HELENA-WEST HELENA For nearly two years, Sedrick “Binky” Trice ran a thriving, multistate drug operation from an auto shop right off U.S. 49, just across from Eliza Miller Junior High School.
Trice, 28, stored his drugs at AC Customs, the auto shop co-owned by his mother and his purported drug-trafficking partner, Leon Edwards. Trice also stashed supplies at three residences and motel rooms he rented throughout the city.
He cooked cocaine into crack at least twice a week or, when business was good, twice a day, federal court documents show.
When the drugs were ready, Trice called upon his large network of middlemen to sell to customers. He also put several law enforcement officers on his payroll, buying not only their silence but also police escorts for his drug runners to and from the Arkansas-Mississippi state line.
For nearly two years, federal investigators documented Trice’s widespread operation, which dealt drugs in amounts up to a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
And all that time, Trice should have been in state prison, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation found.
Trice has since pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and is to be sentenced today in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
In federal filings, he has admitted to allegations against him outlined in a 69-page indictment — the result of an FBI-led investigation called Operation Delta Blues.
But when the FBI began investigating drug dealing in the Delta in January 2010, Trice should already have been at least 14 months into a 20-year sentence that he received in 2007 on a probation revocation, according to court documents obtained by the Democrat-Gazette.
Instead, Trice remained free to run his far-reaching drug operation in one of Helena-West Helena’s more heavily trafficked business districts — across the highway not only from the junior high school and the Helena-West Helena branch of Helena National Bank but also just down the street from a McDonald’s and the El Canaveral restaurant.
Trice continued to cook drugs, arm his dealers, broker sales and arrange deliveries — even after the Arkansas Court of Appeals in Little Rock upheld his conviction and ordered Phillips County authorities on Oct. 28, 2008, to take him to the Arkansas Department of Correction.
The Democrat-Gazette discovered the appeals court’s order among more than 5,000 pages of Phillips County court filings involving individuals indicted in the Delta Blues operation and others. The records of the Delta Blues indictees’ criminal histories, all kept in a single room in the Phillips County Courthouse, span nearly 20 years.
The Democrat-Gazette photographed and electronically scanned the publicly available files, including those belonging to 22 people charged in the Delta Blues investigation.
During the newspaper’s review of those court documents, reporters made repeated visits to the Phillips County circuit clerk’s office.
Between two of those visits, a single-page letter from the Arkansas Department of Correction was placed in Trice’s file.
More than four years after Trice’s probation-revocation sentencing, Miriam Lester in the Correction Department’s central records office checked the drug trafficker’s record and found a problem.
She summed it up in a fax to the Phillips County circuit court clerk on Feb. 1, 2012.
“The ADC never received this commitment, when sentenced or when the appeal was affirmed.
“Inmate has never served a day of this time.”
The Democrat-Gazette asked U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer when federal agents first realized that Trice was supposed to be incarcerated, but Thyer declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Phillips County officials say they weren’t aware that Trice never made it to prison until federal agents told them so last fall.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Todd Murray says he assumed that the sheriff ’s office had taken care of the matter once the appeals court affirmed Trice’s probation revocation.
But Sheriff Ronnie White says he never heard about the appeals court’s order to take Trice to prison.
Law enforcement officers were familiar with Trice from his numerous arrests, but the newspaper could not determine whether city police were aware that he was supposed to be locked up.
Trice’s first adult felony arrest occurred two months after his 18th birthday, court records show.
On April 19, 2002, Trice was arrested on a charge of possession with intent to deliver marijuana in quantities less than 10 pounds.
Trice fled from officers of what was then the West Helena Police Department after a traffic stop, dropping a bag of marijuana on the way, according to an affidavit by White.
A felony charge was formally filed on July 16, 2002.
But the case was continued over a period of 2 1/2 years before Murray filed a motion for nolle prosequi — a declaration by a prosecutor that he will not pursue a case, while leaving open the option to refile a charge within the next year.
Circuit Judge L.T. Simes granted Murray’s motion on Dec. 6, 2004.
The dropped charge came at the same time as a plea agreement related to two other drug cases — a charge from 2002 involving marijuana and another from 2003 involving cocaine.
