Continuing to battle the meth scourge
Kerr County investigators and prosecutors unravelled a web of 35 defendants involved in theft, fraud, weapon possession, and meth manufacturing to net a 40-year sentence for the group’s leader. Here’s how they did it.
On April 27, 2005, David Holland, a Kerrville resident, reported to the Kerr County Sheriff’s Department that several of his checks had been forged. The case was forwarded to the Criminal Investigation Division, and Captain Carol Twiss began her investigation. Little did she know that this investigation would result in an engaging in organized criminal activity indictment with 35 named defendants and 36 overt acts.
Upon developing suspects to the forgery, Captain Twiss interviewed five of the six people involved with the crime; one refused to cooperate. However, the five others sang like canaries and told Twiss that the checks had been forged to obtain funds to purchase pseudoephedrine and other ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine. One forged check had also bought fuel to drive a stolen vehicle to San Antonio to sell it. All five named Casey Hannah as the recipient of the meth ingredients.
The five cooperating forgery suspects mentioned the involvement of other people eventually named in the EOCA indictment. As Captain Twiss and Sgt. James Ledford interviewed those named by the original five, they were led to yet more members of the combination.
The whole operation came to a head May 20, when Capt. Twiss received information from a confidential informant that some members of the combination were cooking meth at the home of Jack and Shannon Ament. Capt. Twiss, Sgt. James Ledford, and Investigator Erik Geske, set up surveillance at the Ament residence. A little after midnight, Geske observed Ronald Smith, Shadie Baker, Les Newman, and Jennifer Donaldson leaving the house. As they drove past Twiss’ location, she recognized Ronald Smith, who had an outstanding warrant. She called ahead and had a marked unit stop the vehicle to arrest Smith. As the deputy turned on his overhead lights, baggies of meth and pseudoephedrine pill wash were thrown from the window. Les Newman, the driver, also had an outstanding warrant. All were arrested for possession of a controlled substance for the items thrown from the window, and all had fresh needle tracks on their arms. The hands of all three men were heavily stained with iodine. Upon arriving at the jail, Donaldson said she wanted to speak to an investigator, so Twiss immediately returned to the sheriff’s department and interviewed her. Donaldson told Twiss that “they” had been cooking meth at the Ament residence earlier that day. Based on information from Donaldson as well as the CI, Twiss obtained a search warrant for the Ament residence, which was executed during the early morning hours of May 21, 2005.
Eventually, all but three of the remaining defendants named in the indictment cooperated and gave detailed statements regarding the combination and its activities. Some gave more than one statement.
Beginning in January 2004, a few members of the combination began to manufacture methamphetamine (using the red phosphorus method1) by combining their group efforts to shop, prep, and cook. Some of them would shop for ingredients, some would prep the ingredients for the cook, and a few in the group would do the actual swirling (manufacturing of the meth). The cookers and shoppers often overlapped. Most of the ingredients were bought or stolen from local merchants and feed stores, but the group also shopped in Austin, San Antonio, and all the small towns along the way. They would then go to one of their residences to prep the ingredients and cook the meth; sometimes the cook was done at the same place and sometimes at another residence. The remnants from the cooks, such as matches, matchboxes, matchbooks, coffee filters, soft drink bottles, and other items would then be taken to the residence of one of the members who lived out in the rural area and had a burn pile.
This activity picked up drastically when Charles Les Newman was released from jail on September 14, 2004, on a child support matter. At that time, Newman met Jack and Shannon Ament when he went to see his then-girlfriend, Brandi Crider, who was staying with the Aments in their Kerrville home, which is in a very nice neighborhood where crime is almost non-existent. Immediately, the conversation turned to methamphetamine. Within a few days, Newman learned from Jack that his employer of two weeks, a silversmith, kept an anhydrous ammonia tank at the shop. Jack had already given Casey Hannah a tour of the shop and had shown her the tank. Ament then explained the layout of the shop to Newman in front of Hannah and Crider. Crider had initially agreed to assist Newman and Hannah in stealing the tank, but then backed out. Crider was awakened the next morning to Newman and Hannah whooping and hollering about having stolen the tank and cooking a batch of meth with the anhydrous ammonia.
Very quickly Newman met the rest of the people involved in the combination through Crider and the Aments. He became one of the leaders, along with Jack Ament, Casey Hannah, and Ronald Smith. From December 2004 until the bust at the Ament residence, each and every day consisted of shopping for a cook, prepping ingredients, or cooking methamphetamine. Everybody stayed high all day and cooked a batch of methamphetamine at one house or another; most cooks yielded anywhere from 10 to 60 grams of meth. Many in the combination didn’t have a permanent home but jumped around to other members’ houses, staying for a few days or weeks at each place. Most did not have jobs and those who did stayed at each workplace for a very short time before being fired or simply not returning to work. Each member of the combination would get a portion of the methamphetamine they cooked, and it was up to each to decide what to do with his portion. Some sold the methamphetamine while most kept it for personal use. Save for about five members, everyone had met through Jack Ament during some sort of drug encounter. The bust at the Ament residence was a huge blow to the group. Their activity drastically declined at that point.
