NEW YORK – Conceding he's no saint, Jamaican drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke was sentenced Friday to 23 years behind bars in a U.S. drug trafficking case that brought into sharp focus his reputation for using ruthless acts of violence to strike fear into both foes and followers.
Prosecutors in federal court in Manhattan had used the often gruesome testimony of an admitted member of Coke's drug gang to push for a stiff sentence. Most startling was his account of how Coke ordered his men to kill a deadbeat drug dealer nicknamed "Tall Man" by tying him up and dismembering him with a chain saw.
The witness, Jermaine Cohen, described entering a room routinely used as Coke's personal torture chamber to find "human remains ... lots of blood and hands and foots cut off and a head cut off."
Defense lawyers had labeled Cohen and other witnesses as frauds willing to frame Coke in a bid for leniency in their own criminal cases. Private investigators dispatched to Jamaica found no evidence that the "Tall Man" slaying or other purported atrocities ever happened, said one of the lawyers, Stephen Cohen.
"Nobody in the community has seen anything," he said.
Coke sought to convince U.S. District Judge Robert B. Patterson that he deserved a break because of his charity work in the West Jamaican slum of Tivoli Gardens. In a letter to the judge, he took credit for throwing Easter parties for seniors, passing out school supplies and Christmas gifts to children, and starting a school to teach computer skills to the disadvantaged.
"Sir, I'm not going to stand in this court and tell you I'm a saint," Coke said Friday. But, he quickly added, "I'm a good person. I've done a lot of good things to help people in my community."
The government cooperators "are talking about things I'd never dream of doing in my life," he said.
But Patterson told Coke that the allegations of violence "offset" any good deeds and imposed the 23-year prison term sought by prosecutors. The defendant had no visible reaction when the sentence was announced.
Coke, 43, was arrested in Jamaica and extradited in 2010 following a bloody siege in Tivoli Gardens, which had become what U.S. authorities describe as "a garrison community" he used to oversee an international drug trafficking ring. The stronghold had been patrolled by Coke's young followers armed with illegal weapons bought on the black market in the U.S. and smuggled into Jamaica, prosecutors said.
Coke had followed in the footsteps of his father, Lester Lloyd Coke, better known as Jim Brown, a leader of the notorious Shower Posse during the 1980s cocaine wars. Authorities say Dudus Coke took over the organization when his father, also sought in the United States, died in a mysterious fire in a Jamaican prison cell in 1992.
Jamaica's national security chief, Peter Bunting, called Coke's lengthy sentence appropriate.
"It sends an important signal to criminal kingpins, who think they can operate with impunity, and to the broader society that no one is above the law," Bunting said in a statement.
But some people on the streets of Kingston questioned the sentence.
A woman who identified herself only as Tennesia and said she was Coke's cousin told reporters that she considered the sentence unfair. She added that if Coke were still in his old neighborhood things would run more smoothly.
"There would be no need for them," she said as she pointed to soldiers patrolling the neighborhood. "He kept order."
The Rev. Patricka Hall, pastor at a West Kingston church that Coke once attended, called the sentence a bit harsh.
"As someone who knows him personally, I feel sorry for him, but it has been done and he has to serve his time," she said. "My advice to Dudus, 'Make God your choice.'"
Freelance writer Howard Campbell contributed to this report from Kingston.