By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
March 17, 2014
RALEIGH — A massive three-county meth production ring was dismantled and 16 individuals sent away for significant federal prison sentences thanks to a partnership between state, local and federal authorities that included sizable terms for six people in Sampson County convicted of conspiring to manufacture meth in recent years.
The six Sampson residents’ sentences range from seven and a half to 12 years in the N.C. Bureau of Prisons and are part of the larger “Operation Speed Bump,” an investigation into domestic meth production that has been ongoing since 2008 and spanned at least 15 counties in the eastern part of North Carolina.
Sentences in the cases ranged from 81 months to 300 months imprisonment.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation Special Services Unit led the multi-agency effort targeting meth production, working with the Sheriff’s Offices in Sampson, Johnston and Wayne counties. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Wells prosecuted the cases for the government.
To date, 78 methamphetamine cooks and significant precursor purchasers have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as part of the operation. In October 2012, a grand jury in the district returned a 24-count indictment against 16 individuals involved in the meth production ring, including six in Sampson, six in Johnston and four from Wayne. All 16 have now been sentenced.
That announcement was made Monday at the Terry Sanford Federal Building in Raleigh, with Attorney General Roy Cooper, First Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce (representing U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker), SBI director Greg McLeod, Sampson Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell and Wayne County Sheriff’s Maj. Tom Effler in attendance.
Each lauded the work of Wells, SBI deputy assistant director Van Shaw and SBI special agents Kelly Page and Kelly Farrell, who were all also in attendance, for their long hours on the cases. Bruce and Wells detailed the case.
“They traveled throughout the district to buy pseudoephedrine, steal anhydrous ammonia and cook methamphetamine,” said Bruce. He said the group was responsible for purchasing over 5 kilograms of pseudoephedrine for the purpose of making meth and the ultimate production of almost 5 kilos of meth.
The group also possessed multiple firearms that were seized during the investigation, including an SKS assault rifle, a sawed-off shotgun and a stolen rifle recovered by law enforcement.
In Sampson, the six pleading guilty to conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and receiving sentences were Larry Medlin, 44; J.R. Thornton, 33; Allen Bass, 43; Jackie Joyner; Shannon Kidwell, 43; and Jamie Lou Denning, 37.
Medlin, Thornton, Bass and Denning received supervised release for life, while Joyce and Kidwell each received five years supervised release. Thornton received the longest sentence, at 144 months (12 years). Denning received 132 months, Kidwell was sentenced to 126 months and Bass and Joyner each received 113 month terms. Medlin was given a 90-month sentence.
Sheriff Thornton, identified as a key part in the initiation of a larger investigation, was quick to thank others for their diligence.
“Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we have in Sampson County,” Thornton said, noting the SBI agents and the federal prosecution Wells was able to get.
In 2008, the SBI noticed an uptick of clandestine meth labs. Investigation showed the labs were making meth, and many were repeat offenders who were responsible for spreading the highly-addictive drug across the eastern part of the state. Thornton led the charge, working with the SBI and in conjunction with other sheriffs to urge the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take the lead in prosecuting the cases in the district.
“Out of this partnership, Operation Speed Bump was created,” said Bruce.
In 2008, Sampson County had 24 meth labs. When the efforts were combined at the state and federal levels, the number of meth labs dropped considerably for the next two years, with seven in 2009 and eight in 2010. Sampson stayed in single digits until last year, when Sampson was fourth in the state in number of labs with 27.
Since taking office at the end of 2002, Thornton said Sampson has been the site of 133 found meth labs.
“We don’t have the amount of resources that they do,” Thornton said of the other Sheriff’s Offices, “and that’s why it’s even more important that we are able to partner with the Attorney General’s Office, the SBI and everyone to make a difference in our county. It has benefited the people of our county. You don’t know how gut-wrenching it is for a family member to come in and tell you the problems they’re having with their loved one who has been impacted by the addiction to this meth drug. It destroys everything they have.”
Thornton read a message he received recently from a woman, who stated that her husband and father of her child was busted for meth in 2010. Even though it took him away from the family, she said his life “was saved that day.” It was a blessing to both he and his daughter, the woman said. Had he not been incarcerated and sentenced to five years in federal prison, he would not be able to make a better life for himself after his time behind bars. She thanked Thornton and the deputies for what they did.
