Longform

Reggae Great Buju Banton Is Locked Up on Drug Charges. Was He Entrapped?

UPDATE: New Times initial story on Banton caused one of the singer's gun charges to be tossed out by a judge, knocking five years off his sentence, though -- despite two trials and an exhaustive series of New Times stories tracking the shady business behind Buju Banton's convictions -- the reggae legend remains behind bars. But in February 2014, his case took an optimistic turn when Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor, stepped up to take on Banton's case. And last August, there was even more good news for Banton, when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed to hear his case. The court has yet to schedule a date to hear the arguments.

Buju Banton had been blowing off the man he knew as "Junior" for months. The 38-year-old reggae sensation was always ready with an excuse to rush off the phone or cancel plans — he had rehearsal, he was getting ready for a tour, he was too tired. But Junior, a stout, blockheaded Colombian, had been relentless over the past week, calling every day like a needy girlfriend. He laid the guilt trip on thick, saying he'd made a special trip to Florida's west coast and even borrowed a boat so he could catch up with Buju over drinks.

"For like five months, [he] has been calling me repeatedly, and when he said 'I came all this way to see you,' I felt a little bit bad in myself," Buju would later recall in his gravelly Jamaican accent. "And I, I felt sorry a bit for him talking to me like that, saying that he came all this way to see me and I wouldn't even give him the time of day."

Buju caved. On December 8, 2009, he popped on his swim trunks, pulled a pair of jeans over them, and, along with two friends — a female companion and Buju's longtime driver and pal, Ian Thomas — jumped into his silver Land Rover with a "Jah One" vanity plate. They left his Tamarac duplex and started the drive to Naples for a day of fun in the sun.

As the exit sign for Naples came into view, Buju called Junior to give him a heads up that they would soon arrive. But plans had changed, Junior said. They needed to drive to Sarasota and meet him at a restaurant. From there, they would grab keys for the boat from a friend. Buju, in a frustrated, almost defeated tone, conceded to the extra 120 miles.

In Sarasota, Buju introduced Thomas to Junior over margaritas. A short while later, after leaving a restaurant, Buju and the men found themselves in a dimly lit warehouse, the shutter door clanking down and locking behind them. Inside, a stranger lurked in the corner and started speaking to Junior in Spanish, leaving Buju clueless. There was no boat or keys in sight.

With his long dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, Buju paced and swayed, his lanky, dark, black frame oozing an aura of nervousness. He asked to use the bathroom but was told the toilet was broken.

"Let me go do it outside," he bargained.

Junior and the stranger avoided answering him. Then the stranger walked over to a parked car and opened a hidden compartment in the trunk to reveal 20 plastic-wrapped kilos of cocaine.

"I felt my stomach turn," Buju testified months later. "I tried to play it down and be calm. I keep telling myself... be cool, be cool, it's gonna be, just be cool."

Buju's friend, Thomas, seemed adept at navigating this type of environment. He plucked a kilo from the pile and plopped it down on a workbench. Buju followed closely behind, peeking over his friend's shoulder as he made a small incision in the packaging. Thomas dabbed a fingertip of the powder on his tongue and proffered the blade to Buju so he could follow suit.

After tasting the cocaine, Buju sank into a chair in the corner of the room. He fiddled and tried to occupy himself while Thomas pulled out a phone and started negotiating prices with an apparent buyer in Georgia.

"Yo, find out how much he wants," Buju murmured. He later claimed that he had no idea who was on the line and that his remark was just an attempt to appear legitimate, to play it cool. Thomas ignored his friend and carried on uninterrupted.

When the warehouse door screeched open, Buju turned around and told Thomas to exchange numbers with Junior. The singer later said he spent the long drive back to Tamarac throwing up from a combination of stress and margaritas. Later that night, Junior called Buju two times. Buju avoided the calls.

The next day, Thomas drove back out to Sarasota alone and met Junior at an Applebee's for a round of negotiations. Junior pushed to get Buju involved in that day's antics. "He does not want to do nothing, man," Thomas responded. "That's not him, you know? Music, eat, sleep, shit every day." Junior then agreed to sell five kilos to Thomas' connection in Georgia. Junior left the restaurant, called his supervisor at the Drug Enforcement Agency, and said it was a "miracle" that he held onto the deal.