Tuesday, December 07, 2010

TOP STORY >> Thompson jury selection goes slow

Special to The Leader

Jury selection in the trial of a Cabot man and a North Little Rock alderman on various weapons charges stalled Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock when the pool of potential jurors ran low.

U.S District Judge Bill Wilson Jr. will call on 25 new ones when the trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

Court opened at 1:30 p.m. Tues-day with 55 potential jurors. The pool was down to 33 two hours later, and prosecutors and defense lawyers hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they could question potential jurors individually and use preemptory challenges to strike them from the panel. Eventually, they’ll settle on 12 jurors, plus three alternates. The trial is expected to take two weeks.

Running short of potential jurors was a first for him in his many years on the bench, Wilson said, calling it a learning experience.

George Wylie Thompson, 65, of Cabot, faces six charges, including being a felon in possession of guns and ammunition, possession of unregistered silencers and conspiracy to commit illegal gambling. Sam Baggett, who has remained on the North Little Rock City Council since his arrest and indictment, is charged with selling guns and ammunition to a felon and making false statements to federal agents.

Their case took another turn Monday morning with a guilty plea being entered by a third defendant, Cary Gaines of North Little Rock. He pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Gaines, too, was a North Little Rock alderman, but he resigned shortly before indictment. He had been scheduled to join Thompson as a co-defendant in a separate trial next year but could be called to testify this week in the Thompson-Baggett case.

Gaines is listed as a potential witness by Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Hoey and by John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, the lead defense lawyer for Baggett. Thompson’s attorneys are Blake Hendrix and Jason Files, both of Little Rock. They didn’t offer a list of potential witnesses, or ask to read theirs aloud.

Wilson excused several potential jurors after Hall read off his list of potential witnesses. Other than Gaines, it included North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays, former Mayor Terry Hartwick, who now heads the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, and several former or current city aldermen and policemen. Those jurors, all apparently from North Little Rock, said they knew those witnesses too well to be unbiased in their consideration of the case.

Wilson excused two others because Baggett, a long-time barber in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock, had cut their hair, or a family member’s hair, for years.

“That’s cutting it a little too close,” Wilson, known for his dry, home-spun humor, deadpanned in excusing those pool members.

A federally licensed gun dealer at the time authorities were investigating Thompson, Baggett contends he didn’t know about Thompson’s past conviction on drug charges. The sales of guns and ammunition, according to prosecutors, were arranged during a series of telephone calls in January and February of 2009 between Baggett and Thompson. Unknown to Thompson or Baggett, federal investigators had a wiretap on Thompson’s telephone.

In May 2009, agents with the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms searched Thompson’s properties in Cabot and northern Pulaski County and seized 147 firearms and some 88,000 rounds of ammunition for a variety of handguns, rifles and shotguns. Some of the shipping boxes had Baggett’s address, according to prosecutors, who also have said at least two of the guns came from Baggett.

Baggett’s defense attorneys have said it was only then that Baggett found out Thompson was a felon.

In the case against Gaines, 65, a former executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, federal prosecutors alleged that Gaines worked with Thompson in a bid-rigging scheme in which Gaines would receive kickbacks from contractors who win city jobs. The kickbacks involved some $30,000 to $70,000, according to prosecutors, but never fully developed. Gaines said he needed the money to pay gambling debts owed to Thompson.

In exchange for Gaines’ guilty plea, prosecutors dropped other charges against him, including one of public corruption. Gaines, who is free on bond, faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines when he is sentenced April 22. Outside court Monday, he said he was “ashamed and embarrassed” about his actions and was prepared for the consequences.

After Gaines’ guilty plea Monday morning before U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes, Judge Wilson considered an effort by Thompson’s attorney, Files, to contest the seizure of 102 guns from Thompson’s property at 1800 Lusby Lane in northern Pulaski County. The 102 guns were among the total of 147 seized in the May 12, 2009, raid.

Wilson eventually sided with prosecutors but expressed doubt about the validity of the search warrant issued by a federal magistrate. Wilson said evidence showing probable cause to issue the warrant appeared to be vague but, in the end, he ruled that agents relied in good faith on the magistrate’s decision.

In October, a federal jury in Little Rock convicted Thompson on drug-trafficking charges, along with Ralph Francis DeLeo of Somerville, Mass. That makes three separate trials for Thompson arising from the same 2009 investigation: the October drug trial, this week’s trial with Baggett, and the Feb. 1 scheduled public-corruption trial that once involved Gaines.

Early in the case’s development, federal prosecutors in Boston, Mass., after indictments of DeLeo and Thompson on charges of extortion, loan sharking and drug trafficking, claimed that DeLeo

Thompson eventually was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand.