More charges dismissed in pot-dealing case

GREENFIELD — Charges have been dropped against six defendants in one of the biggest drug investigations in recent county history.

The charges were dropped on what officials called a technicality.

Two cases were dismissed last week in the 2013 marijuana-trafficking case. Four more were dropped during a hearing Monday in Hancock Circuit Court.

The cases are tied to a 2013 raid of Smokin’ Hog BBQ, a Greenfield restaurant local investigators believed was being used as a delivery point for a cross-country marijuana-trafficking ring.

Local officials are doing plenty of finger-pointing, mostly at the former Hancock County prosecutor, whose office filed cases against 12 defendants in late 2013.

Former Prosecutor Michael Griffin contends the cases were properly handled and could have been tried last month during his successor, Brent Eaton’s, first month in office.

Griffin’s lead prosecutor on the investigation, Grey Chandler, could not be reached for comment.

By law, a defendant is guaranteed the right to a trial within one year. It’s not unusual for the process to be delayed when either the defense or the state asks the court to postpone a hearing date.

There is no limit on the number of continuances that may be granted, but the state must pay close attention to the trial clock; if a prosecutor’s postponements push the trial date past the year mark, the defendant can ask to have the case tossed out of court.

One case had concluded when Eaton took office. Eaton handed off the remaining 11 to a special prosecutor Jan. 2, citing a conflict of interest after having represented one of the defendants in a previous case.

Special Prosecutor James Fleming of Howard County appeared in court Monday and stood by helplessly as six defense attorneys petitioned the court to have their clients’ cases dismissed.

Fleming confirmed that in most of the cases the one-year rule was the problem.

“It’s a time issue,” he said, declining to comment further.

Two of Monday’s motions to dismiss, filed by defense attorneys for Rhea Griffith and Kelly Thompson, were taken under advisement by Judge Richard Culver.

Culver dismissed charges in the cases of Christopher Riggle, Robin Armstrong, Lucas Johnson and Derrek Chumney.

Charges already had been dropped against Carey Wilson and Loren Livingstone.

Those six were facing a total of 23 drug-related felony charges.

Cases against Robert Murnan and Anna Roberts are pending, with trial dates scheduled for March.

Defendant Aaron Garrett is scheduled for a hearing on his motion to dismiss later this month.

The cases were filed in November 2013 after a tip during a traffic stop led police to conduct surveillance at Smokin’ Hog, then located in the 1700 block of Melody Lane. They dubbed the investigation “Operation Barbecue.”

According to court documents, investigators said Thompson, who was the restaurant manager, came and went from the business with packages of marijuana shipped to her home and the business from California. The packages were distributed to local dealers to sell on the street, police said.

A total of 36 pounds of marijuana — roughly $162,000 worth in street value, police said — was seized from multiple locations during the investigation, police said.

Smokin’ Hog has since gone out of business.

Officers with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which handled the three-month investigation, are frustrated by the outcome of the case.

Capt. Jeff Rasche, head of the department’s investigations division, said that in his 31 years on the job he’s never seen a case fall apart because of time constraints.

“Never have I been part of a case that had to be dismissed because of what seems to be poor management or representation by the prosecutor on the case,” said Rasche, who estimated the department’s cost to investigate at $25,000. “The citizens have been let down, and that’s the aggravating part. It is tax dollars, very much so.”

Deputy Nick Ernstes, the lead investigator, echoed Rasche’s sentiments, noting the case crossed state lines and involved agencies not only locally but on the state and federal levels. He said the former prosecutor’s office should have been watching the cases’ progress more closely.

“They dropped the ball, big time,” he said. “Everybody’s busy and overworked, but you still have a responsibility.”

Griffin said his lead prosecutor kept him apprised of the progress but never raised any concerns about the timeline. He said it was Eaton’s responsibility to check the calendar before asking for a special prosecutor.

“The case lagged yet another month under the new prosecutor, and it could have been tried in January,” he said. “You have to be careful to keep the case alive, essentially. I think this was a try-able case when Brent started and that he dropped the ball.”

Eaton said his hands were tied as soon as he realized he had a conflict of interest.

“I did what I had to do as quickly as I possibly could,” he said. “My contact with that file lasted all of about an hour. It’s a huge case that (Griffin) had for 14 months, and nothing happened. Period.”

Eaton said it’s unlikely a case can be refiled if it is dismissed because of violating the one-year rule.

Griffin said he doesn’t blame law enforcement for being upset; he, too, hoped to see a different outcome.

“It’s very disappointing to see the case turn out this way. On that, there’s no disagreement,” Griffin said. “I just would ask everyone involved to remember there’s more than just one set of hands involved in this.”

The cases

Loren Livingstone

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

6 drug-related felonies

3 continuances by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Carey Wilson

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

4 drug-related felonies

3 continuances by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Derrek Chumney

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

3 drug-related felonies

1 continuance by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Christopher Riggle

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

3 drug-related felonies

3 continuances by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Lucas Johnson

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

3 drug-related felonies

0 continuances filed by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Robin Armstrong

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

4 drug-related felonies

3 continuances by the state

Case status: Dismissed

Kelly Chumney Thompson

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

4 drug-related felonies

4 continuances by the state

Case status: Pending court decision on motion to dismiss

Aaron Garrett

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

2 drug-related felonies

0 continuances by the state

Case status: Hearing on motion to dismiss, Feb. 27

Robert Murnan

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

6 drug-related felonies

1 continuance by the state

Case status: Jury trial, March 10

Rhea Griffith

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

3 drug-related felonies

3 continuances by the state

Case status: Pending court decision on motion to dismiss

Anna Roberts

Charge date: Nov. 12, 2013

6 drug-related felonies

0 continuances by the state

Cast status: Jury trial, March 10

Author photo
Noelle Steele is editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3232 or nsteele@greenfieldreporter.com.