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By ELAINE SILVESTRINI
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - A defense attorney for a man accused of selling drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose suggested this morning that a police informant may have entrapped the defendant.
Brandon Erwin is standing trial in U.S. District Court on charges of drug distribution and criminal responsibility in the November 2005 death of Andrew Culver.
The prosecution has said the investigation was propelled through the help of Stephen Wilkinson, a drug suspect in another case who was cooperating with law enforcement so authorities would go easy on him in his own case.
In questioning Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Scott Albrecht this morning, federal public defender Donald West asked whether informants are told not to engage in any activities that might constitute entrapment.
Albrecht said no specific directions are given, but that agents monitor that possibility through questioning of the informant.
Albrecht also testified under questioning by West that if an informant were to engage in illegal activities outside the scope of the investigation, that informant would be “de-activated.”
The agent said the DEA does not administer drug tests to informants.
Tampa Police Detective Anthony Tyson testified this morning about controlled drug purchases he observed inside the Blue Martini nightclub where Erwin worked. After Erwin was arrested, Tyson said, investigators found on him $230 in bills that had been used in one of those cocaine purchases.
The case is being brought under a rarely used 1986 federal law that says a drug supplier can be charged with the death of someone who overdoses. The maximum punishment is life in prison. That law was enacted after the death of Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias.
Charges are brought under the law about once a year in the Middle District of Florida, a district that stretches from Georgia to south of Naples. The district encompasses 35 Florida counties.
Erwin has pleaded not guilty. On Monday, his attorneys reserved their opening statement until before they begin presenting their case sometime next week. They wouldn’t comment on his planned defense.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley told jurors that Erwin was the primary drug supplier in the swanky Blue Martini nightclub at International Plaza. While working part-time as a host in the club, Erwin also arranged cocaine and Ecstasy sales there, authorities allege.
One of his customers, Culver, was found dead inside his room at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, walking distance from the bar, on Nov. 29, 2005, five days after he was last seen alive, Bentley said. Blurry hotel security videos show Culver with someone who looked like Erwin the last day Culver was alive, the prosecutor told jurors.
But Erwin might never have been prosecuted if not for Wilkinson, Bentley said.
In 2005, Wilkinson had been arrested on drug charges in Orlando and was out on bail, living in the Sarasota area. He started visiting Blue Martini and saw drug sales in the bar by Erwin and others, Bentley said. Wanting to earn credit for cooperating with authorities, Wilkinson offered information.
Eventually, Wilkinson was put in contact with Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Scott Albrecht in August 2005. Though the agent and Wilkinson spoke on the telephone and e-mailed, they didn’t meet until Nov. 29, 2005, the day Culver’s body was discovered, Bentley said.
That night, Albrecht testified, Wilkinson called him. He’d spoken to Erwin on the telephone, and following Albrecht’s instructions had recorded the conversation.
Erwin told Wilkinson he had a friend who had just been found in the Marriott Renaissance dead of a drug overdose, Bentley told jurors.
Albrecht directed Wilkinson to arrange drug purchases from Erwin, according to Bentley and Albrecht. Two transactions were conducted next door to DEA headquarters, with investigators watching and recording. Albrecht told jurors he watched from the copy room of his office and directed Wilkinson where to park, listening as the conversations were transmitted.
One time, Wilkinson purchased methadone, and those pills were compared with pills found in Culver’s room. They matched, Albrecht said.
Bentley told jurors witnesses will testify that Erwin told them he was with Culver the night he died and that he sold Culver the drugs that killed him.
“This is not a murder case,” Bentley said. “No one’s suggesting Brandon Erwin held a gun to his head and made him take the drugs and feed his habit.”
And Bentley said, “Nobody is asking you to excuse Andrew Culver. He had a role in his own death. But what I’m going to ask you is to apply the law that Judge [James] Moody will give you and find this defendant guilty of distributing the drugs that caused Andrew Culver’s death.”