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South L.A. hamburger stand sold crack, prosecutors allege

After emerging from the snare of crack addiction and more than a decade in prison, Brian Sawyers claimed to be a new man.

His arc of redemption went like this: On the edge of Watts, he opened a burger shack named for a friend, B.D. Burgers.

He gave free meals to those down on their luck and ran toy drives for local youth. A 2013 profile in the Los Angeles Sentinel described him as a man on a mission, eager to care for the community.

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Even U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) praised his generosity in a signed letter to a federal judge.

But prosecutors allege that the burger stand — known for its 99-cent menu and stacked cheeseburgers — masked a small-time drug operation that supplied crack cocaine to the Bounty Hunter Bloods gang, which has its turf in nearby Nickerson Gardens.

On Wednesday, Sawyers, 57, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison after a jury convicted him of two counts of selling crack cocaine to an undercover informant, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California.

Defense attorneys pleaded with the judge for a lesser term, arguing that 15 years was a longer penalty than he might face for violent crimes such as manslaughter, kidnapping and bank robbery.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, sought a longer penalty, painting a nefarious portrait of the burger stand owner.

“He is essentially a career drug distributor who has shown no inclination to stop dealing drugs,” prosecutors wrote. “[He] has consistently refused to accept responsibility for or show any remorse for his crimes.”

Those crimes were two drug deals in 2012 that began near Sawyers’ burger stand, a squat building with green awnings along Central Avenue near 102nd Street.

An informant told investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that Sawyers was selling drugs.

On Feb. 8, 2012, Sawyers sold the informant about an ounce of crack cocaine at the burger stand, according to court papers. The next month, after meeting at the burger stand, the informant followed Sawyers to his home, where he sold an additional 2.5 ounces for $1,700.

Both times, Sawyers told the informant how he converted crack cocaine from powder and said he wanted to sell larger amounts.

When the LAPD and ATF arrested Sawyers nearly three years later, he had 4.5 ounces of powdered cocaine in the panel of an SUV door, next to where he had been sitting. Before the arrest, he had agreed to sell the cocaine to an informant for about $3,800, although he never faced charges for that alleged drug deal, according to court papers.

In the lead-up to this week’s sentencing before U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, Sawyers’ public defenders asked the court to consider the arc of his life.

At the age of 6, his father died, leaving his mother to raise nine children in West Virginia. His mother remarried but endured abuse from her new husband, and eventually took the children to Compton. Still, she struggled.

In the 1980s, as the crack epidemic swept through South L.A., Sawyers fell deeper into drugs and eventually racked up three felony drug convictions. Near the end of his decade-long prison sentence, his teenage daughter died, and he could not be released to attend her funeral — a continuing source of trauma, his lawyers said.

Out of prison, he resolved to open up his own business, and he used the skills he learned from his time managing a Jack-in-the-Box to open up B.D. Burgers. He dedicated the ice cream section of the restaurant to his late daughter.

The burger stand received positive reviews. And his family and lawyers said he was committed to the greater South L.A. community: He mentored felons, catered events and donated burgers to a local blood drive.

Waters, the veteran congresswoman, told the judge that she was “surprised and disappointed” over Sawyers’ conviction but noted his many contributions.

“Not only did he have reasonable priced food like one-dollar hamburgers and other sandwiches, which made it affordable to the underprivileged, but he gave an enormous amount of food, free of charge, to individuals who had no money or resources,” Waters wrote.

The congresswoman’s letter appeared on a blank white paper with no letterhead, and she did not use her official title when signing it.

She asked the judge to look at Sawyers’ whole person: “I do not know what circumstances led him to this unfortunate situation but I am hopeful that his good deeds can be considered.”

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno.

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