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Prosecutor says Young Thug was ‘proclaimed leader’ of violent street gang at racketeering trial openings

<i>Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP/FILE</i><br/>Young Thug attends a hearing on the YSL case in Atlanta on December 22
Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP/FILE
Young Thug attends a hearing on the YSL case in Atlanta on December 22

By Christina Maxouris, CNN

(CNN) — Prosecutors accused Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug of leading a criminal street gang that committed murder and a slew of violent crimes in the Atlanta area over the past decade during opening statements of his racketeering trial Monday.

Fulton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Adriane Love said YSL – the acronym for Young Thug’s label, Young Stoner Life Records – in fact stands for Young Slime Life, an Atlanta-based criminal street gang led by the rapper and affiliated with the national Bloods gang.

“YSL operated as a pact,” she said, and Young Thug was “King Slime.” His home was allegedly filled with drugs and guns, and gang members would reach out for permission to kill and to provide him with stolen items, according to Love.

“They created a crater in the middle of Fulton County’s Cleveland Avenue community that sucked in the youth, the innocence and even the lives of some of its youngest members,” Love said.

Young Thug, whose given name is Jeffery Williams, is one of the music industry’s most innovative and influential hip-hop artists, pushing not just musical boundaries but often cultural ones too – including in his decision to wear a purple dress for the cover of his 2016 album, “Jeffery.”

He was charged last year alongside more than two dozen other people under the state’s expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – known as RICO. It’s the same law Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis used to indict former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants in August in connection with their alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Several defendants took plea deals last December – including rapper Gunna – while others were severed from the case. Young Thug is among six defendants who have pleaded not guilty to all charges and are standing trial in an Atlanta courtroom.

Young Thug’s defense attorney Brian Steel has said the rapper is innocent of all counts and has previously told CNN he “committed no crime whatsoever.”

The prosecution’s opening statements marked the start of what’s expected to be a monthslong trial that will be a test of the state’s expansive RICO law, prosecutors’ highly controversial decision to use rap lyrics as evidence and of Willis’ reputation ahead of Trump’s coming trial.

The first day of opening statements already saw several delays, prompted first by a juror issue and then by defense attorney complaints. Already, the trial has featured heated exchanges between prosecutors and Young Thug’s defense attorney, who made a motion for a mistrial that was denied by the judge.

Marquavius Huey, Deamonte Kendrick (known as Yak Gotti), Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell are the other five defendants in the trial.

Stillwell’s attorney, Maxwell Schardt, delivered his opening statements Monday afternoon, saying his client was not guilty of the charges he’s facing, including murder.

Shortly after, court adjourned for the day. Attorneys for other defendants are expected to deliver additional opening statements starting Tuesday morning.

Gang members shot at Lil Wayne’s tour bus, prosecutor says

Love’s opening statements honed in on the allegation the defendants acted in ways that showed “allegiance” to the gang, often openly promoting and posting about the alleged gang’s activity, and were part of an “unspoken agreement” to participate in illegal activity stretching back a decade as part of the group.

Her remarks included graphic photos of dead men who were allegedly killed by YSL members, as well as a number of rap lyrics from the defendants that Love said “bore a very eerie significance” to crimes that were committed in real life.

The alleged criminal group began as ROC crew, Love said – which stands for Raised on Cleveland – and sometime in 2012, an internal rift among its members led to the creation of YSL, and Young Thug became its “proclaimed leader.”

“The evidence will show that these defendants, that the members and associates of YSL, they knew who their leader was and they knew the repercussions of not obeying their leader,” Love said. “You will hear evidence that when members and associates of YSL got in trouble, got locked up, the first person they called was either (Young Thug) or one of his family members.”

But those conversations usually happened indirectly, Love said, because the rapper “knew that he needed to have distance between himself and the crimes members and associates of YSL were committing on behalf of the gang.”

Those crimes included armed robbery, hijacking, motor vehicle theft, possession of a machine gun and murder, Love said.

“The state is alleging that these defendants, they had an agreement – unspoken, but no less an agreement – to obtain property, things of value, cell phones, cars, stolen guns, through a pattern of illegal activity,” Love said.

Alleged members of the YSL street gang are also accused of shooting at the tour bus of rapper Lil Wayne while he was performing in Atlanta in April 2015.

“Bullets, for nothing, except to show their dominance,” Love said. “That act was intended to show their solidarity, their willingness to act on the behalf of, their willingness to exact violence upon anyone who threatened the position of the criminal street gang calling itself Young Slime Life.”

‘Hundred rounds in a Tahoe’

Among other alleged crimes the defendants are accused of is the killing of Donovan Thomas, an alleged member of a rival gang who was gunned down in 2015. In court documents, prosecutors alleged Young Thug rented a car that was used by YSL members in the killing.

“You’ll hear evidence that after the murder of Donovan Thomas, no less than 50 shootings occurred over the course of the next several months,” she said, adding some of those were retaliatory shootings. “You’ll hear evidence that hundreds, hundreds of bullets were fired into cars, into homes and into people as a result of the rift Young Slime Life had with other people in the community.”

A YSL gang associate is expected to testify that Young Thug paid them money after the killing “to go to Miami and lay low in the wake of Donovan Thomas’ murder,” Love said.

Among the rap lyrics Love read aloud in court were the words, “hundred rounds in a Tahoe,” from a song Young Thug released. Thomas was in a Tahoe when he was gunned down, Love said.

“Through the music that he has been blessed with the opportunity to be able to release and gain wealth from, through that music, through that blessing, the evidence will show that Jeffery Williams led a group of people that wreaked utter havoc on Fulton County.”

Defense attorney questions witnesses

Schardt, the attorney for Stillwell, who is also on trial and facing two murder charges among other counts, told the court Monday his client is innocent. Stillwell is accused in Thomas’ killing.

The attorney said Stillwell, in the past, “took responsibility” and served time for drug charges, telling the court he turned to selling drugs to make money to “live, to pay rent, to eat.”

Schardt also attempted to poke holes in the state’s murder allegations. He pointed to key witnesses who helped build the cases, but who he said talked to authorities months after the killings, and only after they faced jail time on other charges. He also said no gunshot residue was found in Stillwell’s car after the second killing.

“My client has been charged with two separate murders,” Schardt said. “He’s been wrongfully accused of two separate murders and we plea absolutely not guilty. He’s been charged with conspiracy to violate the RICO Act and while he has sold marijuana in the past, those were his decisions, for his benefit and had nothing to do with YSL or anyone else involved in this case.”

“If you focus on where the state’s evidence comes from, you will find that primarily, it comes from the stories of men wearing blue,” referring to the color of uniforms at the local jail. “I’m going to ask you to focus on things like science, instead of stories.”

Rapper was charged last year

Young Thug’s tracks have landed him at the top of the charts multiple times, and he’s collaborated with artists including Camila Cabello in “Havana,” Travis Scott and Drake. He won the Grammy for “Song of the Year” in 2019 for co-writing the hit track “This is America” along with Childish Gambino and Ludwig Göransson.

The 32-year-old rapper was initially charged and arrested in May 2022 for conspiring to violate the RICO statute and participating in criminal street gang activity.

In a reindictment filed in August 2022, prosecutors charged the artist with additional counts related to gang activity as well as drug and firearms violations. The additional charges stemmed from a search warrant executed by authorities at the home the rapper was staying in, where drugs and firearms were allegedly found, Steel told CNN affiliate WXIA.

The artist has been behind bars since his arrest last year, and released his latest album, “Business is Business,” from jail over the summer.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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