Only a jury can decide whether two former Richmond County sheriff's officers were corrupted by the lure of profits from drug dealing and extortion or were victims of drug dealers willing to say anything to escape a life behind bars.
The trial of Ralph Tyrone Williams and Joseph Ellick began Monday in U.S. District Court. Both have pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy, attempt to possess crack cocaine and violation of the Hobbs Act by extortion.
"They'll all be here, warts and all," Mr. Williams' defense attorney Pete Theodocion said of the prosecutor's witnesses - most of whom are admitted drug dealers.
"You will not see a single grain of cocaine that allegedly ran through my client's hands," Mr. Theodocion said. There won't be any evidence that Mr. Williams had any extra cash besides a sheriff's officer's minimum pay, unlike at least one of the prosecution witnesses who paid $30,000 cash for a new SUV, the attorney said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Faulkner told the jury in his opening statement that Mr. Williams and Mr. Ellick sold information to drug dealers, worked with at least two in the sale of cocaine and extorted money from others.
A law enforcement officer has great power: the ability to arrest someone or not, seize items and cash, and withhold information to identify drug dealers, Mr. Faulkner said.
"The defendants used their power and authority ... for their own benefit," Mr. Faulkner said. "Instead of protecting and serving the community, they were serving their own interests."
It was easy for Mr. Williams and Mr. Ellick to do, the prosecutor said. Dealers cannot complain without admitting they were selling drugs, and if they complain anyway, their credibility is questionable, he said.
"They are easy prey to a law enforcement officer," Mr. Faulkner said.
Ellick attorney Michael Bloom said, however, what was easy was for drug dealer Ernest Smith to find a way out of legal trouble in 1999 by saying he had information on a corrupt officer.
Mr. Smith was looking at a minimum of 30 years without parole in November of that year when he said he was selling drugs, kilos of cocaine, with Mr. Ellick, the attorney said.
But when it came time to prove such allegations, by secretly recording phone conversations and by sending Mr. Smith, wired for sound, to talk to Mr. Ellick about their alleged past, nothing was said, Mr. Bloom said.
The same is true for Mr. Williams, his attorney said. Federal agents spent months listening to his telephone calls, taping his conversations with cooperating drug dealers and tracking his every move, but found nothing incriminating, Mr. Theodocion said.
Mr. Williams, 36, a veteran narcotics officer, was fired from his job after he was named in the federal indictment in February. Mr. Ellick, 34, who last served on the crime suppression unit, quit in 2001 to move to south Florida.
Both men have been free on $25,000 bonds pending trial.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.