ATLANTA — ATLANTA - Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis pleaded not guilty yesterday to federal charges that he helped arrange a major cocaine deal for a hometown friend weeks before signing a $35 million contract to begin his NFL career.
Lewis, the league's offensive player of the year and centerpiece of the Ravens offense, also declared his innocence in a statement to reporters after a brief initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. His attorneys, meanwhile, blasted the government's case as one built on the word of an untrustworthy informant.
"It is important to me to let my family, my friends, my fans and the Ravens organization know that I am innocent and thank you for your support," Lewis said outside the courthouse.
Lewis, 24, one of the NFL's marquee players, turned himself in to FBI officials in Atlanta early yesterday, a day after authorities announced the indictment against him in a case stemming from a long-running investigation of what federal court records portray as a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring. The drug organization's reach extended from an Atlanta housing project to several Southern states.
No trial date was set for Lewis, who was fingerprinted, photographed and released on a $500,000 bond. His attorneys said they hope the case will go to trial as early as June, though Ravens officials said they do not expect the case to go to court until next year.
Lewis, an Atlanta native, is accused of trying to help a childhood friend buy up to 50 kilograms of cocaine in a deal that turned out to be part of an FBI sting operation in the summer of 2000 - after the former University of Tennessee player had been drafted but before he signed with the Ravens.
Lewis was charged this week with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of a drug crime. If convicted on the first count, he could face a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years. Also named in the indictment is Lewis' childhood friend, Angelo M. "Pero" Jackson.
Jackson, 26, was charged in July 2000 in the incident, but the case was dismissed at the request of prosecutors eight months later without explanation.
Jackson's lawyer said yesterday that his client was not a cooperating witness and that he had no idea that the case was going to be reinstated until he was arrested early Wednesday while driving in the region with his mother.
"He's very upset, and justifiably so after something he thought had gone away two years ago comes back now," said Atlanta lawyer R. Daniel Botts.
Asked why he thought the government had brought the case again and added Lewis as a defendant, Botts replied: "I would guess that they have something else now that they didn't have then."
The timing of the indictment raised questions yesterday, but defense lawyers and former federal prosecutors said probes involving confidential informants and undercover agents routinely take years to complete, as investigators identify targets for prosecution and arrange sealed indictments and plea deals.
"You have to consider the delay in the context of the larger investigation," said Andrew C. White, a Baltimore defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "It seems like Mr. Lewis is a big name but a small actor, and it looks to me that they had numerous big actors that they had to deal with first."
Authorities said the case against Lewis and Jackson arose from a lengthy investigation of narcotics trafficking in Northwest Atlanta's crime-ridden Bowen Homes public housing complex. Federal court records describe a lucrative drug trade that reached beyond inner-city Atlanta to Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky, and to cocaine suppliers in Colombia.
In a November 2002 trial of seven men accused of participating in the drug ring, one boasted of making as much as $36 million a year selling cocaine between 1986 and 1999, according to trial transcripts. Robert "Robby" Horton also described a drug operation willing to resort to violence to collect debts or intimidate competitors.
In one instance, Horton said four men locked co-defendant Willie Jones in a dog pen and threatened to kill him because of a $300,000 drug debt. Horton said another man who owed him money was tied to a chair and a fire lighted beneath him.
Court records indicate the investigation of the drug activity at Bowen Homes gained steam in late 1998, when one of the group's alleged leaders, Dwayne Sullivan, was arrested with associate Mario Cobb and 50 kilograms of cocaine. A month later, Cobb was killed in the driveway of Sullivan's grandmother's home - a victim, court records in Atlanta suggest, of associates who feared that he would become a government informant.
Sullivan later pleaded guilty to drug charges that brought a 150-month federal prison term. His attorney, Daniel E. Gavrin of Atlanta, declined to comment yesterday on the case or the Lewis indictment.
"All I know is what I read in the newspapers," Gavrin said. "All I can tell you is, generally speaking, the federal government will throw out its net and whatever it catches, it catches."
In an FBI affidavit made public with the Lewis indictment, Special Agent Hoyt A. Mahaley described a three-week period between June 23 and July 19, 2000, when authorities used an unidentified source to set up a fictional cocaine deal.
According to the affidavit, the informant first contacted Lewis by cell phone and the two allegedly discussed arranging cocaine sales for Jackson during the secretly recorded conversation. The three met later at an Atlanta restaurant where they discussed a price over dinner, according to the affidavit. That meeting also was taped.
Lewis does not appear again in the account spelled out in the affidavit.
Federal agents arrested Jackson on July 19, 2000, when he arrived at the informant's apartment expecting to purchase up to 50 kilograms of cocaine.
Botts said yesterday that Jackson and Lewis were friends before Lewis entered the NFL. They have not been in touch in recent years, he said.
"I think after that happened, I think Jamal Lewis kind of distanced himself from all that, or he was told to," Botts said.
In court yesterday, Lewis was told by U.S. Magistrate Judge E. Clayton Scofield III not to have any contact with Jackson or any possible witnesses in the case. Lewis was allowed to travel within the United States while awaiting trial, but was ordered not to obtain a passport or leave the country.
Lewis did not speak during the hearing, which lasted about 15 minutes, other than to enter his not guilty plea and to acknowledge that he understood the charges. He was flanked in court by three lawyers and his agent.
Prominent Atlanta attorney Edward T.M. Garland, leader of the Lewis defense team, told reporters outside the courthouse that he had reviewed some of the audiotapes that the government is expected to use to try to prove its case. The tapes "tell me he's innocent," Garland said.
Garland said federal prosecutors had built a weak case on the word of an informant with "all kinds of criminal problems."
"She was someone who came in a long time ago trying to set him up to get out of jail," said Garland, who did not identify the informant but said she had no connection to Lewis.
Asked about the timing of the indictment, which comes nearly four years after the alleged activity, Garland said prosecutors should provide the answer.
"That's a good question," he said. "Ask them to explain it."
Sun staff writer Reginald Fields contributed to this article.