Maurice "Papa Joe" Williams was Columbus' undisputed drug kingpin, a folk hero in the Brittany Hills neighborhood the cops could never get. Then came a wiretap, a blockbuster indictment and the butler who gave him away.
Editor’s note: Our True Crime Classics series concludes with this 2011 feature on Maurice “Papa Joe” Williams, described by a federal prosecutor as “the biggest drug dealer in town for the past 30 years.”
They passed through the office, one after another, a parade of Columbus drug dealers. Some were small-timers, others hardened criminals. All were in deep trouble, their names on a blockbuster 147-count indictment.
Dave DeVillers, an assistant U.S. attorney, met with each of the 21 suspects. After teams of police officers rounded them up, they were brought to a room at the federal courthouse, where DeVillers and other leaders of Operation Georgia Peach talked with them for 10 minutes. The goal was to find out who might flip.
On this day in March 2009, DeVillers spoke with Darrell Evans, a short 25-year-old high school dropout with a round face and sleepy brown eyes. DeVillers didn't think much of it when Evans, known as “Little Darrell,” was mentioned in secretly recorded telephone conversations, the centerpiece of the investigation into the Brittany Hills Posse, perhaps the most prolific drug trafficking organization in Columbus. But when the prosecutor met with Evans, he realized something extraordinary: They knew each other.
Back in the mid 1990s, Little Darrell, as he was called back then, too, was a youthful sidekick for DeVillers and his circle of friends. Little Darrell was involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, and a friend of DeVillers was his mentor. DeVillers played softball with the youngster, then 12 or 13 years old, and hosted him at his house for barbecues. Smart and personable, he was good company.
But there was another role model in Little Darrell's life, a figure who would become more influential after DeVillers lost touch with him around 1996. This role model had money, women, fancy cars. He hung around with famous rappers and traveled all over the country. He was a folk hero in Brittany Hills, a working-class housing development in northeast Columbus, and the wholesome example of DeVillers and his friends just couldn't match up.
"I'm sorry, David," Little Darrell said.
In 2008, Maurice Williams chose to celebrate his 33rd birthday in typical fashion. He reserved Club Ice in Downtown Columbus, hired big-name entertainment and invited everyone in town to the party. Folks had to pay to get in, but making money really wasn't the point. Williams wanted to give Columbus a chance to have fun, see two popular rappers—Jim Jones and Juelz Santana—in an unusually intimate setting. And, of course, it didn't hurt that the concert would add to his legend.
Williams—or Papa Joe, as most people called him—was the cocaine king of Columbus. For a decade, his organization, the Brittany Hills Posse, moved hundreds, maybe thousands of kilograms into Central Ohio from Detroit, Atlanta and Houston via vans, semi-trucks and cars outfitted with secret compartments, according to court testimony. His Houston connection alone provided a conservative estimate of $5 million worth of cocaine in just one year's span. “Papa Joe was the biggest drug dealer in town for the past 30 years," DeVillers says.
In the inherently volatile narcotics trade, Williams was a rare constant. Some folks viewed him as untouchable, the only drug dealer in town the cops could never get. Williams dealt only with trusted sources and surrounded himself with loyal foot soldiers. Often, his disciples were young guys from tough backgrounds just like him; his father was killed by police and his mother struggled with drug addiction, according to court records. They tended to idolize him—a strapping, charismatic ex-jock (he once was a promising high school basketball player) living a life they aspired to. "He's very pleasant, friendly, intelligent," says Jeffrey Brandt, Williams’ former attorney. “He's got a personality that causes people to want to be friends with him. I think he would have made a great salesman. I think he would have made a great entrepreneur if he would have had the right mother or father."
Indeed, Williams was a sharp operator. As his business grew, he insulated himself against criminal exposure. Around 2005, he even moved to Atlanta, allowing others to directly manage his Columbus drug operation while he kept his hands clean. “He don't like to sleep around cocaine," a subordinate testified last year. His foot soldiers handled the dirty work of distribution, transportation and storage, while Williams—"the very essence of a CEO," as a federal prosecutor described him—would focus on the big picture: quality control, following the market (he added high-grade marijuana called “kush” to his repertoire during a cocaine shortage in 2007) and schmoozing with an important supplier during the 2006 NBA All-Star Game in Houston.
Williams lived a good life. He drove a Lexus, Corvette, Mercedes and Range Rover. When he visited Columbus, he stayed in an apartment at Easton Commons, the development across the street from the shopping complex, and regularly ate at the restaurants nearby. In Atlanta, he employed a live-in butler and made connections in the city's hip-hop recording industry.
Unconfirmed stories spread about his generosity: giving thousand-dollar tips to strippers, buying cleats, helmets and jerseys for pee-wee football players and helping their parents pay bills. Others talked about his friends in the music world. Gucci Mane, the popular Atlanta rapper, was a friend, according to court testimony.
