Originally created 11/07/02

Top 10 fugitive brought to city



The prosecution of one of the FBI's Top 10 fugitives began in the federal courthouse in Augusta on Wednesday afternoon.

Four years after a federal grand jury issued an indictment with allegations involving tons of cocaine, millions of dollars, shootouts with police, prison escapes and an execution of a suspected informant, the alleged ringleader with a series of aliases and a chameleonlike ability to alter his appearance was captured in Venezuela on Tuesday afternoon.

"Are you James Spencer Springette?" U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Leon Barfield asked the large man in a rumpled yellow dress shirt and blue jeans.

"Yes, your honor," Mr. Springette responded.

Mr. Springette's initial appearance in U.S. District Court occurred just 26 hours after Venezuelan authorities near the city of Caracas arrested him. According to a U.S. Department of Justice press release, Georgia authorities provided the information that led to Tuesday's arrest.

Mr. Springette is the last of seven people named in the largest drug case ever prosecuted in Augusta to appear in court. A second suspect, Francis Mouland, had been a fugitive until his capture in March in St. Catherine, Jamaica. Mr. Mouland is awaiting trial. The other five people named in the indictment pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison last year.

The heart of the prosecution's case allegedly took place in the Caribbean. According to the indictment and court testimony, Mr. Springette and a number of associates obtained tons of cocaine from Colombia drug cartels and moved it into the United States during most of the 1990s.

The indictment was issued in this area. Mr. Springette is accused of supplying cocaine to several Augusta-area drug dealers. Specifically the indictment indicates Eugene Smalls and Askia Rojas had business with Mr. Springette. Mr. Smalls was wounded and paralyzed and Mr. Rojas was killed on March 31, 1991, in Decatur, Ga., when - according to the indictment - three other Augusta area dealers attempted to assassinate them.

Five years later in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the indictment and court testimony here in Augusta, Mr. Springette was involved with several others in the transport of 1,262 kilograms - over a ton - of cocaine. When suspicious police tried to stop the vehicle, those inside opened fire with automatic weapons, seriously injuring one officer, according to a police officer present at the shootout.

Those inside escape that night and according to the indictment, the men believed one of the own was an informant. The man was later found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head and his body covered with lime.

A few months later, on Oct. 1, 1996, Mr. Springette was allegedly involved in the transport of 6,000 kilograms of cocaine.

Two years later, two men suspected as being among the drug traffickers involved in the St. Thomas shootout with police escaped from a prison in Tortola, British Virgin Islands with the help of two armed men.

On Jan. 30, 1999, Mr. Springette was arrested and jailed in Medellin, Colombia. He escaped March 1, 2000, before the United States could complete the extradition. He was a fugitive until Tuesday.

On Wednesday, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service and the Richmond County Sheriff's Department brought Mr. Springette to the Augusta federal courthouse in a convoy of at least a dozen marked and unmarked vehicles.

Waiting for Mr. Springette were U.S. Attorney Rick Thompson and Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Faulkner, who has been the lead attorney in the case since 1998.

Mr. Springette's hearing, an initial appearance, was short. Judge Barfield briefly outlined the basis of the allegations and spoke to Mr. Springette of the constitutional rights of one accused of a crime. In response to questions, Mr. Springette was polite, giving simple "Yes, sir" answers.

Mr. Faulkner said the government will request that Mr. Springette remain in custody pending trial. Judge Barfield told Mr. Springette he understood that he was willing to waive the issue of bond, but the judge said he wanted Mr. Springette represented by a defense attorney before he formally accepted pretrial detention.

The FBI named Mr. Spring-ette to the Top 10 list April 25. He is the sixth Top 10 fugitive arrested this year and the 32nd overall to be arrested in a foreign country.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.

Recently captured FBI Top 10 fugitive James S. Springette is scheduled for a detention hearing at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The hearing may be canceled if Mr. Springette gives up the issue of his release on bond after consulting with an attorney.