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'Toy story' drug case dismissed

Former Glory Hole resident accused of receiving heroin in Mr. Potato Head toy

Posted: November 17, 2013 - 1:08am

The puzzling case against Stephen Morton Dabney — a Glory Hole resident accused of receiving a package in the mail that contained an ounce of heroin hidden inside a Mr. Potato Head toy — won’t be going to trial.

The 62-year-old, who for years volunteered as the night manager at Juneau’s downtown soup kitchen and shelter in exchange for room and board, was supposed to stand trial Monday in Juneau Superior Court on a serious class ‘A’ felony drug offense, but prosecutors dismissed the case Nov. 8.

In an interview at his office, the prosecuting attorney cited several reasons for the dismissal.

“Primarily, logistics,” Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Polasky said, saying the state had to line up witnesses from up north in Anchorage and out of state.

Also affecting the state’s decision was the proposed defense at trial, which the defense attorney had been “pretty candid” about in the two years since the case was brought, Polasky said. Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland said his client never opened the package and did not know what was inside.

Dabney is a former electrician who suffered a debilitating work-related accident and now collects disability. He’s lived at the Glory Hole for the past five years and does not have a criminal record.

His role as a manager at the Glory Hole — and the way rooms are turned over frequently and how part of Dabney’s job was to hold onto items for other people — also caused Polasky to “reassess” whether a jury could convict him beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor added.

“We won’t be re-initiating the case,” Polasky said.

The state had charged Dabney with second-degree drug misconduct for possession with intent to deliver after law enforcement intercepted the package and conducted a controlled delivery on Jan. 23, 2012. But the beacon that was supposed to go off when the package was opened never activated. After three hours of waiting outside the Glory Hole — during which time officers claimed they observed Dabney “carefully examining the exterior of the package over an extended period of time” and using a mirror to conduct “counter-surveillance,” according to an affidavit — a detective finally went inside to retrieve it. It was sitting unopened on a shelf in a common use hallway.

The detective interviewed Dabney on the spot, and Dabney denied knowing what was inside the package and the identity of the sender. But he also said the same person had sent him packages before with toys in them. (Court documents say the package was sent from an address in Marysville, Wash., from a person identified on the label as Kyle Nelson. Police never confirmed the identity of the sender.)

The notion that a stranger was sending Dabney toys, one of them which contained heroin without his knowledge, was “theoretically possible,” as Judge Philip Pallenberg noted in a ruling about a search warrant in the case. But in all likelihood, it was a “toy story” that was “sufficiently implausible,” Pallenberg wrote — at least in so far as justifying a district court judge’s finding that there was enough probable cause to believe Dabney knew drugs were inside the package.

Another piece of evidence in question was Dabney’s statements during the police interview. He told police he was an opiate addict, but that he had a prescription for painkillers, and when asked about items in his room, Dabney said there might be a syringe but it belonged to a diabetic at the shelter. Still, that gave police enough probable cause to search his apartment for drug paraphernalia. Police seized syringes, marijuana pipes, cotton balls and tooters and a case for a digital scale and other items, bolstering the state’s case.

The defense fought to suppress those items, saying the search was illegal because police searched the room when there was no reason to believe the room itself would contain evidence of a crime. Noting police had already retrieved the package from the hallway at that point, Hedland argued neither the fact that Dabney had prescriptions for painkillers and a possible needle in his room that belonged to a diabetic is evidence of distributing heroin “except in wildly general terms.”

“How is that evidence of heroin distribution?” he asked. “It’s just smoke and mirrors.”

Pallenberg disagreed, although he noted while there was enough probable cause to support the search warrant for the apartment, it would be unfair to infer Dabney was “regularly engaged in drug trafficking” based on that evidence.

If Dabney had stood trial and been convicted, he would have been facing a presumptive sentencing range of five to eight years in prison. Dabney has been on bail since February 2012, a month after his arrest.

Through his attorney, Dabney expressed relief and gratitude that the case was dropped. After prosecutors charged him, he was kicked out of the Glory Hole and has been homeless since. He was staying at a hotel with someone he knew for a short while afterward, but for most of the past year, he has been living in a storage unit.

“He said it was a long, arduous ordeal, but he’s grateful it’s over,” Hedland said.

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