BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ― Mexican cartel members invited Alabama drug kingpin Rolando Antuain Williamson to cross the border and solidify their business relationship with a 2019 motorcycle trip. But Williamson worried the trip could be a trap.
One of his Mexican associates cautioned he might be kidnapped, beaten and held for a $100,000 ransom. The drug associate had been kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel, and his father had to sell the family home to secure his release.
Williamson, then age 33, heeded the warning and declined the invitation, but he continued trafficking kilos of cartel drugs.
He may have dodged one danger, but he didn't see another one lurking closer to home.
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Back in Alabama, one of his drug couriers betrayed him, allowing investigators to listen in on their discussions about drug deals. An FBI North Alabama Safe Streets task force gathered evidence against Williamson, putting his freedom at risk.
This case illustrates how, along with large cities, Mexican cartels also target small towns and mid-size cities far from the border, fueling and capitalizing on the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.
The Courier Journal reviewed court records and interviewed police, prosecutors and lead FBI Special Agent Wayne Gerhardt, who has since retired, to learn about Williamson's rise to power and the betrayal that imploded his drug ring.
In the summer of 2019, Williamson planned to drive to Atlanta, a popular cartel transshipment point, to meet with a cartel associate to pick up another load, but FBI agents arrested Williamson, searching his home and two other properties.
Inside his home, agents found marijuana, more than 135 grams of heroin and 150 grams of fentanyl, up to 75,000 potentially lethal doses of the top drug killing Americans.
Federal grand jurors in Birmingham returned indictments against Williamson, known as Ball Head or Baldhead despite his thick braids, and 18 of his associates. However, agents have not been able to identify his main link to the cartel, a man known only as "Meme," from Monterrey, Mexico.
A drug courier who was born in Mexico and worked for Williamson told agents that Meme was with the Gulf Cartel, or Cartel del Gulfo, also known as CDG, which has long dominated Monterrey.
Prosecutors secured a rare "kingpin" designation for Williamson, meaning he directed an expensive drug trafficking network that moved a high volume of drugs throughout Birmingham, especially on the west side. It also meant that if he was convicted, he faced an automatic life sentence in federal prison, where parole isn't an option.
"They were the power on that side of town, especially Rolando. He directed a lot of people," said Gerhardt, who considers this one of the top cases of his career.
Many of Williamson's associates were afraid to testify against him. He kept silent and opted to take his chances at trial. Prosecutors had a powerful case that included evidence from his phone containing messages about drug deals on WhatsApp. They also had a recording of a very revealing chat Williamson had with a Mexican business associate who became an FBI cooperating witness.
Jurors also got to see photos of Williamson posing with expensive jewelry made for him by jewelers in Atlanta and Philadelphia and large stacks of money on Snapchat. In one photo, he's wearing a large custom-made diamond and gold pendant with his initials RAW above "AINTNOPLAYN."
His fleet of cars included a Dodge Charger Hellcat and Cadillac Escalades.
In April 2022, jurors convicted Williamson of running a criminal enterprise that trafficked a variety of drugs.
In August, the judge sentenced Williamson, 37, to life plus 10 years in prison and added a money judgment against him totaling more than $36 million as a penalty for trafficking the fentanyl found in his home, more than 400 kilos of cocaine, more than 24 kilos of heroin, 10 kilos of methamphetamine and more than 20,000 pounds of marijuana.
Williamson is now jailed at a high-security prison in Louisiana.
His attorney, John D. Lloyd, said he is working on Williamson's appeal and can't comment on the case.
Williamson grew up in Bessemer, a modest suburb southwest of Birmingham with less than 32,000 residents, but had the hustle and savvy to lead the drug network blamed for supplying Birmingham's west side for years.
His team of dealers and drug couriers included a trusted member of the community ― a popular youth football coach known for urging his players to stay clear of drugs.
Williamson wanted to be at the top but would discover that running a drug ring had its own problems, including dangerous family squabbles, jealousy and betrayal.
It's raining money: Williamson sees an opportunity to take control
Before Rolando Williamson evolved into a drug kingpin, he dealt a smaller amount of drugs in the shadow of one of Birmingham's most flashy and notorious drug traffickers, Billy Williams Jr.
Local police considered Williams, known as Champ, as the main supplier of the city's west side by 2010 and suspect he was involved in several violent crimes, including homicides, said Greg Gauger, a retired FBI agent, who worked as the co-lead on the Williams case.
FBI agents got approval for wire taps, listening for months as Williams discussed drug deals with associates.
In a coordinated ambush in 2013, a police SWAT team burst into one of Williams' stash houses at the same time seven armed members of an FBI task force rushed toward Williams' luxury downtown condo in a renovated bank building.
FBI Safe Streets task force member Jude Washington slammed the ram, a heavy metal ramming device, into William's front door three times to force it open, splintering the wood door off its metal frame. He and Gerhardt were the first in, hurrying to the back bedroom.
They found Williams dressed only in his underwear. Gauger and Gerhardt shoved him to the ground and handcuffed him. Washington spun around and saw a $50 bill on a bathroom window ledge. Williams had hurriedly shoved wads of $20s and $100s out of his 12th-floor bathroom window. Bills fluttered toward the ground, scattered by a slight wind.
