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Gang members, dealers feared 3 defendants in drug trafficking trial

To hear prosecutors talk, even gang members and drug dealers crossed the street when they saw Thamud Eldridge and company coming.

It was Eldridge and his crew, they say, who killed, robbed and kidnapped rival drug dealers and along the way terrorized neighborhoods on the city’s East Side.

Now, more than a decade later, a jury will decide if they should ever get out of prison.

“The purpose of the enterprise was to make money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi said of Eldridge’s crew last week. “And any effort to resist the enterprise was met with a death sentence.”

Unlike most street gangs, Tripi told the jury last week, Eldridge and his crew had a special niche in the gang world: They made a living by robbing and sometimes killing drug dealers, many of them big-time suppliers.

For nearly two hours, he recounted story after story of drug dealers who were targeted by Eldridge, Kevin Allen and Galen Rose, the three men on trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

“They were operating in a dangerous world,” Tripi said.

All three men have pleaded not guilty to charges that they trafficked in cocaine and heroin and used shootings, kidnappings and robberies to intimidate people and protect their turf on streets like Montana and Newburgh avenues and Box Street.

Prosecutors say the defendants were associates of some of the city’s most dangerous gangs, including the Bloods and Montana Street Crew, and were widely known for their violence against anyone who stood in their way.

Their reputation for home invasions, shootings and kidnappings was credible enough that other gang members and drug dealers feared them, they say.

“Wow, what a story,” David R. Addelman, Eldridge’s defense lawyer, said of Tripi’s account of what his client did. “But he’s wrong.”

In Addelman’s eyes, the government’s prosecution depends almost entirely on jailhouse informants and fellow gang members looking to testify in return for a break on their own prison sentences.

“All of them have a motive to lie or an ax to grind,” said Cheryl Meyers-Buth, Allen’s defense lawyer.

According to the 17-count indictment against Eldridge, Allen and Rose, at least two of their confrontations with rival drug dealers turned deadly.

On April 3, 2005, Thedrus “Flap” Laster, 35, was shot and killed during a robbery in a Delaware Avenue apartment where Laster kept marijuana and cash.

Tripi described Laster as a big-time drug dealer with his own criminal organization, and said it was Rose, Laster’s lifelong friend, who led Eldridge to him.

“When he resisted, he was shot,” Tripi said. “He died in his kitchen.”

Rose’s defense lawyer was quick to remind the jury that his client is not accused of being part of Eldridge’s criminal organization and that the allegations against him are limited to four of the 17 counts in the indictment.

“You’ll see that Mr. Rose had nothing to do with the robbery and murder of Thedrus Laster,” said Daniel J. Henry Jr., who is representing Rose.

A few days after Laster’s slaying, another drug dealer, Sam “Smokey” Jones Jr., was shot and killed during a robbery in the basement of a home on Newburgh Avenue. Tripi said it was Eldridge who pulled the trigger that day.

“Smokey died in the middle of the street,” Tripi said. “His father, Sam Jones Sr., will testify that he made it to the scene just in time to see his son die.”

Eldridge is also accused of shooting at a Buffalo police officer later that same year. The officer was not injured.

Allen, who is charged in the Jones murder, is already in state prison on an unrelated murder conviction. He was convicted in 2009 of taking part in the killing of 21-year-old Lamar D. Williams of Buffalo. Williams was shot in the face by another man as he drove his minivan in downtown Buffalo.

Prosecutors in the case said Williams was the innocent victim of a drug hit gone bad. During Allen’s trial, it was revealed that Williams was driving the same color minivan as a drug dealer with a $10,000 contract on his life.

Noticeably absent from the trial is Kashika Speed, the fourth defendant named in the 2009 grand jury indictment against Eldridge, Allen and Rose. Speed, who was charged with taking part in Laster’s murder, pleaded guilty in 2014 to robbery and extortion and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Speed is expected to testify against his former friends.

The government’s prosecution of Eldridge, Allen and Rose was originally a death penalty case but the Department of Justice later withdrew that designation. They still face up to life in prison.

For the defense, it is also noteworthy that none of the three men was ever charged with murder in state court, an indication, they suggest, of the weak evidence against them.

“These men weren’t charged until 2009,” Addelman said. “That’s why we’re talking about things that happened 10 years ago.”

For Eldridge, the trial is simply the latest in a series of run-ins with law enforcement.

In 2012, while serving time for drug and gun possession, he sought a new trial and claimed he was assaulted by Buffalo police officers on the night of his arrest seven years earlier. The allegations were based, in part, on Tripi’s acknowledgement that one of the officers boasted of taking Eldridge down a flight of “stairs head first like da, da, da, da, da.”

Arcara denied the request for a new trial and ruled that the officer’s statements were unreliable and unsupported by physical evidence.

The trial will continue Tuesday.