After Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton had a conversation about drugs with a government informant he met on a plane, it triggered a series of meetings and phone calls about buying and selling cocaine, according to testimony from the informant and recordings played in Banton’s federal drug trial.
Banton and the informant, Alexander Johnson, met on a plane from Spain to Miami at the end of Banton’s European tour last summer.
Johnson testified Sept. 21 that they began talking about drugs early in the flight.
“He told me he was involved in the transportation of drugs from Venezuela to St. Martin,” Johnson said. “His involvement was he moved money himself for traffickers out of England.”
They exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet the next day in Fort Lauderdale. Recordings of that July 27, 2009, meeting and other phone calls and conversations from July 2009 through December were played in court Tuesday.
“Do you have any contacts where I can get cocaine?” Banton asked Johnson in one recorded conversation.
He told Johnson he wanted to give him money so he could buy and sell the drugs – but the singer did not want to be more involved.
“All I do is finance,” Banton said.
The four-time Grammy nominee is on trial in Tampa federal court on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine and carrying a firearm during the course of a drug trafficking crime and aiding and abetting two co-defendants in possessing a firearm during the course of cocaine distribution.
Banton and Johnson discussed a variety of enterprises over several meetings in restaurants, such as selling drugs in Europe, having Banton finance a drug deal, buying drugs from Colombia and the Caribbean island of St. Martin, using Johnson’s boat to transport drugs, and giving Johnson a cut of a drug deal.
Banton’s attorney, David Markus, says those conversations turned to drugs only after the men were drunk.
“You talked about [Banton] doing a lot of things that he did not do,” Markus said while cross-examining Johnson.
The men also made small talk while driving to an undercover police warehouse in Sarasota on Dec. 8, according to another recording.
Johnson admonished the singer for smoking. Banton replied, “I smoke herbs, man. A lot of ganja.”
Banton also complained, according to the recording, about a gay rights group that had protested over violent, homophobic lyrics from early in his music career. Shows in several U.S. cities last year were canceled because of the protests.
“They’re pushing me, man,” he told Johnson. “These guys are trying to run me under.”
Johnson also testified that Banton introduced him to Ian Thomas, a co-defendant, who the singer said had contacts to sell cocaine.
A video played for the jury of the meeting at the Sarasota warehouse with Johnson and an undercover police officer appeared to show Thomas opening a kilo of cocaine, with Banton peering over his shoulder. Thomas then appears to hand the knife he used to cut open the drugs to Banton, who tasted the drugs with a finger.
Also in the video, Johnson and Thomas negotiate the price and quantity of a shipment of cocaine.
Thomas pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. He faces up to life in prison.