At the same time, Trice was sentenced to five years in state prison followed by a five-year suspended sentence, court records show.
He served nearly two years in prison and was released to the Arkansas Department of Community Correction.
Trice was paroled on Jan. 29, 2007, according to records.
One month later, on Feb. 27, 2007, police arrested Trice in connection with a shooting.
New charges — terroristic act and possession of a firearm by certain persons — stemmed from gunshots fired into a car driven by a woman named Ashley Kelly, court records show.
On that day, then-sheriff’s Deputy Winston Dean Jackson contacted Helena-West Helena police to report a shooting, according to an affidavit by White.
After telling police that he saw a white sport utility vehicle and a silver car speeding away, Jackson pulled over the silver car, driven by Kelly.
Kelly told Jackson that Trice, who was driving the white SUV, had shot at her, the sheriff’s affidavit states. Bullet holes had punctured her door and bumper. Officers also found a live .380-caliber round in the rear passenger floorboard. Three spent shell casings were found in Trice’s vehicle, court documents show.
Officers arrested Trice and his passenger.
Nearly five years later, Jackson was arrested in the Delta Blues sting. He has since pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Trice to protect Trice’s drug-trafficking organization.
The February 2007 shooting occurred while Trice was serving a five-year probation resulting from his 2004 conviction of attempted delivery of a controlled substance (cocaine).
In August 2007, Murray filed a motion to revoke Trice’s probation, saying that because of the shooting Trice had “inexcusably failed to comply” with the conditions of his release from prison.
On Nov. 2, 2007, Simes revoked Trice’s probation and sentenced him to 20 years in state prison.
The signed sentencing order directed the sheriff to take Trice to the Arkansas Department of Correction. Simes also set a $150,000 appeal bond noted as “cash or professional surety only.”
Records show that Trice appealed the probation revocation in forma pauperis, filling out an affidavit showing that he was unemployed and had no assets that he could use to pay for an appeal.
The pauper’s filing indicates that Trice was in the Phillips County jail when he filled out the paperwork in early December 2007, and the revocation order indicates that he was “currently incarcerated” at the time.
Dina Tyler, assistant director of the Correction Department, said the agency’s records show that Trice was last in the Phillips County jail on Dec. 13, 2007.
He was released on bond the next day.
“And he hadn’t been here since,” Tyler said.
Trice filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 17, 2007.
NOT IN JAIL
Less than two months later, on Feb. 7, 2008, Trice was arrested during a traffic stop on charges of possession of a controlled substance (hydrocodone) and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to a criminal information filed by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Michael Ladd, who handles drug task force cases.
A bench warrant was issued for Trice on March 25, 2008, with bail set at $25,000.
Trice’s file contains no other records for a year — until another warrant was issued on Feb. 25, 2009, when he failed to show up for court on the hydrocodone charge.
The warrant contains no sheriff’s deputy signature indicating that it was served.
It’s the latest document in the file.
In the meantime, on Oct. 8, 2008, the appeals court in Little Rock upheld the revocation of Trice’s probation.
In its opinion, the appeals court ruled that the revocation was largely supported by Kelly’s testimony.
According to the court’s ruling, Kelly testified that Trice drew a long gun while driving a white Chevrolet Tahoe and “began shooting toward” her Ford Taurus.
Kelly also testified that Trice offered to “pay her for not testifying against him,” which Trice disputed.
“While portions of Kelly’s testimony were weak or questionable,” appeals court Judge John B. Robbins wrote, “her positive identification of appellant [Trice] as the shooter, the deputy’s corroboration of the shooting and his eyewitness account of appellant fleeing the scene, and the evidence of spent ammunition shell casings inside the vehicle driven by appellant, all support the trial court’s determination in support of revocation.
“After evaluating this appeal under the proper standard of review, we affirm the revocation of appellant’s probation.”
In a letter dated Oct. 28, 2008, the Arkansas Court of Appeals notified the Phillips County Circuit Court that it had upheld the probation revocation.
