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1,000 prosecuted under federal partnership; US attorney issues warning to criminals

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ROCKY MOUNT — Federal, state and local authorities have a message for criminals in eastern North Carolina: Stop or go to prison.

“You are next. We will come for you,” said Robert Higdon, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Cooperation between law enforcement at all levels has resulted in dozens of arrests and convictions in Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties for crimes involving gangs, guns and drugs, Higdon said.

Cases include arrests for violent crimes related to gun thefts, a gunman holding his mother hostage, the pistol-whipping of a store owner during a robbery and the shooting of a state trooper.  

Higdon briefly reviewed the cases Thursday at the Rocky Mount train station, the site where law enforcement announced the Take Back North Carolina Initiative in April 2018.

Higdon and a phalanx of law enforcement officials including Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone warned criminals to stop or they will join other offenders in federal prison.

“We intend to take back North Carolina from these people,” Higdon said. “So, if you are committing these crimes; if you are a convicted felon who decides to possess or use a firearm; if you are a member of a Blood gang committing acts of violence or selling drugs; if you are someone who robs a bank, a convenience store, any business involved in interstate commerce; if you are one who thinks you can get away with these crimes, you should get the message from these prosecutions. We will investigate you, we will arrest you, we will prosecute you and you can join these defendants in federal prison, maybe for a very long time. So, you have a choice. Lay down your guns; lay down your drugs; and leave the life of crime.”

As result of Take Back North Carolina, 1,000 people have been charged with crimes, including three dozen offenders from the Wilson and Rocky Mount areas.

Higdon said the 36 local offenders, including four documented members of either the Crips or Bloods, are drug ringleaders, many of whom have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

Long prison sentences for offenders will be a deterrent and create real change in the community, Higdon said, adding that aggressive, targeted and strategic investigations, enforcement and prosecutions result in safer neighborhoods. 

Higdon said whenever federal prosecutors step back and take their foot off the gas, crime rates spike. He said criminals have been recorded using the Take Back North Carolina Initiative’s name, telling other criminals to avoid eastern North Carolina.

“As long as I’m U.S. attorney, I can guarantee this is what we will be doing,” Higdon said.

Higdon highlighted 36 defendants who’ve been charged in recent months.

MOTHER HELD HOSTAGE

In March 2018, Nash County deputies responded to a shots-fired call in the Spring Hope area. Brian Lee Dunlow, 46, came home and found his girlfriend moving out of the house with the help of four men from her church. Dunlow became upset, pulled a gun and pointed it in one of the men’s faces. 

Dunlow allegedly fired a shot at close range, but didn’t hit anyone. The intended victim, a former corrections officer who was licensed to carry a firearm, drew his own gun and returned fire, wounding Dunlow.

Several weeks later, officers from the Roanoke Rapids Police Department responded to a call from Dunlow’s mother’s home, where Dunlow was recovering from the injuries he had sustained earlier. Officers learned that Dunlow had stolen a gun from his mother’s bedroom and held his mother and his wife hostage for about four hours. He allegedly threatened his wife and struck her in the face with a cane. Prosecutors say he also injured his mother. 

Due to an extensive criminal history, a federal judge determined Dunlow was an armed career criminal subject to enhanced sentencing under federal law and the federal sentencing guidelines. In May, Dunlow received nearly 22 years in federal prison as a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

4 GANG MEMBERS

The initiative netted four confirmed gang members, all from Rocky Mount.

Darius Lamark “CrazyFace” Richardson, 22, a Crip member, faces federal firearms charges following a July 2019 gang-related shooting in Rocky Mount. Richardson is prohibited from having a gun because he has prior felony convictions. 

Jasmine Lamons Avent, 30, a Blood member, was indicted a little over a month ago. He’s from Rocky Mount but went over to Raleigh one night. Officers were called to New Bern Avenue area near downtown Raleigh to investigate a burglary and encountered Avent in possession of guns. 