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None of his partners in crime were waiting on the ground to scoop up the loot, so when a city bus driver beginning his morning shift spotted the cash, he rushed to grab what he could. Within minutes, FBI agents hurried over to get what was left and bag it as evidence.
It was a theatrical ending to the long criminal career of Williams, known to local law enforcement as one of Birmingham's top drug menaces who saturated the area with drugs for years.
Inside the condo, investigators found $167,000 in stacks of cash. They don't know how much fluttered away, but estimate it totaled hundreds or even thousands of dollars. They also found $175,000 worth of jewelry, including gold and diamond watches, two fur coats and a fleet of upscale cars including a Corvette ZR1, Chrylser 300 and Cadillac CTS-V luxury sedan.
"Billy Williams was a bad egg," Gauger said. "Guys like that are dangerous. They become urban legends" and few are willing to testify against them out of fear.
Williams ended up pleading guilty to leading a cocaine and heroin trafficking network. He discussed some of his business dealings, though he never revealed his sources of supply in Mexico. In July 2014, a judge sentenced him to serve nearly 22 years, which was later reduced to 19 years in federal prison.
In total, Williams and a dozen others were convicted on federal drug charges, including three drug associates who initially pleaded not guilty and wanted to take their chance at trial. A jury was in place in 2014 when everything changed. Jurors were sent to the jury room so the prosecutors could bring Williams before the judge to authenticate the FBI wire tapes, admitting that he was one of the voices on the recordings.
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Williams wore an orange jail jumpsuit and was bound by shackles and handcuffs as he shuffled into the courtroom flanked by deputy U.S. Marshals. As he began to pass by the defense table, he briefly paused and looked each of the three defendants in the eye without saying a word. The attorneys and agents were stunned as all three defendants, before opening statements, stopped their trials and pleaded guilty.
Gerhardt, who retired after 23 years with the bureau, said he had never seen anything like it. No one is sure if the defendants were scared of Williams or if they just knew from the look on his face that he was going to spill all their secrets and secure their convictions.
With Williams in prison, there was an opening for control of the large drug network, and one of his relatives was expected to take over. But the relative sold heroin to undercover agents and ended up in his own prison cell.
That left the ambitious Rolando Williamson, who decided to grab that top spot for himself. In time, he grew the drug network to an even larger organization and established close ties to Mexican suppliers.
But while he was building his drug network, FBI agents were building a case against him. An informant told them Williamson was one of Williams' customers, and agents found his number listed on Williams' phone logs.
Eventually, some of his trusted associates betrayed him, helping investigators dethrone Williamson and topple the drug ring.
Warnings and betrayal: 'He's just jealous of me'
A secret recording gave investigators a glimpse at the inner workings of Williamson's drug ring, including details about a drug rip off, a warning about a possible kidnapping and a desire to order a revenge killing.
They were able to listen in on a June 11, 2019, meeting he had with a drug associate from Mexico because the associate became a cooperating witness for the government and agreed to wear a wire.
Williamson told the drug courier to deal directly with him and to avoid contact with his cousin, who used to be his right-hand man. Williamson said he no longer trusted the relative after learning that his cousin was talking about having him followed. Williamson said he wanted to retaliate, but couldn't because of the family link.
"He just jealous of me," Williamson said. "I was ready to kill his ass for real."
"If you got folks from 280, that's all they wanna do, buy dope," Williamson told the drug courier, referring to customers near the U.S. 280 southeast corridor with affluent subdivisions between Birmingham and Auburn. "I promise, we can make a lot of money. I'll buy the dope, and we just sell it to 'em."
Williamson told the drug courier about Meme, his supplier in Mexico, and about the invitation to go to Monterrey and ride motorcycles.
The courier, who is from Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from Hidalgo, Texas, cautioned against it. "It's a lot of tourist people in Monterrey, but it's still, it's still dangerous."
"Me being your homeboy ... I'll say don't try."
The drug courier, who lived in Birmingham, revealed how he previously had been deported and when he got to Reynosa, a truck pulled up that looked similar to Williamson's. When the door opened, he realized it was cartel members and not Williamson behind the wheel. He was freed after his father sold the family home to pay a $20,000 ransom.
He also said one of his cousins was robbed of a drug load in Atlanta and owed the cartel money. He said cartel members tried to find a relative of the cousin's in Mexico to murder for revenge. But the last known relative, his grandfather, had died before they could kill him.
The cartel knows Williamson, as head of a drug network in the U.S., is more powerful and would likely extort him for closer to $100,000 ― or end up killing him, the man warned.
Williamson avoided the trip but kept trafficking cartel drugs until his arrest two months later.
Relatives and friends submitted letters to the judge describing Williamson as a loving family man who generously gave to others in need.
During the sentence hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Annemarie Carney Axon cautioned: "My concern is that you have left these young women and men with the impression that it's OK to sell drugs, so long as you're generous with your proceeds.
"Remind them that the money that you spent on them, whilst being a big deal, led to tremendous pain for, I'm sure, many people ― most particularly, those who received your fentanyl."
Reporter Beth Warren: firstname.lastname@example.org; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Birmingham drug kingpin thought Mexican cartel might kidnap him