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Accused heroin, meth dealers plead not guilty to federal charges
Federal authorities have arrested Orcas Island High School graduate Denali Wood, 23, and her boyfriend, alleged drug ring leader Todd Hamilton, 34, and charged them with conspiracy to distribute black tar heroin and crystal methamphetamine in three Washington counties.
“The couple distributed extensive amounts of heroin and methamphetamine in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties,” the U.S. Attorney’s office announced on Dec. 22.
“During a court authorized wiretap investigation, the conspirators discussed their drug deals, how to launder drug money, and the beating one drug customer received when he failed to pay a debt,” said Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for the Western district of Washington. “Information obtained during the course of the investigation revealed how Hamilton used a Washington State Department of Corrections officer to try to get information regarding law enforcement knowledge of him and his girlfriend. That corrections officer resigned his position earlier this year and has now been charged in the drug conspiracy.”
Wood and Hamilton each pled not guilty to all charges at Dec. 23 and Dec. 27 hearings.
The case is being investigated by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as local law enforcement. San Juan County sheriff Rob Nou declined to comment on whether county detectives are involved.
Prosecutors allege that many of Wood’s customers and re-distributors live on the San Juan Islands.
Orcas School District superintendent Barbara Kline said Wood came to Orcas from Lynden in 2003, graduating with the Orcas High class of 2006.
“This is very surprising,” Kline said. “We had no problems with her in high school.”
Readiness to Learn advocate Julie Pinardi remembers that Wood lived in an apartment complex on her own during her Orcas high school years.
“That is very, very hard for teenagers to do,” she said. “She wanted to graduate and be successful. I am very saddened by this whole story.”
In 2006 Wood received a $500 Orcas Island Education Foundation scholarship; a $500 President’s Scholarship from Western Washington University; and was offered a matching $2,500 aviation scholarship by the AirHawk Aviators, which she didn’t complete. At the time she told Sounder staff her professional goals included “travel, independence, success.”
Wood and Hamilton lived on the 500 block of Bellingham’s Darby Drive. Investigators, citing extensive surveillance and cell phone taps, claim that the two have conducted many drug deals from their residence and in the parking lots of nearby businesses like Bellis Fair, Walgreen’s and Fred Meyer.
In court documents, DEA special agent T. Lance Wheeler writes that Wood has her own clientele of customers and re-distributors, and that Wood and Hamilton were recorded discussing the best ways to melt down and repackage heroin for resale, financial arrangements for drug deals, and customers’ abilities to pay. The recordings indicate frequent transactions with suppliers involving cash exchanges of $10,000 to $20,000.
Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 2, investigators believe Hamilton paid his suppliers $104,650 for 57 ounces of heroin and 6.5 pounds of meth.
According to court documents, Wood delivered narcotics using a 2004 gray Lincoln Aviator. She bought the vehicle from a Bellingham dealership in July 2011, paying $11,500 cash, mostly in $100 bills.
The official complaint names two alleged suppliers, former state corrections officer Christian Benjamin Knight, and seven alleged re-distributors as complicit in the drug ring. Some initial suspects in the case are affiliated with or members of an Aryan Nation-affiliated gang known as “8854” or “Hated;” and Hamilton is alleged to be the gang’s leader. Many of the suspects are believed to have affiliated within and/or operated from within state correctional facilities.
Wheeler said one alleged member of the group who acted as a drug debt collection enforcer for Hamilton has been charged with 2nd degree murder and drug-related homicide during the past month.
Code words used in the wiretapped conversations included “paper” and “checks” to refer to money; “strap” for a gun; “Q” for quarter ounce of drugs; “go” for meth; “clear” for meth; and “ferria” for cash.
Knight, the former corrections officer, was recorded agreeing to help Hamilton with drug deliveries in exchange for $3,000 per month. The prosecution says he accessed law enforcement databases and gave information to Hamilton, and once physically helped Hamilton remove drugs from his residence in the middle of the night and move them to a storage unit he rented on Hamilton’s behalf. The two allegedly also discussed selling laptops and an X-box received as payment for drugs.
Hamilton and Wood are both being held at the SeaTac federal detention center.
Durkan requested on Dec. 20 that Wood and Hamilton be kept in custody because the alleged drug offense carries a maximum sentence of 10 years or more; and due to “serious risk the defendant will flee,” as well as “serious risk of obstruction of justice, including intimidation of a prospective witness or juror.”
“There are no conditions of release which will reasonably assure [both the] defendants’ appearance as required [and the] safety of any other person and the community,” read the document.
Wood has signed an Appearance Bond and is scheduled for release following a course of in-patient drug treatment. She is banned from contact with any of the co-defendants and subject to pretrial supervision, travel restrictions, drug testing as well as monitoring through the Global Positioning Satellite Program. Jury trials for both Hamilton and Wood are set for Feb. 27, 2012.
Failure to appear in court is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If Wood commits a felony while on release, her sentence could be increased by another 10 years.
Hamilton’s detention hearing was held Dec. 27. He pled not guilty to all charges, and was remanded to custody.
After treatment, Wood must reside in Lynden with her grandfather, Herbert Lehfeldt. Wood’s grandmother, nurse Constance Lehfeldt, passed away in 2010. Constance’s daughter is listed as “Barbara Chenoweth (Randy) of Lynden” in her obituary. Whatcom County case records indicate that in 2003, Lynden residents Barbara Joyce Wood and Randal Lee Chenoweth were found guilty of manufacturing and possession of methamphetamine.
Court documents say Wood already has a criminal history, including possession of methamphetamine, obstruction of law enforcement, and rendering criminal assistance.
Wood’s Facebook page says she studied international relations at Western Washington University, in the class of 2010. Wood is listed as a consultant at Desert Sun Tanning Salons in Bellingham; her manager was reached, but declined to comment on the situation. Under activities and interests, Wood lists “cash” and “sleep.” Her favorite TV shows include Law and Order and CSI.
Hamilton, who was on probation with the Department of Corrections at the time of his arrest, has a lengthy criminal history that began with allegations of assault as a juvenile and includes at least 62 arrests, some for violent crimes. He has been the subject of prior narcotics investigations, assault investigations and other violent crimes investigations.
Hamilton’s Facebook page lists his employer as “up and down the interstate,” his education as “Washington State Department of Corrections, Class of 2001,” and his high school as “roaming the streets.”
This September he posted photos of two shiny black vehicles, a BMW and a late-model Jeep, with the caption, “me and my rides.” He commented on Sept. 14, “freedom has been good to me so far.”
— By Islands' Sounder staff