GOOSE CREEK — Rashad Muhammad pauses mid-sentence, his words trailing off as he watches a blue mini-van lumber up the street and hang a hard left into a narrow driveway across from where he stands.
“I used to do the same thing,” Muhammad chuckles, shaking his head.
The driver casts a curious glance at the burly stranger in the knit cap and then scoots inside the big brick house with red shutters.
Muhammad’s house. Or at least it used to be.
Muhammad, 42, lost the four-bedroom spread on St. James Boulevard to foreclosure during the four-and-a-half years he spent behind bars awaiting trial in a drug smuggling case involving hundreds of pounds of marijuana.
The former entertainment promoter won his legal battle in January, when a federal judge granted the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the case and set him free.
It marked the second time in eight years that Muhammad had escaped a potentially bruising prison sentence on marijuana trafficking charges. This time around, he faced at least 25 years in prison.
Muhammad is relieved, but it’s a bittersweet celebration. His house — complete with pool, gym and prayer room — is gone. His entertainment business hit the skids. The office building he planned to buy is now a police substation. And his wife must work in a rural fiberglass factory to put food on the table for their four kids.
He says he’s not angry and he’s not out to antagonize the police and prosecutors who kept him locked up. But Muhammad says he does fault authorities for what he considers to be a sloppy investigation and a prolonged unwillingness to concede the evidence was lacking.
“I would see so many guys go and come (from the jail), and I was still sitting there. It’s sad, man,” he says. “It was terrible ... You try not to be bitter from it, but it’s difficult.”
If Muhammad is looking for an apology, he’s not likely to get one from the folks who investigated and prosecuted his case. Police remain confident they got the right guy, even if the case didn’t make to it to a jury.
They consider Muhammad smart, clever and wily. But innocent? Not so much.
“We stand behind the evidence we presented,” North Charleston police Lt. Greg Gomes, a lead investigator on the case, says. “I think our case was solid, and I don’t think anyone looking at it would dispute that, other than Muhammad.”
U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles says “honest mistakes” were made by his office in handling the case, including a gaffe that led to a mistrial for Muhammad in 2011.
Though prosecutors considered the evidence strong, they also had to take into account the length of time Muhammad had been locked up and the fact he would spend even more time behind bars as they prepared for a new trial, Nettles said.
“We felt that justice dictated in this situation, under these set of facts, that the best thing to do was dismiss the case.”
To many in the community, Muhammad was a model citizen, a successful businessman with a heart for charity.
Operating out of a nondescript office building along industrial Air Park Road, near the Air Force base in North Charleston, Muhammad ran a company called The Invisible Men Entertainment, which provided website and graphic design and event promotions.
He also operated a Masonic lodge and a cancer foundation from the same building. He donated school supplies to underprivileged kids, helped Hurricane Katrina victims and hosted Thanksgiving dinners for the needy.
But authorities say this was all a carefully crafted front to hide Muhammad’s real occupation as a master drug runner. One government witness alone told investigators he sold Muhammad as much as 10,000 pounds of pot between 1999 and 2004, according to court documents.
Authorities began building a case against Muhammad in May 2004, when Charleston County sheriff’s deputies accused him of arranging a shipment of 634 pounds of marijuana from Phoenix to a business in North Charleston. State prosecutors, however, later dropped the case, citing insufficient evidence.
Fast forward to August 2008 when North Charleston police busted Muhammad on charges of trafficking nearly 500 pounds of marijuana into their city from Arizona. Some of the marijuana was found in a crashed van police say was tied to Muhammad. They seized the rest from the Air Park Road office building.
Then, the feds stepped in, adopted the case and tacked on allegations of money laundering, conspiracy and firearms violations. Muhammad stood accused of importing more than 2,200 pounds of pot.
Authorities said they had video surveillance footage of the 2008 marijuana shipment arriving, a police witness and DNA evidence tying Muhammad to the pot-filled van, as well as drug ledgers discovered in an alleged supplier’s home near the Mexican border.
A judge ordered Muhammad held without bail until trial.
As Muhammad tried to make the best of jail, turning to yoga, prayer and work on his case, his wife and partner of 24 years, Gloria, worked to keep their family above water.
Their entertainment company fell apart without the information contained on office computers seized by investigators, she says. As the economy soured, she also lost her job as a mortgage broker, forcing her to take a grueling factory job. But hardest of all, she says, was watching her kids grow up without their dad.
“They are teenagers now and one is about to graduate high school and go to college. Those years you can’t get back,” she says. “It crushed them, and led them to question life in a lot of ways.”
Authorities blame the long wait for trial, in part, on Muhammad’s legal maneuvering and penchant for switching attorneys. Muhammad says some of the lawyers bailed on him and he was just trying to find proper representation, which he eventually did with his sixth attorney, Myrtle Beach lawyer Russell Mace.
The case finally went to trial in May 2011. But the proceeding soon skidded to a halt after it was revealed that prosecutors waited until the trial was under way to turn over a document signed by another suspect who gave Muhammad a possible alibi for the night of the pot bust.
The judge declared a mistrial, and the case hung up again as the two sides waited for an appellate court to rule on a motion by Mace to dismiss the charges.
Muhammad says holes in the government’s case continued to emerge as the wait dragged on. He says authorities had no photos, phone records or documentation to tie him to drug running. The government couldn’t produce video surveillance of the marijuana shipment arriving because the camera reportedly malfunctioned or was struck by lightning. And he had evidence and witnesses to prove he was at a Masonic function in Pennsylvania when the big bust went down, he says.
“It never added up,” he says. “You don’t have one person they found in Charleston in four years that ever said I sold them as much as a joint.”
Police and prosecutors declined to address Muhammad’s points, saying only that they stand behind the evidence that was gathered.
“I feel comfortable saying that prior to trial we felt we had the necessary proof to convince a jury beyond that reasonable doubt that Mr. Muhammad had violated federal law,” Nettles, the U.S. attorney, says. “Nothing has come to light that would change our minds on that.”
Mace asked the district court again in December to dismiss the charges, arguing that subjecting Muhammad to another trial would amount to double-jeopardy because the mistrial had been declared in 2011 without his consent. Prosecutors were given until Jan. 8 to respond to that argument.
Instead, they submitted a motion on Jan. 3 seeking to dismiss the case. A judge granted the motion the next day.
Muhammad was taking a shower at the county jail when Mace called with the news that the charges had been dropped. Fearful that it might be a cruel joke by authorities, Muhammad didn’t tell anyone the news until he walked out the door of the detention center. Then, he caught a ride with a friend to rural Bamberg County, where his wife and kids had moved to be closer to her family.
When he walked into the squat, weathered bungalow where his family now lives, his 18-year-old son greeted him and broke down in tears. “I could really see the damage that happened to him,” Muhammad says. “How do you give that back?”
His wife, exhausted from work, didn’t realize he was home until she woke up the next morning. “I looked up and thought I was dreaming,” she says.
On this morning, Muhammad stands outside the home were he used to live, watching its new owner pass by the bay window Muhammad installed with his dad, who died while he was in jail. The space has been traded for the cramped house in Bamberg, much like the luxury cars that once filled his driveway have been replaced by a banged up Dodge Neon Muhammad shares with his wife.
“I’ve been wrangling with it,” he whispers, staring at the house. “This just brings a lot of memories back, a lot of memories.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.