Buju Banton testifies in drug trial in Florida

The chatty man drinking red wine with Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton on a flight from Madrid to Miami seemed to have important music industry connections, so when the talk turned to cocaine, the singer tried to impress him with made-up ambitions of drug trafficking, Banton testified Wednesday. The man, Alexander Johnson, was an undercover U.S. government informant, the Associated Press reports. Banton said he liked Johnson, but he was only looking to secure a new distribution contract – not a cocaine deal. “I’m just a humble musician. I was talking over my head,” Banton said. “I was trying to impress this guy and that’s what got me in this hot seat right now.”

Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, is on trial in Tampa federal court on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and aiding and abetting two others in possessing a firearm during the course of cocaine distribution. He faces up to life in prison.

Johnson has testified that Banton admitted involvement in drug trafficking, and he wanted to give Johnson money so he could buy and sell cocaine. Their recorded conversations were played Tuesday for the jury.

The 37-year-old, four-time Grammy nominee took the stand Wednesday in a gray suit jacket, his long dreadlocks tied up in a braid. He said Johnson initiated their conversation about drugs on the plane in July 2009.

Banton said he made up ambitions to deal cocaine to one-up Johnson, who was talking about cocaine and marijuana deals of his own, alongside a legitimate seafood business and music industry contacts in Los Angeles.

When they met for lunch at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant the next day and at a hotel a few days later, it was Johnson who brought up cocaine, Banton said.

Banton said he never wanted nor expected Johnson to set up a cocaine deal, despite what he said in the recordings. The singer had told Johnson that he financed drug deals, wanted to sell drugs in Europe, buy drugs from the Caribbean and South America and use Johnson’s boat to transport drugs.

“I talk too much, but I am not a drug dealer,” Banton said.

Banton said he was surprised when the informant presented him with cocaine at an undercover police warehouse in Sarasota on Dec. 8. Surveillance video shows Banton peering over co-defendant Ian Thomas’ shoulder at the cocaine, and the singer tasting the drugs with a finger.

The singer said he thought Johnson was going to show him his boat and offices.

“When I realized this was real drugs, I thought, ‘This is a real drug dealer, and I want no part of it,'” Banton said. “I was in over my head.”

Under cross-examination Wednesday by Markus, Johnson said the cocaine was a “surprise showing.”

Johnson said he continued to pursue a cocaine deal with Banton, even though the singer repeatedly canceled meetings and rushed him off the phone, if he answered Johnson’s calls at all.

“I needed him to come to me,” Johnson said. “I was doing the job I was doing from day one.”

Banton said he avoided Johnson’s calls afterward, and he did not know Thomas would try to set up a drug deal with Johnson on Dec. 10.

That day, Thomas and another co-defendant, James Mack, were arrested at the warehouse. Banton was arrested at his Miami-area home.

Thomas and Mack have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Each faces up to life in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston asked Banton what he thought he would gain by lying about his involvement in drug trafficking.

“I know you want to paint me bad,” Banton replied. “If I was a drug dealer, I would have taken the plea deal you offered me.”

Another reggae singer testified Wednesday for Banton.

Stephen Marley, one of Jamaican music legend Bob Marley’s sons, told jurors that in the 19 years he’s been friends and played music with Banton, he has never known Banton to traffic in cocaine.

For the original report go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/22/1837288/buju-banton-testifies-in-drug.html#ixzz10JjmLfMG

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