It would take an entire book to explain the investigation but suffice it to say it took hundreds of hours and involved many witnesses, interviews, and trips both within and outside the county. Both Capt. Twiss and Sgt. Ledford met with E. Bruce Curry, our district attorney, on numerous occasions throughout their investigation to discuss the case. Their offense report alone was over 300 pages.
Although none of the defendants were promised anything in return for the information they provided, Twiss and Ledford knew, due to working closely in the past with our office, that the statements would have to be corroborated for trial pursuant to the law of accomplice witness testimony. They also knew that the statements would be incredible without corroboration. The difficulty was that this ring had been operating for about a year and a half, and the members were high all the time so dates and crystal-clear facts were hard to obtain.
As each suspect gave his statement, Twiss and Ledford backtracked and confirmed the information. One of many examples: Three defendants, Brandi Crider, Jennifer Donaldson, and Ronald Smith, advised that Charles “Les” Newman had contacted them at Bryan Blakely’s residence and advised that he had just been stopped by the Task Force and told them to burn all the meth labs at Blakely’s residence. (Donaldson was able to pinpoint the date at the beginning of April 2005 because she recalled this happening just a few days before her being “locked up” on April 11.) In a frenzy, the three burned the labs by pushing them off the deck of the house and throwing a lit match on the pile.
Immediately, Twiss and Ledford proceeded to the Blakely residence where they found a burn pile with remnants of meth labs. They also confirmed that Investigators Michael Baird and Everett Alexander with the 216th Judicial District Narcotics Task Force had in fact stopped Newman on April 6, 2005, where during a consent to search the truck, several spatulas with red phosphorus residue were located in the bed along with iodine-stained coffee filters, processed match strike plates, and a letter from “Chuck” to Jack and Shannon Ament. Also found was a trace of methamphetamine in a baggie. Further, Investigator Baird had taken photos of Newman’s heavily iodine-stained hands. Newman had initially told Baird that he was a mechanic (hence the reason for his stained hands), but after further quizzing, Newman finally admitted that his hands were stained cooking methamphetamine. But he claimed he’d cooked meth in Llano two weeks prior, not recently. Baird testified during Newman’s trial that Newman’s hands were heavily stained and cracked, like those of someone who had been cooking methamphetamine over a long period of time. All 36 overt acts were corroborated in similar fashion by Capt. Twiss and Sgt. Ledford.
The members of the combination were indicted for EOCA by conspiring to commit and committing the manufacture of more than 400 grams of methamphetamine with the use and exhibition of a deadly weapon. My co-counsel, Stephen Wadsworth, and I tried the ringleader, Charles Newman, this spring, and we knew it would be fraught with challenges.
At trial, one concern was educating the jury panel on EOCA and the law of parties, including the fact that membership in the combination could change from time to time, that the participants need not know each others’ identities, and how the law allows holding someone criminally responsible for another person’s conduct. Luckily, the panel had no problem understanding the law or the concept. As a matter of fact, when defense counsel asked one panel member a hypothetical question on the law of parties—I had just leaned over to Stephen to whisper that the hypothetical was illustrating organized criminal activity, not the law of parties—the panel member exclaimed, “That looks like organized crime!”
Another potential problem at trial was that Brandi Crider was the State’s most knowledgeable, intelligent, and in our opinion, honest co-defendant, but unfortunately she was also Newman’s on-again, off-again lover. We were ready for her to be attacked on cross-exam. She had married another former boyfriend while in jail (who had somehow escaped under the garden fence at the time of indictment), but she and Newman had still written about 10 reams of paper letters back and forth while awaiting trial. The letters were not relevant for the most part and were not something we were eager for the jury to see. We were concerned that the trial would turn into an “As the World Turns” of the torrid love affair between defendant and witness. The letters were, for the most part, very vulgar, especially for jurors in our conservative county. At times, it appeared from the letters they hated each other while other pieces of correspondence were hot, passionate love letters. Luckily, not once in any of those letters did Brandi ever even insinuate that she would lie on the stand for Newman or anyone else. In a few of them Newman suggested to Brandi that she did not have to testify and cooperate; he said that she was so high most of the time, she could not possibly be expected to remember anything. The letters, in our opinion, had very little evidentiary value. Luckily, defense counsel filed a motion in limine regarding the letters, and I agreed to approach the bench before going into the letters in the event the defense opened the door.
