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Federal charges

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Suspects in Fulton County meth ring indicted by federal grand jury

A case that law enforcement officials have been building for over a year finally bore fruit Feb. 5 when a federal grand jury indicted 11 suspected members of the largest methamphetamine ring in northern Arkansas.

Each member faces life in prison if convicted.

Additional conspiracy to commit murder indictments are expected in the next several weeks.

Those already indicted -- Newton "Bubba" Willingham, Duran Gene Willingham, Rhonda Due, Kermit "Billy" Comstock, JoCasta Michelle Comstock, John Rutherford, Patsy Rutherford, Richard Thomas Crabtree, Daniel Ray Neal, Roy Madison Hurst and Gregory Stephen Hurdle -- have been charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, a class A felony.

Under federal law the minimum sentence for a class A conviction is life in a federal prison.

"We are very pleased with these federal indictments," said 16th Judicial District Drug Task Force Chief Scott Russell. "But this is only the first wave."

Others who are tied to this organization will be indicted if they do not cooperate with authorities, Russell said.

He said half of those charged are in custody and the other half will meet with a representative from the U.S. Attorney's Office this week.

Sandra Cherry, first assistant U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, said a trial date will be set after U.S. marshalls serve the indictments.

Defendants who cooperate with federal investigators may receive reduced sentences, Cherry said.

Cherry was unable to comment as to who would be offered a plea deal.

"Under federal statutes we are unable to comment about information not contained in the indictment," Cherry said.

The federal indictments are the culmination of a year-long investigation by the Drug Task Force, Arkansas State Police, the Fulton County Sheriff's Department and other law enforcement agencies into illegal drug activity in the 16th Judicial District.

According to an affidavit released by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Little Rock, the ring, headed by Bubba Willingham, produced 150 pounds of methamphetamine from 2002 to 2004.

"It was an organized network in which the players systematically collected elements used in the manufacture of methamphetamine," Russell said.

Those elements include cold pills containing different types of ephedrine, ammonia, camp fuel and other chemicals used in methamphetamine production.

Russell said the operation garnered chemicals from as far away as Memphis, Tenn.

The chemicals were funnelled to several "cooks" who produced methamphetamine.

Cooks in the ring included Willingham, the Comstocks, Hurdle, the Rutherfords, Duran Willingham and Hurst, Russell said.

The operation, based in Viola, extended across northern Arkansas, into southern Missouri and into Texas.

Russell said 150 pounds of meth has a street value of "several million dollars."

Willingham moved from Texas to Viola in July of 2002.

Willingham, Due and Hurdle were arrested Sept. 24 after a traffic stop in Mitchell. Judge Tim Weaver set Due's and Willingham's bonds at $1 million apiece.

Due told investigators Dec. 13 that Willingham and his sister, Patsy Rutherford, murdered a Texas man in 2001, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Willingham has not been charged with murder, but there has been contact between Texas law officers and investigators involved with this case, Russell said.

Other members of the conspiracy have been in and out of jail over the last year.

The Comstocks, free on bond, were arrested in early January after they made credible death threats against Russell, DTF investigator Brian Sanderson and Circuit Judge Tim Weaver, according to Lt. Bill Beach, with the Arkansas State Police.

Law officers retrieved an SKS assault rifle, a 30-round clip and 200 rounds of ammunition inside the Comstocks' house, Beach said.

According to the affidavit, the Comstocks planned to kill Russell. An undercover informant recorded a conversation Dec. 5 in which the Comstocks outlined a plan to lure Russell to a "fake meth lab and jump him in his truck."

The Comstocks were to receive $2,500 from Willingham for killing Russell, the affidavit said.

In addition to their felony indictment, the Comstocks have been charged with aiding and abetting possession of chemicals and equipment, a class C felony; aiding and abetting possession of a firearm in the furtherance of drug trafficking, a class D felony; and possession of a firearm by an unlawful drug user.

These additional charges stem from an undercover operation in September in which informants witnessed the Comstocks manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, according to authorities.

Russell said state charges against all the defendants will be suspended until after the federal trial.

If the defendants are exonerated in federal court, authorities will have one year to refile the state charges.

"We'll give them (the feds) first crack at them," Russell said.

He said the Drug Task Force prefers a federal trial because federal sentences are longer and there is no possibility of parole.

Cherry said prisoners receive one day off their sentence for each month of good behavior in a federal prison.

Besides his class A felony, Hurdle has also been indicted as a felon in possession of a firearm.

According to investigators, a Rugar 9mm handgun was discovered at Hurdle's Viola Home Sept. 30. Hurdle told investigators he was hiding the gun for Willingham.

Hurdle has admitted to cooking meth with Willingham during an interview with investigators.

Crabtree has been additionally charged with possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine, a class C felony.

Russell said Crabtree received the extra charge after undercover officers bought quantities of methamphetamine from him on four occasions in September.

Crabtree is incarcerated in the Arkansas Department of Corrections on previous drug convictions.

Law enforcement officials are confident in the case they have against Willingham and his cohorts.

"No one is walking away from this," Russell said. "If you get indicted by the federal government, you had better pack a toothbrush because you're going to be in jail for awhile."



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