An indictment charging 16 people from Wilkes County and one from Alleghany County with being part of a large methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy was unsealed in U.S. District Court in Charlotte Wednesday.
The indictment resulted from a multi-year investigation involving federal, state and local law enforcement that targeted the manufacture and distribution of meth in western North Carolina, stated a press release from U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins of Charlotte.
Most of the 17 people charged in the federal indictment already faced meth-related offenses charged by the Wilkes Sheriff’s Department.
Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said federal charges were also filed in these cases because of the large volume of meth involved and the overall serious nature of the offenses.
Shew cited the ongoing combined effort between local, state and federal authorities to address meth manufacturing and distribution and said this included seeking federal charges because they carry considerably longer prison sentences and greater fines than state meth-related charges.
He said Wilkes people have been caught making meth while out of jail on bond for state meth-related charges. “Hopefully this (federal charges) will make them stop making it and also deter others,” he said.
Shew said there is a direct connection in Wilkes between meth and other serious crimes and problems, including thefts. He noted the highly combustive nature of meth labs and said investigators have often found children near where meth was being made, he added.
Wilkes had the most meth lab busts of any county in the state in 2012 with 59.
The federal indictment unsealed Wednesday was returned by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Charlotte on June 19. It was unsealed after all but one of the 17 were arrested Tuesday. They will remain in custody pending detention hearings scheduled July 15, the release stated.
The 16 people from Wilkes indicted are Stoney Shew, 32, Tony Lee Blevins, 45; Daniel Lee Foster, 36; Stephen Franklin Wood, 35; Crystal Gail Gregory, 34; Chad Douglas Church, 36; Michael Combs (alias MC Hammer), 43; Abby Wilmoth (alias Abby Jones), 33; Stephen James Blankenship, 36; Larry Don Brown, 53; Matthew Chad Lovette, 32; Brannon Allen McManus, 37, Brookelyn Michelle Miller, 21; Rikki Ann Osborne, 37; Tony Steven Steelman, 26; and Frankie Wayne Blevins, 46. Misty Ann Fender (alias Misty Fender Gilbreath), 31, is the person from Alleghany. McManus is the only one of the 17 not arrested. He is listed as a fugitive.
Except their home counties, addresses of the 17 people weren’t available from authorities.
The 17 are charged with conspiring to distribute, possess with intent to distribute and manufacture over 500 grams of meth between January 2009 and June 18, 2013. If convicted of conspiracy, they each face a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life in prison and a $10 million fine.
They also are all charged with possessing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth. If convicted of this, they each face a maximum of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
All 17 except Shew are charged with possessing materials to make meth. If convicted of this, they each face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The indictment said materials they possessed to make meth included Coleman fuel, coffee filters, lithium batteries and two-litre plastic bottles. Authorities seized this when they found and shut down 15 meth labs.
Tony Blevins, Foster, Wood, Church, Combs, Wilmoth, Blankenship, Brown, Ms. Fender, Lovette and Osborne are charged with maintaining a drug-involved premises, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Foster, Osborne, Blankenship, Ms. Fender, Miller, and Steelman are charged with possession of firearms in furtherance of the drug conspiracy, which carries a five-year prison term.
Including the 17 people in the indictment unsealed Wednesday, 49 people have been prosecuted so far in federal court for conspiring to make, possess and distribute meth in Wilkes and other western N.C. counties.
Operation ‘Dixie Crystal’
Ms. Tompkins also announced today that federal meth trafficking charges and other charges have been filed against an additional 30 people so far as a result of a task force operation called “Dixie Crystal.” Most of the people charged are from northwestern North Carolina.
She said Dixie Crystal, involving federal, state and local law enforcement, resulted in about 30 guns, five vehicles, 20 pounds of meth and $150,000 in cash being seized since it was launched last year.
Dixie Crystal targeted significant meth traffickers in Ashe, Allegheny, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes counties in North Carolina and Johnson County, Tenn., who sold over 200 pounds of meth with a street value of over $4 million since 2003, stated a press release.
“The success of this investigation speaks of the continued dedication of our local, state and federal law enforcement partners in targeting and dismantling meth distribution rings that profit by spreading their poison in our communities,” said Ms. Tompkins. “Strong partnerships such as this one underscore the power of our combined forces and demonstrate our collective impact on the war against meth.”
Jeremy Keith Nunnenkamp, 40, of North Wilkesboro is among 17 people awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal drug trafficking charges filed in the investigation.
Nunnenkamp pleaded guilty June 5 to a charge that carries a mandatory sentence of between 10 years and life in prison. He has been in custody since his arrest on April 20.
Others awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal drug trafficking charges include Jason Michael Benfield, 33, of Laurel Springs; Ernest Monroe Parlier Jr., 28, of Crumpler; Jeffrey Dale Watson, 41, of Fleetwood; James Thomas Hawkins, 39, of Laurel Springs; Christy Lee Latham, 36, of Warrensville; Bobby Giles Shore, 59, of Lansing; Danny Eller, 53, of West Jefferson; Cristie Aldridge Dollar, 45, of Foscoe; Pamela Ann Corum, 31, of Zionville; Tammy Wynette Woody, 43, of West Jefferson; Chad Morgan Yates, 38, and Melanie Virginia Osley, 37, both of Chattahoochee Hills, Ga.; and Luis Enrique Garcia, 46; Jose Francisco Jimenez Pina, 46, and Jose Humberto Jimenez Pina, 25, all of Mexico.
Javier Sanchez Chavez, 32, of Mexico, pleaded guilty on March 21, 2013, to a charge of misprision of a felony.
Additional people charged in federal indictments filed as a result of Dixie Crystal and unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charlotte include Earl Butler Potter, 55, of Todd; Stephanie Lynn Shatley, 31, of Lansing; Jared William Pardue, 33, of Zionville; Tawana M. Sparks, 31, of Hudson; Courtney Wayne Patterson, 28, of Todd; Deborah Phillips Lewis, 36, of Todd; James Foy Parsons, 45, of West Jefferson; Tina Ann Wheeler (alias Tina Ann Miller), 38, of Crumpler; Ricky Allen Latham, 32, of Creston; and Larry Mitchell Snyder, 59, of Trade, Tenn.
All are in custody except Snyder, who is listed as a fugitive. A reward is available for information leading to Snyder’s arrest. People with information can call 1-866-347-2423 and remain anonymous.
Charged with federal drug offenses in the investigation and scheduled for trial are Kenneth Herman Bennett, 50, and Martin Martinez Saldana, 43, both of West Jefferson, and Mauricio “Mario” Baltazar, 20, of Lake City, Ga.
The press release said the investigation is ongoing.