LR man says guilty in 2021 fentanyl case

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

Cole Taylor, 28, of Little Rock was indicted in August last year along with his wife, Taylor Rhea Witcher, 29, 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 Wednesday, Taylor 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.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens outlined the terms of the plea agreement, in which Taylor agreed to plead guilty to one count of possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining three counts against him. 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 Taylor and Witcher 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 to 100 times stronger than morphine and was developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients. 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.

As little as two milligrams of the drug is enough to kill most people. The DEA said that 40% of the fake prescription pills it has tested contained more than two milligrams of the drug.

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.

Wilson set Taylor's sentencing for Jan. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Wilson allowed Taylor to remain free on bond pending sentencing at the request of his attorney, Jonathan Lane of Little Rock. Lane told Wilson that Taylor and Witcher -- who pleaded guilty to the same charge last week and was also allowed to remain on bond -- are working to make arrangements for the care of their infant child before they are sentenced. Givens did not object to allowing Taylor to remain free.

"You understand, you've got to walk the straight and narrow, you're on eggshells and crackers," Wilson told Taylor. "If you mess up, I don't want to have to put you in jail. You know, the jails are crammed full but they've always got room for one more, so I believe you're going to do right."

"Yes, sir," Taylor responded. "Jails are not pleasant."

Fontenot is scheduled for a change of plea hearing Oct. 4 at 2:30 p.m.