ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — Recent indictments in a years-long methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy that brought pounds of the drug each week into the Tri-Cities have put a major, if temporary, dent in supply, a U.S. Attorney told News Channel 11.
“We arrested 20 defendants as part of this conspiracy, and they were looking at bringing in 1-3 kilos of methamphetamine from Atlanta into the Bristol area every week,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Christopher Kavanaugh said.
“This conspiracy was primarily responsible for the presence of meth in the Bristol area,” he said.
“They weren’t the exclusive supplier, but they were a very large contributor … so with them being taken off the street, it absolutely does have an effect.”
One of those defendants — out of 14 formally indicted Oct. 26 — is accused of continuing to oversee the operation for roughly a year and a half even after he was imprisoned in Georgia.
“When we take on a conspiracy that is dealing in that level of weight … we see an effect in the community, we see that math is less prevalent and the price goes up as well because the supply is down, and we’re able to make an impact in that regard.”
Kavanaugh said while more than a dozen people are looking at federal time, with some having already pleaded guilty, the positive impact of large takedowns can be short-lived as far as people having access to drugs.
“Other people do eventually try to fill that void, and with the addictive qualities of methamphetamine, there’s always going to be someone who’s going to seek to supply that demand or need from the addicts in the community,” he said.
The Oct. 26 indictment charges five people with trafficking 500 or more grams of methamphetamine, which carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence. They include Christopher Johnson, who’s accused of running the operation from prison; Noah Bryan Horn; Nicholas Alexander Courtney; Jeremy Wayne Maxfield; and Kenneth Lee Trivette.
Five others are charged with trafficking more than 50 grams, with four others charged with a lesser amount. The additional six people arrested are not listed in the indictment.
Kavanaugh said they were part of a conspiracy that relied heavily on the tools of modern technology. At the middle of it, according to the allegations and a lengthy affidavit filed by investigator Matthew Cole, was Christopher Johnson.
“They were using Facebook, they were using text messages and they were using WhatsApp, and that’s one of the things that’s just so notable about this case,” Kavanaugh said.
“Not only is it the quantity of meth that we’re dealing with, but it’s also the role of technology in a conspiracy like this where social media platforms and encrypted apps are used in modern-day drug dealing. It’s much more than meeting in a parking lot or somewhere on the street.”
Johnson had been in jail and then prison for meth trafficking since Sept. 4, 2020. That’s when he and Noah Horn were stopped in White, Ga. and arrested with approximately four kilograms of meth, other drugs and two loaded handguns. Johnson spoke to law enforcement five days later and told them about his meth supplier, a Kevin Bullard, who supplied him with “multiple kilograms” up to twice a week.
Johnson told officers that following Bullard’s arrest a few weeks earlier, he had turned to another man who had been supplying Bullard and bought about 10 kilos from him over a two-week period.
That meth had been making its way to Southwest Virginia, but not quite two years later, an arrest in Kingsport revealed that Johnson apparently hadn’t given up the trade despite being behind bars. The person arrested July 7 after selling heroin to a confidential source became a confidential source themself, including consenting to a search of his cellphone.
That same day, a text message came from a person believed to be Johnson:
“Hey this is CJ I got your info from Adam I was just at Bartow with him I’m from Bristol Tennessee and I’m in prison for trafficking I’m all the way plugged in in Atlanta if you want to come get whatever for the low low holler at me I will send you my people Adam vouched for you ask him about me let know when to call and I’ll call you back.“
“If your interested you can come at any time it’s in Atlanta and it’s good #@(*$ dirt cheap”
In his footnote, the investigator noted Johnson had been at the Bartow County Jail before beginning a 30-year meth trafficking sentence at Calhoun State Prison in south Georgia. The “low low” referenced competitive prices for meth.
The affidavit, which stretches to more than 200 pages and seeks the arrest of 20 total people, says the investigation relied heavily on search warrants for cell phone and text data, Facebook data and even encrypted apps.
Kavanaugh said that even extended to Johnson.
“We occasionally do find out that someone is using contraband cell phones that have been smuggled into the prison and here, the individuals were using a prison-issued tablet to communicate with other members of the conspiracy,” he said.
Kavanaugh said a number of factors present in some of the cases will likely mean enhanced sentences. In addition to the guilty pleas, “we have multiple others in plea negotiations, it’s getting very close.”
He said “most of the defendants often end up pleading guilty because the evidence is just so strong against them.” His office expects the case to wrap up late this year or early in 2024.
Kavanaugh said confidential sources and arrests came around the Tri-Cities including in Tennessee. He said multiple agencies and federal districts often collaborate in drug trafficking investigations and that the Interstate 81 corridor is a common route for drug trafficking.
“It’s important for us to work with our state and local partners, local police forces, the Virginia State Police to investigate and try to hold these people accountable,” he said.
Ultimately, though, overcoming the stigma that surrounds addiction needs to disappear for the United States to best address its drug problem, Kavanaugh said.
“We need to understand that addiction does not discriminate on the basis of class, of socioeconomic status, on basis of race. It affects all of us and all of us know someone who has fallen to the difficulties of addiction.
“We can’t actually attack some of the crises that we face from methamphetamine, from opioids, unless we start to have an honest conversation, that we realize that truly it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of who you are.”