Coffee Deputies Were Offered Part Of Profits

The late Coffee County Sheriff Carlton Evans recruited his deputies
to provide protection for marijuana growers in exchange for a third
of their profits, according to recently unsealed federal court

Those payoffs were to have been split between the former sheriff,
Evans' younger brother, Sage Evans, and three other members of the
sheriff's department, court records show.

Seven men, including two former officers in the Coffee County
Sheriff's Department, have pleaded guilty to conspiring to grow more
than 100 marijuana plants as part of a scheme in which Carlton Evans
and others were indicted last year. The late sheriff fled his home
and shot himself to death when federal and state agents tried to
arrest him Oct. 3 on drug charges stemming from a yearlong

Maj. Benjamin Hodge, 38, who was Evans' chief deputy, and Lt. John
Lee, 38, pleaded guilty along with Kenneth Wilson, 37, Anthony Leon
Wilson, 35, David Wilson, 32, and Tom Batten, 47, all of Coffee
County, and Fitzgerald resident Michael Wilson, 33. Hodge, Capt.
Dewey Wayne Harper and Lee resigned when they were arrested in the
fall of 1999.

The seven men face from four to 20 years in prison, up to $2 million
in fines and at least four years' supervised release and must pay a
$100 special assessment. The U.S. attorney has agreed to recommend a
lighter sentence in exchange for the defendants' cooperation in a
continuing investigation and trial, but that agreement is not binding
on the court.

Pre-sentencing investigations are being completed before sentencing
dates are set.

Documents accompanying plea agreements entered before U.S. District
Judge Wilbur D. Owens Jr. laid out a far reaching conspiracy
involving 16 suspects. Some of the plea agreements were signed as
early as April but remained under seal until recently as the FBI and
Georgia Bureau of Investigation continued a joint probe of the Coffee
County Sheriff's Department and area farmers.

Former federal prosecutor Jim Wiggins, who was representing Carlton
Evans in the criminal case before Evans' death, said he is not
surprised at the statements presented by the seven men, but wants to
see if they withstand cross-examination in court.

"Where is the hard evidence, the recorded conversation with Carlton
Evans and any evidence that he benefited'' from illegal activity?,
Wiggins said. "The family has not benefited from any great influx of
cash during his tenure as sheriff of Coffee County.''

Wiggins represents Evans' wife, Karlene, in suits asserting that
state and federal agents violated her rights when they entered her
home the day they tried to arrest Evans.

"We're going to wait and see how this evidence holds up in court,''
Wiggins said of the stipulations in the court documents. Carlton
Evans' son, Greg, declined comment yesterday when informed of the
assertions about his father's involvement.

Sage Evans, 41, remains a defendant along with Harper, Carlton Evan's
brother-in-law, Jerry "Pole'' Powell, 52, Lewis Gary Harper, 52,
Keith Allen Spivey, 38, Brian Clifton Fussell, 39, Dennis Franklin
Griffin, 46, and Richard Davis, 41. They are scheduled for trial Aug.
27 in U.S. District Court in Valdosta on charges of conspiring to
grow marijuana. Sage Evans, Wayne Harper, Gary Harper, Davis and
Griffin were also charged with possessing more than 100 marijuana
plants with the intent to distribute them.

The seven defendants agreed to the following stipulations in their
plea agreements: Hodge acknowledged that Sage Evans managed the day-
to-day operations of the marijuana production and met with Powell,
Fussell and the three deputies at his own property, on Evans family
property and other locations for "potting sessions.''

During those potting sessions, the defendants took cuttings from
mature marijuana plants and placed them in pots to root for planting
later in five farm fields in Coffee and Irwin counties. When the
owner of a Nicholls farm discovered marijuana growing in his cotton
field, he reported it to Carlton Evans.

Instead of seizing the marijuana and conducting an investigation,
Carlton Evans instructed Hodge to harvest the marijuana. Hodge,
Harper, Lee and Sage Evans harvested the marijuana and placed it in
six tobacco sheets. Sage Evans took the marijuana to dry. That same
marijuana was seized from the Evans family farm in November 1999 by
the GBI, Harper said in the document.

On one occasion, Lee and other deputies seized plants from "a
McDonald subject'' but instead of destroying the illegal drugs, took
it Sage Evans' property, processed it and packaged it for sale. The
proceeds of the sales was divided among Hodge, Harper, Carlton Evans
and Sage Evans, Lee said in his plea agreement.

In his plea agreement, Lee said he was approached by Harper and Hodge
and told of the deal for a third of the marijuana profits in exchange
for protection. But worried that the growers would not live up to the
deal, Hodge decided that the deputies should grow their own marijuana.

They carried out that plan, rooting cuttings from mature plants on
Sage Evans' farm and later transplanting them among rows of growing
cotton. Some of the workers in the operation, cousins Kenneth and
Anthony Wilson, complained they were not being paid and were going to
grow their own crop in Irwin County.

They were joined by Lee, Harper, Hodge, Davis and three other
cousins, Larry, David and Michael Wilson, in moving marijuana
cuttings to Irwin County and planting them. The cuttings were placed
inside Carlton Evans' horse trailer, which Lee towed to Irwin County
with a Coffee County Sheriff's Department vehicle, the plea
agreements said.

Hodge said he and the Wilsons were tending the marijuana in Irwin
County, Lee said. On Oct. 19, 1999, agents stationed in the area
arrested Kenneth, Anthony and David Wilson and Davis as they arrived
to harvest the marijuana. Further investigation led to the arrest of
Hodge, Harper and Michael Wilson.

In his plea agreements, Kenneth Wilson said he originally became
involved when Hodge, who is his cousin, approached him about helping
plant and tend marijuana in Coffee County cotton fields. In their
plea agreements, Kenneth, David, Anthony and Mike Wilson said they
all were brought into the operation to provide manual labor.

All four complained about not being paid and Hodge had suggested the
best way to make money was to grow their own, which resulted in the
Irwin County growing operation, they said in their agreements.
Unknown to Hodge, the Wilsons and others involved in the Irwin County
operation, the GBI had already discovered the field and devised a
plan to identify and arrest those responsible.

On Oct. 19, 1999, they briefed Hodge and others of plans to fly over
that field and others in Irwin and Coffee County. Hodge left that
meeting with the GBI to warn Kenneth Wilson to harvest the plants as
quickly as possible, which they tried to do.

But unknown to Hodge and the growers, agents were already stationed
at the field and made four arrests.

Newshawk: Sledhead - Site Disabled - FreeServers
Pubdate: Fri, 17 Aug 2001
Source: Florida Times-Union (FL)
Copyright: 2001 The Florida Times-Union
Website: The Florida Times-Union: Local & World News, Sports & Entertainment in Jacksonville, FL
Details: MapInc
Author: Terry Dickson
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