The girlfriend of an oxy-ring conspiracy leader has been sentenced to serve two years in federal prison for depositing thousands of dollars of drug money into her then-boyfriend’s bank account.
Federal prosecutors also said Brenna Hauenstein, who is from Ohio and now 31 years old, would bring her baby along to drug transactions where she supplied pills to coconspirators in Juneau, which “even disturbed some of the coconspirators,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said.
Defense attorney Michael A. Moberly painted a different picture of Hauenstein to the judge during the three-hour long sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court on Friday, saying her boyfriend, Milan Thomas, coerced her into making the transactions and that Hauenstein was a victim of domestic violence.
The judge, Timothy Burgess, did not make that coercion finding, which would reduce her sentence under federal sentencing guidelines, but Burgess agreed to give her a lessened sentence anyway as the petite brunette quietly sobbed throughout the entire hearing.
Prosecutors say Thomas was the ringleader of a large, ongoing conspiracy to import oxycodone from Sacramento to Juneau. They say he helped move a total of about 13,000 pills from 2007 to 2011, a $1.1 million enterprise, according to charging documents.
He was arrested in Minneapolis in February 2012, and pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and money laundering charges in Anchorage in May. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Hauenstein is one of the 13 or so defendants who have been prosecuted in the past year in connection to the crime. She was indicted in October 2011 on money laundering and oxycodone distribution charges and arrested in Columbus, Ohio, in December 2011. She pleaded guilty as charged in May 2012.
Unlike other members of the drug conspiracy, Hauenstein did not partake to support a drug habit, but rather because she fell in love with Thomas, her lawyer said.
“She was not an addict,” Moberly said. “She was in love.”
They met in Ohio when she was 25 — he was decade older, 35. He was charming, charismatic and he told her he was in real estate, according to Moberly.
They dated exclusively for about 10 to 11 months and began planning a future together.
“And then she discovered that he was married,” said Judy Cordell, an expert in domestic violence whom the defense called to testify Friday.
Cordell had interviewed Hauenstein during the investigation to evaluate whether she was malingering — or faking — reports of domestic violence. Cordell testified Hauenstein was not malingering, and when asked by Moberly if Hauenstein would have committed felony crimes independently without Thomas in the picture, Cordell said, “Probably not.”
Thomas admitted that he was in the midst of a divorce, and Hauenstein broke up with him, Cordell said. She then went to get checked for STDs — and learned she was pregnant with his child.
When she confronted Thomas with the news, he reacted angrily and demanded she have an abortion, Cordell said. Hauenstein refused, and according to her lawyer, Thomas disappeared for the next 15 months.
They didn’t have contact again until she filed for child support in 2008. He then visited her a couple of times in 2009 and the two began to have a relationship again. Her lawyer says he suspects that was a move on Thomas’ part to bring her closer to him to avoid payment or legal paperwork.
“She took it as love,” Moberly said.
Thomas asked her to move to Juneau where he had an apartment, and she agreed. Her lawyer says Hauenstein did not have a father figure while she was growing up, and she wanted to ensure her son did. She moved to Juneau in January of 2010 in separate apartment Thomas paid for. Thomas also provided her with a car and money.
Her lawyer says Hauenstein had no knowledge of Thomas’ drug activity until she moved to Juneau.
“She became aware of the conspiracy after she arrived here,” Moberly said. “She still believed he was in real estate.”
Things began to click as she observed him come and go and saw that he had “lots of cash,” her lawyer said. Things began to take a turn for the worse, according to Cordell.
Cordell said Hauenstein told her that Thomas physically assaulted her once and sexually assaulted her twice. Schmidt pointed out during cross-examination that these instances were never reported before — to either police, friends or family — until Hauenstein was being investigated herself. The judge agreed with Schmidt that since these were “self-reports,” it made it “hard to say” how much weight to give Cordell’s testimony.
Hauenstein told Cordell in their interview that she felt afraid for her life, especially since Thomas once told her his Smith & Wesson was a “problem solver.” Schmidt pointed out that there are pictures on Facebook of Hauenstein posing with a gun with friends at a shooting range in Juneau.
Moberly said his client was coerced into making the illegal financial transactions, with Thomas telling Hauenstein, “You didn’t think you lived here for free, did you?”
Hauenstein deposited a total of $23,000 worth of drug proceeds into Thomas’ True North Federal Credit Union account during the months of April and May 2010, and she falsely identified them as business receipts of Thomas’ fraudulent tour business, Southeast Alaska Tour Company.
Moberly admitted to the judge that his client make a poor decision by choosing to stay with Thomas, but “the gravity of him was too strong” for her to leave. He described Thomas as narcissistic and sociopathic.
“He said all the right things, and she fell for it hook, line and sinker,” he said.
Moberly did concede, however, that once his client realized that Thomas was involved with drug activity, they had planned to save up $400,000 and then leave Juneau with their son for a better life.
The judge did not buy the claim of coercion, finding that Hauenstein had autonomy given the fact that she had access to money, a phone, computer and car, as Cordell testified to. But instead she chose to stay.
“This was a lifestyle choice on her part,” Burgess said, saying he didn’t see evidence of coercion as he has seen in other cases. “I don’t see it. Sorry.”
The judge noted she also has a minor criminal record for a crime of dishonesty for giving police a wrong name — her twin sister’s name — when she was pulled over in Juneau. She also has a prior DUI conviction.
Schmidt recommended Hauenstein serve three years in prison, saying that amount is like a “gift” given the seriousness of the offense. The probation officer who penned the pre-sentence report also recommended three years, as did the defense attorney once his requests for downward departures were denied.
When given the opportunity to speak to the judge in court, Hauenstein broke down in tears and begged him not to take her away from her 4-year-old son.
“I’m his life,” she said. “Taking me away from him will take away from the person he is.”
She added, “I’m deeply ashamed the way I have failed him as a mother.”
Burgess said he was unswayed by the fact that Hauenstein has a young son, and while that’s unfortunate, it’s not an uncommon occurrence in the justice system.
“That happens every day,” he said.
But, Burgess said it was clear that Hauenstein had been successful in her life during “the pre- and post Milan years.” He received letters of support that said Hauenstein had maintained employment and attended school and did not have a troubled criminal background, which shows potential for her future, he said.
To her surprise, Burgess reduced the sentence to below the recommended amount — two years, plus three years on supervised probation after her release. It prompted her to cry again, this time in relief.
Burgess advised her to learn from this by making better choices, adding, “It’s frankly time to grow up.”
He remarked, “You’re paying an extremely heavy price for your relationship with Mr. Thomas.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.