ABINGDON, Va. – Thirty-six people accused of moving cocaine and prescription painkillers through Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee were indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury.
Authorities arrested the three dozen last week after conducting surveillance at car washes and bowling alleys, and intercepting text messages that investigators said revealed a conspiracy to push drugs.
Each of the defendants was charged with one count of conspiring to distribute oxycodone, Lortabs and more than five kilograms of cocaine, federal court records show.
April Shannon Hutson, the accused ringleader, also faces an additional charge of possessing 500 kilograms or more of cocaine with the intent to distribute it.
If convicted, all defendants face a maximum life sentence and $4 million fine, and a minimum of 10 years in prison. The additional charge against Hutson carries a possible sentence of five to 40 years and a fine of up to $2 million.
On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent ordered that two of the defendants remain in custody pending their trials.
Kari Nicole Parks, 23, of Blountville, Tenn., had sought to return to the Hay House – a Johnson City facility that provides drug treatment – until trial. Parks had apparently been a patient there when she was arrested.
Daniel Bieger, the attorney representing Parks, argued that she would not be a flight risk while at the Hay House, monitored by the Sullivan County court system, which originally ordered her to check into the facility.
Zachary Lee, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, argued that Parks’ previous probation violations made her a flight risk, and cited evidence that she continued to deal drugs while undergoing treatment.
“I have no problem finding that Ms. Parks should be detained pending trial,” Sargent ruled Wednesday.
For Jeffrey Howell – an alleged conspirator in the narcotics ring – the decision was more difficult, the judge said.
Howell, 30, has admitted to abusing cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs, but a federal probation officer called to testify presented no other evidence that he was a flight risk.
The charge against Howell and the other defendants carries a presumption that they are at risk of flight, given the minimum 10-year sentence if convicted. Sargent ruled that Howell did not sufficiently rebut the presumption of that risk, and ordered him detained until trial.
Attorneys for both Howell and Parks scheduled trial dates in May.
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