A fellow drug dealer, Nigel Jackson, even co-wrote a self published book about Williams. “The folklore abounds about Papa Joe," a federal prosecutor wrote last year.
In his book, “Brittany Hills Conspiracy: Papa Joe's 177 Days on the Run,” Jackson wrote about Williams's connections to Jones, the New York City rapper who had a top-10 hit in 2007 with “We Fly High.” When Jones arrived late for a concert at Veterans Memorial in early 2008, he brought along an entourage that included Williams and about 20 other people. Angry, Jackson, who was the show's promoter, threatened to cut Jones' pay, but Williams diffused the situation with a $1,000 wad to cover everyone. Jones repaid the favor when he performed later in the evening. “Half of his stage set he talked about Papa Joe,”Jackson wrote.
A few months later, Jones was back in Columbus for Williams' birthday party. This time, however, neither Jones nor Santana, the other featured performer, mentioned Williams from the stage, says someone who was at the show. The source says the concert—which drew a packed house of about 800 folks—hit its stride when Jones did “Don't Forget About Me," one of the few songs played in full that evening.
Williams must have seen a lot of himself in the song, the story of a hustler “getting rich off cocaine." And just like the narrator of the song, Williams was operating on borrowed time—his bulletproof reputation notwithstanding. Six days later, police raided his Easton Commons apartment.
Richard Wozniak, a new FBI agent in town, sat down with Columbus police in January 2008 to talk about starting a joint investigation. Wozniak wanted to find a worthy target—"the worst of the worst," he later testified. Columbus police detective Jeremy Ehrenborg suggested Williams, an obvious choice.
Since the late 1990s, Williams had been on the radar of law enforcement. He was known as a major drug dealer, but authorities could never charge him with anything significant. He did short stints in prison for theft and assault (19 months) and possession of drugs (eight months). A judge also sentenced him to community control for his role in a 2002 shooting. Williams drove a getaway van after a friend shot three people at a gas station in the Milo Grogan neighborhood, according to police records.
Columbus detective Pat Brooks arrested Williams in the shooting incident. Well-known among drug dealers and gang members in Columbus, Brooks had a dramatic flair that earned him the nickname "Batman.” He also, according to court testimony, was obsessed with Williams. "I'd say a relationship developed between Batman and Papa Joe,” wrote Jackson in his book. “Think every city has a Batman. His idea of fighting crime is to gather an entourage of his cohorts, dress in all black military clothing, then walk in local nightclubs with assault rifles, 15 minutes after Papa Joe. It was almost like clockwork; they would head towards Papa Joe and harass him and anyone in his entourage. The two sides would face off. Batman and Papa would engage in a shouting match. Batman would tell Papa how he was going down. Papa would throw money in Batman's face taunting him saying, 'You ain't got shit on me.’ "
Indeed, Brooks didn't make much headway. Williams relocated to Atlanta as police struggled to build a case against him. The move occurred shortly after police questioned Williams about death threats made against Brooks, said assistant U.S. attorney Robyn Jones Hahnert last year. Then in May 2007, Brooks received a tip from a confidential informant that Williams was storing marijuana and cash in a house in northeast Columbus. Brooks secured a search warrant, but the raid didn't lead to any charges.
In fact, Brooks faced his own reckoning before Williams did. An internal affairs investigation found that Brooks engaged in an "inappropriate personal relationship between June 2006 and May 2007 with a woman named Latasha Barrett. Brandt, Williams's former attorney, says Barrett was a former girlfriend of Williams. The police department suspended him for seven days and reassigned Brooks to the patrol division for his involvement with Barrett, "a person known to him to be involved in criminal activity,” according to an October 2007 letter from then Columbus police chief James Jackson. Brooks, who retired in May 2008, didn't respond to a message left for him through the department's personnel office.
When Wozniak launched his new investigation of Williams in early 2008, the FBI agent started by focusing on Kevin Cook, a close associate of Williams. If Papa Joe was the CEO of the Brittany Hills Posse, Cook was the chief operating officer. In his book, Jackson described Cook as “Mr. Telephone Man."
After continued surveillance failed to break the case open, officers decided to try a new technique: a wiretap. First, they got on Cook's cellphone. That, in turn, spun off two more wiretaps: a second Cook phone and a cell used by Williams. Over a two month period, officers monitored nearly 24,000 calls—about 1,900 of which were deemed pertinent to the investigation. The recorded calls provided the opening police long hoped for. They learned names, locations, organizational structure. The number of suspects expanded from seven to nearly 30.