“Avent had outstanding warrants for his arrest; officers also determined that he had been previously convicted of a felony in federal court back in 2011 for possession of a stolen firearm for which he had already served about four years. His current case is awaiting arraignment in federal court here in the Eastern District,” Higdon said.

Elijah Devon Caudle, 22, a Crip member, was driving nearly 20 mph over the posted speed limit on Interstate 95 when Nash County sheriff’s deputies stopped him. Caudle jumped out of the car and ran away. He later surrendered to Nash County authorities. 

He was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm because a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol was found in that car. Caudle has a long criminal history, which includes assault with a deadly weapon, drug charges and at least one other instance of being a felon in possession of a firearm. 

Caudle pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in federal court later this week.

The other gang member, Dexter Jamal Williams, 22, a Blood member, is awaiting trial in the Royal Eco robbery.

ROYAL ECO ROBBERY

In December, the Royal Eco Marketing Co. in Raleigh was robbed at gunpoint. The manager was pistol-whipped. The investigation led the Raleigh Police Department to Rocky Mount and other locations. 

Ultimately, three men were charged with the robbery and federal firearms counts. Williams and Bashar Haram Hroub, 25, will be arraigned later this year while Arafat Alzer, 20, pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

LANE STREET SHOOTING

“Shortly before we announced the beginning of the Take Back North Carolina Initiative, Wilson Police Department officers responded to a gunshot report on Lane Street in Wilson,” Higdon said. “There they found an individual lying in the roadway next to a parked car. He was suffering from a gunshot wound to the leg. The investigation revealed that Ramon Eric Best, 34, who gave various explanations about the shooting involving the victim lying on the ground, was in the possession of or had control over firearms at the scene of the shooting. Mr. Best has pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and he will be sentenced in early 2021. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.”

TROOPER SHOOTING

John David Jones, 38, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison following a Wilson County traffic stop where he was illegally towing a trailer. During the stop, Jones shot at a state trooper several times with several rounds going through the trooper’s windshield, striking the trooper in the face and neck. The injured trooper returned fire and Jones fled. He eventually surrendered. The trooper has recovered and is back on duty.

“And we were honored to sit with him and his wife and fellow troopers when that sentence was handed down just a few weeks ago,” Higdon said. “And, Mr. Jones can spend the next 10 years considering the crime he committed.”

OPERATION BOBCAT

The Wilson Police Department targeted a group responsible for the distribution of cocaine in Operation Bobcat. Authorities seized thousands of dollars in drug proceeds and numerous firearms used to protect and facilitate the operations of the organization. 

Three people have been charged as part of the drug conspiracy: Jerry Melton, 46, Laquan Allen, 28 and Demetrius Allen, 22. Melton and Laquan Allen are awaiting trial in U.S. District Court; Demetrius Allen has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. All three men face 10 years to life in prison.

The investigation also revealed that Teresa Parker, 50, was allegedly dealing crack cocaine that Melton provided to her. Parker now faces up to 10 years in federal prison as her case awaits trial in federal court.

Costa Pender, 38, and Eric High, 40, have been charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine and powder cocaine. They face between five years and 40 years in federal prison as part of Operation Bobcat. Both have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

Operation Bobcat also focused on 44-year-old Demetric Evan Ward Jr.’s alleged drug activities. Wilson police made a series of undercover drug purchases from Ward involving crack cocaine, powder cocaine and methamphetamines; officers seized thousands in drug proceeds from Ward as well as weapons he used to protect his drug business. He has pleaded guilty in federal court and faces up to life in federal prison. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

That investigation also pointed the Wilson Police Department and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office to Freddie Dean, 52, who was charged with trafficking in fentanyl, marijuana and methamphetamines. Officers allegedly purchased these drugs from Dean and seized cash, weapons and ammunition from him. His case is pending in federal court.

