HAT TIP: By ALAN JUDD
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/27/07
He sold custom cars to rich celebrities. His clients included people like the football player Ray Lewis and the rap star Ludacris.
He sold cocaine embossed with a prominent symbol of hip-hop culture: Hummer.
Tremayne Graham was a player. Then his partner in the drug business says he introduced Graham to his future wife in an Atlanta strip club. If anything, Graham’s life became even more infused with money and status.
The couple bought a mini-mansion in the suburbs.
She amassed $120,000 of jewelry.
And when her mother became Atlanta’s first female mayor, they celebrated at the side of Shirley Franklin.
But Graham and Kai Franklin’s opulent lifestyle — detailed in interviews and court testimony, as well as in other public records — came to an emphatic end in 2004. A federal grand jury indicted Graham for his role in a drug ring that smuggled at least 2,200 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Atlanta and South Carolina. Based on figures routinely used by various government agencies, the drugs had a street value between $15 million and $35 million.
Graham, 33, pleaded guilty in 2006. Last month, after prosecutors alleged he ordered the killing of a co-defendant and his girlfriend, a judge sentenced Graham to life in prison.
Now, federal agents say they are investigating whether Franklin, 34, who divorced Graham in 2005, helped her former husband launder tens of thousands of dollars of drug money.
Neither Franklin, the oldest of the mayor’s three children, nor her lawyer will comment on the investigation. Graham’s lawyers have not responded to requests for an interview.
In court, Graham’s lawyers contended Franklin did not know he was a drug dealer because he never told her. The lawyers said he explained away his wads of cash — as much as $60,000 or $70,000 at a time — as gambling winnings.
Prosecutors responded with a question: How, they asked, could she not know?
Longtime drug history
Graham started dealing drugs early.
He worked as a courier for a South Carolina drug dealer while attending Clemson University in the early 1990s, according to testimony presented last month during Graham’s sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenville. After college, Graham moved to Atlanta. When he met Kai Franklin a few years later, he had become an established cocaine dealer and had moved into a leadership role in a drug ring called the Sin City Mafia, according to the recent testimony.
His car dealership, 404 Motorsports on Cheshire Bridge Road, was a money-losing front intended to give an appearance of legitimate prosperity, said Scott King, Graham’s partner in selling both cars and drugs.
“In the first couple of months, we done great business at the store, and everything was going good,” said King, who received a 24-year prison sentence in the drug case. “And then things started taking a turn for the worse. But we wanted to keep the business afloat because of the nature of everybody in the Atlanta area thinking that we were great businessmen.”
The Web site for 404 Motorsports showed an array of heavily accessorized luxury cars: Hummers, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Bentleys, Ferraris. One page featured nothing but the massive stereo speakers the company offered for installation. Another page showed celebrity clients: rappers such as Ludacris and P. Diddy, sports stars such as Hines Ward and Jamal Anderson, even Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in south DeKalb County.
In a 2003 article, the weekly newspaper Creative Loafing called 404 Motorsports a “luxury car mecca.” The article described the showroom’s “club-inspired interior,” decorated with black leather furniture and autographed jerseys from professional athletes such as the Braves’ Andruw Jones.
The auto store, King said, made him and Graham look like something other than drug dealers.
In his testimony last month, King said he dated Kali Franklin, Kai’s younger sister, “off and on” for two years.
One evening, King said, he, Graham and the Franklin sisters all were at the same strip club. That’s when King introduced Graham to his future wife.
Kai Franklin, who had graduated from the University of Virginia in 1999, worked for her father’s company, Franklin and Wilson Airport Concessions Inc., which operates three retail outlets at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Testimony indicated she quit around the time she and Graham were married in December 2001.
The ceremony took place between Shirley Franklin’s election and inauguration. King was the best man. The rhythm and blues performer Peabo Bryson — whose personal manager is David Franklin, Kai’s father — sang at the wedding.
Days later, Graham escorted his new wife to her mother’s inauguration events. Graham also brought King, his fellow drug dealer, to the event (and, King said, to Christmas dinner at the mayor’s house).
Already, court records show, Graham’s drug ring had accumulated about $10 million in profits. This money, prosecutors say, fueled a streak of acquisitions for the newlyweds: a $650,000 house in Cobb County, jewelry, Range Rover and Lincoln sport utility vehicles.
Graham traveled regularly to California to oversee drug shipments to Atlanta, according to court testimony, and even considered moving there. He was in Los Angeles in April 2004 when his wife called him with bad news, King testified: Federal agents with a search warrant were searching their home.
A federal grand jury in South Carolina had indicted Graham in a case that ultimately would net a dozen guilty pleas. Graham returned to Atlanta and turned himself in. A judge released him on a $400,000 bond, secured by an Atlanta bail bond company, Free At Last.
While he waited to go on trial, Graham remained under house arrest in the 5,000-square-foot home he shared with his wife in an east Cobb subdivision called Woodruff Plantation. An electronic device attached to his ankle tracked his movements.
The neighbors knew nothing about Graham’s drug business — or much else about the couple, said Katherine Todd, an officer in the subdivision’s homeowners association.
