Jury finds man guilty of running heroin, meth ring in Southeast Alaska

A Washington man is facing a minimum of five years in jail after a jury found him guilty of running a drug trafficking ring in Southeast Alaska.

Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, 35, was found guilty of conspiring to sell heroin and methamphetamine in Ketchikan and Sitka in the summer of 2016. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said Gebregiorgis faces a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum possible sentence of 40 years.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess set a sentencing hearing for 11 a.m. March 5, and Schmidt said the sentence depends on the number of people involved in the conspiracy and Gebregiorgis’ criminal history, among other factors.

The trial included testimony from people who were involved in the drug ring, including dealers in Ketchikan and Sitka and women who were used as “suitcases,” or drug mules, who delivered drugs from Seattle. Law enforcement officials also testified, shedding light on how travel records, bank records, phone records and informants contributed to catching Gebregiorgis.

The main issue at hand during the closing arguments Wednesday morning was how to define a “drug conspiracy.” Defense attorney Rex Lamont Butler asserted over and over that the prosecution hadn’t done enough to prove that Gebregiorgis (who also goes by “Sam” and “Bullet”) had willing co-conspirators.

Multiple witnesses testified that on at least two occasions, people bought heroin or meth from Gebregiorgis telling him that they would sell it for him, but then just kept it for themselves. In another case, the man Gebregiorgis was working with in Ketchikan eventually became an informant who helped turn Gebregiorgis in.

“If you’ve ever been in a partnership,” Butler said to the jury, “a legitimate partnership, and your partner is ripping you off, you probably no longer consider that a partnership.”

In the directions to the jury, Burgess included language that sought to clarify what it meant to be guilty of a drug conspiracy. If one party is willfully deceiving the other, the directions read, that is not a conspiracy. As the directions said, “unless at least two people commit (the crime), no one does,” when talking about a conspiracy.

That’s not to say Gebregiorgis didn’t intentionally try to bring heroin and meth into Ketchikan and Sitka. Even Butler, who’s representing Gebregiorgis, said in his closing argument that if this charge were drug distribution this would be another story.

What the jury was asked to agree on in this particular case, Butler said time and again, is whether Gebregiorgis conspired with others to distribute drugs. The jury did end up agreeing, and deliberations took fewer than five hours.

Schmidt offered both his closing argument and his rebuttal to Butler’s closing argument Wednesday morning. Schmidt outlined both a conspiracy in Ketchikan and one in Sitka, saying that although different people were involved in the two communities, they all got their drugs from the same source.

“All the evidence points to one common denominator,” Schmidt said to the jury, pointing at a photo of Gebregiorgis. “The defendant.”

Gebregiorgis elected not to testify on his behalf in the trial, and has remained silent for the entirety of the proceedings. On a few occasions, he has consulted with Butler quietly away from the microphones, the two of them comparing notes. Gebregiorgis has maintained a serious demeanor since the trial began this past Thursday, even when his verdict was read.

 


 

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

 


 

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