It began in 2010 with a single wiretap on the phone of a mid-level drug dealer, Montreal Delaney.
Before long, agents with an FBI anti-gang task force in New Orleans would be eavesdropping on five phones, including two lines used by Delaney's heroin supplier, Gregory "Rabbit" Stewart, who was 18 at the time.
FBI Special Agent Jonathan Wood testified Tuesday that he and other agents listened in on thousands of calls over the ensuing months, including conversations among Stewart and eight of the 10 defendants now standing trial in the "39'ers" racketeering case.
As call after call revealed drug deals, street beefs and murder schemes, Wood testified, ballistics analysis connected the dots on the weapons and killings they discussed.
Wood said he once called on Jefferson Parish deputies to rush to Lakeside Mall in response to a murder plot that unfolded in real time over the tapped lines.
His testimony, summarizing a four-year probe into an alleged union of violent drug clans from Central City and the Upper 9th Ward, came as federal prosecutors were set to rest their case after 20 days of testimony in the federal court trial.
Wood remained on the stand under cross-examination late Tuesday, but attorneys for some of the 10 defendants were expected to begin calling their own witnesses Wednesday.
Over four unrepentant days on the witness stand in the federal "39'ers" gang racketeering tr…
U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey has allotted more than 10 hours for closing arguments that are expected to begin by Friday in a trial now in its fifth week.
On trial are Damian Barnes, Solomon Doyle, Evans Lewis, Curtis Neville, Terrioues Owney, Jasmine Perry, Alonzo Peters, Ashton Price, Leroy Price and McCoy Walker.
Each of them is accused in at least one murder committed in 2010 or 2011 in support of what prosecutors said was a combined force of the "G-Strip" gang, from Gallier Street; associates from the Florida housing project; and members of the notoriously violent "3NG," named for their stronghold around Third and Galvez streets.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Ranier led Woods through the ins and outs of an FBI probe that began with wiretaps and small-time drug buys. The investigation ultimately would spawn a pair of federal cases, as well as state murder charges against Stewart and the group's top heroin supplier, Darryl "Breezy" Franklin.
The first federal case largely focused on a drug conspiracy and brought guilty pleas from four of the defendants who now stand trial on gang racketeering, drug and firearms conspiracy charges.
Stewart and Franklin both have admitted to numerous murders, and along with the testimony of three other cooperating witnesses, they have identified guns and shooters in a litany of slayings.
Wood testified that Franklin and the now-deceased leader of the 39'ers, Merle "Black" Offray, became the prime targets as the investigation unfolded and the wiretaps suggested they held leadership positions in the group.
When the sun set on April 12, 2010, the "39'ers" were down by two: three of their members de…
But both men remained elusive, Wood said, even as Stewart and others openly discussed drug deals, the whereabouts of favored weapons and, after another in a series of group killings, the need to buy more bullets at Academy Sports.
That conversation came just hours after Littlejohn "June" Haynes was gunned down in the 3200 block of Marais Street on Feb. 20, 2011.
Haynes mistook his killers' white sedan for a police car and placed his hands on the hood of a vehicle before five 39'ers opened fire, Stewart testified.
According to ballistics analyst Meredith Acosta, who detailed gun links among several murders over two days of testimony this week, eight weapons were used to kill Haynes.
But Wood testified Tuesday that the wiretapped call wasn't enough to move in on the suspects.
Ten accused members of New Orleans' "39'ers" gang sat quietly in a federal courtroom on Tues…
"It's a constant give-and-take between gathering evidence and trying to intervene actively in something you can prevent," Wood said.
"This call came out a couple hours later, long after the shooting had happened. We had no clue what took place, who was involved. A lot of bullets had been shot and June was killed. So, not much to go on."
But a week earlier, Wood said, a different set of intercepted calls warranted intervention.
According to Stewart, Perry was the one calling him, saying he and other 39'ers had spotted a rival from the Desire housing project, Corey "Co" Lewis, inside the Zales jewelry store at Lakeside Mall.
"Thinking about punishing this stupid," Perry told Stewart, who urged caution.
"But we got Barack, man; we gonna wait for them," Perry said, referring to a .40-caliber handgun linked to several murders. "We ain't got nothin' to do today."
Wood said he was "in the wire room" when the flurry of calls came in.
"We let a couple calls play out to see what was happening. Then it became apparent to us by the third or fourth call — the language being used, the exact threats — that we had to intervene. We didn't know the back story, but they were trying to do harm to somebody at the mall."
The deputies arrived too late, Wood said. However, according to Stewart, the bid to kill Lewis failed when the 39'ers lost track of him.
The federal case began to break open, Wood said, after Stewart and two others killed Gregory Keys on May 24, 2011. A second victim, Kendrick Smothers, survived and identified Stewart as his assailant.
Federal prosecutors now claim that it was Lewis and Perry who fired after Stewart set up the killing.
Wood said agents traced Stewart by GPS to a motel room south of Atlanta in June 2011. Stewart came to the door in a thin disguise, wearing a sparsely dreadlocked wig he said he'd picked up in Miami.
Wood said Stewart, who last month admitted to a role in 13 killings, didn't truly begin cooperating until police booked Franklin in September 2013 on state charges for the murders of Calvin "Plucky" Celestine and Quelton "Gutter" Broussard.
"We were really just gathering more and more evidence. The ballistics ... are coming together. Then Darryl Franklin gets on board and starts cooperating," Wood said. "It really starts a domino effect. Gregory Stewart knows the truth is going to be told, so he's gotta come clean."
Defense attorneys have argued that prosecutors built their case on the words of Stewart and Franklin, along with the three other cooperators, all of whom are hoping for leniency in exchange for their testimony.
Those men, the attorneys argue, are the only ones linking the men on trial to murders committed with weapons that prosecutors acknowledge were shared among the 39'ers.
Perry's attorney, Kerry Miller, suggested Tuesday that there were 42 reasons for the jury to distrust Stewart, Franklin and fellow cooperators Washington McCaskill, Rico Jackson and Tyrone Knockum.
That's the number of killings that, combined, the five men have admitted — though they committed several of them together, meaning the actual number of deaths was lower.
Wood, however, testified that Stewart correctly identified 18 of 20 weapons that ballistics evidence has tied to the 15 murders identified in the indictment.
BALLISTICS CONNECTIONS IN THE 39’ERS GANG TRIAL
Trouble seeing the graphic above? Click here