OPERATION HIGH STAKES

The DEA, SBI and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office identified a group accused of trafficking in kilogram quantities of cocaine. Coined Operation High Stakes, the investigation led to the seizure of at least one kilogram — a brick of cocaine weighing about 2.2 pounds — from a traffic stop, $40,000 in drug proceeds and numerous guns.

Three people have been charged:  Shermarquette Whitaker, 37, Mark Dean, 51, and Jacobi Harvey, 34. The trio is awaiting arraignment in federal court.

VANDERBILT JOHNSON

The ATF, Nash County Sheriff’s Office and the Wilson Police Department focused investigative efforts on the alleged armed drug trafficking activities of Vanderbilt Johnson, 46. Following a series of drug purchases by a confidential informant and the seizure of the weapons used to protect drug operations, Johnson was indicted on a range of drug charges that carry penalties of up to 40 years in federal prison. He is awaiting trial in U.S. District Court.

BANK ROBBERY

“In October, David Viverette, 29, will be sentenced in federal court in New Bern for his role in a robbery of the First Carolina State Bank here in Nash County,” Higdon said. “Mr. Viverette faces up to 20 years in federal prison and has a 10-year criminal history, which includes larceny, breaking and entering, property crimes, numerous convictions for exploitation of the elderly and elder fraud, resisting police officers and escape from a local jail.”

Several other people were also charged in individual cases during the Take Back North Carolina Initiative.

ROCKY MOUNT

Gerard Fenner, 38, faces up to 20 years in federal prison after officers with the Rocky Mount Police Department and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have charged him with trafficking in heroin, marijuana and methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, known as Ecstasy, and using weapons to protect and advance his illegal drug business. His case is pending in federal court.

Matthew Darnell Pittman, 29, has received 11 years in federal prison for his involvement in the trafficking of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. He also possessed guns as part of his drug crimes.

In early November, Irvin Fields, 42, will be sentenced for his role in the armed robbery of the West Mount Food Mart in Rocky Mount in May 2016. Through their investigation, the Nash County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. Highway Patrol determined Fields robbed the store clerk using a silver revolver and while threatening him that if he did “anything stupid,” Fields would “pop him.” At sentencing, Fields faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

Kalid Koron Ocean-Avent, 23, is accused of leading Rocky Mount police on a high-speed chase earlier this year. Ocean-Avent drove through residential areas and eventually hit a parked car. Officers stopped him and allegedly found a gun. Because he is a convicted felon, he’s prohibited from possessing a firearm. His case is now awaiting arraignment in federal court.

As the result of an investigation by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office, James Montez Woodley, 35, faces up to 20 years in federal prison. He is charged with the distribution of heroin while on federal supervised release on a previous federal firearms conviction.

WILSON 

Ahmad De’qwane Barnes, 26, was sentenced to four years in federal prison as a convicted felon in possession of a firearm following his February 2019 arrest when Wilson police officers responded to a shots-fired call.

Anthony Jerondell Williams, 28, received two years in federal prison following his conviction for possessing a firearm after sustaining a felony criminal conviction.

Kendrick Taiwan Taylor, 43, received 15 years in federal prison after selling crack cocaine to a confidential informant working with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office. A search of Taylor’s house following those purchases turned up cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, firearms including two assault rifles with high-capacity magazines and large amounts of cash.

ROANOKE RAPIDS

Devius Preston Anthony, 29, pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm following his theft of a gun from a Rocky Mount pawn shop. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison. His sentence will be based in part on a criminal history that dates back to at least 2007 and involves property crimes, burglary, assault on government officials and an earlier gun theft. 

TARBORO

The SBI, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office worked together to target the alleged drug trafficking activities of Carrie Kersey, 36. 

Kersey, who was on state probation, is charged in federal court with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine after her home was searched and illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia were found.

NO DETAILS PROVIDED 

Tracey Bridgers, 35, of Micro, and Marissa McLamb, 35, of Kenly, were indicted on unspecified charges and await arraignment.

Joshua DeLoach, 31, of Rocky Mount, was sentenced to three years in prison and three years supervised release.

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