A drug investigation initiated by the son of Liberia's president resulted in two convictions and two acquittals Thursday in a case that a prosecutor said was brought against one of the oldest drug distribution networks in the world.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan convicted Chigbo Peter Umeh, described as the mastermind of a plot to corrupt top Liberian officials, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot. It acquitted two Ghanaian men who the government said were enlisted to transport drugs by boat.
The trial featured testimony by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who said U.S. authorities began investigating after Fumbah Sirleaf contacted the DEA in May 2009. Sirleaf, the son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was director of the Republic of Liberia National Security Agency at the time.
Sirleaf and his deputy director, Tony Soul, posed as corrupt Liberian officials to assist the DEA in a sting operation, agent Eric Stouch testified during the trial.
The DEA secretly recorded a May 2009 meeting at which Sirleaf and Soul played their roles as they met with Umeh and two Colombian associates representing a South American drug trafficking organization, Stouch testified.
The defendants hoped to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine as they conspired to exploit a West African country on the coast as a hub for transporting narcotics around the world, including to Europe, Africa and the United States, prosecutors said. The conspirators promised to pay Liberian officials $1 million and 50 kilograms of cocaine, they said.
Defense lawyers argued that their clients had no intention of shipping drugs to the United States and were entrapped by the sting operation.
At sentencing July 28, Umeh, 43, faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life while Yaroshenko, 42, faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life.
After the verdict, attorney Jeremy Gutman said the two defendants who were exonerated benefited from videotaped meetings played for the jury by prosecutors because they showed that the men were not part of the conspiracy. Gutman, who represented acquitted defendant Kudufia Mawuko, told jurors in closing arguments that his client was a drug dealer but had never agreed to send drugs to the United States.
"This is not about judging whether he is an innocent man in general," the lawyer said. "The issue, the one real issue, and it is a big one, is whether he agreed to this particular plan."
During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson said Umeh was at the center of a vast cocaine trafficking network stretching from Colombia to West Africa and beyond that dealt in multi-ton shipments of drugs. He called it "one of the oldest drug trafficking networks in the world" and said it was so brazen that Umeh suggested it use for transporting drugs the same model of jet used for transporting the U.S. president.
Attorney Todd Merer, who argued on behalf of acquitted defendant Nathaniel French, told the jury in closings: "We're grateful that the videotapes and transcripts exist because otherwise you'd have to decide that case on the recollection of" a government informant who pretended to be a business partner of the Liberian president's son.
The jury included New York Giants owner John Mara. He said outside court afterward that it was an "exhausting process" to reach a conclusion in the case and he took it "seriously" because there were "four guys' lives at stake."
"I think the system worked," he said.
Mara said he was going to the Giants' offices because the NFL draft was scheduled to take place later in the day, something he said the team was prepared for even though he had to miss a lot of meetings because of jury duty.