LITTLE ROCK — Part four in a series
A Helena-West Helena man admitted in federal court Thursday that he spent months dealing drugs and illegally building up a small cache of high-powered firearms, all while he was charged in a 2010 double-shooting case.
Deandra Cortez Smith, 25, said during a court hearing that he violated federal law, which prohibits anyone charged with a felony from receiving or purchasing firearms moved as part of interstate commerce.
But the sequence of events that led to Smith’s guilty plea to gun and drug charges goes beyond what’s outlined in federal court documents.
Even though Smith faced multiple felony charges in a nightclub shooting and was wanted on a fugitive warrant in that case, he illegally bought and carried a variety of guns, court records show.
At least one of the firearms he illegally purchased ended up in the hands of a felon, prosecutors say.
Smith’s case shows the ripple effects of the Phillips County sheriff’s office longstanding practice of not entering fugitive warrants into state and national criminal databases.
Despite several brushes with the law, court records show, no one arrested Smith on his fugitive warrant.
Police pulled him over for traffic violations several times before he illegally obtained the guns. And after he began purchasing firearms, he had still more run-ins with police, including at least two occasions when he had loaded guns in his car.
Smith is only one of numerous Phillips County fugitives who came into contact with police while he was wanted by authorities but remained free, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has found.
While several of the fugitives had their cases dismissed because their warrants weren’t served in a timely manner, Smith’s case is a rare exception.
The longer he remained free with the state case hanging over his head, the more evidence federal authorities were able to gather against him.
Judges issue fugitive warrants to detain people who skip their court appearances. The warrants, when served properly, are one of the primary legal means used to ensure that defendants who miss hearings go to court and face their charges.
For years in Phillips County, none of those felony fugitive warrants were entered into the Arkansas Crime Information Center’s database, a tool that law enforcement officials use to check a person’s criminal history and determine if he has outstanding warrants.
Earlier this year, a Democrat-Gazette investigation found that without the warrants’ entry into the database, more than a third of the county’s fugitives in Class Y felonies — the state’s worst criminal offense classification — weren’t arrested on their warrants even when they encountered police numerous times.
In total, those fugitives were all allowed to go free during more than 220 arrest opportunities.
After the newspaper published articles about the warrants and other dysfunction in the Phillips County criminal justice system, judicial officials cleared hundreds of backlogged cases, including nearly 200 that were dropped en masse by prosecutors largely because of long unserved fugitive warrants.
Still, the 1st Judicial District’s judges have said they’ve been hamstrung in cleaning up more of the backlog.
As of last month, more than 94 percent of the circuit court’s cases older than two years remained pending because of unserved fugitive warrants.
That’s even after May, when a circuit judge ordered Phillips County Sheriff Ronnie White to begin entering fugitive warrants into the state criminal database, known as ACIC. But it has taken months for the sheriff to start complying with the order.
Reached by phone Thursday, White said he didn’t know anything about Smith’s fugitive warrant because he wasn’t in his office when contacted by the newspaper.
The sheriff said his deputies are now entering fugitive warrants into the Arkansas Crime Information Center, but he’s “not sure when” they started doing so.
White then deflected further questions, saying he needed to take another phone call. He said he would call back if he had time.
White did not call back. He also didn’t return a second call.
Attempts to independently confirm White’s assertions were unsuccessful.
Smith’s warrant wasn’t addressed during his federal court hearing Thursday.
But the crimes that he said he committed all stem from a night that police say he opened fire on a crowded nightclub.
On May 9, 2010, Phillips County deputies responded to a 2:30 a.m. call about a fight taking place at the County Line Club.
When they arrived, one of the deputies saw Smith shooting what a federal agent later described as a semiautomatic pistol that resembled “a hand-held rifle” toward a group of people gathered near U.S. 49, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, panicked clubgoers tried to flee the parking lot in their cars.
Deputies ordered Smith to put down the weapon, according to court documents.
Deputies also found a loaded .40-caliber handgun in Smith’s vehicle. Shell casings on the ground matched the gun that police say Smith had fired, court documents state.
Two people were injured in the shooting — a woman shot three times and taken to Memphis’ trauma center, and a man shot in the arm.
Willard Coleman, the owner of the County Line Club, told deputies that before the fight started, he saw Smith get a gun out of his car trunk. When Coleman told Smith to put the gun down, Smith started shooting, Coleman told investigators.
Phillips County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Todd Murray formally charged Smith with two counts of first-degree battery and terroristic act on June 24, 2010.
