosecution built its case last week against Shelnutt, it also revealed facts about Hill and his organization.
Connected to the source
Hill pleaded guilty to cocaine and marijuana charges in late 2006. Land in early 2007 sentenced him to 24 1/2 years in federal prison. He is currently serving that sentence and was in Columbus Thursday to testify against Shelnutt. Hill spent more than four hours on the witness stand.
The man who once drove around Columbus in the “biggest BMW they have,” according to Shelnutt’s defense attorney Craig Gillen, matter-of-factly explained how he started in the illegal drug business in 1993.
“I was saving my money,” Hill said. “I met bigger people, then I started selling kilograms.”
Quickly, Hill graduated from selling rocks of crack cocaine — “0.02 grams,” he told the court — to selling kilos at $18,000 a pop.
“I was selling hundreds of kilos of cocaine, worth millions of dollars,” he said.
And when he needed more drugs, Hill had direct two-way communication with Craig Pettys, a supplier in Mexico linked to the Guzman Cartel, according to testimony.
“You could punch a button and go right to Craig Pettys in Mexico,” Gillen said of Hill’s connection to the source.
Around him, Hill employed a network of family and associates. His former wife, Tamika Hill, girlfriend Latea Davis, cousin Choici Lawrence and uncle Edward Hill have all pleaded guilty to drug charges related to Hill’s organization.
Shelnutt, during a taped interview with federal agents played in court Friday, described Hill’s family connections.
“He’s related to everybody in the world,” Shelnutt said. “He’s got more cousins than anybody I know. He’s even got cousins that work down there at the jail.”
His underlings in the drug organization included Shawn Bunkley, Santwan Holt, Vincent Johnson and Pop Riley, Hill testified during the Shelnutt trial.
Bunkley, known as “Biscuit,” was a race car mechanic from Geneva, Ga. He is now a federal inmate, having pleaded guilty to drug charges earlier this year.
In his testimony against Shelnutt, Bunkley described his relationship with Hill this way: “I wouldn’t consider him the boss; he was just the guy with the drugs.”
Hill described it in much the same way.
“I would get them the drugs and they would distribute them,” Hill said. “They would bring the money back to me, we would wrap it up and send it to Mexico.”
But Hill got his cut first.
He never testified to how much he was making personally, but he seemed to have a lot of cash stashed.
The fall of an empire
Hill had been in trouble with the law in 1999 when police found a small amount of cocaine in his home and a half a marijuana cigarette in his car. But his real problems began on May 4, 2005.
That’s when local drug agents went to a rented storage facility on Miller Road and found nearly $40 million in drugs — 484 pounds of cocaine and about 2,000 pounds of marijuana — along with more than $600,000 in cash.
Hill and four others were arrested. Even in jail, Hill continued to direct his drug organization. During conversations with his wife and girlfriend, he would order cash pickups in code. At times, he would be hooked into three-way calls with his drug runners, according to jail tapes played into evidence last week.
He was bonded out of the Muscogee County jail on the agreement he would cooperate with federal authorities, but Hill went back to running drugs for the Mexican cartel.
“He started moving dope and money,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde.
Hill said he had no choice.
“I owed the people in Mexico $2 million,” he said. “They told me if I didn’t help them, they were going to hurt my family. So, that is what I had to do.” Hill was arrested again on Feb. 7, 2006, after authorities found $141,000 in cash in a box at his Whisperwood apartment. That same day, another of Hill’s soldiers, Cortez Johnson, was picked up in Harris County with about 50 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of more than $5.4 million.
Hyde said all the cocaine found in Johnson’s car “were Mr. Hill’s drugs.”
That arrest took Hill out of the game.
The prosecution has tried to link Hill’s organization to a couple of slayings in Columbus, including the 2004 unsolved homicide of Edward Earl Taylor Jr., 41. Taylor was fatally shot May 15 as he worked inside High Tech Transmission on Manchester Expressway.
When asked about it by Shelnutt’s attorney, Hill was adamant.
“I am a drug dealer,” Hill said sternly, “but I have never been a killer.”
He was a drug dealer who needed a lawyer — and Shelnutt was that attorney.
Hill had known Shelnutt since 1999, when Shelnutt represented him on a state conspiracy to distribute charge that was pleaded out as marijuana possession.
Hill claims to have paid Shelnutt more than $250,000 for his legal services.
“Mark ain’t going to do nothing for free,” Hill testified.
‘He got me busted’
Shelnutt was not known in the drug community as a lawyer who was going to take a case to trial, Hill said, adding that a drug dealer went to Shelnutt for two reasons: “to snitch or plead guilty.”
In a 2007 tape that Tamika Hill recorded for federal authorities without Shelnutt’s knowledge, the attorney bragged of his deep connections in the Columbus justice system.
He talked about his relationship with then District Attorney Gray Conger, saying, “Our DA, I trained the guy.”
He talked about the case in which he had defended Tamika Hill.
“I know this case,” Shelnutt said on the tape. “I know the agents. I know law enforcement.”
Shelnutt’s role in Hill’s organization was described by the federal prosecutor as: “He moved from being an advocate to being an active participant,” Bourne said.
That included visiting the jail and getting from Hill a list of those with drug debts, then giving that list to Hill’s former wife, Tamika Hill, for collection, according to testimony from Torrance Hill and Tamika Hill.
Shelnutt, on tape with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Ferguson and FBI Special Agent Todd Kalish, claims to have been the one who put Hill out of business by bringing Hill associate Victor Bryson to the authorities to cooperate.
“He was the one who set me up,” Hill said. “He got me busted.”
So as Hill sits in prison, hoping to get his sentence reduced for his cooperation in the Shelnutt cases but having no promises from the government, his legacy is left for others to describe,
Said Hyde, the federal prosecutor who worked Hill’s case: “I don’t think he has ever worked a real job in his life.”
Chuck Williams, 106-320-4485