Buju Banton is set to be released in a matter of months, but the cocaine-trafficking case against him still infuriates his most ardent supporters, who believe he landed behind bars after being set-up and seduced by a U.S. government informant.
“He was entrapped. Just follow the case,” one longtime fan, 55-year-old Alvin Walfall of Bowie, Maryland, said. “It was entrapment.”
For years, U.S. officials demanded that a key piece of evidence — undercover video from Banton’s last meeting with the informant — stay under seal, hidden from public view. But ABC News appealed to a federal judge, and the video has now been unsealed.
It offers the most complete account of how Banton, 44, ended up in a U.S. prison, convicted of two counts for his role in a conspiracy to sell cocaine.
But Banton has maintained his innocence, insisting he never intended to go through with a drug deal and was only guilty of “running my mouth.”
Banton is a prolific dancehall artist, known around the world for his aggressively gruff voice and bursting stage manner, and his songs such as “Pull It Up” and “Bonafide Love” remain a staple on American radio like Sirius-XM.
In the past year alone, music megastars Rihanna and Sean Paul have openly expressed support for him.
“Today I went to check Buju Banton, the great legend,” Sean Paul said in a video he posted online in October after visiting Banton at the McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia. “He’s in great spirits.”
Banton won his first and only Grammy on Valentine’s Day 2011. Less than 18 hours later, he was inside a Tampa, Florida, courtroom for the start of the federal trial against him.
“This case is a true miscarriage of justice, and it still keeps me up at night,” Banton’s trial attorney, David Oscar Markus, told ABC News in an email. “There was NO evidence to support the jury’s verdict.”
Prosecutors and a U.S. appeals court disagreed, with the court saying Banton “demonstrated familiarity with the drug trade” and deliberately laid the groundwork for a drug deal.
Banton — whose real name is Mark Myrie — did not respond to letters from ABC News seeking comment for this article. Spokesmen for the investigators and prosecutors declined to comment.
“A CHANCE ENCOUNTER”
The government’s entire investigation of Banton started with what both sides acknowledged was a “chance encounter” aboard an international flight.
“He had the worst luck that any of us could have,” Markus told jurors about his client.
Flying from Madrid to Miami after a European tour in July 2009, Banton happened to be seated next to a man named Alex Johnson. The two had never met, but as they both settled into the eight-hour flight, they began chatting and drinking together.
“We talk about women, we talk about cars,” Banton recalled at trial. “We were a bit loud … [We] were drinking immensely.”
At some point, for reasons that are still in dispute, the talk turned to cocaine. Banton claimed to have close ties to drug traffickers in the Caribbean — a claim investigators later found no evidence to support.
“We were both trying to impress each other,” as Banton remembered it in court.
Sitting beside Banton on the plane, Johnson boasted about his own ties to the international narcotics trade, describing himself as a Colombian “transporter” with a sailboat who can move drugs and money to the United States.
Johnson, however, was actually an ex-con who according to court records made millions of dollars working over 14 years as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies.
And Johnson had just found a new target.
Before the plane landed, “[Banton] wrote his telephone number, his real name and artistic name on a napkin,” Johnson testified later.
“I NEVER DEAL”
In the week after they returned to Florida, Banton and Johnson met twice at restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, where they again spent several hours drinking and jabbering.
“I wasn’t there to discuss any drugs with Mr. Johnson,” Banton insisted during the trial, saying he simply found Johnson engaging and fun.
But with Johnson’s prompting, the pair rambled through grandiose ideas tied to drugs.
Johnson wanted to join forces with the Caribbean dealers Banton claimed to know; Banton proposed their own operation, buying low-priced cocaine in Colombia and smuggling it into Europe. Johnson suggested hiding cocaine in seafood shipments and paying off European customs officials.
Throughout the chatter, Johnson repeatedly pressed Banton to come see his sailboat in Sarasota, calling it an “important” step in their endeavor.
Banton, meanwhile, had his own message to emphasize: “I never deal. I’m always an investor.”
Though the reggae star had money to provide, he didn’t want to be the one meeting with buyers or sellers, Banton told Johnson. “I stay on the outside,” he said in a secretly-recorded conversation.
HEAR BANTON TALK ABOUT “STAYING ON THE OUTSIDE”:
Banton and Johnson never settled on a plan that first week, and they parted ways agreeing to stay in touch.
Over the next five months, however, their communications stalled. Recorded phone calls from the time, since released by authorities, indicate that while Johnson repeatedly reached out to Banton, asking to meet or otherwise catch up, Banton wasn’t as eager to reconnect.
Oftentimes Banton told Johnson he was too busy or too tired to meet.
HEAR BANTON PUT OFF JOHNSON: