|Rain didn’t dampen spirits of those attending the local annual Martin Luther King Jr. march Sunday, Jan. 15, which was hosted by Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church, photo above. Carrying the banner leading the march are Rev. Arthur Douthitt, at right, and Justin Chambers, from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., at left. Photo by Mike Hanson/Sycamore Photography.
|Overdose cases being heard in federal court
|By Tom Marshall
Senior Advocate writer
Local law enforcement are now pursuing overdose death and near-death cases in federal court, where they believe sentences meted out are generally stronger than in state court.
As examples they cite a case last week in which a Detroit, Mich., man was sentenced to life in prison in connection with the overdose death of a Madison County man and another involving a Lexington man who also faces a possible life sentence after being convicted of selling a fatal dose of fentanyl.
After the second case, U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey issued a statement addressing the situation.
“The drug dealers who sell heroin and fentanyl in our communities know full well that, sooner or later, the result of their criminal conduct is likely a tragic and unnecessary death,” Harvey said. “Overdose victims are not merely statistics. They leave behind grieving parents, siblings and children who deserve justice.”
The Mt. Sterling Police Dept. and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has several overdose-related cases pending in federal court.
Among them are two individuals, Robert Lee Shields and Wesley Scott Hamm, who are charged with dealing the drugs that killed a local person during a rash of overdoses here in August.
A third person was charged, Tracey Myers, aka Tracey Smallwood, but reportedly committed suicide at the Montgomery County Regional Jail.
Local law enforcement say they prefer to take the cases to federal court because of the mandatory minimum requirement that defendants serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. There is no such requirement in state court.
It has also changed how law enforcement treats overdose scenes.
“We go them with the idea that they’re going to be a murder investigation,” Mt. Sterling Police Det. Chris Haddix said. “Everyone of them is a crime scene.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Fred Shortridge said his agency is taking the same approach when it responds to overdose cases.
Detectives process the scenes to see if any drugs or paraphernalia are present, as well as any phones that might have been involved in transactions, MSPD Det./Sgt. Jimmy Daniels told the Advocate. He said a lot can be learned from processing the scene.
Heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil have become the primary drugs linked to recent overdoses, according to law enforcement.
If detectives can tie a drug transaction directly to an overdose death or near-death they can take the case to federal prosecutors for pursuit in court.
“They need to know that we’re going after them if there is a death involved and we’re going for the maximum charge that we can get,” Haddix warns drug dealers.
Daniels said the MSPD has a pretty good grasp on who’s dealing heroin and fentanyl locally, but if transactions involve an out of town source they look to the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for help.
He said it’s important to go after those individuals whenever possible.
“Anytime that you can connect an out of source dealer, someone who is bringing the fentanyl or the heroin in you have to cut the head off the snake,” Daniels said. “You can make buys from the people they have selling for them all day long. As we’ve seen they always pop back up. It is hugely important to go after the SOS (Source of Supply). You have to cut the head off the snake because they can always find people to sell for them.”
Shortridge said his office develops a lot of information about alleged drug traffickers from processing the scenes on overdose cases.
Both agencies said they have excellent working relationships with various federal agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that prosecutes the cases.
“They are working with us hand in hand,” Shortridge said.
Like the sheriff’s office, the MSPD has been working closely with federal prosecutors for several years now.
Daniels said the MSPD has brought at least 10 cases, some unrelated to overdose deaths, in the past 10 years. Cases must meet certain criteria before federal prosecutors will take them on.
Most notable among those was the prosecution of 10 local defendants in a large-scale drug operation in 2015 that brought thousands of prescription pills into the community illegally, according to prosecutors.
That April, Jeff Wingate was sentenced to 150 months in federal prison.
Other defendants in the case who pleaded guilty and were sentenced were Charles Michael Spence, Eric Gonzalez, aka Joel Ramon Hipolito, Jay Todd Gibson, aka Todd Gibson, Katherine Michelle Jones, aka Shelly Jones, Ashley Swartz, Timothy L. Rose, Pamela Jean Shouse, Rodney E. Johnson and Jeffrey N. Jones. They received sentences ranging from 16 to 145 months.
Daniels said the increase in overdose deaths the past two years have only reinforced law enforcement’s commitment to punish dealers.
“If they sell their poison here in Montgomery County we’ll do everything in our power to see that they go to jail,” he said. “We get tired of going to the overdoses and seeing the families destroyed.”
Shortridge said he hopes drug dealers come to understand that they face real consequences if prosecuted in federal court.
“If the word gets out enough to the traffickers it may slow down,” the sheriff said optimistically. “Is it worth it? Yeah, there’s good money in it ... but do they care if they get a conviction? That’s up to them.”
Daniels said the community has been very helpful in the law enforcement’s efforts to prevent overdose deaths and curb drug abuse.
“We have had a really good response from our community,” Daniels said. “I don’t know if a lot of other dept.’s have that in their community. We’ve had an outpouring of support. We have people call and give us tips all the time. If it wasn’t for the help of the community there is no way we could do our job effectively. The community of Mt. Sterling has been a very positive influence and a positive factor on how we conduct our investigations and giving us support. I hope every surrounding community has the support that we’ve had. The only thing I would ask is that our community continues to show us support because we can’t do it without them.”