Pot suspect has history of just saying yes

Rashad Muhammad has been held at the Charleston County jail since August.

Rashad Muhammad advertises himself as a savvy entertainment promoter and a benevolent businessman active in Lowcountry charitable work, but area police say this is a carefully cultivated front designed to mask the illicit activities of a master drug runner.

Muhammad, 37, surrendered to North Charleston police this week to face charges of trafficking nearly 500 pounds of marijuana into the city from Arizona.

Some of the weed was found in a van tied to Muhammad; the rest in an Air Park Road office building that is home to his entertainment company, a Masonic lodge over which he presides and a colorectal cancer foundation he started, authorities said.

Authorities said his enterprises and charitable work, including school supply donations to underprivileged kids, have provided cover for a high-volume marijuana smuggling operation.

"This guy is good, and he latches himself onto as many sources and people as he can," said North Charleston police Capt. Patrick Nathan, a veteran narcotics investigator.

"In all my years of working drug cases, he is probably one of the smartest cats I've seen."

The Goose Creek businessman has a criminal record dating to 1993, but he has served little prison time. Four years ago he was arrested on strikingly similar drug charges, only to have the case evaporate before reaching trial.

At the time, Charleston County sheriff's deputies alleged that Muhammad arranged to have 634 pounds of marijuana shipped to him from Phoenix. Deputies arrested Muhammad and another man who reportedly tried to retrieve some of the pot from a North Charleston business, where it had been dropped off.

Both men were indicted for trafficking marijuana, but prosecutors eventually dismissed the charges.

Sheriff's Maj. John Clark, then supervisor of the county's metro narcotics unit, said witnesses told investigators that Muhammad was the intended recipient of marijuana shipments.

The Sheriff's Office put many hours into the case and had gone as far as to send a detective to Atlanta to help intercept a marijuana shipment en route to the Lowcountry, he said.

Ed Knisley, the former assistant solicitor who handled the case, said prosecutors were concerned that the evidence wasn't strong enough to take the case to trial.

A decision was made to drop the charges and continue investigating the alleged marijuana operation. Federal investigators were brought in because the case involved a multi-state operation, he said.

"We knew this was a complex, ongoing operation, and our goal was to build a stronger case to move forward," Knisley said.

Muhammad's lawyer in the 2004 case, Eduardo Curry, would only say of the matter, "The court record speaks for itself."

Investigators got a break recently when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents apprehended a man who provided information about Muhammad, Nathan said. ICE agents passed on the information to North Charleston police.

The tip led police on Aug. 20 to stake out the Air Park Road office building leased to Muhammad. It is home to his business, The Invisible Men Entertainment, and the Al Nuir Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masonry. Muhammad, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, is grandmaster of the lodge, according to its Web site.

At about 11 p.m. investigators chased a van into West Ashley, where it wrecked near a church across from the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site on S.C. Highway 171.

About 276 pounds of pot, taped in 19 compressed bricks, was recovered inside. Back at the office police found another 212 pounds. Authorities also found at least five guns, including a military-style rifle.

Though the driver of the rented van ran off after the crash, detectives already had spotted Muhammad behind the wheel and determined that he was the sole occupant, police said. His fingerprints also were found inside the van, according to arrest affidavits.

Muhammad surrendered to police Wednesday and is charged with two counts of trafficking marijuana, two counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana within a half-mile of a school, possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, possession of a stolen pistol and failure to stop for blue lights and siren. He is being held at the Charleston County with bail set at $1.2 million.

Gonzales Waddy, an officer at the Masonic lodge, said Thursday that he was shocked to learn of the allegations. He has never seen a hint of illegal activity around the building and knows Muhammad only as a kind man, he said.

The Web sites for the group and its Grand Lodge, apparently based at the same address, describe a variety of charitable activities, such as help provided to Hurricane Katrina survivors and Thanksgiving dinners for the needy.

The lodge also sponsors an annual Friends and Family Day at Westvaco Park in North Charleston with activities, free food, school supplies for needy kids and literature to steer teens away from drugs.

"I know nothing else about him other than what you see there," Waddy said. "He has always been open and willing to assist anyone in need."

Muhammad's criminal record includes a 1994 conviction for crack cocaine possession and pending charges from May for marijuana possession and resisting arrest. Court records indicate that he also served federal prison time for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

In late 2004, while Muhammad was out on bail on the marijuana-trafficking charges, he was arrested in connection with an unusual holdup.Charleston County investigators said he and another man pulled a saber from a cane with a silver cobra's head to intimidate the owner of J&R Networking on Savannah Highway into handing over a key and registration to a vehicle. Authorities said those charges were later dropped.