- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

ROANOKE (AP) — A federal judge yesterday sentenced a former Henry County sheriff to eight months in prison for lying to authorities about a scheme to sell drugs and guns seized from criminals.

U.S. District Judge James Turk also fined the former sheriff, H. Franklin Cassell, $15,000 and placed him on two years’ probation after his release.

Cassell, a career law-enforcement officer, apologized to the court.

“I took great pride in being able to serve my fellow man for nearly 50 years,” he said. “I made a critical error in judgment.”

Under a plea agreement, Cassell, 69, pleaded guilty in May to one count of making false statements to federal investigators.

Prosecutors dropped four other charges related to charges that he looked the other way as drugs and guns seized by the department were resold to the public.

Cassell and 12 of his current and former officers were among 20 persons indicted in the corruption case last fall on charges that included racketeering conspiracy, narcotics distribution and weapons counts.

Federal sentencing guidelines had called for Cassell to receive a term of six to 12 months. The prosecution recommended the maximum of five years, and the defense sought home confinement. Afterward, attorneys for both sides said Judge Turk’s punishment was fair.

“The integrity of the criminal justice system is based on 99.99 percent of law-enforcement officers telling the truth,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant said. “If they don’t, the entire system fails.”

Mr. Bondurant said Cassell’s false statements to an FBI special agent impeded the government investigation and were intended to conceal drug trafficking within the department and his own involvement in money laundering.

But John Lichtenstein, an attorney for Cassell, said a former sheriff’s officer working undercover for the government basically trapped the sheriff, who was not aware of all of the illegal activity. He quoted that officer and another charged in the case as saying in a taped conversation, “We’ve got to get somebody big.”

Prosecution witness Wayne Pike, a U.S. marshal, said he always knew exactly what was going on in his department when he was sheriff of Wythe County, in Southwest Virginia. Law enforcement, he said, requires a person to take pride in their work.

“You’re either committed to it or you’re not,” Mr. Pike said.

Cassell spent 31 years with the Virginia State Police before being elected in 1992 as sheriff of Henry County, which is in an economically depressed area along the North Carolina border. He retired shortly after his indictment.

In arguing for a light sentence, Mr. Lichtenstein said his client has health problems that require regular medical checkups. He called witnesses who testified that Cassell goes out of his way to help others and is an important source of support for his family.

“This has crushed us as a family,” said Kelly Richardson, Cassell’s daughter. “It’s broken us down.”

Tracy Clingenpeel, another daughter, said her father was the main person who helped her after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995.

“My father never left me,” Mrs. Clingenpeel said.

Joe Francis, who worked with Cassell in the state police, said Cassell’s actions saved his life in 1969 after he was stabbed. Three other officers just stood by, but Cassell dragged him to a car and took him to a hospital, he said.

Prosecutors have said that since 1998, cocaine, steroids, marijuana and other drugs that had been seized by the sheriff’s department were resold. Among those involved were vice officers and a dog handler for the department.

A sergeant who agreed to cooperate with investigators was paid off by the ring to use his house for distributing drugs, authorities said.

The sentencing for Cassell was the first of 11 in the case this week. In all, 17 have pleaded guilty to at least one felony charge. One is scheduled for a jury trial next month, and the government agreed to clear two defendants of charges if they stay out of trouble.

Cassell, wearing a navy blue blazer, gray slacks and red tie, remained stoic as the sentence was pronounced but asked that he be permitted to begin the term as soon as possible.

Judge Turk said he would recommend Cassell be sent to the prison camp at Butner, N.C.

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