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Pulaski County woman pleads guilty to federal charge of trafficking fentanyl

by Dale Ellis | September 16, 2022 at 3:26 a.m.

A Pulaski County woman who was indicted -- along with her husband and a Faulkner County man -- on charges of fentanyl distribution faces a possible 5- to 40-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in federal court Thursday to possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.

Taylor Rhea Witcher, 29, of Little Rock was indicted in August last year along with her husband, 29-year-old Cole Taylor, and 28-year-old Anthony Fontenot of Conway on charges of conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and distribution of fentanyl. In addition, Witcher and Taylor were also charged with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

On Thursday, Witcher pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson to the fentanyl possession count in exchange for the dismissal of the remainder of the indictment. The statutory penalties for the offense are a prison term ranging from 5 years to 40 years, up to a $5 million fine, 4 years to life on supervised release and a mandatory $100 special assessment.

As Witcher stood before the judge with her attorney, Joe Perry of Marianna, Wilson asked her a number of questions before explaining in detail her constitutional right to a trial and what rights she would surrender by pleading guilty.

"If you plead guilty and I accept your plea," Wilson told her, "you'll be convicted because a plea of guilty in open court is the strongest proof known to law."

He then explained the sentencing process, which happens after completion of a pre-sentencing report by the U.S. Probation Office in Little Rock to provide information used in calculating a sentencing range under U.S. sentencing guidelines.

"That's the window I have got to consider in sentencing you," Wilson said. "I don't have to go by it but I do have to consider it."

Wilson said he reserved the right to withdraw his approval of the plea agreement worked out between Witcher, her attorney and the government but said if he were to do so he would allow Witcher to withdraw her guilty plea.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens outlined the terms of the plea agreement, in which Witcher agreed to plead guilty to one count of possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining four counts against her. Givens said the conduct in the offense involved more than 400 grams of fentanyl but less than 1.2 kilograms.

Givens said that in August 2020, the DEA received information that Witcher and Taylor were selling counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl that came from the Phoenix area and that they traveled there at least twice a month to resupply.

According to the DEA, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine and was developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients, applied in a patch on the skin. Because of its powerful opioid properties, pharmaceutical fentanyl is also diverted for abuse. The DEA has said illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico from raw materials obtained from China and makes its way to the U.S. primarily through conduits controlled by the Sinaloa and CJNG drug cartels.

According to the CDC, drug overdoses claimed the lives of a record 107,622 people in the U.S. in 2021, with nearly 72,000 of those deaths -- 67% of the total -- attributable to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

"The DEA pursued an investigation and discovered that Ms. Witcher, along with Taylor and co-defendant Anthony Fontenot were, in fact, selling fentanyl," Givens said. "The DEA, through a confidential source, made three controlled purchases of these pills in late 2020 from Ms. Witcher in quantities of 100 pills each time."

Givens said that on March 2, 2021, DEA agents executed a search warrant on Witcher's and Taylor's Little Rock home and recovered a large amount of cash, 18 baggies containing 1,811 counterfeit pills made with fentanyl and another 127 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl in a pill box.

"Ms. Witcher admitted to selling between 25,000 and 30,000 pressed oxycodone pills containing fentanyl over a period of approximately a year-and-a-half," Givens concluded.

"You're the assistant U.S. attorney whose witness said there's no safe dose of fentanyl," Wilson asked Givens, "is that right?"

"That's true," Givens responded.

In the recent trial of Jemel Foster, a Little Rock man convicted last July of selling fentanyl to a Fayetteville woman who later died of a fentanyl overdose, one of Givens' witnesses testified that because of a lack of quality controls, there is no way to determine a safe dose of illicitly produced fentanyl. According to the CDC, a dose of fentanyl as little as two milligrams is enough to kill most people. The DEA said that in 2021, 40% of the counterfeit pills tested by the agency contained lethal doses of fentanyl and that same year, more than 20 million counterfeit pills were imported into the U.S. by the Mexican drug cartels.

On Givens' recommendation, Wilson allowed Witcher to remain free on bond until her sentencing date, which he set for Jan. 4 at 10:30 a.m.

"Ms. Witcher has been on pre-trial release for more than a year now with no violations," Givens said. "Recently, she had a baby, just under two months old and I believe that would qualify for an exceptional circumstance. We're not asking that she be taken into custody at this time."

"Do you understand that you're on eggshells and crackers?" Wilson asked Witcher. "That you need to be on the straight and narrow?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Witcher responded.

After the hearing, Witcher thanked Givens and told him she was grateful for her arrest, telling him that it had given herself and her husband the impetus needed to turn their lives around.

"I thank God for the DEA," she told the prosecutor. "Once we got started we just couldn't find a way to stop."

Taylor, Witcher's husband, is scheduled to enter a plea in the matter next Wednesday afternoon. Fontenot is scheduled for trial beginning October 11 at 9 a.m. in Wilson's court. Taylor and Fontenot are currently free on bond.

Print Headline: Pulaski County woman, 29, pleads guilty to role in fentanyl ring

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