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Federal jury hangs in Oakland murder-for-hire case centered on Louisiana pot trafficker known as ‘Hitler’

Posted by Kenneth H. WineJun 16, 20220 Comments

SAN FRANCISCO — After just two days of jury deliberation, a mistrial was declared in a federal murder-for-hire case that drew links between a Louisiana drug trafficking ring and an Oakland shooting.

More than six years ago, Los Gatos resident and Louisiana native Thrince Thibodeaux was gunned down on International Boulevard in Oakland. Louisiana resident Marcus Etienne, a marijuana trafficker who went by the nickname “Hitler” and was implicated in several homicide investigations, admitted in 2020 that he ordered Thibodeaux's killing as part of his criminal organization, which authorities have dubbed the “Etienne Enterprise.”

But proving who fired the shot that killed Thibodeaux may be more challenging than federal authorities anticipated. Prosecutors have long contended that it was Burt Gucci Rhodes, a man who was in turn hired by co-defendant Mario Robinson, that killed Etienne.

But at the end of Rhodes' trial Wednesday, jurors declared they were hopelessly deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict. Now prosecutors have to decide whether to re-try Rhodes, drop the charges, or offer him a plea deal on lesser drug and gun offenses that he also faces.

The prosecution case against Rhodes was built largely on the words of two co-defendants: Etienne's wife, Elizabeth Gobert, and Craig Marshall, a friend of Robinson's who allegedly traveled with him after the murder and was present when Thibodeaux was gunned down. Rhodes' attorney, Kenneth Wine, argued that the witnesses were not to be trusted and pointed to the testimony of Precious Smith, Marshall's wife, who testified she overheard him confessing to the murder.

The defense argued that Rhodes wasn't the shooter, and pointed to DNA found on one of the shells left at the murder scene, which couldn't be linked to Rhodes or Marshall.

Both Gobert and Marshall have accepted plea deals and are awaiting sentencing. In 2020, Robinson and Etienne both pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges in exchange for 32 and 34-year prison terms, respectively. But unlike Marshall and Gobert, not only did Robinson and Etienne refuse to testify, they were both held in contempt of court during Rhodes' trial after U.S. Marshals dragged them into the courtroom and they refused to get on the stand.

According to prosecutors, Etienne wanted Thibodeaux dead due to a dispute over $5,700 in the marijuana trafficking ring, which shipped cannabis from Northern California to Louisiana. Etienne paid Robinson and Marshall $5,000 to lure Thibodeaux to International Boulevard, where authorities allege Rhodes killed him. Etienne told Thibodeaux's family that another man, Rodney Savoy, was responsible; Savoy was subsequently gunned down inside his home because of the scapegoating.

In July 2018, Marshall told the FBI that he was in Houston when Etienne called him, yelling about how “Thrince (expletive) up.” He said that he and Robinson flew to Los Angeles and traveled to Oakland from there, meeting with Etienne at a Motel 6 where he explained he wanted Thibodeaux “knocked off.”

Marshall said he refused to line up a hitman, but that Robinson said he would do it, and that he recruited Rhodes — also known as Moeshawn — who he'd recorded music with in a rap group called the Dollar Sign Gang. Marshall said he saw Rhodes personally shoot Thibodeaux at least five times.

But Wine argued Marshall wasn't credible, in part due to the leniency he was receiving in exchange for testimony. In pretrial motions, Wine said that Smith told federal investigators she knew of three homicides involving Marshall, including one where the victim was shot and his body was dumped in a Louisiana swamp. Marshall told investigators he knew of false rumors implicating him in violent crimes, but allowed them to stand because he benefited from others fearing him.

“When the government's case relies on a cooperating co-defendant like Craig Marshall, who is testifying in exchange for time off his sentence, then the jury should be skeptical. And this jury in this case was skeptical,” Wine said in a statement to the Bay Area News Group. “Uncritical reliance by the government on cooperators should not be part of the criminal justice system.”

But the defense argued that Robinson had hired a third, unknown, party to execute Thibodeaux and that Rhodes had been simply left to take the blame. Wine argued that when Gobert testified she heard Robinson say “my homeboy did it,” referring to the murder, it was unclear who she was referring to. He also pointed to Smith's testimony that she picked Robinson and Marshall up from an airport after the murder, and that Marshall asked Robinson why he was acting so nervous when it was Marshall who did the deed.

Source: Nate Gartrell. Originally published in the East Bay Times on June 16, 2022.