The leader of a violent Memphis-based drug organization that teamed with Mexico’s Beltran Leyva cartel to distribute drugs throughout the South was sentenced to nine life sentences in federal prison Thursday.
Craig Petties was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays, who said Petties’ crimes were the most serious he had ever seen.
Petties secretly pleaded guilty in December 2009 to racketeering, money laundering, drug trafficking and ordering the slayings of four men he perceived as snitches or threats to the organization. His plea was not disclosed until February 2011.
Petties built a multistate drug ring that operated from 1995 to 2008. Cocaine and marijuana were shipped from Mexico to Memphis in semi -trucks, then distributed for sale in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina.
Petties fled to Mexico after his 2002 indictment. He was placed on the U.S. Marshals Service 15 Most-Wanted List and his case was featured on the ‘America’s Most Wanted’ television program before his capture in January 2008.
Two of Petties’ henchmen, cousins Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis, were convicted in March 2012 of being enforcers for the organization. They were also sentenced to life in prison. About 70 witnesses testified and 300 pieces of evidence were admitted during their trial, one of the largest federal drug trials ever held in Tennessee.
The Lewises are the only two members of the gang to go to trial. About 30 others gang members have pleaded guilty, with some receiving sentences of more than 30 years in prison.
During the sentencing hearing, Mays called Petties’ crimes reprehensible. In all, Petties received nine life sentences, plus more than 60 years in prison. He is not eligible for parole, though he can appeal the sentences.
‘Mr. Petties has committed more serious crimes than anyone I’ve sentenced,’ Mays said.
Petties made a brief statement during the sentencing hearing, apologizing to the families of the victims.
‘I apologize for the decisions I made in life,’ Petties said.
The gang began as a group of teens selling drugs in the Riverside neighborhood, according to testimony. As they grew older, they sold more cocaine and marijuana and established stash houses throughout the area.
They eventually built contacts with the Beltran Leyva drug organization in Mexico, which provided the cocaine that was shipped to Memphis in semitrailers. Gang members met the trucks at area hotels and picked up the cocaine before breaking it up for distribution.
Gang members bought jewelry, multiple homes and vehicles with laundered drug profits, prosecutors said. They stole drugs from each other, organized kidnapping plots, and killed men suspected of being snitches.
During the Lewises’ trial, prosecutor David Pritchard said in his closing arguments that Petties worked directly for Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a Texas-born man known as ‘La Barbie.’
Valdez is suspected of using extreme violence as he tried to seize control of the Beltran Leyva cartel following the death of gang leader Arturo Beltran Leyva. He was arrested in 2010.
After fleeing to Mexico, Petties gave orders to gang members via cellphone. He pleaded guilty to ordering the killings of Mario McNeal, Latrell Small, Mario Stewart and Marcus Turner.
Small was slain in August 2004; Stewart in March 2005. Turner was kidnapped and killed in September 2006 and McNeal was slain in March 2007.
Turner’s mother, Lucy Turner, attended the sentencing hearing. Her son was kidnapped and tortured after some of the organization’s drugs went missing. His nude body was found in a ditch in north Mississippi.
Lucy Turner told Mays during the hearing that her granddaughter still talks about her father. She said the sentencing helped bring closure to her family.
‘He has damaged so many lives,’ Turner said, standing just a few feet away from Petties.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III said after the hearing that Petties’ gang members are believed to have killed more people than the four acknowledged by their leader.
In December 2010, Petties pleaded guilty to a separate charge of possessing a weapon while in federal prison in Memphis.