“They didn’t socialize with anyone in the neighborhood,” Todd said.
It is a small subdivision, with 38 large, but closely situated, houses. When Graham and Franklin had a pool installed, Todd said, neighbors complained that the couple wouldn’t stop workers who tramped on their lawns.
Graham and Franklin “never seemed to want to follow the rules,” Todd said. “They weren’t the ideal, fun neighbors to have.”
Even while Graham was under house arrest, he continued to oversee the distribution of drugs from California, according to testimony by another defendant, Eric Rivera. And, King testified, Graham became worried because Ulysses Hackett III, a drug courier who also worked for 404 Motorsports, had been arrested while making a delivery and could give authorities damning information.
Prosecutors allege Graham acquired a gun from a fellow drug dealer and engaged yet another associate in 2004 to kill Hackett and his girlfriend, Misty Denise Carter. Atlanta police never made arrests in the case. Federal authorities recently took over the investigation.
Weeks after Hackett died on Labor Day weekend, just before his trial was scheduled to begin in South Carolina, Graham snipped his electronic ankle bracelet and fled.
He took most of his wife’s jewelry, she said later, and left behind a $5,000-a-month mortgage and his $400,000 bail bond.
Graham quickly settled into life as a fugitive in Los Angeles. One of the first things he did there, court records say, was buy a Ferrari.
Kai Franklin barely hesitated before filing for divorce.
In January 2005, she told the Cobb County Superior Court that her husband had abandoned her. She said she had not been in contact with Graham since Nov. 1, didn’t know his whereabouts and couldn’t get in touch with him.
A judge granted the divorce four months later. He awarded Franklin the house in Woodruff Plantation, but did not order Graham to pay alimony.
“It was very difficult for her, having to go through a divorce proceeding,” said James Dearing, Franklin’s lawyer. “It was not an easy thing for her to do.”
But the recent testimony and other public records suggest it may have been a divorce on paper only.
Franklin and Graham remained in regular contact, according to evidence presented during his sentencing hearing. Graham’s co-defendants testified that while he was a fugitive, he sent drug money to Franklin: one bag of cash holding $25,000, another with $20,000. She also got portions of $150,000 that Graham invested in her father’s business, King testified. David Franklin said last week that the investment never occurred.
In California, King said, Graham bought a pre-paid cellular telephone to call only his wife, thinking it would be difficult to trace. King referred to the device as “the Kai phone.”
“They would talk about different things,” King said, “but sometimes about paying bills.”
He said Franklin regularly sent bills to Graham at the house where he was hiding in suburban Los Angeles. King said Graham told him “he still had responsibilities to take care of for Kai.”
Graham used postal money orders to pay Franklin’s bills, an Internal Revenue Service agent said. They apparently took pains to make the transactions difficult to track.
Franklin, agent Wayne Wright testified, bought the money orders in a “structured fashion” to avoid scrutiny. She had each money order issued for less than $3,000, the amount that triggers reporting requirements designed to detect illicit transactions. And she allegedly bought multiple money orders at multiple post offices on the same day, or in different lines in the same post office.
Wright said authorities have obtained about 60 such money orders.
Other alleged discussions between Franklin and Graham during his time as a fugitive were of a more personal nature.
When Graham wanted to see his child from a previous relationship, Rivera testified, Franklin picked up the boy from his mother and dropped him off for a flight out of DeKalb Peachtree Airport on a chartered jet. Rivera said he ferried drug money back to Graham in California on the same flight.
The visit troubled King.
“I just told Tremayne that he has to tighten up,” King testified, “because he can’t let something like that let the authorities track him through his son.”
Rivera said he accompanied the boy back to Atlanta several days later. He left the child with Franklin, he said, in her Cobb County home.
Authorities captured Graham in June 2005. In his California house, they found more than 500 pounds of cocaine, $1.9 million in cash and five weapons, one of which court records described as an assault rifle.
This time, Graham was held without bond. In March 2006, he agreed to plead guilty to charges that could send him to prison for several decades. But prosecutors promised to seek a lighter sentence of 35 years — if he cooperated with their continuing investigation.
During a lie detector exam, court documents say, Graham said Franklin didn’t know she had handled drug money.
The examiner told Graham the machine showed he was lying. Graham, the examiner later reported, just laughed.
Later, Graham told the judge in his case: “I’m sorry that my story wasn’t embellished or sensationalized enough to the agents’ liking. But my plea agreement didn’t require that.”
Regardless, prosecutors, for that and other factors, revoked their deal, and the judge handed down the maximum sentence: life, with no chance for parole.
Graham’s lawyers said they would appeal. For now, he is serving his time at the maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.
Franklin filed for protection from her creditors in federal bankruptcy court in March 2005. She said she was unemployed, broke and more than $300,000 in debt.
Little remains of Graham and Franklin’s old life: The luxury auto dealership, closed. The money, seized by federal agents. The big suburban house, empty.
Weeds sprout between the brick pavers in the driveway. The grass needs cutting. The shrubs sprawl wildly.
And on the front door, a document posted by the IRS lays claim to the house as government property.