The case against Grammy-winning reggae star Buju Banton hinges on one man: Alexander Johnson, a former cocaine transporter turned federal informant who has earned over $3 million helping the government in drug cases in recent years.
Johnson testified during Banton's trial Tuesday, telling the jury how he and the singer met in 2009 in the business-class section of a Madrid-to-Miami flight and how, over drinks, they began chatting about the cocaine trade.
This is Banton's second trial on several cocaine charges, including conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine. The first trial, held last year, ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Johnson said Tuesday that after his eight-hour flight, he went to his superiors at the Drug Enforcement Administration to alert them that he would meet with Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, and tape record phone calls and meetings.
For several hours Tuesday, Johnson described multiple meetings with Banton in Florida, and prosecutors played tapes and phone calls.
In one meeting, held at the now-defunct restaurant Bova Prime in Fort Lauderdale (formerly co-owned by convicted pyramid schemer Scott Rothstein), Banton could be heard asking Johnson if he had any contacts for buying cocaine.
As Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" played loudly in the background, Banton said, "I give you my money, you buy, you sell."
Both Johnson and prosecutors say that Banton never put any money into any drug deal, nor did he make any money.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents recorded the singer inspecting the cocaine and tasting the drugs with his finger on Dec. 8, Preston said. His co-defendant, Ian Thomas, gave the undercover officer $135,000 on Dec. 10; he has since been arrested and pleaded guilty to drug charges.
Banton was not present for the Dec. 10 drug deal - he was at home in South Florida - but he "took a substantial step" in committing the crime by helping negotiate the deal, Preston said.
Banton's attorney, David Markus, said his client did not participate in a conspiracy to sell cocaine and said there is no evidence to link Banton to the Dec. 10 transaction or any of the other charges. Banton was full of talk - and no action - when it came to plans with Johnson and the others, the attorney said.
"He never, ever wanted to be part of that drug deal," Markus said.
Markus cross-examined Johnson Tuesday afternoon and called into question his veracity - Johnson has declared bankruptcy and is currently having problems with the IRS, according to court testimony.
Markus also portrayed Johnson as aggressively trying to lure Banton into the drug transaction by calling the singer numerous times over several months.
During one meeting, Banton said he had drank too much red wine, and wanted water. Johnson asked him if he wouldn't like something else - and Markus asked Johnson Tuesday if Johnson wanted the singer to drink more so he would let his guard down.
Johnson nodded and said, "It's part of the game I'm playing."
Johnson added that he tried to make Banton feel like part of his family.
It is unclear why Banton - who has had more No. 1 hits than Bob Marley and is a wildly popular singer in his native Jamaica and elsewhere - would immediately trust a stranger.
During one meeting, Banton told Johnson: "Do you know what's happening right now? Lotta snitches."
Johnson replied, "The snitches are all over the f------ place."
Banton added, "I'm even scared myself. To be discussing this."
Testimony will resume Wednesday.