By Joe Beck
HARRISONBURG - The sentencing of four defendants in U.S. District Court on Thursday shed light on the origins of the recent struggle to contain heroin trafficking in Winchester and surrounding areas.
Raymond Thomas Conrad, 25, identified by authorities as the "central character" in a seven-member conspiracy that operated in Winchester from 2010 to mid-2013, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the longest term imposed by U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski on the four defendants.
A statement of facts filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald R. Wolthuis said Conrad and six other defendants distributed at least 20,000 dosage units of heroin that was "pumped into the arms of citizens of the area."
"While Conrad is not the boss or director of this conspiracy, he is the central character," Wolthuis wrote. "Conrad is responsible for many persons being introduced to heroin and is responsible for many people stepping up to travel to Baltimore to obtain heroin."
In an interview after the hearing, Wolthuis said the crimes committed by Conrad and his co-defendants opened up Winchester to a level of heroin dealing and consumption not seen before.
Wolthuis described the conspiracy "as like the big bang," an allusion to the term used to describe the creation of the universe.
"Even though we took this group down, the addiction remains for the rest of the people," Wolthuis said, adding that the conspiracy "created a permanent, ongoing problem. There's a tragic customer base out there."
One of the victims was Allison Marie Manzo-Hatch, a woman who told authorities she had bought heroin about 12 times from Conrad before she overdosed and nearly died on March 31.
An EMT responding to an emergency call found her lying unconscious on the sidewalk of Loudoun Street in Winchester, according to the statement of facts.
The EMT revived Manzo-Hatch with a dose of Narcan, a drug widely used to counter the effects of heroin. She was later released from Winchester Medical Center.
Manzo-Hatch subsequently agreed to cooperate with authorities who were already investigating Conrad, according to court documents. Under the supervision of law enforcement officials, she bought heroin from Conrad twice and turned the drug over to investigators both times.
Authorities arrested Conrad on April 27, 2012 as he was returning from Baltimore with three grams of heroin, according to the statement of facts.
The same document also states that investigators seized Conrad's cell phone upon his arrest and found more than 10,000 text messages on it.
"While every text was not analyzed, investigators report that based on their review, they estimated that the majority were related to heroin trafficking," Wolthuis wrote.
The 10-year prison sentence imposed on Conrad fell far short of the 20 years or more he could have received under federal sentencing guidelines. The sentence also followed recommendations made by Wolthuis and defense attorney William Eldridge IV of Harrisonburg.
Both cited Conrad's early confession to authorities and information he provided about the conspiracy as a key reason for giving him a reduced sentence. Conrad's willingness to testify against his co-defendants, Manzo-Hatch's survival of her heroin overdose and Conrad's success in kicking his own addiction and staying off heroin while out on bail were also mentioned as factors in the sentencing.
Wolthuis praised the work of law enforcement officials in breaking up the conspiracy.
"This was as good a case of cooperation between the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force and the (U.S.) Drug Enforcement Administration as I have ever seen," Wolthuis said.
Among the three other defendants sentenced Thursday, Charles Lynwood Cline also received 10 years in prison. Wolthuis's sentencing memorandum said Cline has "a far worse criminal history" than Conrad and Cline's cooperation in the investigation was of "less value," although Cline also played a smaller role in the conspiracy.
Jennifer Elizabeth Breeden was sentenced to seven years in prison and Dana James Hardy was also sentenced to seven years. Cline, Breeden and Harding will also serve five years of supervised probation upon their releases.
Two other defendants in the case were sentenced about a month ago and one more is waiting for his hearing. The lone remaining defendant, Christopher Bruce Haack, is scheduled to be sentenced June 25.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org