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Trial begins in torture, killing of 25-year-old woman

After 30 years of drug dealing, Walter Horton realized in early 2010 that he was in over his head. A friend was dead, and he believed he could be next.

He wrote a letter to his family, placed it underneath a television, and told them to read it if anything ever happened to him. "Please forgive me God," it began.

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In it, Horton explained how a drug associate, Calvin "Turkey" Wright, had visited him and asked for help moving a vehicle. Days later, the nude body of 25-year-old Sintia Mesa would be found in the trunk.

Horton testified about that letter in Baltimore Circuit Court Thursday as a witness in the murder trial of Johnny Butler. Wright, 39, has already pleaded guilty in the case, and state prosecutors are trying to convince a jury that Butler, who turns 36 next week, should be convicted too.

The case is the last step in an investigation that has spanned several years and already resulted in a life prison term for Butler, who was convicted in federal court last year for running a major heroin and cocaine trafficking organization. Detectives Gregory Boris and Arthur Brummer worked the Mesa case for years, resulting in a wiretap investigation that took down Butler's organization.

Among those convicted in the drug case was Horton, whose testimony defense attorneys say should not be believed. Horton's letter to his family doesn't mention Butler as having any involvement in Mesa's killing, though he now testifies that Butler was there. And defense attorney Natalie Finegar said in opening statements Thursday that they will bring forward a DNA expert to discredit forensic evidence that links Butler to the killing.

Finegar said the prosecution took Horton's testimony "and laid out their foundation, and then took the evidence and tried to fit a square peg into a round hole."

At the center of the case is Mesa, a graduate of Morgan State University who homicide detectives have said was an innocent victim. She was dating a drug dealer and aspiring music mogul named Jemarl Jones, who had ties to Wright and Butler. When Butler fell out of favor with his Dominican drug suppliers, he had to find a way to come up with cash and turned to Mesa to get to Jones' money, the detectives said.

After getting the cash, however, police say Wright and Butler tortured, raped and killed Mesa, whose body was found in the trunk of a car parked in Falstaff. Two years later, federal prosecutors indicted members of Butler's drug organization, and police said they were able to gain additional information - apparently, the testimony of Horton. The then-commander of the homicide unit said the drug case was built with an aim of cracking the murder investigation open.

It's not clear how much of the lurid details will come out in trial. Assistant State's Attorney Rita Wistoff-Ito's opening statement didn't get into Dominican drug lords and record labels, instead indicating that the case will turn on forensic evidence and the testimony of Horton, even though he testified that he has no evidence that Butler was involved in the killing beyond a hunch.

Wisthoff-Ito began the Butler trial the day after securing a guilty verdict from a jury in the killing of a 20-year-old Marine.

Horton, appearing in court in a suit with a pink shirt and a breast cancer awareness ribbon, said he attended college, was enlisted in the military, and earned honest paychecks including working in investments and owning a car wash in Mount Vernon and a trucking business.

Drug dealing was something he did on the side to make money, but violence "ain't a part of the game I was involved in." He's now living out of state, awaiting sentencing in the federal drug case.

"I've been involved in drug organizations my whole life, since I was 16," he testified Thursday afternoon. "To come to this point of my life and see something [like that] happen to a person..." he said, trailing off. After his testimony had concluded, Horton told a reporter he's changed his ways.

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