By Alex Bridges - firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- A U.S. District Court jury has convicted the last defendant charged in a large-scale 2006 drug raid on Cartwright's Recreation Center in Winchester.
The jury on Wednesday found O'Benson "O.B." Sesere guilty of conspiracy and three cocaine distribution charges. Sesere faces a minimum of 10 years in federal prison.
A sentencing date has not been set, court records show.
The U.S. attorney's office charged Sesere as part of Operation Blockbuster, which targeted Cartwright's and an area at North Kent and Kern streets in Winchester known as "the block."
The nearly two-year investigation involved the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force and local law enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms. It culminated with nearly 30 people charged with drug crimes and the Sept. 12, 2006, roundup of most of the defendants.
"That was a good case and the neighborhood that we cleaned up in there ... to this day, the kids are still out playing and they're not spreading dope on the streets, so it's made a good impact" Mike Schneider, resident agent in charge for the ATF, said Thursday.
The drug ring actually was based out of Fort Pierce, Fla., and members, many of whom came from Haiti, would recruit dealers to come to Winchester, Schneider said, where they would find help from local residents.
Of the remaining three suspects, two were found in Florida days after the September 2006 roundup, said Lt. Albert "Big Al" Sibert, of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and the task force.
But Sesere, 28, of Belle Glade, Fla., remained a fugitive for more than two years after authorities arrested the bulk of the defendants. Authorities in St. Lucie County, Fla., assisted in finding Sesere in December. He was then taken into
custody by the U.S. Marshals Service, Schneider said.
Sesere's three-day jury trial began Monday with Jeb Terrien and Ryan Souders prosecuting the case for the U.S. attorney's office. Judge Glen E. Conrad presided. Paul G. Beers, an attorney with Roanoke-based Glenn, Feldman, Darby & Goodlatte, represented Sesere.
Beers had filed a pretrial motion asking the court to bar the prosecution from entering evidence that many of the defendants, including Sesere, are of Haitian ancestry and to exclude testimony that "persons of Haitian descent took control over the crack distribution markets in Winchester ... Front Royal ... Martinsburg, W.Va., or elsewhere." To do so would violate Sesere's right to a fair trial, Beers argued.
Several defendants were in the country illegally but none have been charged with immigration offenses, Schneider said. Sesere is a U.S. citizen, he noted.
The jury found Sesere guilty of conspiring to distribute or possess with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of a mixture containing cocaine base; distributing or aiding and abetting in the distribution of approximately 0.9 grams of cocaine base on Jan. 11, 2006; possessing with the intent to distribute 24.3 grams of cocaine base on Jan. 12, 2006; and possession with the intent to distribute 0.34 grams of cocaine base on Feb. 18, 2006, according to court documents.
The judge dismissed four remaining drug charges against Sesere before the case went to trial, according to court records.
Sibert called Operation Blockbuster a success for taking down what he called an "open-air crack market" in "the block," identified as North Kent and Kern streets, Liberty and Highland streets. Much of the dealing took place in and around Cartwright's at 502-504 N. Kent St. That building has since been demolished and the city's Industrial Development Authority owns the property.
"We continue on with other cases and try to keep our pressure on up there so it never falls back to how it was," Sibert said.