Williams and his cohorts spoke in coded language. Almost everyone had a nickname—Tidy Bowl, Messy, Milk, Juice, Buggzy, Rabbit, Hindu—and their conversations were dense with slang. They identified dollar figures by the jersey numbers of such famous athletes as Eddie George, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among others. Measurements included “piggety” (a pound of marijuana), a "T-shirt" (four and a half ounces of cocaine) and an "onion” (an ounce of cocaine). Marijuana might be called "fire,” “nifty" or "Smokey Robinson."
The recorded conversations also revealed that Williams and his crew were going through a bit of a drought. Frequently, they complained about a shortage of cocaine and marijuana, a problem that would grow worse after police busted two people with a kilogram of cocaine based upon information from the wire.
During a conversation that occurred a few days after the bust, Williams promised to change things. "See I can come up with a plan," Williams told a guy named “Wolf” according to court records.
"Shit,” Wolf said.. “You gonna make something happen, make it happen."
"I can,” Williams said. “I can. I can. I swear to God, bro. I swear to God."
In truth, it was the beginning of the end. In July 2008, police raided Williams' Easton Commons apartment, as well as three other houses in the Columbus area connected to Williams' organization. The search warrants slowed Williams down, but didn't stop him. In a gutsy move, he led his crew on an expedition to a Mexican border town in Texas a couple of months later and came away with two kilograms of cocaine, according to court testimony. But in the spring of 2009, a 99-page federal indictment effectively wiped out his organization. Among other things, Williams was charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, the so-called drug kingpin statute. He faced a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted on that charge.
Williams went on the lam after the indictment was announced. While police rounded up most of his 28 co-defendants—including Cook—in early March 2009, Williams remained a fugitive until FBI agents arrested him in Charlotte, North Carolina, five months later. They tracked Williams through his butler, who stayed in contact with him while on the run, says DeVillers.
Ron Watts was in his usual spot behind the Wehrle bench. His son, Weaver, and his surrogate son, Williams, played on the high school's junior varsity team. Williams—a lean, long-limbed, 6-foot-3 freshman—was the star of the squad, a gifted scorer who had a good chance of joining the long line of talented Wehrle players (Jerry Francis, Eli Brewster, Lawrence Funderburke) who went on to play Division I college ball.
On this day in January 1991, Wehrle was on the road, playing rival Bishop Watterson on the North Side. Francis, a former Wehrle and Ohio State player, was the coach of the JV team. He remembers in the second quarter a police officer approaching Watts while the action was on the other end of the court. "The officer said, 'Are you Mr. Watts?' And he said, 'Yes.’ " As the players ran back, they could see the officer leading Watts away.
Watts, a personable Columbus concert promoter, was known as a generous guy who looked out for kids in the Brittany Hills area. A big sports fan, Watts took the talented Williams under his wing, pushing him to attend the now closed Wehrle, then a basketball juggernaut. Francis didn't know for sure, but always assumed that Watts paid for Williams' tuition to the private Catholic school on the South Side. Watts raised Williams as his son and even gave him his nickname because of his love of Papa Joe's pizza, said Jackson in a letter to Columbus Monthly. (Jackson, who was sentenced to six years in prison in the Brittany Hills Posse case, grew up with Williams in Brittany Hills.)
But Watts had another side: He was a drug dealer, one of the biggest in the city. A federal indictment accused him of heading a trafficking group that brought more than 100 kilograms of cocaine into the city over six years. His supplier, Edward "Shorty" McFadden, was a notorious Los Angeles gangster and a suspect in several murders, including the killing of an employee of Watts' company, Wattsline Entertainment. Watts ended up going into the federal witness protection program after supplying authorities with information about McFadden, a fugitive who's never been caught, says Bradley Barbin, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “Ronnie Watts was well-known to every drug dealer on the East Side," Barbin says. "He was no penny ante dealer, and his supplier was very feared." The revelations stunned Francis. “My involvement was strictly in basketball," he says. "I was not aware of any other activity going on."
After Watts was taken into custody during the game, Williams and his shell-shocked teammates kept playing. "We were able to get them through the quarter," recalls Francis, now the varsity boys' basketball coach at Pickerington Central High School. “By the time we went down to the locker room at half, we were all in tears." The rest of the game was a blur; Francis says he can't remember who won.
Watts' arrest upended Williams' life. At Wehrle, Williams was thriving. "He was a delight, always smiling, always laughing and could really play," Francis says. Williams was a model student athlete—obedient, mature, disciplined, hardworking. "He was a joy to coach," Francis says. “Papa Joe didn't talk back, always did what the coach asked, always thought team first.” But without Watts as his benefactor, Williams drifted. It's not clear whether Williams ever played high school basketball again after Wehrle closed at the end of the 1991 school year because of sinking enrollment.
Francis, meanwhile, moved up to the college ranks, coaching at Bowling Green, Butler and several other universities. Around 2007, however, Francis returned to Columbus. A substitute teacher in the Columbus school district at the time, Francis often hung around after classes ended to watch youngsters play basketball. He bumped into Williams one day at a game in Sherwood Middle School on the Far East Side. “We shared some conversation, shared some hugs," Francis says.
