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Codefendants in RICO case convicted

Three defendants in a RICO case tried last week in Emanuel County Superior Court were all convicted on all charges and sentenced Wednesday afternoon. Between the men, the court handed out three life sentences plus 10 years in prison. Middle Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tripp Fitzner gave The Chronicle an interview the morning following the eight-day trial, and he says his office is pleased with the outcome. However, the district attorney also says the prosecution realizes it still has work to do as three additional defendants still need to be tried.

Appearing in court last week were Tony Williams and Travis Brown, both of Swainsboro, as well as Richard Anderson of Lyons.

Also listed on the indictment sheet, a whopping 44 various counts and charges, were: Walter Figueroa of Adrian, along with three other Swainsboro men, including Williams’ son, Talik Williams; Victor Hall, also known as Victor Jones; and Neshawn Brown, who entered into a plea deal earlier this year, although the deal was struck prior to Fitzner taking office.

Fitzner explained the reason for the “splitting” of the case into two parts, saying that dividing it this way made for better, easier evidence presentation and case management.

“Trying six people at one time would just be too much,” the Middle Circuit DA said. “We tried to put the guys who ‘fit together’ together, and we tried to do the same for the remaining defendants. It just made for a more manageable process for everybody, the jury included. Given how complex this case was, it was just a practical thing to do.”

Diving into the complexity issue, Fitzner then provided some context about the case and followed that discussion up with another that explained the different sentences each codefendant received last week.

Throughout the case—or rather a string of cases that took place between 2014 and 2019—Williams was seen as the “tip of the spear” of an enterprise of drug sales with intimidation and violence. Specifically, he was connected to a strand of drug deals as well as murders to include that of the late Angela Gillis in 2016 and the late Zaveion Ricks in 2017. The prosecution alleged that Brown helped him sell drugs.

Anderson was also connected to the Ricks murder.

All of these codefendants were connected to gang activity as well, namely the Bloods organization.

“This particular case was extremely complex. It encapsulated many cases, including those two murders. We noticed patterns and started putting them together, and Tony Williams was very much so at the head of drug sales, drug trafficiking, and much of the violence taking place. That said, we went at this as a RICO case, which helped us show that regardless of venue (or place where these things happened), they violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act as well as the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act,” Fitzner continued. “These were predicated acts, meaning one built on top of the other. Any time you add all those things together, it makes everything more complicated. We had to connect everything, connect all the dots. That can be a difficult thing to do in court, but the difficulty of trying a RICO case goes beyond the courtroom stuff. For instance, you also have to show chains of custody for pieces of evidence, and in this particular case, we had more than 300 pieces of evidence. We also had about 50 witnesses. It wasn’t the first RICO case we’ve had here in Emanuel, but it’s the first one we’ve had in a while. I did one about 10 years ago, but it was nowhere this involved. To say the least, we were very pleased with the outcome, but we’re also looking ahead because there’s more work to be done. This was a great beginning, but we have to finish this case, and I hope to start the ‘second part,’ trying the other three codefendants, sometime after the first of the year.”

The outcome to which Fitzner alludes includes the aforementioned three life sentences plus 10 years in prison.

Two of those life sentences went to Williams, found guilty of the Gillis and Ricks murders. Those life sentences were handed down without the possibility of parole. Williams was also sentenced for drug and gun charges as well as conspiracy to violate the racketeering statute.

“Tony Williams, he got a heavier sentence because he had more counts against him and he was the only defendant tied to both murders. The prosecution doesn’t have to ask for a specific sentence, but we did. I wanted every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every month, every year, every decade because he took that from Angela Gillis. Further, he took that from her son, who testified in court he hadn’t had a stable home since his mom died. Tony Williams also took everything from Zaveion Ricks, and he took the sense of safety away from the community; people lived in fear because of him. He deserved to lose everything. As much as the system can balance the scales of justice, we ought to.”

The third life sentence was handed down to Anderson for his involvement in the Ricks murder. Like Williams, Anderson faced and was found guilty on gun charges and conspiracy to violate the racketeering statute. His life sentence, too, came without the possibility of parole.

“Richard Anderson, he was involved in the murder of Zaveion Ricks as well, and he was involved in criminal street gang activity. Tony Williams used him and the Bloods organization to extend fear into the community. These violent criminal street gangs have no place here—or anywhere for that matter, but especially here. His sentence, in my opinion, is appropriate for the killing of Ricks and his involvement in a criminal street gang.”

