Federal drug case to go to jury today

After four days of witness testimony in a federal case that painted a picture of a drug smuggling ring in Southeast Alaska, the prosecution wrapped up its case Tuesday against the man accused of being the ringleader.

Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, 35, is facing a federal drug conspiracy charge after the Alaska State Troopers’ Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit arrested him in Ketchikan in August 2016. Gebregiorgis, who also goes by “Sam” and “Bullet,” is from Seattle and was accused of using drug mules to bring heroin and meth to Ketchikan and Sitka.

The case will go to the jury today, as the two attorneys will deliver their closing arguments starting at 8:30 a.m. The closing arguments will last a maximum of an hour each, Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy M. Burgess said, and then the jury will begin to deliberate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt called a variety of witnesses to the stand since the trial began this past Thursday. Law enforcement officials, informants, drug users and people used as mules testified over the course of the trial, many of them identifying Gebregiorgis as the source of meth and heroin that came to the two communities.

Rex Lamont Butler, Gebregiorgis’ attorney, made an argument late in the day when the jury was out of the courtroom that Schmidt hadn’t done a good enough job identifying co-conspirators who were working with Gebregiorgis. Without co-conspirators, Butler told the judge, this situation doesn’t satisfy the definition of a conspiracy (where two or more people knowingly work together to distribute drugs).

This tactic, known as a motion for a judgment of acquittal, could have resulted in an acquittal for Gebregiorgis. Had Burgess agreed with Butler’s assertion that the evidence was not sufficient for jurors to make a judgment, Burgess could have made an acquittal on his own. That didn’t happen, though, as Burgess stated that “a rational jury could find that the defendant engaged in a drug conspiracy.”

On Monday, multiple witnesses testified that at least two people in Sitka who received drugs from Gebregiorgis ended up keeping the drugs for themselves. One, Lawrence Johnson, testified during cross-examination that he knowingly deceived Gebregiorgis and said he never planned on selling the drugs he received.

With these people actively working against Gebregiorgis, Butler argued, it’s impossible to identify them as co-conspirators.

“It appears that the people here in Southeast have their own informal way of keeping people out of town,” Butler said. “A person allegedly brings a product to town and next thing you know, they’ve been ripped off.”

Schmidt argued that although the drug mules didn’t know exactly which drugs they were smuggling, they knew they were conspiring to bring drugs to Alaska for Gebregiorgis. Burgess agreed with Schmidt.

The day of testimony began when Larry Dur’an, a drug investigator and canine handler with the Alaska State Troopers, finished the testimony that he started Monday. Dur’an talked about arresting Gebregiorgis at the Ketchikan airport on Aug. 13, 2016. Dur’an recalled that Gebregiorgis said he was in town to visit a friend and pick up a box of frozen fish. When Dur’an asked Gebregiorgis what the friend’s name was or where the friend lived, Gebregiorgis was unable to provide answers.

Some of the contents of Gebregiorgis’ cellphone were revealed, including a selfie of Gebregiorgis in his car with stacks of money on the same day that one of the alleged drug mules was flying to Ketchikan.

FBI Special Agent Matt Judy presented a compilation of airplane records that show individuals associated with Gebregiorgis and Gebregiorgis himself traveling from Seattle to Southeast Alaska.

Judy also said that cards whose numbers matched the card numbers that were used to buy some of the tickets were found on Gebregiorgis when he was arrested. Judy also said the confirmation code from one flight was found in the notes section of Gebregiorgis’ cellphone.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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