The letter, stamped and dated by the Phillips County Circuit Clerk two days later, reads:
“This criminal appeal was submitted to the Arkansas Court of Appeals on the record of the Circuit Court of Phillips County and briefs of the respective parties. After due consideration, it is the decision of the Court that the conviction is affirmed. It is also ordered that the appellant shall immediately surrender to the Sheriff of Phillips County. If the surrender is not immediate, his bond is declared forfeited and a warrant shall issue for appellant’s arrest.”
The order was accompanied by a signed letter from appeals court clerk Leslie Steen summarizing the court’s decision.
“You will notice that the terms of the mandate are that the defendant shall surrender forthwith to the Sheriff of Phillips County, Arkansas,” Steen wrote.
The order and letter made it into Trice’s case file, but the file contains no record that it was enforced.
On Feb. 23, 2009, deputy prosecutor Murray filed to drop the terroristic-act charge against Trice.
Even so, the order for Trice’s imprisonment remained intact. As noted in the appeals court ruling, “evidence insufficient to support a conviction may be sufficient to sustain a revocation,” and in Trice’s case the court found enough evidence to affirm.
Still, he remained free — until his arrest by federal agents last October, records from various agencies show.
In February, as Trice remained in federal custody in the Delta Blues case, the Arkansas Department of Correction noticed that he’d never served his time in state prison.
Tyler said the U.S. Bureau of Prisons contacted the Correction Department in early February to ask for a routine check of Trice’s criminal history.
The federal agency told the Correction Department that Trice had pending charges in Arkansas for which he didn’t appear to have served any time.
“It was a basic background check, which happens all the time,” Tyler said.
As for Trice’s unserved sentence, she added: “That doesn’t happen all the time.”
Stephanie Harris, the communications counsel with the appeals court, said the court relies on local officials to enforce orders such as the one handed down against Trice.
“All we have is the power of the pen. It’s up to the executive branch to enforce the order,” she said. “The court’s strength is in people respecting its orders.”
She said Trice’s case should have been routine.
“Once an opinion is handed down, and the trial court is affirmed, the court issues a mandate 18 days later ... to carry out its order,” she said. “And the trial court takes it from there.”
The 18-day span allows the losing side time to file for a rehearing.
“When that 18 days is up, that opinion issued — and the mandate — goes into effect,” she said.
When shown a copy of the letter and order from the appeals court in Trice’s Phillips County file, Harris confirmed that they were form letters that originated from Steen.
“This is all standard stuff,” she said.
The court doesn’t usually receive any acknowledgments or return correspondence when it issues its mandates to circuit courts. None was filed in Trice’s case either, Harris said.
According to the Arkansas Rules of Appellate Procedure, in cases where the appellant is out on bond, “the circuit clerk, upon receipt of a mandate affirming the conviction, shall immediately file the mandate and notify the sheriff and the bail bondsman or, in appropriate cases, other sureties on the bail bond that the defendant should be surrendered to the sheriff.”
Phillips County Circuit Clerk Lynn Stillwell said a criminal appeals mandate involving a bond is rare.
“That’s the only one I’ve had since I came in January 2007. That is not typical that we have a mandate that would say that. But that particular one did,” she said.
Her policy is to make copies of any mandates and place them in the courthouse mailboxes belonging to prosecutors, defense attorneys and, in cases such as this where the order specifies, the sheriff, she said.
“It happens in every case,” Stillwell said. “It goes to everyone who is involved — in this case, the sheriff, [defense attorney] Louis Etoch and Todd Murray. They would have received a copy of the mandate.”
Asked if he was aware of the appeals court mandate ordering his client to prison, Etoch, who represented Trice in the criminal case, replied, “I’m not going to talk about his case.”
Sheriff White said no one ever told his office to go pick up Trice.
“[Federal agents] asked us why he was still out, and we told them we hadn’t been notified that the appeals court had affirmed his revocation,” White said, adding that his deputies had no contact with Trice during his extended period of freedom.
White also said that appeals of this nature are unusual.
Murray said he also didn’t find out about Trice’s unserved sentence until after the Delta Blues Operation sting, when Trice’s name came up during a discussion with federal agents about the defendants.
“I remembered him because he had been a revocation. ... I said, ‘I know him, I put him away for 20 years,’” Murray said.
