Prosecution nearing end of case against accused drug smuggler

Witness testimony sheds light on drug ring that brought heroin, meth to Southeast

Witnesses gave jurors a look inside a drug trafficking ring that brought heroin and meth into Southeast Alaska in 2016, as the prosecution inched closer to wrapping up its case against the Washington man accused of running the ring.

 

Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, 35, is facing a federal drug conspiracy charge after the Alaska State Troopers’ Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit arrested him in Ketchikan in August 2016.

In court on Monday, law enforcement officials provided details about drugs that came to Southeast Alaska in 2016. Ketchikan Police Department Lt. Ryan Hanis said he and a fellow officer were listening in on a phone call with an informant as the informant spoke with Gebregiorgis. In a motion filed last week, Gebregiorgis argued that the warrants for monitoring calls with the informant were invalid, but the court upheld the warrants that law enforcement used to listen and record the calls, according to electronic court records.

In the phone call, Hanis said, Gebregiorgis (who goes by the monikers “Bullet” and “Sam”) detailed the process of running drugs from Seattle to Alaska. Gebregiorgis said he would be sending heroin and meth up in “suitcases,” referring to women who carried the drugs in their body cavities, Hanis recalled. The women would receive debit cards that they would use for their travel expenses.

The women would then distribute those drugs to people in the area who would sell the drugs, Hanis said he heard on the phone call. Then, Hanis recalled Gebregiorgis saying, the women would deposit money in a bank account Gebregioris set up and fly back to Seattle to pick up more.

Gebregiorgis’ defense attorney Rex Lamont Butler cross-examined Hanis, asking Hanis how difficult it is to monitor informants. Hanis acknowledged that it was, and that there’s no way to know for sure that the informant wasn’t talking to Gebregiorgis separately without their knowledge.

Larry Dur’an, a drug investigator and canine handler with Alaska State Troopers, said he also listened in on phone calls between Gebregiorgis and an informant. Dur’an also said that the Troopers examined cards that were to be given to the couriers, and read off to the jury the final four digits of the cards he examined.

U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt presented cards that were taken from Gebregiorgis when he was arrested in August 2016, and asked Dur’an about one card in particular, whether it was similar to one of the ones the Troopers saw earlier in the summer.

“It’s an exact match to the full card number,” Dur’an said.

Dur’an’s testified his first recollection of hearing about Gebregiorgis was in June 2016, when an anonymous caller reported a house in Ketchikan as having a suspicious amount of traffic coming and going. The anonymous caller described a black male with dreadlocks who made numerous trips to the house in question. That description, Dur’an pointed out, matched Gebregiorgis’ appearance.

Dur’an’s investigation led the Troopers to track Gebregiorgis’ travel. The investigation revealed that Gebregiorgis made numerous trips between Seattle, Ketchikan and Sitka in mid-June and early July, Dur’an said.

Multiple Sitkans who were involved in the distribution process testified Monday, detailing what happened once the drugs arrived in Sitka in the summer of 2016. At least two people in Sitka, according to witness testimony, agreed to help Gebregiorgis distribute drugs in town but ended up keeping the drugs for themselves.

One of those people, Lawrence Johnson, was a witness Monday. He casually stated that not only did he not intend on selling the heroin and meth that he received from Gebregiorgis, but he also tipped off Lt. Ryan Silva of the Sitka Police Department that Gebregiorgis was shipping drugs to Sitka.

“At the time, I had a girlfriend who was doing heroin,” Johnson said. “I figured if I could keep it out of Sitka, maybe she could get sober and have a better life for herself.”

Butler cross-examined the witnesses, looking to discredit their testimony. He pointed out that if Johnson was dishonest, deceitful and manipulative enough to knowingly lie to Gebregiorgis, he might not be the most trustworthy individual.

The trial entered a break midway through Dur’an’s testimony, and he will continue on the stand to start the day Tuesday. Butler still has yet to cross-examine Dur’an. Schmidt said he expects to call his final witnesses after that and be finished around midday. Butler said he isn’t sure whether he’ll end up calling any witnesses, but he is working to get one witness up from Seattle.


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com.


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