BY KEN LITTLE
George Eugene Copas will serve 41 months in federal prison for his role in the distribution of prescription narcotic pills by former Greeneville pharmacist Robert D. McNeese.
Copas, 42, was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer, on a conviction of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and possession with the intent to distribute the drug.
Copas and four other defendants received the prescription painkiller from McNeese, who worked at Corley's Pharmacy until his arrest in July 2011.
Copas' cousin, Chucky Joe Copas, was sentenced April 1 to 92 months in prison for his role in the same case.
Four other defendants in the case, including McNeese, will be sentenced in federal court in Greeneville over the next month. All four have entered guilty pleas of conspiracy to distribute a quantity of oxycodone.
The offenses connected to the first count charging them with oxycodone distribution were committed from July 2010 until July 28, 2011, according to the indictment naming McNeese, George Copas and the other defendants.
QUANTITY OF PILLS
Court documents state that Copas admitted receiving oxycodone pills from McNeese, a quantity specified by Assistant U.S. Attorney Wayne Taylor at 2,700 pills.
Taylor acknowledged that George Copas had cooperated with authorities and provided "substantial assistance" about his role and the role of others in the conspiracy.
Prosecutors have said that Chucky Copas made initial contact with McNeese and obtained the majority of pills.
George Copas and co-defendants Jimmy Lee Hodges, Terry Lee Scalf and Scottie Wayne Leach later learned of the arrangement with McNeese and also began receiving pills.
George Copas and the other co-defendants would have testified at trial against McNeese, had he not entered a guilty plea in November 2012.
Prosecutors recommended a sentencing range for George Copas of 41 to 51 months.
Defense lawyer Douglas Payne asked Greer to consider probation for his client, who has been free on bond for more than a year.
"He has stepped up to the plate. He has shown the court that, given the opportunity, he will abide by the court's rules and what society expects," Payne said.
Greer said probation isn't appropriate for the offense, given Copas' admission that he received a large quantity of pills, and also considering the need to demonstrate a deterrent to others.
Respect for the law is an important consideration, Greer said.
Copas' lawful behavior while out on bond and his drug addiction as an explanation for his actions are not valid reasons for a lesser sentence, the judge said.
A downward departure within the sentencing range recommended by the government in light of his cooperation was taken into account by Greer.
"The court has to be aware of the message sent to those involved in trafficking prescription pills," Greer said. "Because this has reached somewhat epidemic proportions, the court has to be very concerned about the sentence imposed."
Court documents state that McNeese conspired with others to distribute at least 14,000 30-milligram and 1,850 15-milligram oxycodone pills.
After Chucky Copas, documents state that George Copas "obtained the second highest quantity of oxycodone pills from McNeese."
"In the end, it was a conspiracy to distribute very, very large numbers of oxycodone pills," Greer said in court.
Copas apologized for his actions in a brief statement to Greer.
"I'm sorry for doing what I did and putting everybody in the situation that I did," he said.
In response to a question by Greer, Copas said that, other than suboxone treatment for drug addiction, he has not been to a rehabilitation program.
"I don't want any drugs. I don't need 'em. I have no desire to take anything," Copas said.
"I have learned a valuable lesson. In some ways, it's probably good this did happen so I don't have to wake up every day and worry where I will get my next fix."
Greer responded that the relapse rate is high among addicts and that fighting drug addiction is very difficult without the proper "tools."
Before sentencing, Greer said that George Copas was different from most drug case defendants in that he doesn't have a lengthy criminal record.
Copas told him he has been working full-time for the last year while free on bond.
As part of the sentence, Greer ordered Copas placed on three years of supervised release by the U.S. Probation Office after he gets out of prison, and recommended that he participate in a drug addiction treatment program while behind bars. No fine was imposed.
Greer allowed Copas to remain free on bond until the U.S. Bureau of Prisons designates a location and reporting date.
Copas' parents were in the courtroom. Greer acknowledged that the sentence is hard on Copas' family, particularly in view of the fact that the defendant's sister, Tammy Copas, is currently serving a federal prison sentence of 121 months.
Tammy Copas, who lived in Johnson City, pleaded guilty in May 2012 to robberies by force of the Discount Tobacco Outlet store in Elizabethton and the La Perla restaurant in Johnson City.
Both occurred in January 2012. She was sentenced in January in U.S. District Court in Greeneville.