Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TOP STORY > >Defense set to make its case in trial of two men

Special to The Leader

Tony Milner, 39, of North Little Rock testified Tuesday in federal court in Little Rock that he suspected, but wasn’t certain, that George Wylie Thompson was a felon when Milner sought to purchase a weapon for Thompson from a North Little Rock alderman, a federally licensed firearms dealer at the time.

Milner is a key witness for prosecutors in their case against Thompson, of Cabot, and Sam Baggett, the North Little Rock alderman. Milner testified Tuesday on all three underlying themes of the overall case against Thompson and Baggett: illegal weapons sales, illegal bookmaking operations, and marriage fraud.

Milner said that in January 2007, he went to Baggett’s barbershop, which doubles as his gun shop, to purchase a Taurus Raging Bee .218-caliber revolver for Thompson. He said he filled out the required paperwork, checking a box falsely stipulating that the weapon was for himself.

He said Thompson was present. “I never gave him (Baggett) money for the gun,” Milner said. He walked out with the gun, had a scope mounted on it, then passed it on to Thompson, he testified.

Milner has since pleaded guilty to bookmaking charges and to purchasing a firearm for a felon.

Asked on the stand by Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Hoey if he knew Thompson was a felon, Milner said, “I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought he probably was.” Milner testified he has known Thompson about 15 years.

On re-direct, Hoey had Milner concede that he’s not a federally licensed firearms dealer – unlike Baggett – and therefore didn’t know the intricacies of the law.

Whether Baggett knowingly sold the weapon to Thompson, a felon, or illegally through a third party like Milner, is the key to prosecutors’ case and to Baggett’s defense.

Thompson faces eight charges, including being a felon in possession of guns and ammunition, possession of unregistered silencers, conducting an illegal gambling operation, and marriage fraud. Baggett faces six charges, including selling guns to a felon and making false statements to federal agents.

Baggett’s attorney, John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, contends that Baggett didn’t know of Thompson’s felony convictions until May 12, 2009, when authorities raided Thompson’s properties in Cabot and on the Pulaski-Lonoke County line.

Agents seized 147 weapons, some 80,000 rounds of ammunition, and five silencers – none of which can be possessed legally by a felon.

The government on Tuesday also showed jurors a receipt, signed by Milner, for the handgun from Baggett’s shop. On the receipt, there was a handwritten note: “I am buying this gun for myself and not for any other person.” Milner said the note is not in his handwriting and that he didn’t recall if the handwritten note was on the receipt at the time he signed it.

Prosecutors contend that Baggett, Thompson, or both, produced the note in an effort to cover up the sale of a firearm to a felon.

Milner also testified he played a part in Thompson’s bookmaking operation — by distributing betting cards among Thompson’s clientele, picking up those bets, and disbursing winnings as needed. Thompson’s attorneys, Jason Files and Blake Hendrix, both of Little Rock, concede he is a bookmaker but say his operation didn’t fall within the federal definition of an illegal bookmaking operation.

Milner also said he and Thompson worked together in arranging a sham marriage between Milner and Quirong “Yo Yo” Wu, a Chinese citizen who was seeking U.S. citizenship in. Wu entered this country on a tourist’s visa in 2007.

Milner and Wu were married at the Lonoke County Courthouse. He said he was to receive a total of $25,000 from the woman, while Thompson was to get $5,000.

Milner said he’s still married to Wu – but hasn’t seen her in two years. A federal agent with the Department of Homeland Security testified that she is a fugitive, whereabouts unknown. Marrying a U.S. citizen is “one of the quickest and easiest” routes for a documented alien to become a citizen, although it still takes years, the agent, Bruce Passborn testified.

Jurors heard a recording of a telephone call between Thompson and Milner in which they discussed at what point Milner and Wu could get divorced and when Wu could have her green card. The call, which was recorded by agents with a court-authorized wiretap, was made even before the marriage took place.

Milner said that in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors didn’t charge him with marriage fraud.

Defense lawyers questioned the credibility of Milner – and several other prosecution witnesses who have entered plea bargains in the case, mostly related to gambling – because of the possibility of leniency. Both teams of defense lawyers had Milner acknowledge that he lied to agents during their first interview with him in July 2009 – lies also acknowledged by prosecutors.

Prosecutors rested their case shortly after Milner’s testimony concluded Tuesday afternoon.

The defense’s case will run at least through today, depending on whether Baggett, Thompson, or both, testify. U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson has said he wants the jury to have the case before the end of the week.

On Monday, Cary Gaines, who formerly served with Baggett on the North Little Rock City Council, testified that Baggett knew Thompson was a convicted felon at the time Baggett allegedly arranged to sell weapons and ammunition to Thompson.

Baggett this week. Gaines’ sentencing date is in April.

Gaines was scheduled to join Thompson on trial next year on charges they conspired to rig contractors’ bids on city projects. He owed Thompson for gambling debts at the time.

Gaines testified that at one time, in about 2007, at Baggett’s barbershop in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock, Thompson told Baggett and Gaines a “war story” about his time in prison.

Thompson was convicted in 1989 on federal drug charges, and in state court in 2003, again on drug charges.

Thompson has since been convicted a third time – last fall, in federal court, on drug-trafficking charges.