Williams seemed the same, just a little bigger. But, as Francis soon learned, much had changed beneath the surface. A few months later, Williams was named in the federal indictment, and his face was splashed across the evening news. Francis can't help but wonder if he and others could have done more to help Williams. "We all moved on in life," Francis says. “Maybe I was a little bit selfish at the time. I wanted to be a college coach. When I moved on to my college coaching endeavor, maybe I left some young guys behind."
The Brittany Hills Posse was so loyal even a love triangle didn't disrupt it. When the girlfriend of Antonio "Ashtabula" Carlton got pregnant, Williams admitted to his friend he might be the father. The news upset Carlton, but the two stayed close nonetheless and kept doing business together. Williams supplied drugs to Carlton, who distributed them in Northeast Ohio. "We continued to be friends through it all," Carlton testified last year. (Carlton was sentenced to a little more than six years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana.)
That loyalty broke down, however, after the indictment. While Williams was on the run, his co-defendants began to cooperate with federal authorities. Eventually, everyone pleaded guilty. "Once one starts to fall, everybody starts to fall," says Nick Gounaris, a Dayton defense attorney involved in the case. Williams' co-defendants faced huge possible sentences, many 10 years to life. For instance, Casey Drake, a middle manager of sorts in the Brittany Hills organization, was looking at 20 years based on federal sentencing guidelines, says his attorney, Terry Sherman. By flipping, he cut that sentence to five. "What I've learned in the federal system is they will testify against their own mother, brother, sister, father," Sherman says. “They will testify against anybody. The penalties are so severe, and the rewards are so great."
Law enforcement considers Williams' conviction a significant victory. DeVillers points to the impact the probe had on the supply of cocaine in Columbus. “When we did the search warrants, the price of kilos of cocaine skyrocketed,” DeVillers says. “There was less out there. Drug dealers were complaining." The long-term impact, however, is more difficult to measure. “As big as he may have been here, truly he was one cog in the ultimate machine, and probably a smaller cog than you would expect," Gounaris says.
Indeed, DeVillers acknowledges that other drug dealers have begun to fill the void left by Williams. "There are 10 people who will take his place," Sherman says. “I'm sure they already have done it.” Many drug dealers don't have any other options, Sherman says, pointing to the example of his client Drake. “He didn't have a PhD,” Sherman says. “He's in the streets. Today, a college kid can't get a job. What's an inner-city kid, who doesn't go to school, doesn't have any parents pushing him, doesn't have any home life, doesn't have any role model, what do you think he's going to do?"
Williams was a complex figure. He associated with tough guys and surrounded himself with plenty of guns, but DeVillers acknowledges "he's not a terribly violent guy." At his sentencing, the Dispatch reported that some 40 friends and relatives packed the courtroom, yelling "we love you” as he was led away in shackles. Clem Randall, a former Brittany Hills resident who grew up with Williams, says most folks in the area like him. "He did some bad things," Randall says. “Don't get me wrong. But I truly believe at heart he wasn't a bad guy."
Kids in the neighborhood wanted to be like him—the glamorous outlaw beating the system. His conviction, DeVillers says, shows that nobody—not even Papa Joe—is Teflon. “I'm hoping it will darken the luster of his aura," DeVillers says.
Evans, DeVillers's former softball buddy, was one of the first neighborhood youngsters sucked into Williams's circle. He started off as a runner, helping Williams deliver cocaine from Detroit to Columbus, and then sold drugs himself, according to court testimony.
On the day of the big roundup, DeVillers told Evans he had a chance to redeem himself. “I said, 'Hey, get yourself an attorney. You can have the opportunity to do the right thing?’ And he did.” Evans pleaded guilty and eventually was sentenced to 50 months in prison. Moreover, he testified in Williams' seven-day trial in the spring of 2010, one of 11 of Williams' co-defendants to do so.
Williams was convicted on 29 counts, including operating a continuing criminal enterprise, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. His lawyers argued that his co-defendants exaggerated his role to protect themselves. When asked if he was confident in Williams' innocence, his former lawyer Brandt replied, “I am confident he does not deserve 30 years." (Williams, an inmate at the Big Sandy Penitentiary in Inez, Kentucky, is appealing his conviction. He didn't respond to a letter from Columbus Monthly, and his new attorney, Marcia Shein, declined to comment.)
When Evans took the stand at the trial, emotion overcame him. Evans choked back tears as Hahnert, the prosecutor, asked him about his plea agreement and decision to testify against his one time hero. He said he was worried that Williams—or "big bro," as he called him—would end up with a life sentence.
"Is this hard for you, Mr. Evans?" Hahnert asked.
"Yes," he replied.
This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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