“I didn’t know he hadn’t served it until the federal agents said he didn’t,” the prosecutor added.
Murray said there had been opportunities for Trice to be arrested — perhaps during the proceedings of the 2008 case against him — but he hasn’t found a solid explanation for why the mandate wasn’t enforced.
“The mandate was issued out to the clerk’s office. The sheriff’s office may be able to shed light. I don’t know specifically what happened. ... This other case was pending — should he have at least been processed and held?” he asked.
“I’m not sure where the breakdown occurred.”
Information for this article was contributed by Kenneth Heard of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A charmed history Sedrick Trice’s criminal record began long before his arrest last October in the federal Delta Blues investigation, but court records show he spent little time in prison.
April 19 — Two months after his 18th birthday, Trice is arrested on a charge of possession with intent to deliver marijuana.
July 5 — Trice’s second arrest. A confidential informant for the West Helena Police Department bought a bag of marijuana from Trice for $10, according to reports.
Nov. 4 — Trice is arrested on a charge of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (cocaine) – less than 1 ounce.
Dec. 6 — Trice pleads guilty to delivery of a controlled substance (marijuana) and attempted delivery of a controlled substance (cocaine) as part of an agreement with deputy prosecutor Todd Murray. He is sentenced to 5 years in state prison followed by a 5-year suspended sentence. At the same time, Murray drops the marijuana possession-withintent charge from April 2002.
Jan. 4, 2005, through Oct. 27, 2006 — Trice is incarcerated in the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Oct. 28 — The Correction Department releases Trice. One month later, he is listed as being in Phillips County jail and then being transferred to the Department of Community Correction’s Omega Technical Violator Center.
Jan. 29 — The Community Correction Department paroles Trice. Feb. 27 — Trice is arrested on charges of terroristic act and possession of a firearm by certain persons after police say he and another man shot into a car driven by a woman. August-December — Prosecutors file formal charges and file for Trice’s probation to be revoked. Nov. 2 — Circuit Judge L.T. Simes revokes Trice’s probation, sentencing him to 20 years in prison and directing Phillips County Sheriff Ronnie White “to transport the Defendant to the Arkansas Department of Correction.” Trice appeals the revocation, filing as a pauper.
Dec. 6 — A judgment and commitment order imposing the 20-year sentence is filed in Circuit Court. Simes also sets an appeal bond of $150,000. Dec. 13 — Trice is locked up at the Phillips County jail. Dec. 14 — Trice is released on a bond from the county jail. Dec. 17 — Trice files notice of appeal of his probation revocation in Circuit Court.
Feb. 7 — Trice is arrested during a traffic stop on charges of possession of a controlled substance (hydrocodone) and possession of drug paraphernalia. March 25 — A bench warrant is issued for Trice with bail set at $25,000. Oct. 8 — The Arkansas Court of Appeals upholds the revocation and orders Trice’s immediate surrender to Phillips County authorities or his arrest. Oct. 28 — The appeals court notifies the Phillips County Circuit Court of its decision to affirm Trice’s revocation. Feb. 23 — Deputy prosecutor Murray drops the terroristic act charge against Trice, wiping away the criminal charge but not the grounds for revocation. Feb. 25 — An arrest warrant is issued for Trice for failing to appear in court in his 2008 arrest on charges of hydrocodone and drug paraphernalia possession. The absence of a signature on the warrant indicates it was never served.
January — The FBI-led Operation Delta Blues investigation begins.
Oct. 11 — In the pre-dawn hours, more than 700 law enforcement officers armed with arrest warrants descend on Helena-West Helena. Dec. 21 — Trice pleads guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine and possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. In exchange for the pleas, the judge grants a prosecution motion to dismiss 14 additional charges against Trice.
Feb. 1 — More than four years after Trice’s probation was revoked, Miriam Lester in the Correction Department’s central records office inquires about the drug trafficker’s record in a fax to the Phillips County Circuit Court clerk. “The ADC never received this commitment, when sentenced or when the appeal was affirmed. Inmate has never served a day of this time,” Lester notes.
Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/18/2012
Print Headline: Drug dealer fell through court cracks