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Five more sentenced over drug operation in Pope County

by Dale Ellis | September 29, 2022 at 6:47 a.m.
court gavel

A long-running federal drug trafficking and racketeering prosecution that eventually involved 55 defendants and a total of 32 criminal counts was whittled down Wednesday as five of the defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 90 months in federal prison to 17 years, making a total of 39 defendants sentenced so far.

The investigation, dubbed Operation "To the Dirt," began in 2017 as an investigation into drug trafficking in Pope County that resulted in 44 indictments, but expanded in 2019 to include an additional 11 defendants and charges of racketeering and violent crimes in aid of racketeering, including kidnapping, maiming, assault and attempted murder. In all, 17 of the 55 defendants were charged with conspiracy to violate RICO, the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, or violent crimes in aid of racketeering, with nine of those also charged with drug conspiracy.

The remaining 38 defendants were charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, or both.

To date, 53 defendants have pleaded guilty in the case, and one defendant, Marcus Millsap, 54, of Danville, was convicted following a 14-day jury trial last year of conspiracy to violate RICO, attempted murder in aid of racketeering, and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Millsap is currently awaiting sentencing.

On Wednesday, one defendant, 35-year-old Russell Robinson of Russellville, was sentenced for violent crimes in aid of racketeering, for which he received 17 years in federal prison.

Four people -- Jeffrey Howell, 37; April Teeter, 42; Richard Hampton, 44; and Tiffany Parker, 43 -- were sentenced on drug conspiracy counts. A fifth defendant, Lesa Standridge, 57, was due to be sentenced, but U.S. District Judge Brian Miller aborted the hearing after Standridge said she had not seen her pre-sentence report prior to Wednesday's sentencing hearing.

Howell was sentenced to 188 months in prison, with the sentence to run concurrently with an 88-month sentence he is currently serving in California. Hampton and Parker were each sentenced to 96 months in prison, and Teeter was sentenced to 90 months. All were ordered to serve five years on supervised release after they leave prison. Howell, Teeter, Hampton, Parker and Standridge were initially indicted in the first wave of indictments in 2017.

Robinson was indicted in 2019 in a superseding indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in February 2019 as part of a federal investigation into racketeering activities of the New Aryan Empire, a white supremacist gang that got its start in the 1990s as a jailhouse gang that soon moved into the state prison system and later out into communities around the state as members left prison.

Robinson, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence in the Arkansas Department of Corrections after pleading guilty in Pope County Circuit Court in 2018 to first-degree battery and intimidating a juror, was indicted by a federal grand jury on four counts of violent crimes in aid of racketeering including kidnapping, maiming and assault with a dangerous weapon. The indictment came out of accusations that Robinson, along with several co-defendants in the 55-defendant indictment, kidnapped and tortured a man and woman from Pope County whom the gang believed to be providing information to law enforcement regarding a shooting involving another gang member.

According to court records, Robinson -- along with co-defendants Timothy Ferguson, Kevin Long, Randall Rapp, Adam Mitchell, Christopher Buber, Bradley Chambers, April Howell, Shannon Ferguson and Amanda Rapp -- was indicted for the June 2017 kidnappings of an Atkins man, "H.D.," and a Dardanelle woman, "C.L.," whom gang members were attempting to prevent from testifying in a coming trial involving Long, who was charged with shooting at two men in Russellville on May 12, 2017.

According to court records and testimony in Millsap's trial in September 2021, Robinson was among the group who kidnapped H.D. and C.L. and he assisted in assaulting H.D., whose face was disfigured when one of the group held a heated hunting knife blade against his face. According to trial testimony, the two were threatened, beaten and forced to sign letters of apology to Long before they were released.

Robinson's attorney, Robert Golden, asked Miller to consider sentencing Robinson to a 15-year sentence, citing his brief criminal history with no prior violence until he committed the current offense.

"This was a violent crime," Golden said. "There's no shying away from that, and he participated in that violence in a group setting."

But, Golden said, in the three years he has represented Robinson his client has worked hard to turn his life around and to improve himself.

"Mr. Robinson has accepted responsibility in this case twice now, he pleaded guilty on the state charge early on and he's taken responsibility here," Golden said. "I've spent three years now with Mr. Robinson and he's been a good client. He's a good human being ... I have a lot of clients and I can't say the same for all my clients that I can for Mr. Robinson."

Since going to prison in 2017, Golden said, Robinson had availed himself of a number of programs in a concerted effort to rehabilitate himself, which Golden said was a sincere effort.

"Obviously, when you're in prison, you want to come in here in front of a federal judge and say, 'Hey, I've done well,'" Golden said. "That's true, but many times, clients aren't able to do well for this long of a time, so I believe his commitment is genuine ... He's sorry for what he's done and he's ashamed his mother has to sit here and see him here."

Miller said the underlying conduct in Robinson's case was different from the drug trafficking and conspiracy counts that had earned some of the defendants who have been sentenced to date prison terms in the 10- to 15-year range.

"For a one count drug distribution case to go from 140 to 120 (months), that's 10 years," Miller said, "I think that's reasonable. But I think here, Mr. Robinson is looking at a lot more time."

Miller said while he is sympathetic to the idea that attorneys and judges working within the system can become jaded when considering various sentencing structures while the viewpoint of those being sentenced is typically much different, there still have to be limits to what can be considered justification for granting leniency.

"Some of us who work in the system may say it's only that amount of time, but none of us are going to spend one day in prison," he said. "So, any day he gets, or any month he gets, or any year he gets, that's a lot of time for him, right? I get it. But ... I typically don't give people credit for doing right from the day they're arrested or found guilty or come in for sentencing."

Miller said in a few cases, "when they do something so amazing," he is inclined to offer leniency, "but typically, I don't."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Liza Jane Brown, the lead prosecutor in the case, said she would not support a more lenient sentence given that doing so could create serious sentencing disparities with other defendants. She said also, the conduct of the offense did not lend itself to a more lenient sentence.

"The conduct of which he is being sentenced for," she said, her voice dropping, "is just disheartening. I mean, it's egregious, it's terrible."

Golden maintained his position that a 15-year sentence would be sufficient, but, "I understand the court disagrees."

Robinson told Miller that he has "received correction and I'll continue to receive correction until I go home."

"I'm ashamed," he said. "If I could do better I would. Thank you for your time."

Miller ordered that Robinson's 17-year federal prison sentence be served concurrently with the 15-year sentence he is currently serving, and that he serve an additional five years on supervised release after he is freed from prison.

With Wednesday's sentencings in the case, 39 defendants have been sentenced in the matter to prison terms ranging from three years to 35 years in prison. Fifteen defendants have been sentenced to prison terms of 15 years or more. Another 15 defendants remain to be sentenced, and one defendant, Troy "Tricky" Loadholdt, has been a fugitive since 2017.

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