On the stand, Brandi testified about the combination, how it worked, who shopped, who prepped, and who cooked. She also told the jury, step by step, how methamphetamine is cooked using the red phosphorus method. She never even hinted to the letters. After her testimony, I asked several of the courtroom observers what they thought of Brandi and her testimony. All said that she came across as intelligent and honest—which had been our opinion of her as well when we interviewed her—despite not being the most law-abiding citizen by any stretch of the imagination.
Six of Newman’s co-defendants testified. All testified that from the time Newman came into the picture in September 2004, every day for the combination was about shopping, prepping, or cooking methamphetamine. They all testified that methamphetamine was cooked on a daily basis because they needed to keep up with their own demand for the drug. They testified that each member used anywhere from 2 to 5 grams per day; that meant that to support the group’s habit, about 30 to 50 grams of methamphetamine needed to be produced per day. One co-defendant testified that they were like vultures, just waiting for the cook to be finished so that they could get their share. All testified that the only reason for their association with others in the combination was to manufacture methamphetamine. They also testified that most people in the combination were shoppers. Sometimes ingredients were bought, and other times they were stolen. Sometimes iodine was purchased at feed stores, and other times it was made from other ingredients. All agreed that the main cooks were Jack Ament, Newman, Hannah, and Smith. The jury also heard that small children were present in the Ament home while methamphetamine was manufactured. Capt. Twiss testified that when law enforcement entered the Ament residence, the couple’s 5- and 7-year-old children were asleep on the couch. The children awoke briefly, lifted their heads off the couch, then went right back to sleep despite the loud noise and presence of a large number of officers.
One concern was that we did not have a large amount of actual powdered methamphetamine to show the jury because the methamphetamine was quickly consumed (or sometimes sold) by the group immediately upon its manufacture. However, there was ample evidence that members purchased or possessed chemicals for manufacturing meth, as well as trace amounts of meth itself.
During the bust at the Ament residence, which happened to be a few blocks from an elementary school and firehouse, law enforcement seized a large amount of methamphetamine in the form of “meth oil.” Joel Budge testified that he did not measure the entire amount, but the top layer consisted of over 800 grams of methamphetamine. Also introduced into evidence during trial were chemicals collected from bottles found in the garage; the officer who collected them placed them in a sealed white bucket. Budge advised the jury not to open the bucket due to its toxicity; the bucket and its content were admitted into evidence, but the content was photographed so that the jury could see what was inside without unsealing it.
The jury also saw many photos from the execution of the search warrant at the Aments’ house. The garage looked like a high school science lab. Two trained officers, in their blue hazmat suits (looking much like astronauts to the jury; see the photos on the opposite page), collected beakers and soft drink bottles with tubes running from them. Many yard-size trash bags full of matches, matchboxes and match books, and striker plates that had already been processed to remove the sulfur were also collected. A sawed-off shotgun, belonging to Newman, was also found. All the co-defendants testified that Newman always had firearms with him during the cooks. Blakely said that Newman had commented, while preparing to manufacture methamphetamine and in the possession of a handgun, “If the 5-0 show up, I will cap them.” Danielle Click testified that on one occasion, as Newman was setting up for a cook, he was moving a sawed-off shotgun out of the way to a nearby mattress and said that he would not go back to jail for anyone.
The co-defendants also testified that when Newman arrived at the house, everyone else stepped aside and let him take over the cook. They testified that Newman didn’t say anything to cause such a reaction; it was just understood based on his attitude and demeanor that he was in charge.
The jury also saw the mug shots of each of the 35 defendants from their arrests. Sadly, all but about three looked liked those “this is what you will look like if you use meth” deterrence ads often seen at high schools and probation departments. The defendants’ appearances at Newman’s trial were completely different from the mug shots as most were still in custody (and not using meth) at the time. It would’ve been hard to recognize them by their mug shots.
And finally, the jury heard Newman’s statement to Smith while sitting in the back of a patrol car waiting to be taken to jail on May 21, 2005: “I knew we would get caught sooner or later.”
The jury sentenced Newman to 40 years’ confinement and a $150,000 fine on the EOCA indictment and 10 years and a $10,000 fine on the possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone. Pursuant to the drug-free-zone statute, the sentences must run consecutively.
It was apparent that the jury was not confused about the EOCA, accomplice witness testimony, or the law of parties. It was equally clear that the jury wanted to send a message to those who put methamphetamine on our streets, even if largely for their own use. The jury saw beyond the “personal use” excuse and realized that drugs are the root of other crime. The mug shots were very telling of how damaging methamphetamine can be to users as well.