A Lawrence man is facing at least a decade in prison after admitting in federal court that he was what prosecutors call a "low-level courier" for a local crack cocaine dealing ring.
The plea entered by 37-year-old James William Beltch shows how federal conspiracy laws can be used to charge anyone who commits an "overt act" toward helping distribute the drug, even if they're not in charge or reaping the financial benefits.
"We're using the conspiracy laws that were created basically to take out whole organizations, rather than just this dealer or that dealer," said Sgt. Tarik Khatib, head of the city-county drug unit, which investigated the case with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Beltch was one of nine people charged this spring with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine between March 2004 and April 2006 in an operation that police said involved drug sales near Kennedy and Woodlawn schools. Most recently, police said, some of the men were operating out of a small home at 514 Locust St. in North Lawrence, a block from Woodlawn School.
Charges against Beltch's eight co-defendants are pending in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, but he bolstered prosecutors' cases by naming all of them in his plea as co-conspirators.
According to U.S. Atty. Eric Melgren's office, Beltch allowed his home "to be used for drug trafficking or made deliveries of crack cocaine in return for personal-use quantities of crack cocaine."
He admitted driving for a co-defendant, Don Marcus Gibler, and holding crack in a cigarette pack for him while they made deliveries, according to the plea.
Khatib said anytime there's a group of people arrested in a case like this, it makes an impact on the drug trade and reduces nuisances and other related crimes in the area where they operated.
"For a time, anyway, it's a disruption in the flow of narcotics through Lawrence," he said.
Still, Khatib said the demand for crack is as strong in Lawrence as it was a decade ago when he started working drug cases.
"My personal opinion is that if you wanted to stop the drug trade, people would have to stop using the drug. As long as people are using it, somebody's going to be selling it, period," he said. "I see just as much, or more, crack now than I did then, and in greater quantities now than I did then."
Khatib said his objective with the drug unit is to create enough "heat" to contain the problem so that would-be dealers don't see Lawrence as an attractive place to sell.
"There will always be more crack dealers, but what we try to do is minimize the number of crack dealers," he said.
Beltch pleaded guilty Monday to one count of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. He will be sentenced Nov. 20 and faces between 10 years and life in prison.
In addition to Gibler, those charged in the case are Aharlock Fixico, Branden Scott Walker, Carl Ray Roubison, Ryan Ezell Fowler, Lonnie Ray Teichmann, John Burke Holt and Ryan Lavelle Green.