LITTLE ROCK -- A Pope County man indicted in 2017 as part of a major drug trafficking ring operated by the white-supremacist gang New Aryan Empire was sentenced in federal court Thursday to three years in prison on one count of misprision of a felony, or failure to report a crime, but the defendant's mental state nearly derailed the hearing at the start.
Ralph Ross, 56, of Atkins, pleaded guilty in March before U.S. District Judge Brian Miller to the reduced charge in return for the government's agreement to dismiss a conspiracy count he was originally faced in a drug investigation. That case eventually led to the indictments of 55 people in a conspiracy that included methamphetamine trafficking, kidnapping and attempted murder. Authorities said those activities were directed by core members of the New Aryan Empire, a white-supremacist organization that began as a prison gang in the 1990s.
Ross, like the majority of the defendants, was not reputed to be a member or associate of the New Aryan Empire but was originally indicted as being involved in the drug conspiracy directed by the gang. That charge was reduced to misprision, which carries a maximum three-year sentence.
Ross' attorney, Lee Short, began the hearing by asking Miller if his client's sentencing could be delayed because of Ross' mental state.
Short said that Ross was suffering from mental health disorders that were exacerbated by the probation office's expedited issuance of a presentencing report, which was done at Ross' request, and the scheduling of his sentencing hearing for Thursday.
"That caused him great concern, to wake up this morning and to not understand why he was being transported here," Short said.
After considering the request, Miller denied it, saying the age of the case and the logistics of transporting Ross back to the Van Buren County jail and back to court again could not be justified in light of the relatively mild sentence he was facing.
"If we were looking at a case where he was facing life in prison or 20 years, or 10 years even or in that range, I might feel it was justified," the judge said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Mazzanti told Miller that as long as Ross was competent to proceed she had no problem with moving forward.
"I'm not suggesting a mental evaluation," she clarified. "Just the normal, typical questions the court would ask."
In a halting voice, shaking and at times almost unintelligible, Ross told Miller that he suffers from anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder brought on from his experience, and he denied being involved in the drug conspiracy.
"There's things the government has done that I can't talk about, but it's screwed my life," Ross said. "I've lost so much."
"You've already pleaded guilty and you're here now to be sentenced," Miller cut in as Ross tried to continue. "I think when we had your hearing earlier you said, yeah, I did that. You pleaded guilty to the specific charge so is it your position that's not the case now?"
"I'm guilty of what I did but it was my daughter, my co-defendant," Ross said, voice shaking and rising with emotion. "She was on the side of the road, and I sent money to her for no reason but that I love her and don't want her in trouble."
Ross' daughter, Katherine Ross, pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Her father admitted to storing large quantities of methamphetamine in his home and said he had sent her money to help her get home when her car broke down in California where she was returning after purchasing methamphetamine to sell in Arkansas.
"She wasn't some Joe Blow out there, she was my kid," Ross said.
Short said that Ross wanted to take responsibility for his actions but said those actions were exactly what he pleaded to, failure to report a felony, and that dropping the conspiracy count did not constitute a break for his client. He said the limit of Ross' involvement was providing assistance to his daughter.
"He knew there were large quantities of methamphetamine being stored at his residence. He was storing it for her," Short said. "When his daughter went to California to buy meth and her car broke down he sent her money to get it fixed."
Short asked Miller to consider allowing Ross be sentenced to probation, to time served, or as low a sentence as the judge would consider, pointing out that during the course of the investigation, Ross had been shot at close range with a shotgun and his house had burned down.
Mazzanti, arguing that Ross had a 30-year history of theft and drug offenses, that he had been arrested for beating and choking his girlfriend, and that he had introduced his daughter to methamphetamine when she was 14, argued for a maximum guideline sentence of 30 months, if not the three-year statutory maximum.
Miller agreed to the statutory maximum of 36 months, one year of supervised release and ordered him to participate in drug and alcohol treatment.