“To me, that tells it,” the sheriff said. “You can’t put a value on what we do. When you see stuff like that, you know you’ve made a difference. That’s what so important about what we do.”
Bizzell echoed those sentments, and said the operation was truly a partnership between the local, state and federal government to benefit the counties.
“It’s sad in our state when we have to come to the federal courts to get justice for the people…” said Bizzell, echoing the sentiments of other local sheriffs. “It shouldn’t be like that. But I’m glad to drive to Raleigh and ask the federal government to step in and help us where the state has neglected us.”
The Operation Speed Bump investigation was part of what Wells called the “Savage group investigation” in the Bentonville area of Johnston County, which provided information about a larger operation.
“People were afraid to talk about this group and its leader John Savage,” said Wells, noting a meth manufacturing “compound” on Devils Racetrack Road in the Four Oaks community that was ground zero for the multi-coutny operation. It was monitored by cameras and patrolled by armed gunmen, she said. Through the operation, Savage would pay $25 for a box of pseudoephedrine to pseudo hunters, commonly referred to as “smurfs,” which collected and channeled to Savage for the manufacturing operation.
The anhydrous ammonia, an extremely volatile fertilizer which is just as critical to the production of meth, was being provided by J.R. Thornton of Sampson County, who was stealing it from local farmers’ properties.
In April 2010, after an investigation during which Johnston County deputies were actually shot at during a surveillance operation, Savage and two others were arrested and a kilogram of meth seized, along with paraphernalia and weapons.
“These three individuals later made a state bond and, in fact, one of their state cases was dismissed in Johnston County,” Wells noted, “and our office picked up the ball and carried it to Judge (James) Fox in Wilmington, who sentenced all 16 of these defendants for their role in the operation.”
Bruce said Monday’s announcement was historic, calling it “the largest methamphetamine production ring prosecuted by (the U.S. Attorney’s Office) to date.”
The drug trafficking organization operated in Johnston, Sampson and Wayne counties since at least 2008 and was responsible for manufacturing large amounts of domestically-produced methamphetamine.
“These defendants created havoc on the law-abiding residents in the area by their distribution of large amounts of methamphetamine. My office stands reedy to prosecute organizations like this to the full extent of the law,” Walker stated in a prepared statement.
Attorney General Roy Cooper noted the incredible dangers associated with the drug.
“Meth brings violence and addiction to our communities, and North Carolina law enforcement at all levels is committed to rooting out the criminals who make and deal this dangerous drug. We’re making a dent in North Carolina’s meth problem through cases like this one,” Cooper said.
He lauded Thornton and the other sheriffs, as well as the SBI’s diligence.
“When you look at meth, it’s not only a powerful drug that makes people violent and paranoid, but the manufacturing process is extremely dangerous,” the Attorney General said. “Seven years ago, many people in North Carolina did not know what a meth lab was.”
He pointed to laws that have been implemented in recent years, including pseudoephedrine regulations and purchase logs and mandatory sentences for meth makers, including even harsher penalties on those cases involving young children.
“Last year, we had 561 meth labs,” Cooper noted. “Most of them were the one-pop method, where you make a small dose for yourself and maybe share with your friends. This operation went after the manufacturers. These criminals are making money while their destroying people’s lives, one meth head at a time. Their goal is maximum profits with minimum safety, leaving an explosive trail of toxins and shattered communities behind them.”
Cooper thanked those who were dedicated to the operation, who worked “to put these manufacturers behind bars where they belong.” He said that effort would only continue.
“We appreciate the federal cooperation to make sure we can get these folks behind bars, but we also need to work on the preventive side,” said Cooper, noting more laws that would be explored to make meth production more difficult.
Reciprocating the praise, Wells thanked the Sheriff’s Offices and the SBI.
“Your guys are on the ground every single day making a difference,” said Wells. “We are very, very thankful for the spirit of working together that you all have made possible. We could not have done this without (the SBI) making agents available.”
“This operation,” added Cooper, “is a testament to cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement officials.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.