Witnesses: We helped deal drugs

Lawyers argue over validity of testimony as Washington, Williams trial continues

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2008

The trial of two alleged drug bosses continued Wednesday with opening arguments and the testimony of women who said they helped the pair smuggle and deal drugs.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner told the jury that Aaron Washington, 42, and Vonnie Williams, 44, headed an extensive drug smuggling ring that used more than a half-dozen women and a few men to transport drugs from inside and outside of Alaska.

Gardner said the women would sometimes transport drugs by hiding them in their body cavities and some of the women had romantic relationships with either Washington or Williams.

Many of the witnesses set to testify made deals with the state to either avoid prosecution or decrease their jail sentences, Gardner said. He added that their testimony would be corroborated by other evidence, including passenger records from Alaska Airlines.

Gardner told the jury to focus on the role Washington and Williams allegedly played as organizers, supervisors and managers in a high-volume drug operation. Both face multiple felony charges, including running a "continuing criminal enterprise." If convicted, the pair could face up to 99 years in prison.

Washington's lawyer, William Carey, said his client was a drug addict, as were the alleged drug mules involved in the case.

Carey said the women who would be called to testify had lived dishonest and sad lives, which shouldn't be blamed on his client. He said there would be little evidence to back up the claims made by the witnesses.

"What is startling about this case is the lack of hard evidence," Carey said.

Williams' lawyer, Thomas Schulz, said he would make an opening argument later in the trial, which is scheduled to last three weeks.

One of the alleged drug mules, Darlene Hurlbut, testified Wednesday that Williams had arranged two trips she took in 2003 to Anchorage and back.

Hurlbut said on her second trip she was stopped at the Juneau airport by police who found a condom filled with cocaine. Hurlbut said she agreed to work with police after they told her, "If you don't cooperate with us, we'll take your daughter from you."

Also appearing was Jenelle Nelson, who is serving time in a federal prison in California for drug-related charges.

Nelson described herself as a "middle-man" dealer who dealt drugs to feed her drug habit.

For months, she said she helped Washington and Williams sell a "good couple grand" worth of drugs a night.

Nelson also said she used cocaine and had sex with Williams multiple times.

She is expected to continue her testimony today.

After the jury was released for the day, lawyers argued before Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins the merits of having witnesses testify about their prior drug dealings and usage.

Schulz and Carey argued that the issue ran to the heart of their case of showing that witnesses were part of a "freewheeling group" of drug dealers and not part of an organized group headed by Williams and Washington.

"This is the guts of our case," Schulz said. "It goes right to the issue of organization, supervision and control ... We're talking about an unclassified felony that carries a maximum of 99 years."

He added that he would take the case to the court of appeals if he could not question witnesses about drug deals they had made with other people.

Gardner said he was "offended" that Schulz, a former Ketchikan Superior Court judge, would threaten an appeal so soon in the case.

"If they want to talk about drug deals that Jenelle Nelson did with some other guy - who cares?" Gardner said. "It just makes her look like a bad person and a rampant drug dealer. It's not relevant to any element in any of the issues charged in this case."

Collins said she would rule on the matter today.

"I know one thing, I exclude relevant evidence and we'll get to do this one again," Collins said. "I prefer not to do that."

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