The trial of a Pulaski County man indicted on charges of defrauding the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs out of nearly $400,000 over an eight-year period beginning in mid-2009 came to an abrupt halt Tuesday morning after the defendant suffered an apparent overdose as attorneys were preparing to begin jury selection.
Rickey L. Warren of Hensley was accused in a federal indictment handed up in January 2019 of receiving disability benefits from both agencies while he was also operating a construction company that he said he had shut down.
Warren is also charged with bankruptcy fraud in a superseding indictment handed up in September 2019, which alleged that between July 2015 and March 2017, Warren lied to the U.S. bankruptcy trustee in an effort to discharge $462,000 owed to various creditors.
Witnesses said that when he walked into the courtroom Tuesday, Warren sat at the defense table and began slipping pills into his mouth before slumping to the floor.
After emergency medical personnel removed Warren from the courtroom and took him to a local hospital, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright adjourned court for the day.
"I feel terrible for anyone who is so depressed they would do this," Wright said. "I hope that he can get the help he needs. ... Did I hear him say this is not a suicide?"
"You did, your honor," replied acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ross, who is the lead government attorney prosecuting the case, "but he said, 'This is not a suicide; it is end of life.'"
"Well, I feel awful for him," Wright said, "but we have continued this ... for a long time, and then I had to continue it for covid. Then we had other issues in the case, and I'm ready to go to trial."
Wright said she would tentatively set the trial to begin this morning but cautioned the attorneys that the delay could wind up being much longer.
"If they pump out his stomach, he might be ready by [this] morning," Wright said. "He's going to be in custody, so it's going to be difficult for him to take these medicines."
Wright, who is on senior status, said she has been working to clear her docket in anticipation of leaving the bench next year.
"If I have to continue this again beyond this week or into next week, we might have to continue it into next year," she said. "I have not drawn any new cases since April. I haven't taken any new cases because I'm going to quit, I'm going to hang it up, so what I'm doing is trying to get rid of these cases on my docket."
If the case winds up being continued into 2022, it will have to be reassigned, Wright said.
"I'm going to recuse because I don't want any trials in 2022," she said. "I don't know when I'm going to really hang it up, but it's going to be early 2022. What I'm doing is getting rid of the cases on my docket. And I may continue it into 2022, but I will not be the judge."
Ross told Wright that when the trial does resume, he anticipates the government will need 2½ days to complete its case. He said he expects to put 18 to 21 witnesses on the stand. That estimate, he said, did not take into consideration the amount of time Warren's attorney, Toney Brasuell of Little Rock, might need to mount a defense.
"I'm not going to put any pressure on Mr. Brasuell as to whether he is going to call his client or have any other witnesses," Wright said. "I will ask him during voir dire to tell the jury what witnesses he might put on, because that's just important for context."
Wright said she would explain to the jury that potential witnesses announced at the beginning of a trial don't always end up testifying.
"One time, someone listed someone like [former college football coach] Frank Broyles, and he was never called as a witness," the judge recounted, laughing. "Then a juror wrote me wanting to know what happened to Coach Broyles."
Acknowledging that the situation with Warren was still evolving, Wright said she would be available next week if the proceedings had to be carried over until then.
Wright said she would order that Warren be detained by the U.S. Marshals Service when he is released from the hospital.
"Pending trial, he's in custody until further notice," the judge told Thadd Baird, supervisor for operations with the marshals office. "In my view, he is not complying with the conditions of his release when he makes it impossible for us to proceed."
Baird told Wright that he would arrange to have Warren transported to the Pulaski County jail upon his release from the hospital.
As of Tuesday night, it was not clear when the trial may resume, and no information could be obtained on Warren's condition.