Saturday, December 18, 2010

TOP STORY > >Verdict is guilty in trial of pair

By Stephen steed
Special to The Leader

A jury in the federal trial of a Cabot man and North Little Rock alderman on Friday night returned guilty verdicts on several weapons and related charges.

George Wylie Thompson, 65, of Cabot was convicted on all eight charges, including being a felon in possession of guns and ammunition, possession of unregistered silencers, conducting an illegal gambling operation and aiding and abetting marriage fraud.

Sam Baggett, 56, a North Little Rock alderman since 2008, was convicted on three charges, including selling guns to a felon, falsifying federal firearms papers, and making false statements to federal agents.

The jury received the case early Friday afternoon after closing arguments by federal prosecutors and the two defense teams. The trial, including jury selection, began Dec. 7 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson.

Thompson already has three felony convictions – on drug charges in federal court in 1989, and on drug charges in state court in 2003. Last fall, he was convicted in federal court, again on drug charges that arose from the investigation that led to this week’s trial on the weapons charges.

As a two-time convicted felon in 2007, according to prosecutors, Thompson came into possession of several weapons by answering classified ads, accepting guns as collateral on loans or as payments on gambling debts, or buying them through a third party. Baggett, whose barber shop in the Levy neighborhood also serves as his gun business, helped Thompson acquire at least three guns, prosecutors allege.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Hoey said in closing arguments Friday there are no exceptions that would allow a felon to possess guns or ammunition. “There’s no exemption for collecting, exterminating or squirrel hunting,” Hoey said. “The purpose is irrelevant.”

On May 12, 2009, federal agents raided Thompson’s home in Cabot and other property on the Pulaski-Lonoke County line. They seized a total of 147 guns of various calibers and types, five unregistered silencers and some 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

Baggett testified that he has known Thompson for about 15 years but didn’t know he was a felon until after the raid.

In any case, he said, he never sold Thompson a firearm or helped him acquire guns by any other means. Prosecutors contend that Baggett sold a gun to a third party, who then transferred the gun to Thompson, and that Baggett knew that the actual buyer was Thompson.

At best, Baggett was practicing “deliberate ignorance,” Hoey said Friday morning. “Reason, deduction and common sense” should have led Baggett to know Thompson was a felon, Hoey said.

Blake Hendrix, one of Thompson’s two attorneys, said the federal law prohibiting felons from possessing firearms is aimed at “dangerous men.”

“George Thompson is not a dangerous man,” Hendrix said, noting that one of the weapons seized is one Thompson got when he was 5 years old. Thompson also didn’t know it was illegal for a felon to own ammunition and didn’t know the silencers were silencers, Hendrix said. He noted that a gun expert for the prosecution acknowledged earlier in the trial that it required a laboratory test to identify the silencers as silencers.

Thompson’s bookmaking didn’t constitute a federal offense, defined as involving five or more people, Hendrix said. Others involved were fellow bookies but were independent of each other, Hendrix said. “They were more like competitors” than colleagues running the same business, he said.

Hendrix attacked the credibility of a government witness – Cary Gaines, a former North Little Rock alderman who pleaded guilty to wire fraud last week. Gaines said he and Thompson conspired to fix bids on city jobs, with any kickbacks going to Thompson to repay Gaines’ gambling debts. Thompson is scheduled to stand trial on that charge next year. That trial would have included Gaines – until his guilty plea.

“To believe a word out of his (Gaines’) mouth – let alone base a conviction on it – would be an injustice,” Hendrix told jurors.

Before his arrest, Thompson flew to Bangkok, Thailand. His attorneys noted during the trial that Thompson has made yearly trips to Southeast Asia for some three decades, since his days as a Marine in the Vietnam War.

But, in closing arguments, Hoey noted that this time Thompson was gone for 151 days — much longer than previous trips. “Remember, he came home courtesy of the FBI – in FBI custody,” she said.

John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, Baggett’s attorney, said the government’s case was based on innuendo and on the testimony of several witnesses who have pleaded guilty to various crimes. They’re hoping for a reduction in their sentences in exchange for their testimony, he said.

Thompson also is charged with arranging a fraudulent marriage – between a colleague, Tony Milner of North Little Rock, and a Chinese woman who wanted to marry a U.S. citizen as a way to gain U.S. citizenship. Milner testified that he was to receive $25,000 and Thompson was to receive $5,000. The marriage materialized, but the money didn’t. The woman is now a fugitive, according to prosecutors.