A Jamaican national indicted over two years ago for allegedly orchestrating a cross-country drug operation headquartered in Baltimore surprised authorities by pleading guilty this week in U.S. District Court.
Richard Byrd had been through several lawyers before asking to represent himself. Byrd indicated he wanted to plead guilty just days before a weeks-long trial in U.S. District Court was to begin.
No one in the courtroom was quite sure whether Byrd was serious.
"Do we have a deal or do we not?" Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick could be heard saying to Byrd after he was brought into the courtroom.
Byrd's response couldn't be heard from the courtroom gallery, but it caused Warwick to repeat himself: "Do we have a deal or not?"
Byrd, 43, went on to plead guilty Wednesday afternoon, signing in the courtroom a plea agreement that calls for him to receive 26 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He will be formally sentenced in February.
Warwick told U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett that Byrd had been the leader of a drug distribution network that obtained "multi-hundred kilogram" amounts of drugs from Mexican sources in California and Arizona, and distributed them in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The drugs were transported by freight, with couriers taking proceeds to Atlanta and cities in Nevada, Texas, Arizona and California, where they were used to re-up additional drugs. The couriers used charter jets and commercial flights to bring the millions in proceeds back, prosecutors said.
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Prosecutors say Byrd amassed millions of dollars, and his plea agreement included a forfeiture order calling for him to give up $20 million and his interests in a nightclub in Manhattan, vehicles and property in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
In an earlier bid to win his release pending trial, Byrd's then-attorney had argued that he was a high-roller who helped organize major events for brands that drew celebrities and athletes.
Byrd, who prosecutors said was born in Jamaica, received five years in prison in the 1990s for a drug conviction. In 2011, he was arrested in Arizona after allegedly negotiating to purchase 2,200 pounds of marijuana from undercover officers, and authorities seized $267,000 in cash Byrd brought to the deal, and another $749,000 seized from his residence. But violations committed by the state led to Arizona courts to dismiss the forfeiture.
Before his plea, Byrd's five co-conspirators, including his brother who led his Phoenix-area operations, had pleaded guilty. His mother and two half brothers had also pleaded guilty in separate cases.
A significant amount of filings in the case have been filed under seal, and during his plea agreement prosecutors and his defense attorneys met at the bench for a sealed, "waiver of attorney-client privilege matters." The basis for that discussion was unclear.
Byrd has been held on lockdown status at a federal jail in Washington since March based on allegations that he was attempting to intimidate or sway witnesses, one of his previous attorneys said in a May court filing, and this fall he procured a cellphone in a jail library and called Warwick, causing his library privileges to be revoked.