DETROIT — On Sept. 12, inside a small courtroom on the second floor of the Theodore Levine federal courthouse, an anxious crowd gathered to witness the symbolic end of the government's two-decade investigation into the Black Mafia Family.
One of the bailiffs barked a succinct order: "No outbursts." A moment later, a team of U.S. marshals escorted a slender man, gazing straight ahead through rimless glasses, into the courtroom.
"That's your Uncle T," one of the onlookers, Lucille Flenory, whispered to her grandson, sitting next to her. The bespectacled man, Lucille's son, was hardly recognizable as he made his way to the defense table. From the time he was locked up three years ago, Terry "Southwest T" Flenory lost close to 100 pounds.
Shuffling close behind him, in a matching orange jumpsuit, was Terry's older brother, Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the tattooed letters "BMF" peeked above his collar on the left side of his neck. He scanned the courtroom, turned to his supporters and flashed a wide smile.
The two men, both of whom pleaded guilty to federal drugs charges last year, rose from the down-and-out streets of Detroit to build a massive, multistate cocaine empire headquartered in Atlanta and L.A. In less than two decades, the Flenory brothers and their Black Mafia Family amassed a $270 million fortune. The drug organization relied on an estimated 500 employees. And, with Meech's guidance, BMF helped jump-start the careers of some of Atlanta's best-known rappers.
One of those rappers, Young Jeezy, was implicated in BMF's drug trade during the Atlanta federal trial earlier this year of Meech's third-in-command, Fleming "Ill" Daniels. Jeezy hasn't been charged with a crime in relation to the feds' BMF investigation. Daniels, who was convicted of cocaine conspiracy, as well as several of his co-defendants, including the rapper Barima "Bleu DaVinci" McKnight, will be sentenced in Atlanta later this year.
Meech, 40, and Terry, 38, were at the pinnacle of close to 150 defendants indicted in federal cases across the country. The brothers and 60 associates were charged in Detroit, where Meech and Terry birthed the organization. The other indictments were handed up in Georgia, Michigan, California, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.
By now, most of those co-conspirators have been sentenced – including Meech's and Terry's 60-year-old father, Charles Flenory, who received 18 months for using his sons' drug proceeds to pay for renovations on Terry's house; Meech's second-in-command, Chad "J-Bo" Brown, who refused to cooperate and got 15 years in prison; and Terry's longtime girlfriend, Tonesa Welch, who was sentenced a week before the brothers to nearly five years in federal prison for helping Terry launder his drug money.
But the most highly anticipated of the prison sentences were Meech's and Terry's.
The brothers pleaded guilty in November 2007 to running a continuing criminal enterprise. Had they been convicted of the rarely invoked charge, which is similar to a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations prosecution, they would be required to serve life sentences.
Instead, they took the plea and hoped they'd receive 20 years. By law, 20 years is the minimum – unless the brothers had been willing to cooperate with the government (they weren't). The federal prosecutors were pushing for 30 years.
Most of the people who crowded the courtroom to witness the brothers' sentencing were hopeful the judge would be lenient. Meech's close friend, Tammy Cowins, said before the hearing that both brothers have family members who've depended on them financially – including Meech's 8-year-old son and two older daughters, as well as Terry's daughter.
Cowins, who traveled from her home in Atlanta to attend the hearing, said Meech used his drug money to give back to his family and the community.
"He's portrayed as this heartless gangster with no love and compassion, and he's actually the total opposite," Cowins said. "He took care of a lot of people. A lot of people ate off of Demetrius."
With the two Flenory brothers seated in front of him, U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn asked to hear from Terry first.
Terry spoke in a quiet, steady voice. He told the judge he'd never been in trouble before. He described how he's been telling other inmates "to use my life as an example to lead them in the other direction."
And he said he was sorry he wasted the feds' time.
"I'd like to apologize to the government for my ignorance and for them having to spend countless hours working this case," Terry said. "I'd like to apologize to the many families hurt by the result of this ignorance."
Judge Cohn's response was sharp. "I think you're a very lucky man that it took the government this long to build a case against you," he said.
The judge read Terry's sentence so quickly that many of his supporters missed it. He sentenced him to 30 years.
As Terry was cuffed and led out of the courtroom, Meech and his attorneys were asked to approach the bench. Meech's Atlanta-based lawyer, Drew Findling, told the judge that Meech had requested a meeting with Terry shortly after Meech entered a guilty plea. During the meeting, Meech advised his brother to do the same – an act that would spare the government a lengthy, expensive trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison then said Meech shouldn't be credited for Terry's guilty plea. "That meeting did not go very well," she said. "In fact, it was disastrous."
Ison contended that it wasn't Meech who persuaded Terry to plea. She said it was Terry's father.
When it came time for Meech to address the judge, he apologized – and said he knew an apology wasn't enough. "I don't think 'I'm sorry' is the right thing to say," he told Judge Cohn. "'I'm sorry' is what people say when they get caught."
The judge quickly sentenced Meech to 30 years, too. As he was ushered out of the courtroom, Meech turned to smile, again, at his friends and family.
Under current law, Meech will be at least 61 when he's released from prison. There is no parole in the federal system, though inmates can shave off 15 percent of their sentences for good behavior and can get early release through a drug-treatment program. He and Terry also will get a three-year reduction in their sentences for time served.
Once the door closed behind him, his mother began crying quietly, as one of her sons' childhood friends comforted her. Outside the courtroom, in the embrace of Cowins and her granddaughters, she broke down and sobbed.
Moments after the hearing, Meech's Detroit attorney, James Feinberg, shook his head. He said he was shocked. "That's not what we were hoping for."
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