The remaining sentence handed down by the court, the 10-year sentence, went to Brown. Fitzner explained this codefendant was not as “heavily involved,” thus his sentence reflects that. However, the district attorney hopes his sentence comes with a message nonetheless.

“Travis Brown, he was only charged with two counts and had by far the least amount of charges. If you’re involved in stuff like this, even to a lesser degree, there are consequences. There is not a future for people who sell drugs and commit violence here in Emanuel. If you do, you’ll be held accountable as well.”

The trial itself went quicker than Fitzner anticipated. The jury was picked Monday, August 2, and the trial began on Tuesday, August 3. By midday on Wednesday, August 11, just eight days after opening statements, the jury went out to deliberate. Fitzner says the five and a half hours it took the group of 12 to reach their verdict provided plenty of time to amp up courthouse security ahead of the reading of the convictions and the handing out of sentences.

On that note, Fitzner would like to tip his cap to the efforts of Emanuel County Sheriff Jeffrey Brewer, who voluntarily took measures to keep the entire block of the Emanuel County Courthouse safe. He networked and brought in personnel from Swainsboro Police Department, the Georgia State Patrol, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, and the GBI. Fortunately, there were no issues at the conclusion of the trial.

The case, however, will have somewhat of a small ripple in that one prospective juror, 32-year-old Willie Lee Thomas Jr., was charged with perjury. The district attorney had to be tight-lipped about the specifics of that case because of its ongoing status at the time of the interview, but officials report that Thomas, in the parking lot during a break, talked with a witness in the trial. The DA’s office issued a warrant that day. Since then, he has been arrested. Swainsboro Police Department took him into custody on Friday.

All in all, Fitzner says the convictions on Wednesday are a great start to putting this case to bed entirely.

“Not only did we get the convictions, but we got the tip of the spear in the process. It means a lot for me to do it and do it in my first year. That said, I realize it’s not just about me. All I did really was drive the train. There were a lot of people who worked very hard to get these guilty verdicts. The overriding theme is that no matter the agency—us, Swainsboro PD, the sheriff’s office, the state patrol, the GBI, the feds, the task force… It takes all of us to make this community better and safer.”

He’s also grateful for the job the jury did. He described the group of 12 as attentive and interested, even during what could have been viewed as monotonous parts of the trial.

“I’m grateful the jury was able to see things our way. I’d like to thank them for the service they provided, regardless of the outcome. They paid attention, took notes, listened to evidence. That’s what we want to jurors to do. Some evidence was definitely more interesting than other parts, but they stayed involved and engaged. It was a long trial with lots of evidence and testimony. I appreciate that they stayed invested. I’m also glad we convinced them to convict obviously. The number of counts in this particular case made for one of the longest charges I’ve ever heard a judge have to give. It was a serious task they were given, and it meant a lot, the guilty verdicts, given the work that went into the case before and during trial.”

In closing, Fitzner wants the public to know what’s coming down the pipe from his office. In short, the work seems to be just getting started.

“This is the first step in a very long fight against gangs. My big thing is I had seen people were scared in their homes, their neighborhoods. They’re just afraid. It’s a very sad thing. We’re fighting for people who are constantly living in fear of being hurt; they want to stand up and do the right thing, but they can’t. We want to send a message to those people who are afraid that we’re here and we’re going to keep on fighting. Everybody has the right to live and not be afraid. I want this to be a safe place for everybody’s family and everybody’s kids. Wherever you live, whatever you do, wherever you are—we all fundamentally have that right. We’re here to show you this is who we are and what we’re going to do. We’re going to continue to aggressively go after these street gangs and violent criminals.”

That fight will undoubtedly include the prep work for the next phase of the RICO trial as codefendants Figueroa, Hall/Jones, and Talik Williams come to court in early 2022.

Additionally, the district attorney’s office is also gearing up to try a murder case involving three deputies who allegedly tased a man, Eurie Martin, to death in 2017. That trial is set to begin in October.

Look for updates on this Washington County case in a future edition of The Chronicle. Not only is Washington County part of the same judicial circuit as Emanuel, but the three deputies—Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell, and Rhett Scott—made their initial appearance in Swainsboro back in October 2017.

Retired DA Hayward Altman, by his own request and with Fitzner’s consent, will return to courtroom action to prosecute this case.

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