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Drug dealer goes on trial in arson deaths of 6

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia drug kingpin sat stone-faced on Monday as prosecutors told jurors he ordered a 2004 firebombing that killed six relatives of a suspected informant.

Kaboni Savage and two others face the death penalty if convicted of killing 12 people during his reign in North Philadelphia. The trial evidence includes graphic threats that prosecutors say Savage made in prison.

In recordings played during opening statements, Savage says he's drowning in “tears of rage” at “snitches” and vows to kill their mothers and children.

“Their moms will pay. Their kids will pay. ... I'm dedicated to their death, man,” Savage said on the recordings, frequently noting that his arrest has hurt his own children.

The trial is expected to last four months and to include testimony from informant Eugene “Twin” Coleman about the inferno that wiped out his mother, grandmother, preschool-age son and three others. Coleman was a low-level member of Savage's group but considered “soft” and viewed as a risk if investigators came calling.

Savage had therefore set up one of the earlier slayings at Coleman's apartment, so he would be compromised and keep quiet, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer said Monday.

Savage has mostly been in prison since 2003, but he gave orders through phone calls and prison visits and communicated with other inmates through prison plumbing pipes, Troyer said. Prosecutors say he ordered the Coleman arson through his sister, Kidada Savage, who is on trial but not facing death.

Trial witness Lamont Lewis will admit killing Coleman's family and five other people, Troyer said. Lewis has pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and is serving 40 years to life.

Lawyers for co-defendant Steven Northington lost their bid Sunday to take the death penalty off the table because of his mental abilities. Senior U.S. District Judge Barclay Surrick denied the claim after a series of pretrial hearings. Co-defendant Robert Merritt also faces the death penalty.

Surrick oversaw Kaboni Savage's earlier drug trial, which led to a 30-year trafficking sentence.

Defense lawyer Christian Hoey said in his opening statement that Savage never ran a criminal “racketeering enterprise” and vowed to challenge the credibility of Lewis and Coleman.

In something of an aside, he noted that the FBI investigation into Savage's purported mentor in the drug world led — albeit indirectly — to the infamous bugging of the Philadelphia mayor's office in 2003.

The drug probe led agents to a Muslim cleric who knew drug dealers, labor leaders and then-Mayor John Street. The FBI installed a listening device in Street's office, but it was soon discovered. Street denied wrongdoing and was never charged.

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