The trial for a Washington man accused of smuggling large amounts of heroin and meth into Southeast Alaska began Thursday.
Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, 35, also known as “Bullet,” is facing a federal drug conspiracy charge after the Alaska State Troopers’ Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit arrested him in Ketchikan on Aug. 13, 2016.
Jury selection took most the day Thursday, but a jury was seated by 4 p.m., paving the way for opening statements and testimony from the first two witnesses.
During his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt asserted that not only was Gebregiorgis involved in a drug operation that brought drugs up from Seattle to Ketchikan and Sitka, but that he ran it.
“This case is a tale of two cities,” Schmidt’s opening statement began. “The two cities of Ketchikan and Sitka. The defendant, Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, ran and headed a drug trafficking ring to bring meth and heroin to those two communities.”
According to electronic court records filed in the case, a joint investigation between Ketchikan Police and troopers began in June 2016 and led to Gebregiorgis’ arrest.
The investigation began with a search warrant that was served at a Ketchikan residence on June 30, 2016. According to court documents, police contacted two people in the residence, Craig Leask and Sarah Kinser, who said that people had come up from Seattle to deliver meth to the house and to have Kinser peddle it. One of those people, she said, was known as “Bullet.” An investigation led law enforcement to believe that Gebregiorgis was the one known as “Bullet.”
On Thursday, Schmidt said his witnesses will include Alaska State Troopers, police officers, former drug distributors and drug addicts. Gebregiorgis’ defense attorney Rex Lamont Butler deferred his opening statement.
The first witness was Alaska State Trooper Joey Beaudoin, who said he stopped Gebregiorgis for a traffic infraction in June 2016. The second witness was Ketchikan resident Jason Simpson, who said that he has sold drugs for the past decade to help fund his own addiction.
Simpson stated that he knew Gebregiorgis, referring to him as “Bullet” and “Sam.”
“How do you know him?” Schmidt asked.
“Well,” Simpson said, “I sold his drugs.”
Simpson said a family member of his introduced him to Gebregiorgis in early 2016, and that Gebregiorgis was from Washington and needed someone to help him sell his drugs in Southeast Alaska. Simpson’s testimony was cut short, as he only had about 15 minutes on the stand, but the trial was set to resume at 9 a.m. Friday.
U.S. District Judge Timothy M. Burgess estimated that the presentation of evidence will likely wrap up late Tuesday or early Wednesday, and the jury will begin to deliberate then. The trial will not take place during the weekend, and any jurors from out of town will be allowed to leave Juneau for the weekend, Burgess said.
The day began with 57 jurors from around Southeast Alaska (mostly Juneau) and throughout the day that number was whittled down to 14. At the close of the trial, 12 of the jurors will deliberate and reach a verdict. The majority of jurors are from Juneau.
Jurors answered questions ranging from whether they had ever been victims of a crime to whether they had served on a jury before to whether they publish their opinions online. A few were dismissed due to various reasons. A mother and son were both in the field of 57 — something Burgess said he’s never seen before — but neither mother nor son made the initial cut.
Gebregiorgis sat silently through the day, wearing a blue quarter-zip sweater and a serious expression as he sat next to Butler.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.