A Pine Bluff man who impersonated a foreign diplomat to avoid traffic tickets and was found with a prohibited shotgun in his house was sent to prison Thursday for nearly five years.
At his sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, The-Nimrod Sterling, 42, formerly known as Nimrod Sanders, objected to the judge's consideration of what prosecutors called "relevant conduct" -- testimony about actions that haven't resulted in any federal charges, but that Jefferson County prosecutors say they are pursuing as an aggravated assault charge.
The conduct that Wilson agreed to hear about occurred on Sept. 30, 2014, in front of Sterling's orange house on Olive Street, across from Pine Bluff High School. It's one reason federal authorities executed a search warrant at the house two weeks later, resulting in the confiscation of a shotgun that Sterling, as a convicted felon, wasn't allowed to possess, and the discovery of fake passports and diplomatic credentials that Sterling had apparently ordered over the Internet.
Two high school girls testified that as they were driving away from the school that day, Sterling pulled his black limousine in front of them. Valencia Swopes, now 18, the driver, said Sterling "pointed a gun at us" from inside his car.
She said Sterling then pulled into his driveway, got out and pointed the gun at the girls a second time, before he and his wife ran to their back gate with the gun, disappeared inside briefly and then jumped back into the car and sped away. Swopes said she believed they ran to the house to "hide the gun."
Jasmine James, now 15, was a passenger in Swopes' Dodge Ram pickup. She told the judge that when Sterling pulled in front of them, "we almost wrecked."
Then, she said, "He got mad. He got his gun and showed it to us. It was long, and black and brown. He was just cussing us out." She said the couple then got out of the car, ran to their house and then got back in the limousine and sped away.
"Did he point the gun at you when he got out?" Wilson asked.
James nodded, demonstrating with her hand how Sterling held the gun.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Lipe then played aloud a 911 recording of the call Swopes made to police that day, in which Swopes' voice shook as she told the operator, "A man pulled a gun on us. I'm scared."
Swopes relayed Sterling's actions, and told the operator his license plate number. But when officers didn't arrive immediately, her voice grew increasingly frantic. By the time an officer arrived, Swopes was in tears.
She told Lipe that she had a seizure -- the only one she has ever experienced -- after the incident.
When cross-examined by Sterling, who acted as his own attorney and asked whether she had ever had a gun pulled on her before, Swopes replied, "You were the first person ever to do this to me. I couldn't drive to school for three months because I was too scared to drive."
Swopes acknowledged that she had seen him and his wife at a neighborhood park a couple of weeks earlier, noting that she remembered him wearing shorts and a T-shirt and carrying a gun, that men surrounding him wore clothing with FBI insignias, "and your wife had on a tiara."
Sterling asked if she had been "stalking" him and his wife, but Swopes said she remembered that day "because of what you all had on, and you had security with you. I'd never seen anything like it in Pine Bluff."
Sterling testified that he had been driving his wife to the bank that day when he realized he had left his wallet at home and turned the limousine around. He said he started entering his driveway "when she comes bearing down in this truck. I was taken off guard. As soon as she stopped, she jumps out and accosts me, and says, 'I can kill you.' I didn't think she was a teenager."
He said he and his wife went into the house to get the forgotten wallet, then drove away, only to be stopped by police two blocks away. He admitted telling the officer that the chief of police knows him as Ambassador Sterling, the operator of a foundation that strives to reduce crime, and said he was shocked that the officer searched his vehicle for a gun.
"So you're testifying you did not pull the shotgun?" Wilson asked.
"A shotgun? No!" Sterling replied. He noted that the only reason his private security guard was seen wearing an FBI jacket at the park was "because I was filming."
Sterling's wife testified that she didn't recall him having a gun that day, and his mother, Susie Sanders, testified that it was her shotgun the federal agents had found after she took it to her son's house to be cleaned.
After hearing the testimony, Wilson agreed that Sterling should receive an enhancement for assaulting the girls, and said federal sentencing guidelines suggested 57 to 71 months in prison for Sterling's two convictions, combined with his prior record.
Stand-by defense attorney Nicole Lybrand argued for a lower range of 37-46 months, saying Sterling hasn't been convicted of assault, but Lipe said that ignoring the enhancement would be "an insult to these two young victims." She called Sterling "a danger to the community who is uncontrite," and requested a sentence at the upper end of the higher range.
In imposing a 57-month sentence, and giving Sterling credit for a year he has spent in jail, Wilson cited testimony at the trial about Sterling firing a shotgun into his backyard, which he called "a very serious matter."
He ordered Sterling to participate in mental health counseling, with an emphasis on anger management, while in prison.
On May 21, a federal jury convicted Sterling after hearing testimony that on Oct. 1, 2013, a state trooper felt he shouldn't issue a $330 speeding ticket to Sterling after Sterling gave him a "diplomatic identification card" describing him as an ambassador for the Conch Republic -- a fictitious entity. The trooper said he couldn't immediately verify the existence of the republic, and its status with the U.S. State Department, so he followed state police policy of "avoiding an international incident" by letting Sterling go without a ticket.
At the trial, federal agents said they were tipped off about Sterling's odd behavior by a former bodyguard of his. The man reported that Sterling carried guns and bragged to a bartender that he would shoot any police officer who harassed him about having a gun, "and bury him in the woods."
Metro on 09/11/2015
Print Headline: Fake diplomat gets prison term on weapons charge