A cousin co-opts ally of Savage

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A federal-trial evidence photo from 2007 shows Kaboni Savage (left) with Eugene Coleman (right). Lamont Lewis was known to police as an associate of Savage, a drug kingpin.Lewis' cousin helped the FBI carry out its sting operation.

Lamont Lewis said he could take care of his cousin's problem.

For $2,500, Lewis, a North Philadelphia drug dealer, said he would kill an informant who, his cousin said, was cooperating with police in a narcotics investigation against him.

"Once you find out it's a rat, there ain't no more to talk about," Lewis said.

When his cousin said he wanted the informant "iced," Lewis replied: "I'm the iceman."

Those conversations, secretly recorded in the summer of 2007, were part of an FBI investigation that targeted Lewis, a prime suspect in the 2004 firebombing of a North Philadelphia home in which six people, including four children, were killed.

At the time, Lewis didn't realize that he was speaking into an FBI tape - and that his cousin was only posing as a South Jersey drug dealer.

Now Lewis has apparently decided to do his talking from the witness stand.

Documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office late last month indicate that Lewis was cooperating with federal prosecutors.

His decision, many believe, is a direct result of the sting operation the FBI set up four years ago with the help of Lewis' cousin, who recorded conversations in which he bought crack cocaine from Lewis and hired Lewis to commit a murder.

A nine-page affidavit, filed by FBI Agent Kevin Lewis (no relation to Lamont Lewis), provides an outline of how authorities used Lewis' cousin to set a trap that brought the drug dealer down.

The Inquirer is withholding the cousin's name for his security. He may be called as a witness in the racketeering-murder trial of Kaboni Savage, the drug kingpin on whose orders, authorities allege, Lewis and another associate firebombed the rowhouse on North Sixth Street in October 2004.

That fire killed the mother and infant son of Eugene Coleman, a Savage associate who had decided to testify against him, and a second woman and three other children.

"I just don't think anyone should be able to get away with that kind of thing," the cousin, now living in hiding, said in a recent interview.

Over breakfast at a diner in Williamstown, where he once lived, the cooperating witness returned again and again to Lewis' explanation for the firebombing.

"It was 'just business,' " he said Lewis had told him.

The cousin said he had volunteered to help the FBI nab Lewis. Federal authorities will not discuss specifics of the investigation, but Lewis' cousin said he believed authorities had wanted to build a case against Lewis and use it to pressure him to cooperate.

At the time, Lewis was well-known as an enforcer and cocaine dealer for the Savage organization. His several secretly recorded meetings with his cousin reinforced that perception, according to the affidavit.

Lewis, who drove a blue Jaguar and frequently boasted about his reputation as a hit man, was matter-of-fact but efficient in setting up the drug deals and in negotiating the murder-for-hire contract.

At three meetings during the summer of 2007, authorities said, Lewis sold his cousin crack cocaine, collecting $4,000, $3,800, and $5,400 in cash that the FBI had provided.

The crack, about 41/2 ounces per deal, was divided into a dozen or more baggies for street sale.

During one meeting, Lewis boasted about beating a murder case and said police were "trying to put 10 bodies on him."

At another, he said murdering an informant "ain't a problem."

Later, when his cousin said he wanted the informant out of his life, Lewis said, "You came to the right man." He subsequently collected payments of $400 and $200 on the $2,500 murder contract.

The second payment came during a meeting at the Pub, a restaurant in Pennsauken. Other meetings took place at Big Face's Bar, at a house in the 6100 block of Washington Avenue, and at a Sunoco station at Broad Street and Hunting Park Avenue, all in Philadelphia, according to the FBI document.

What Lewis didn't know was that his cousin was wired for sound and working for the FBI.

He was not a drug dealer and appears to have no criminal record; he was a Gloucester County resident who made his living as a driver for an ambulance firm. In fact, there was no informant his cousin wanted killed.

Lewis was arrested on drug-dealing and murder-for-hire charges in August 2007, shortly after the third drug deal.

In April 2009, the charges against him were folded into a racketeering-murder indictment that also named Savage and two other Savage associates, Steven Northington and Robert Merritt.

The indictment lists 12 murders, including the firebombing, which authorities have described as one of the most brutal and chilling examples of witness intimidation in the history of the Philadelphia drug underworld.

It was, prosecutors say, an example of the way Savage, 36, conducted business. "No witness, no crime," he once told an associate.

From day one of the firebombing investigation, authorities believed the arson was an attempt to silence Coleman, an admitted drug dealer who was preparing to testify against Savage in a drug-trafficking case.

Authorities believed Lewis and Merritt firebombed the house on orders issued by Savage from the federal prison cell where he was awaiting trial.

(Savage was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison in that 2005 trial. Coleman was one of several former associates who testified for the prosecution.)

Lewis and Merritt had been spotted near the Sixth Street address early on the day of the firebombing. Investigators also had sketchy details about messages Savage sent to Lewis from prison before the arson.

But only after his cousin came forward were investigators able to get close enough to develop a case against Lewis. They hoped to put enough pressure on him to make him decide to cooperate, several sources familiar with the case said.

The drug-dealing and murder-for-hire charges carried a sentence of 40 years to life. The expanded racketeering case carried a potential death sentence.

Late last month, federal authorities filed a document in U.S. District Court confirming that Lewis has a plea agreement in place. But the document was filed under seal, so the specifics of Lewis' agreement and his explanation for deciding to testify will have to wait until he is on the stand.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer, the prosecutor in the case, has declined to comment. So has Lewis' lawyer.

Savage, Merritt, and Northington are scheduled to go on trial in September. Each faces a possible death sentence.

But that trial could be delayed if, based on information being supplied by Lewis, the indictment is expanded to include other defendants.

Lewis' cousin, meanwhile, remains in hiding.

The witness said that some relatives had ostracized him because he worked with authorities, that he had been forced to move, and that he could not visit relatives in Philadelphia because of the risk.

He also described a somewhat rocky relationship with federal authorities, complaining that they had reneged on promises about housing and help in finding a job.

Nevertheless, he said, he does not regret what he did.

"You don't kill children," he said.

 


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.