Rap Promoter Gets Life

A self-described hustler, Alton Coles grew up largely on the streets after his parents abandoned him at age 12, yet came to own a barber shop, water and ice stand, day care center, and rap music studio.

But a jury last year doubted that those sporadic efforts funded Coles’ $220,000 Bentley, $450,000 home or $1 million in cash on hand, and convicted him of running a violent Philadelphia drug empire.

A U.S. judge called the money and drugs that flowed through Coles’ hands “staggering” before sentencing him Thursday to a mandatory life term.

“It’s a very tragic and sad day, because that young man did have a lot of potential,” defense lawyer Christopher Warren said. “As an entrepreneur, as an entertainer, he had so much talent.”

Coles, also known as “Ace Capone,” told the judge no one deserves life in prison for selling drugs.

“You never respect life, or the value of it, until it’s taken away,” said Coles, a father of five who earned a high school degree at a juvenile detention center. “I never thought it would come to this.”

The seven-week trial showed him to be no street-corner dealer.

Coles had more than 20 underlings and moved an estimated $25 million of cocaine in the Philadelphia region from 1997 to 2005 , more than two metric tons of powder cocaine and nearly a half-ton of crack, prosecutors said.

Investigators found more than $500,000 in cash, 10 guns and 450 grams of cocaine when they raided Coles’ home in Mullica Hill, N.J., and several other properties in August 2005.

Prosecutors blame the group for more than 20 shootings, including a slaying over a botched drug deal near the Philadelphia Zoo.

“The amount of drugs involved was staggering. The money was even more staggering,” U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick said Thursday.

Coles ran a small studio in Philadelphia called “Take Down Records.” However, prosecutors called it little more than a front that lost money on its music ventures, including a 2002 hip-hop concert in Philadelphia that featured rappers Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Beanie Sigel.

At trial, they played a music video in which Coles played a violent drug kingpin also named “Ace Capone” , and argued that art was imitating life. The jury agreed, convicting him under the so-called “drug kingpin” statute that, together with gun charges, led to the sentence of life plus 55 years.

“We are a product of our environment,” Coles told Surrick. “My father was a crackhead. My mother kicked me out when I was 12. … The streets raised me.”

Levette Todd-Johnson, the mother of his oldest son, now 14, said Coles and men like him need rehabilitation, not life without parole. Coles helped raise three younger brothers in Upper Darby after his family dissolved, she said.

“He is not the monster they’re making him out to be,” said Todd-Johnson, of Wilmington, Del. “He’s not a killer. He was about the money.”