Mexican cartel members invited Alabama drug kingpin Rolando Antuain Williamson to cross the border and solidify their business relationship with a 2019 motorcycle trip. But Williamson worried the trip could be a trap.
One of his Mexican associates cautioned he might be kidnapped, beaten, and held for a $100,000 ransom. The drug associate had been kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel, and his father had to sell the family home to secure his release.
Williamson, then age 33, heeded the warning and declined the invitation, but he continued trafficking kilos of cartel drugs.
He may have dodged one danger, but he didn’t see another one lurking closer to home.
Back in Alabama, one of his drug couriers betrayed him, allowing investigators to listen in on their discussions about drug deals. An FBI North Alabama Safe Streets task force gathered evidence against Williamson, putting his freedom at risk.
This case illustrates how, along with large cities, Mexican cartels also target small towns and mid-size cities far from the border, fueling and capitalizing on the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.
The Courier-Journal reviewed court records and interviewed police, prosecutors, and lead FBI Special Agent Wayne Gerhardt, who has since retired, to learn about Williamson’s rise to power and the betrayal that imploded his drug ring.
In the summer of 2019, Williamson planned to drive to Atlanta, a popular cartel transshipment point, to meet with a cartel associate to pick up another load, but FBI agents arrested Williamson, searching his home and two other properties.
Inside his home, agents found marijuana, more than 135 grams of heroin, and 150 grams of fentanyl, up to 75,000 potentially lethal doses of the top drug killing Americans.
Federal grand jurors in Birmingham returned indictments against Williamson, known as Ball Head or Baldhead despite his thick braids, and 18 of his associates. However, agents have not been able to identify his main link to the cartel, a man known only as “Meme,” from Monterrey, Mexico.
A drug courier who was born in Mexico and worked for Williamson told agents that Meme was with the Gulf Cartel, or Cartel del Gulfo, also known as CDG, which has long dominated Monterrey.
Prosecutors secured a rare “kingpin” designation for Williamson, meaning he directed an expensive drug trafficking network that moved a high volume of drugs throughout Birmingham, especially on the west side. It also meant that if he was convicted, he faced an automatic life sentence in federal prison, where parole isn’t an option.
“They were the power on that side of town, especially Rolando. He directed a lot of people,” said Gerhardt, who considers this one of the top cases of his career.
Many of Williamson’s associates were afraid to testify against him. He kept silent and opted to take his chances at trial. Prosecutors had a powerful case that included evidence from his phone containing messages about drug deals on WhatsApp. They also had a recording of a very revealing chat Williamson had with a Mexican business associate who became an FBI cooperating witness.
Jurors also got to see photos of Williamson posing with expensive jewelry made for him by jewelers in Atlanta and Philadelphia and large stacks of money on Snapchat. In one photo, he’s wearing a large custom-made diamond and gold pendant with his initials RAW above “AINTNOPLAYN.”
His fleet of cars included a Dodge Charger Hellcat and Cadillac Escalades.
In April 2022, jurors convicted Williamson of running a criminal enterprise that trafficked a variety of drugs.
In August, the judge sentenced Williamson, 37, to life plus 10 years in prison and added a money judgment against him totaling more than $36 million as a penalty for trafficking the fentanyl found in his home, more than 400 kilos of cocaine, more than 24 kilos of heroin, 10 kilos of methamphetamine and more than 20,000 pounds of marijuana.
Williamson is now jailed at a high-security prison in Louisiana.
His attorney, John D. Lloyd, said he is working on Williamson’s appeal and can’t comment on the case.
Williamson grew up in Bessemer, a modest suburb southwest of Birmingham with less than 32,000 residents, but had the hustle and savvy to lead the drug network blamed for supplying Birmingham’s west side for years.
His team of dealers and drug couriers included a trusted member of the community ― a popular youth football coach known for urging his players to stay clear of drugs.
Williamson wanted to be at the top but would discover that running a drug ring had its own problems, including dangerous family squabbles, jealousy, and betrayal.
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