Defendants in heroin ring enter guilty pleas

Defendants charged with participating in a heroin ring based in Front Royal and Baltimore pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday.

Documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg showed that Nicole Renea McNall, Sheldon Berry and Brittani Monique O’Bannion entered guilty pleas after reaching agreements with federal prosecutors. All three were charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin.

Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe accepted pleas from each of the defendants. U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis represented the prosecution at the hearing.

Berry pleaded guilty to committing one count of conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute 1,000 grams or more of heroin. Berry faces serving the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for the crime and up to life in prison plus a fine of up to $10 million and at least 5 years supervised release. Defense attorney Roland M.L. Santos represented Berry.

McNall, 25, and O’Bannion, 23, are from Front Royal, according to information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office. No address was given for 27-year-old Berry.

Other defendants charged in the case, Antwan Lucas, 21, of Baltimore; Da’Shawn Lee Edwards, 22, of Front Royal; and Alisha Marie Stocking, 21, of Toms Brook, pleaded guilty to heroin distribution charges in the court in Harrisonburg on Jan. 11.

The agreed statement of facts filed in Berry’s case notes that the operation in the “Chris Conspiracy” dates to 2013. The first of two components involves an organization primarily in Baltimore that supplied the heroin which, in some cases, turned out to contain fentanyl. The organization included Berry, Antwan Cottman, Antwan Lucas and Marcus Henderson. The Maryland group distributed an average of one kilogram of heroin per week. Cottman and Berry served as the principal suppliers of the heroin until Berry’s arrest in April 2016 and Cottman’s arrest in June 2016. Lucas and Henderson took over as principal suppliers from orders placed on the “Chris” phone. Berry never returned to activity in the conspiracy. Cottman became active again in early 2017 following his release from incarceration in November 2016.

The second part of the conspiracy focuses on a loose affiliation of heroin traffickers and users who would buy the “Chris” heroin in Maryland, then return to Front Royal area where participants, including the other individuals indicted in the case, would redistribute and use the drug, the statement of facts notes.

“The object of this second component was not generally to accumulate wealth but rather to support and maintain the mutual opiate addictions of the members of the conspiracy,” the statement reads.

The conspiracy operated in a manner that tried to shield the identities of the suppliers in Maryland. The entire operation ran through the use of a single phone number. Virginia customers would contact the “Chris” number by phone or text. Customers were instructed to text their heroin orders when they were 20 minutes away from Baltimore. Customers then would receive a street address and, once they arrived, an individual would approach their vehicle and the heroin transaction would take place.

Virginia customers made these trips as often as every day and usually multiple times per week, the statement notes. More than one customer would ride in each car. No socializing or conversation took place beyond the transaction. The customers would leave and return to Front Royal to use and distribute the heroin. Heroin usually cost $70-$80 per gram in Maryland. Once in Front Royal customers broke down each gram into 10 points or packs, which sold for $20-$30 each. Profit from the sales allowed users to support their own habits.

Berry and Cottman joined the enterprise in October 2014, the statement reads. Berry participated until his arrest in April 2016. Cottman and Berry collectively moved an average of one kilogram of heroin per week during the 1½-year period, according to the statement. That would make a total of 78 kilograms attributable to Berry, the statement adds.

Had the case gone to trial, the government planned to call many of the 36 witnesses to testify as to their personal knowledge of the enterprise and to identify Berry as a principal distributor in the operation. Authorities also recovered 70 grams of heroin and six firearms from Berry’s home in Baltimore during the execution of a search warrant on April 16, 2016.

Berry, Santos and Wolthuis also signed the statement of facts.

McNall pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy with the intent to distribute heroin, the use of which resulted in the  serious bodily injury of another person. McNall faces serving a prison term of the mandatory minimum of 20 years up to life, the plea agreement states.

A statement of facts in McNall’s case indicates she started using heroin in March 2016 at a time she felt “sad and depressed.” McNall realized within a couple of months she was addicted to heroin. McNall started traveling to Baltimore with others in June 2016 to obtain heroin for her own use, the statement notes. Daily trips resulted in 8 to 12 grams of heroin per trip. McNall sent money with someone else when she could not travel because of her job. McNall started selling heroin in July 2016 to support her own habit, the statement notes until her arrest in March 2017. Authorities attributed 1-3 kilograms to McNall for her part in the conspiracy. The statement goes on to read that controlled purchases of heroin from McNall took place on Feb. 8 and 14, 2017.

Megan McNall, also indicted with the other defendants, overdosed on heroin provided by Nicole McNall on Oct. 22, 2016, the statement of facts notes. Megan McNall had just been released from a hospital having completed a heroin detoxification. Megan McNall contacted Nicole McNall and told her that their friend, Amy Dodson, wanted to buy some heroin, the statement reads. Nicole McNall sold heroin to Dodson who in turn gave some to Megan McNall. On Oct. 22, 2016, Megan McNall overdosed and emergency responders revived her by using Narcan. Megan McNall refused further medical attention at the hospital. A spoon recovered from a bathroom cabinet contained residue that later tested positive for heroin and furanyl-fentanyl. Megan McNall’s blood tested positive for morphine and the overdose created a substantial risk of death to her, the statement notes.

Authorities recovered almost $2,000 in cash, a chunk of heroin and 27 packs of heroin in a foil wrapper from Nicole McNall’s apartment. Nicole McNall cooperated with the government in the case, the statement notes. McNall and her attorney, A. Gene Hart Jr., along with Wolthuis signed the statement of facts.

O’Bannion pleaded guilty to charges listed in the initial indictment: conspiracy to distribute heroin and two counts of distribution of heroin.

A statement of facts in O’Bannion’s case notes she was involved with several other people traveling to Baltimore and buying heroin from the “Chris” enterprise. She participated in the distribution of the same heroin in Front Royal. O’Bannion often would stay at Nicole McNall’s home and distribute heroin from that location, the statement notes. Authorities attribute more than 100 grams of heroin to O’Bannion. Authorities made controlled purchases of heroin from O’Bannion on March 22 and 23, 2016. Authorities conducted a traffic stop on May 14, 2016, that involved O’Bannion and Tiara Bailey who were returning to Front Royal from Baltimore after having purchased heroin, the statement reads. Officers found two grams of heroin in O’Bannion’s purse. Investigators later learned O’Bannion and Bailey had more heroin not found in the initial search.

Authorities on March 2, 2017, searched the room in Nicole McNall’s residence in which O’Bannion stayed and found heroin, the statement notes. Authorities say O’Bannion had 710 communications with the “Chris” phone between Jan. 1 and Sept. 16, 2016.