CHRISTIANSBURG — Eric Jon Tollefson’s disdain for the accusations against him – that he was a central player in drug ring that brought pounds of methamphetamine into the New River Valley – was clear even as he was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison and fined $15,000.
Standing in shackles in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Tollefson, 54, sneered as he turned to Judge Marc Long. “Sentence me to death for this s---?” Tollefson said loudly.
At the bench, Long whirled toward the convicted man and demanded an apology, adding that Tollefson could say he was sorry immediately or face a new warrant for contempt of court.
With sheriff’s deputies close on either side, Tollefson, a tall man, leaned forward so that his long hair hung around his face. “I apologize,” he said, drawing out the words sarcastically.
Long looked at him.
“That’s good,” the judge said. “Have fun in jail.”
Deputies led Tollefson from the courtroom.
Wednesday’s sentencing hearing followed a March jury trial where the Georgia man was found guilty of connecting a Blacksburg drug dealer to a relatively cheap source of meth, creating a pipeline that was the heart of what investigators termed the Operation Crankdown case.
According to testimony at Tollefson’s trial, the Blacksburg dealer, who was the son of Tollefson’s girlfriend, sometimes bought a pound of meth at a time in Georgia, then sold it for at least double the price from a garage on Blacksburg’s Hightop Road.
A prosecutor said that the dealer, Aaron Wayne Hixon, made 27 trips to Georgia before being arrested in January 2018.
Hixon, 45, described his own role in the drug sales in testimony at Tollefson’s trial, saying that on visits to Sylvester, Georgia, a small town south of Macon where his mother and Tollefson shared an apartment, he bought meth at $500 per ounce and sold it in Blacksburg for $1,000 per ounce or $100 per gram. Hixon said that Tollefson introduced him to a dealer named Tiny and at first was his intermediary in obtaining meth. Hixon said that as the deals continued, Hixon himself sometimes dealt directly with Tiny.
The Operation Crankdown case, spearheaded by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, brought charges against 22 people said to be linked to the meth pipeline, including Hixon, Hixon’s mother, and an array of alleged drug users and sellers. Tollefson was the first and so far only Operation Crankdown defendant to take his case to trial.
In March, a jury found Tollefson guilty of two charges: conspiring to transport and distribute meth. The jury recommended 30 years and a $10,00 fine for the distribution conspiracy count, and five years and $5,000 for the transportation conspiracy count.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Alan Stratton of Radford asked Long to impose a lighter sentence, calling Tollefson’s role in the drug sales “extremely limited” and noting that some of the evidence against Tollefson came from other defendants who hoped to help their own cases by testifying.
“We need to go after the right people, the ones who did it,” Stratton said.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jennifer Wolz said that she thought the charges and sentence fit. “Without Mr. Tollefson, inexpensive meth would not have been purchased in Georgia and brought to the New River Valley,” Wolz said.
Given the effects of meth on its users, a 35-year sentence could be seen as light, Wolz said.
Long said he saw no reason to go below the jury’s recommendation.
“The jury spoke … You were at the top or near the top of the chain,” Long told Tollefson.
“Meth is a scourge,” Long added. “… And you are a large part of that scourge.”
Since Tollefson’s trial, eight other Operation Crankdown defendants have been found guilty:
• Michael Thomas “Possum” Dowdy, 53, of Salem, was found guilty last month of possessing drugs, possessing drugs with intent to distribute them, and a conspiracy charge and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 16. He also has two charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm that are slated to be heard July 29.
• Shawn Clinton Santolla, 36, of Dublin, entered no contest pleas and was convicted of two charges of conspiring to distribute drugs. He was sentenced to serve five years in prison and was fined $200.
• Brandon Dale Sweeney, 37, of Christiansburg, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and was sentenced to serve one year and two months and was fined $200.
• Jeremy Braden Elliott, 32, of Blacksburg, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges, two drug distribution counts, and a possession with intent to distribute count and was sentenced to serve six years and seven months, and was fined $500.
• Troy Allen Donaghy, 56, of Christiansburg, pleaded guilty to four drug distribution and one conspiracy count and was sentenced to serve 14 years. He also was fined $1,000.
• Alexis Oneill Bentley, 24, of Floyd, pleaded guilty to drug distribution and was sentenced to serve one year and was fined $200.
• Ronald Michael “Boo” Keister, 53, of Blacksburg, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and drug distribution charges and was sentenced to serve one year and one month, and was fined $200.
• Harsh H. Chauhan, 22, a citizen of India, made an Alford plea to drug possession charge and was sentenced to two years in prison, with the entire term suspended. His attorney said in March that Chauhan expected to be voluntarily deported to India.