City DA says convictions a drug deterrent

Aaron Washington and Vonnie Williams found guilty on organized crime charges

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2008

The conviction of two drug kingpins on organized crime charges should be a strong deterrent to others not to import drugs into Juneau, authorities said Thursday.

After more than three days deliberating, a jury found Aaron Washington and Vonnie Williams guilty in more than two-thirds of the 35 felony drug counts against them, including charges that they ran what's known in legal terms as a continuing criminal enterprise.

"What people who are trading in cocaine need to understand is, they may do it for awhile, but we may be putting together a case that looks at the organization rather than individual couriers," Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner said shortly after the verdict was announced.

Williams and Washington ran a multiyear drug-smuggling and drug-dealing operation that used several people, oftentimes women who had been lovers with at least one of the pair, to smuggle in cocaine on commercial flights to Juneau. The estimated street value the pair smuggled in or dealt from 2003 to 2007 was nearly $1.7 million, according to Gardner.

Most of the dozen or so witnesses who testified that they'd smuggled or dealt drugs for Williams or Washington had made a deal with authorities to get reduced prison time or avoid prosecution altogether.

Gardner said those deals had paid off with Thursday's guilty verdicts.

"People in the community get tired of law enforcement and the district attorney's office focusing on couriers that have their own habits and ... not at least making an attempt to get at what's next and work our way up in an organization. I think that's what people want us to be doing," he said. "We made some deals, we worked our way up, and look at where we are."

Williams' defense lawyer, Thomas Schulz, said he plans to appeal the verdict. Several defense witnesses were not called to testify in the trial because they hadn't been offered immunity like the prosecution's witnesses.

Schulz said his witnesses would have contradicted much of what the state's witnesses said on the stand.

"I wish I'd been able to put on my whole case," Schulz said.

Sentencing was set for Nov. 20.

Both men have criminal histories. Washington was recently convicted on a separate drug-dealing charge, and Williams pleaded guilty earlier this year to stealing checks and drug possession.

Gardner said he believes this was the first continuing criminal enterprise case that's gone to a jury trial in the state's history. He credited the joint work of the Juneau Police Department and Alaska State Troopers for putting together a complex case.

Juneau Police Sgt. David Campbell, who supervises the department's drug unit, said his staff had made a "substantial effort" to try and secure a continuing criminal enterprise conviction. He echoed Gardner's statement about what message the guilty verdict sent to other drug dealers.

"If you deal drugs in this town, just because you've been getting away with it for a while doesn't mean you're going to continue getting away with it," Campbell said.

Williams and Washington seemed calm in court Thursday. Neither appeared to have friends or family present while the verdict was read. Instead curious lawyers and police officers crowded near the back of the courtroom to watch the close of the nearly three-week trial.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.



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