Witness security

The U.S. Department of Justice Witness Security Program is run by the Marshals Service. Federal prosecutors can apply for witnesses to be admitted if their testimony is essential to one of these case types:

Organized crime and racketeering.

Any drug-trafficking offense.

Any serious federal felony in which a witness may be under the threat of violence.

Any state crime similar to those listed above.

Some civil and administrative proceedings in which witness safety may be in jeopardy.

DOJ's Criminal Resource Manual

Ivory Brothers was among the 17 people arrested two years ago after a federal task force disrupted a drug-trafficking conspiracy near Walterboro.

When he was questioned, Brothers told agents which of his co-defendants was responsible for 2.2 pounds of the crack cocaine that the group handled. He agreed to testify against them.

Early last year, Brothers caught wind of a plot to end his life before he could take the stand. The rumor was that the man he pinned the drugs on would hire someone to shoot him as he left a hearing at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.

Investigators couldn't get enough evidence to make an arrest, but the man suspected of ordering the hit was still in jail.

The hearing came May 29 and went without gunfire.

A week later, a man walked up to the Walterboro home Brothers was visiting. He raised two pistols and fired. Three bullets struck Brothers as he sat on a couch.

He survived, and agents recently gathered evidence they said was needed to link the mastermind to his shooting.

Martin Louis Ballard, 32, of Summerville, was charged last week with paying $10,000 for the attack, but the U.S. Marshals Service was still looking for the suspected hit man, 25-year-old Jimmie Harris Jr. of North Charleston. Both men have past convictions for assault with intent to kill.

Brothers' predicament was one that rears its head from time to time for federal witnesses.

While state authorities in Charleston described a rampant problem after a witness' mother was targeted last month, federal prosecutors here said it's not quite as widespread for them. The number of cases they handle, though, is small compared with the state's workload.

Mark C. Moore, who recently left his 24-year career as a federal prosecutor, dealt with attacks and threats against witnesses in drug and white-collar crimes. Moore, who was a member of the task force that investigated Ballard, prosecuted three cases in the past decade in which key witnesses were slain.

"If a defendant believes he can silence a witness by getting rid of him, some will do that," said Moore, now a private attorney at Nexsen Pruet in Columbia. "You have cycles where you see that a lot."

Even when federal authorities learn of a threat, though, their witnesses don't always promptly get protection.

Brothers was relocated after he was shot. The 31-year-old is still scheduled to testify if the drug case goes to trial next week.

Through his attorney, Jerry Theos of Charleston, Ballard maintained his innocence.

"Our question is an obvious one," Theos said. "How in the world could he be involved ... when he's behind bars?"

Price on his head

The federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force had been looking into the cocaine-trafficking conspiracy in Walterboro for a year before agents made the arrests.

City leaders championed the bust as a victory in their efforts to root out crime and gang violence that had plagued the city. But prosecutors still needed testimony.

Some of the suspects cooperated. A flurry of standard court motions from Ballard a month after his arrest asked the government to identify them.

In early 2013, prosecutors said in open court that they expected to use Brothers when Ballard and another defendant go to trial. The other 15 intended to plead guilty.

During one proceeding, Ballard was overheard calling Brothers a "snitch" who had a price on his head, according to the affidavits.

The alleged plot was hatched in March and April 2013 when Ballard was at Charleston County's jail, according to the documents prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He agreed to pay his cellmate $5,000 up front and another $5,000 once the witness was dead, according to the affidavits. He had about $26,000 in his credit union account.

His cellmate was Harris, who had been jailed for violating probation.

After Harris was released April 22, Brothers heard about the plot on Walterboro's streets. He told agents that Ballard's "organization" was struggling to find him. That's why the initial idea was to target Brothers as he left the courthouse, the affidavits stated.

Ballard had different plans, agents said in the affidavits.

The day before the hearing, the documents stated, he used another inmate's identification number to contact his cousin, Charles Anthony Sanders, 24, on the jail's phone system.

Agents later found the recorded calls.

The cousins spoke in code, but the agents said they could tell that Ballard wanted Sanders to pick up his "guy" and take him to Walterboro.

'His people'

On June 6, a resident of Oswald Court north of the city saw a Lincoln Town Car roll by.

Sanders was driving, the paperwork stated.

Another member of Sanders' family had come by earlier in the day and asked about Brothers' whereabouts, the affidavits stated. The resident felt uneasy, he said, so he didn't answer. The man left.

Brothers showed up a few hours later.

He hadn't been visiting long when the Lincoln came back. This time, it stopped, and a passenger got out.

The man in a ball cap walked onto the doorstep and yanked two guns from his waistband. One of them was a .40-caliber pistol. The other, a .38- or .357-caliber revolver. He fired at Brothers as he sat in the living room.

The Lincoln sped away with the gunman.

By that day, Ballard had been transferred to the Georgetown County Detention Center. He got excited by the news of the shooting, a federal informant there later told agents. He pumped his fists, the affidavits stated, and said "his people" had finally come through.

"Man, I hope that (guy) dies," the documents quoted him as saying.

But Brothers survived his critical wounds, and, according to the documents, Ballard complained that his people had failed.

'Ways to deal'

While the ATF investigated the alleged hit, 18 jurors were chosen in January for Ballard's trial scheduled for March 10.

The agents only recently got copies of Ballard's jail calls. They made up the final piece needed to charge Ballard, Sanders and Harris. More arrests are possible.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips, who is prosecuting Ballard, asked a judge last week to postpone the trial. He wrote in the filing that attacks on witnesses "strike at the heart" of justice.

The issue, though, has been rare in the Charleston area, he told The Post and Courier.

"When it does happen, we use the full force of the federal law enforcement community to deal with it," Phillips said. "We take it seriously."

Moore, the former prosecutor, said he often employed a rule allowing prosecutors to use pre-trial witness statements if they could prove that a defendant somehow killed or swayed that witness to prevent testimony.

Of the three Midlands and Upstate drug cases that Moore handled in which a witness was slain, all the defendants were convicted.

"The government has to prove that a witness is unavailable and that the defendant procured that unavailability," Moore said. "Intimidation can be a real problem, but there are ways to deal with it."

For someone to qualify for the Department of Justice Witness Security Program, their testimony must be essential.

Many of the cases pertain to organized crime and drug trafficking. But any endangered witness who can testify to a serious federal offense also can be eligible.

U.S. marshals sometimes provide the protection in state trials involving similar crimes. South Carolina does not have its own program.

Raymond Clement had worked as an ATF informant before 2011, when he witnessed a brazen slaying on Charleston's East Side. The agency helped relocate him as he prepared to testify. But the night before the murder trial began in January, his mother's house was shot up.

Clement still testified. The defendant, Tyrel Collins, was convicted, and his brother was arrested in the shooting.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said then that witness intimidation had foiled past cases. Collins could have been acquitted if Clement hadn't taken the stand.

Wilson planned to look into federal help as an option for tackling the state-level problem, she said last week.

In the Walterboro drug case, Brothers remains on the witness list.

Agents have found phone logs indicating that Ballard and Harris were still communicating after the shooting. Jailers in September found a cellphone stuffed in Ballard's mattress. What they might have been discussing wasn't specified in the affidavits.

Ballard's attorney said the documents depicted a disjointed sequence of events.

"The government theory," Theos said, "it's somewhat convoluted."

And Ballard, he said, played no part in it.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.