When Smith didn’t show up for court two months later, a judge issued a fugitive warrant.
While he was wanted, Smith was pulled over by city police and Arkansas State Police troopers at least seven times in 10 months. He also appeared in Helena-West Helena District Court twice to address traffic violations and other charges.
At least four of those arrest opportunities occurred before Smith’s earliest illegal gun purchase, federal and state court records show.
But because Smith’s fugitive warrant hadn’t been entered into the Arkansas Crime Information Center, those officers wouldn’t have been able to run his information through the database and find out that he was wanted.
By June 4, 2011, state Trooper Josh Berry — who had stopped Smith several times for traffic violations — was well aware that Smith had a tendency to carry weapons. He’d also taken a pistol from Smith during an April traffic stop, court records show.
So when Berry pulled Smith over that June night, the trooper patted Smith down, court documents show.
Berry put Smith in the patrol car before peering through the windows of Smith’s vehicle.
He saw nothing illegal in the car, but when Berry returned to his patrol car, he found a bag of what appeared to be cocaine lying next to the car.
At that point, Berry arrested Smith and searched Smith’s vehicle.
According to court documents, Berry found a Ruger .40-caliber pistol in the center console. The pistol had 16 rounds of ammunition in it.
Berry also found two other ammunition magazines, which were empty, and $516 in cash, court documents state.
At that point, Arkansas State Police Special Agent Philip Hydron interviewed Smith, who gave a written statement:
“I got stopped tonight for not stopping at a stop sign. I had a Ruger .40-caliber pistol that I bought at Kalb’s Pawn Shop. I bought it about two to three weeks ago for about $500. The crack cocaine that was found was not mine.
“I don’t know where it came from. The only reason I had the gun is for my protection.”
Arkansas State Police seized Smith’s vehicle and a small amount of crack cocaine.
By then, federal authorities had taken an interest in Smith and his accumulation of weapons.
In June 2011, Special Agent Glen Jordan with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives examined the two pistols taken from Smith by the state troopers. Jordan later went to Kalb Pawn shop to examine the shop’s records.
He found that Smith had purchased seven guns on four different occasions between January and June 2011, according to federal court papers. Among the guns Smith purchased were the two pistols as well as high-powered semiautomatic guns — two Velocity MAC-10 .45-caliber pistols, an AK-47 and a Romanian, model Draco, assault pistol that shoots the same size round as an AK-47.
Jordan wrote up his findings to support a search warrant. On July 11, 2011, ATF and Arkansas State Police agents showed up at Smith’s house, warrant in hand, and searched the premises.
Among the items the agents seized were guns, body armor, bullets and ammunition magazines, and a small safe.
The safe contained $4,155 in cash and residue that later tested positive as cocaine, court papers show.
The agents also found an AK-47 that Smith later told authorities he was holding for another man.
According to federal court testimony, that man was Cedric Edwards, known as “Fat Ced.”
Edwards was arrested last year as part of an FBI-led public-corruption and drugtrafficking investigation. Edwards has since pleaded guilty to federal drug charges resulting from the investigation known as Operation Delta Blues.
The day the ATF officers searched Smith’s house, he gave agents the rifle that he said he was holding for Edwards.
He also led authorities to another man, Eugene Starr Jr., a felon to whom prosecutors say Smith gave one of the guns, an AK-47 rifle.
Starr was scheduled to appear in a change-of-plea hearing Thursday after Smith’s plea.
But once in court, Starr changed his mind. He’s now scheduled to be tried early next year on a federal charge of possession of a firearm by a felon.
Starr also faces a capital-murder charge in state court involving a killing that occurred a few weeks after the ATF’s search of Smith’s house.
As for Smith, he pleaded guilty during his hearing at the federal courthouse in Little Rock to charges of knowingly and intentionally receiving a firearm while charged with a felony and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime.
He also told U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson that a narrative of his criminal activity read by Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters was correct.
“Between April 20, 2011, through June 2011 the defendant Deandra Smith was engaged in drug-trafficking activities ... and possessed a firearm in order to protect his illegal drugs and drug proceeds,” Peters said.
After his plea, Smith was ordered to remain in custody awaiting his sentencing in March.
More than two years after the nightclub shooting — and many months in custody awaiting trial on his federal charges — state court officials confirmed Thursday that Smith’s Phillips County case was still pending.
They also confirmed that his warrant remains unserved.