The jury trial for a man accused of being one of the main sources of oxycontin in a Sacramento-to-Juneau drug conspiracy began Thursday in federal court.
Jury selection took place Wednesday in the U.S. district courtroom located on the ninth floor of the Juneau Federal Building. Fourteen jurors — 10 women and four men — were seated to hear the case against Richard Corum, a Sacramento resident. Two of the jurors will later be dismissed as alternates.
Corum is charged with drug conspiracy and tampering with a witness, felonies that can carry a maximum possible penalty of 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
In opening statements Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Barkeley said the defendant was part of a lucrative drug smuggling operation that imported and distributed oxycontin pills in Juneau from 2007 to 2011. The operation made about a million dollars a year in the first years, then up to two million dollars a year during the later years, according to testimony thus far.
Barkeley said he will rely on four other co-conspirators to testify about Corum’s involvement. The four — Milan Thomas and his half-brother Vail Thomas, Hilary Herndon and Lorenzo Williams — have already been caught and confessed to the crime.
The tampering with a witness charge stems from an incident at the Anchorage jail where Corum punched Thomas for intending to testify against him, Barkeley said. Barkeley also says the punch goes to show Corum’s consciousness of guilt. The defense maintains it was in self-defense, pointing out that Corum stands maybe 4’10”, whereas Milan Thomas is at least 6 feet tall.
Defense attorney Peter Offenbecher said in his opening there’s “no real evidence” to tie his client to criminal activity. Unlike the others, he says, Corum was never caught with drugs or drug proceeds. The others were caught at the Seattle Tacoma Airport as they traveled between Alaska and California, either with pills or bricks of cash concealed in their underwear. Offenbecher says the four are testifying against Corum because prosecutors have promised they may reduce their sentences by as much as 50 percent if they cooperate and provide “substantial assistance” at Corum’s trial.
“This is the only way out for them,” he said, calling the deal a “great incentive” for them to testify the way the government wants them to.
Offenbecher summarized for the jury how the operation worked. He said the conspirators would import the drugs to Juneau various ways, either by carrying them themselves on an Alaska Airlines flight, having drug mules carry them, or by shipping the pills hidden in jars of peanut butter in Fed Ex packages.
Once in Juneau, the conspirators usually stayed in hotels and either sold the pills for a wholesale price, or individually. It was a profitable business because they could buy one pill for $13 in California, and turn around and sell it for $60 to $120 in Juneau.
Once they had the drug money, they couldn’t wire the money back to California because there’s a $1,000 limit, and they also couldn’t put more than $10,000 in a bank account without alerting authorities.
Offenbecher said to remain under the radar they traveled with the money concealed on their person on an Alaska Airlines flight back to California, and they also deposited the money in relatively small amounts into bank accounts in Juneau and withdrew the money from California.
“These are not people who are stupid,” the lawyer said, saying they were successful for years without getting caught and stressing that Corum was not involved. “In fact, they’ve been quite smart in the ways they’ve deceived the government.”
Detective Matthew Thomas Bruch, a narcotics investigator with the Port of Seattle Police Department, testified members of the group were initially identified as suspected traffickers since they bought plane tickets with cash, bought only one-way tickets or tickets with a quick turn-around where they would only be in Alaska for a day, they would purchase tickets right before departure or the day before and they sometimes did not carry luggage.
He said all those factors combined led law enforcement to hone in on them.
Dressed in a yellow inmate jumpsuit, Milan Thomas was the first co-conspirator to take to the witness stand.
Milan is frequently described as being the handsome, charismatic ringleader of the group, Prosecutors even joked in front of the jury that he bears a striking resemblance to actor Denzel Washington.
Other accounts, however, including those from his ex-girlfriend, another admitted co-conspirator, are more sinister and describe him as narcissistic and sociopathic. Later, when a warrant was out for his arrest, Milan eluded authorities and landed on the U.S. Marshals Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Thomas testified that he began dealing the drugs in 2007 through his brother Vail’s connections.
Eventually, they began looking for more sources of oxy, he says, because there was “more demand than supply” in Juneau, and they weren’t able to keep up.
“He was getting pills from somewhere, I didn’t know who at the time,” Milan said.
His brother confided it was from Corum, whom they called Rick, or “Rick, our little man,” Milan said. He asked his brother to set up a meeting with him so he could gain better control of the operation. Soon after, Milan said he began dealing with Corum directly on a regular, ongoing basis, calling him nearly every day to discuss what was available and for how much.
They got into trouble sometime down the road because law enforcement kept arresting co-conspirators and seizing the pills and money.
Milan himself was contacted by law enforcement at SeaTac in November 2009 and they seized about $28,000 cash from him. But he was released.
With the DEA being hot on his heels, Milan said he wanted to pull out of the conspiracy and turn it over to a “new regime.”
“But that didn’t happen,” he said.
Still under direct examination from Barkeley, Milan said Corum came up with a solution to recover lost assets — hire his cousin Lorenzo Williams, who was simply called “Zo,” to stay in Alaska to distribute the pills. The plan was to stop using the airport as a delivery method and just use Fed-Ex exclusively as a means of getting the pills to Juneau. Zo would reside in different hotels, and they would send the pills to him.
The plan was foiled, he said, during one of the first tries to send a package to Zo. Unbeknownst to them, law enforcement intercepted the package, swapped out the pills with a representative sample and inserted a beacon that would signal if it was opened. The package was then delivered to its intended destination at the Extended Stay Hotel near the Juneau airport. They said Zo picked it up at the front desk, went back to his room, the alarm went off and law enforcement swept in. Then charges were brought via a grand jury.
During cross-examination, which will continue Friday, Offenbecher leaned into Milan’s questionable credibility, pointing out lie after lie that he told police.
Milan admitted to the deceit, including one statement wherein he says, “I’ve never been associated with anyone involved with criminal activity or narcotics.”
“This was an obvious attempt to cover up what I was doing,” he conceded.
While evading arrest in Minnesota, Milan admitted to contemplating jumping the border to Canada. He conceded that while in Minnesota, he committed burglaries, which Milan’s attorney — present in the courtroom — objected to. Those cases in Minnesota are still ongoing, and Milan has not even been arraigned on the charges yet.
To avoid giving more self-incriminating statements regarding the burglaries, Milan pleaded the Fifth and did not answer those questions. The judge ordered that admission be stricken from the record, and instructed the jury to disregard it.
Milan, however, firmly denied falsely implicating Corum in this trial just to reduce his own potential prison sentence.
The cooperation agreement, which is separate from a plea agreement, stipulates that the if Milan agrees to cooperate in all federal, state and local investigations, they will consider reducing his sentence.
Offenbecher pointed out that Milan, and the three others, have not been sentenced yet.
They will be sentenced after this trial is over so the government has time to make their recommendations of what their sentence should be, in light of the testimony they give, Offenbecher said.
The trial is expected to last one or two more days.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.