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As for the receipt found in his trash, Singleton says the people to whom Malone was taking the gift-wrapped cash claimed Singleton had sold them out to the DEA. Singleton, who says he didn't know Malone had been stopped, was incredulous. When Malone's boss began issuing threats, Singleton says, he demanded proof that the money had been seized. "They were claiming that I was supposed to have set this guy up," he explains. "I'm telling them I don't know what they're talking about. So it got to the point where they want to fax me over a letter. They faxed me over the letter, showed me what they were talking about, and I threw it away."
The DEA also arrested LaKeith Cross, alleging that he and Singleton were "partners in the drug business." Cross remains in federal custody in Chicago, where the case will be tried. In addition to wiretap conversations and accounts from DEA sources, the evidence against Cross includes a DEA search of Cross' mother's house in East St. Louis on September 9, 2003, where agents found more than $140,000 in small bills hidden in the basement and a blue Dodge Caravan with a hidden hydraulic compartment that opened by simultaneously pressing the defrost switch and a button beneath the driver's seat.
Singleton says he and Cross grew up in the same neighborhood and are "close friends," but that Cross was not affiliated with Lock 'Em Down and that Cross is "innocent of what [the DEA] is trying to charge him with."
Cross' attorney, Vanessa Antoniou, declines to comment on Cross' association with L.E.D. She says she is considering whether to file a motion to suppress the searches of Cross' mother's house and the minivan.
Singleton's attorney, Lorilee Miller Gates, says the crimes of which her client is accused happened years ago and notes that the arrest came just before the statute of limitations was to expire. "[The evidence] is all quite old," says Gates. "It smells stale. If it's such a fabulous case, why not bring it when it's fresh?"
If L.E.D. turns out to be little more than an outlet to launder ill-gotten gains, it would hardly be the first operation of its kind. To cite just one example, 26 members of an organization called the Black Mafia Family, which produced the chart-topping rapper Young Jeezy, are currently on trial in Atlanta, accused of running a violent nationwide cocaine syndicate worth $270 million.
The prevailing sentiment in the St. Louis hip-hop community, however, is that at the very least, L.E.D. was a legitimate producer of music.
"I doubt very seriously [that they were a drug front]. They were out there doing a lot of activity concerning the industry and entertainment," says DJ C-Note, who spins at the popular East St. Louis nightspot Club Casino.
Every L.E.D. artist and employee interviewed for this story claims to have been shocked upon learning that Dewanzel Singleton had been arrested.
"Believe you me, if I did [know that was going on], I wouldn't be right here right now," says rapper Dun Deal. "I'd be like, 'Give me a motherfuckin' house.' It's always been about the music with me."
Singleton and several others feel they were targeted specifically because they were involved with the record label, making them a high-profile target for the DEA.
"It's to a point where I regret I even did this with Lock 'Em Down," Singleton says. "Because I actually believe in my heart, had I not been working with Lock 'Em Down, I wouldn't have never heard nothing about this five-year-old charge."
"It was fun doing the music," says L.E.D. founder John Bacon. "It was a lot of fun. You go places, you meet people. I think we was probably having a little too much fun and we got somebody else's attention."
Even though Singleton is the only L.E.D. employee facing charges, all of the company's projects are on hold. For one thing, Singleton's assets are frozen. And last February, when the DEA conducted its searches, almost all of the contracts, equipment and documents pertaining to the label were seized, making it nearly impossible for the partners to continue business as usual.
In the interim, the white-shuttered house that once served as the company's recording studio has been reduced to a charred, hollow shell. Vacant since February, the building has since been twice set afire.
The tour bus, which still sits silently on the same corner in East St. Louis, has been damaged too. Visible through the windshield are dangling red and yellow cords that once powered a TV and DVD player. The vehicle's registration expired in June, and it's unlikely anyone from Lock 'Em Down will be renewing them anytime soon. They'd have a hard time even if they wanted to: The registration and title are still in the name of Martin Caldwell's uncle.
It was Caldwell, Singleton says, who gave him the bus as a gift.
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