- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A drug trafficking ringleader has become the first person in Kentucky sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge for causing an overdose death attributed to the powerful drug fentanyl, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Navarius Westberry was given the life sentence for his role in distributing fentanyl that resulted in a 25-year-old man’s 2015 overdose death in Richmond. Fentanyl - a synthetic drug resembling heroin - has become a growing scourge in a state struggling with drug addiction.

Kerry B. Harvey, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, said Westberry displayed “a callous disregard for human life in his quest for easy money,” and said the life sentence sends a strong message to other drug dealers.

“I hope that those inclined toward this sort of destructive conduct, whether they live in Kentucky or occupy a higher position in the drug distribution network, take heed - the people of Kentucky have had enough,” Harvey said in a statement.

“The drugs you are peddling will kill people and the price you will pay for that is steep.”

Westberry, 38, was sentenced this week in Lexington by U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves.

Federal overdose penalties applied in the case allow for prison terms of 20 years to life. It was the first life sentence given in federal court for a fentanyl-related overdose death in Kentucky, according to the U.S. attorneys’ offices for the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky.

Those same federal penalties were applied in 2015 when an eastern Kentucky man was given a life sentence for illegally distributing prescription drugs that caused a woman’s death.

In Westberry’s case, prosecutors said he led a drug ring that shipped large amounts of heroin and fentanyl from Michigan to Richmond, Kentucky, for distribution. The drug ring operated in Richmond from early 2014 until August 2015, prosecutors said.

Four others members of Westberry’s distribution network pleaded guilty and were sentenced. That included the ring member who directly supplied the fentanyl to the man who died in Richmond, prosecutors said. She was sentenced to 37 months in prison.

“The person who physically handed off the drugs to the victim was not a high-level, professional drug dealer,” Harvey said Wednesday. “She was a lower-level runner for the drug trafficking organization, with her own addiction issues. The differences in their treatment show that we do not reflexively seek the harshest penalties in every case. We use the overdose prosecution tool advisedly, to punish and deter professional drug dealers.”

Another member of the ring, Benjamin Fredrick Charles Robinson, 21, was sentenced to 20 years for distributing drugs that caused another overdose, prosecutors said. That victim survived.

Federal and local authorities have been teaming up to try to combat heroin and fentanyl in Kentucky. As part of the initiative, federal prosecutors and drug enforcement agents work closely with local and state law enforcement, coroners and others to investigate and prosecute drug cases.

According to the 2015 Overdose Fatality Report, 1,248 people died of drug overdoses in Kentucky that year, compared with 1,071 deaths in 2014.

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