MANCHESTER — Under unprecedented security, a trial opened Monday of Brandon Griffin, the alleged leader of the “Squad” street gang who is accused of using violence and intimidation to control the drug trade in Manchester in 2015 and 2016.
Uniformed and plainclothes Hillsborough County Sheriff deputies roamed the courthouse, anyone entering Courtroom No. 4 was required to sign in with a uniformed deputy, and three plainclothes officials from an unspecified agency were in the courtroom once opening arguments started in the afternoon.
The trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court is expected to last four to six weeks. The jury will eventually be culled from a pool of 16 people, two more than normal.
Griffin, 31, faces 72 charges in all, including leading a drug enterprise — the street gang known as “The Squad.” He could end up in prison for life if convicted on the drug enterprise charge. He also faces charges of human trafficking, conspiracy to murder a rival drug dealer, and first-degree assault for allegedly pistol whipping his hit man when the person didn’t follow through with the hit.
Sixty-six charges stem from a two-month spree in April and May 2016 when he allegedly instructed his lieutenants to shoot up 10 Manchester houses or apartment buildings connected to rival drug dealers. All houses were occupied. An 11th house belonged to someone who disrespected Griffin, said Patrick Ives, assistant Hillsborough County attorney.
In his opening arguments, Ives said Griffin formed the Squad with Courtney Barrett, and then ran it once Barrett ended up in jail. Griffin recruited addicts and career criminals to do his bidding. At one point, he bailed a man out of jail and held the bail over his head to make him sell drugs and intimidate rivals or Squad members who crossed him.
Griffin would order people beaten, stunned with stun guns and their faces cut, Ives said. Three Squad members are expected to testify against Griffin.
“For three crippling addicts, this became a family, a sense of purpose, a sense of worth, and it also became a terrifying place for them to be,” Ives said.
Ives posted portrait-sized mug shots of Squad members and rivals. The rivals who drew his wrath were Dennis “Mega” Jones and Joshua “Six Mosely” Vasquez. Until trial, the names of the rivals had been shielded from court records.
At one point, Ives said, Griffin ordered Squad member and career criminal John Gebo to kill Jones. Gebo is expected to testify that he removed his gun from his waistband and was ready to fire when two Manchester police officers rode by on bicycles. Griffin responded by pistol whipping Gebo, Ives said.
Gebo’s head still bears the scar, and when police eventually found the gun, his blood was still on the handle, Ives said.
Griffin’s lawyer pointed out that Gebo pleaded guilty to the 2016 murder of Hans Odige and received a 30-year sentence. Previous news accounts describe Odige as former Squad member who tried to strike out on his own.
Griffin’s court-appointed lawyer, Brian Lee, said Gebo was caught red-handed murdering Odige, so eight months after his arrest Gebo conjured up a story about a powerful mastermind that forced him to commit a crime.
“‘He made me do it’; that is one of the oldest excuses in the book,” Lee said.
“The state has decided to go all in on John Gebo’s story. This is not a case of ‘Law and Order,’” he said, referring to the television show. “It’s a case of law out of order.”
The prosecution team — which includes Nicole Schultz-Price, the recently named first assistant in the office of County Attorney Michael Conlon — has compiled a witness list of about 80 people. At least one is subject to an arrest warrant, according to the trial’s case summary.
Superior Court Judge David Anderson devoted most of the morning to jury selection.
Jurors were asked if they harbored negative feelings about topics such as crime victims, gangs and race (Griffin is black) that would affect their ability to render an impartial verdict.