BY KEN LITTLE
A Greene County man is the latest defendant in what authorities say is a multi-county ring that distributed millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs.
Steve S. Starnes, 55, of Horton Highway, was arrested on Feb. 12 and charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, and maintaining a residence for the purpose of storing and distributing marijuana.
On Feb. 13, U.S. Attorney William Killian, of the Eastern District of Tennessee, appeared at a news conference in Rogersville to discuss details of a multi-county, multi-agency investigation that resulted in 32 guilty pleas in connection with drug distribution in Greene, Hawkins and Sullivan counties.
Starnes is another defendant in that case, prosecuting Assistant U.S. Attorney Caryn L. Hebets said Wednesday.
Starnes' indictment had been sealed until after the 32 guilty pleas by other defendants were made public.
A trial date of April 23 in U.S. District Court in Greeneville was set for Starnes.
Starnes' indictment states that between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 11, 2012, Starnes and other co-conspirators distributed "1,000 kilograms or more" of marijuana.
It further said that on June 23, 2010, Starnes used and maintained a residence at 405 Light Lane, off Horton Highway, "for the purpose of storing and distributing marijuana."
The government has designated the Light Lane house as "forfeiture property" that would be seized by the government if Starnes is convicted of the charges against him or enters into a plea agreement that includes a guilty plea before trial, Hebets said.
Starnes is free on $50,000 bond pending a March 27 pretrial hearing.
Greeneville lawyer William H. Bell was retained by Starnes.
Hebets said that the charges against Starnes are the result of the same lengthy investigation referred to by Killian at the Feb. 13 news conference in Hawkins County.
Ten of the 32 defendants who have entered guilty pleas to drug-related charges in U.S. District Court list Greene County addresses.
Killian said the four-year-long "substantial cocaine, marijuana and oxycodone pill conspiracy case" resulted in charges being filed against 32 people. Others were identified during the investigation, including Starnes.
The 32 defendants who recently entered guilty pleas await sentencing in Greeneville before Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan and U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer.
Court documents identified four co-conspirators named but not charged in Starnes' two-count indictment. They include William A. Lawson and Randall Michael Lawson, both of Limestone.
Most of the defendants in the case are from Greene, Hawkins and Sullivan counties, in addition to others from North Carolina and Georgia, Killian said.
Authorities said the investigation began in 2009 and targeted individuals who were allegedly trafficking in large quantities of Mexican cocaine and marijuana, supplied by a "drug-trafficking organization" in North Carolina.
In addition, authorities were made aware that individuals in Tennessee were distributing large quantities of oxycodone pills obtained from Nevada and Georgia.
QUANTITY OF DRUGS SEIZED
"Collectively seized, or proven as part of the conspiracy, were over 300 pounds of cocaine, over 16,000 pounds of marijuana and over 21,000 oxycodone pills; some firearms and $2.5 million in cash was confiscated," Killian stated at the Feb. 13 news conference.
"Any time we can catch and convict such a large and armed cocaine, marijuana and oxycodone pill conspiracy and confiscate millions of dollars of drug money, then Hawkins, Sullivan and Greene County residents and other parts of East Tennessee are safer," Killian said.
The arrest of Starnes and work in the other cases was based on an investigation conducted by various agencies, including the Greene, Hawkins and Sullivan County sheriff's departments, the Second Judicial District Drug Task Force, the Third Judicial District Drug Task Force, the Kingsport Police Department, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.