Drug suspects linked to disgraced officer Larry Lightning

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 30, 2008 

Two men connected to the largest drug bust in Columbus history — one of them high up in the narcotics organization — told a judge Wednesday they want a trial.

Michael Harris and Thomas Melvin appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land in jail clothes as their attorneys asked for more information from the government, and in Melvin's case, a chance to get out on bond. Land also heard the plea agreements Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde had put on the table for both men, ensuring they understood the offers and hearing their requests for a trial.

"Is that offer still on the table?" Land asked after hearing the first offer given to Melvin.

"Yes, sir, but not for long," the prosecutor said.

Melvin turned down two offers. Both would have dismissed counts of conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon if he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. The first offer, which included an agreement that Melvin had some 330 pounds of cocaine, would have netted him 14 to 17 1/2 years in prison, Hyde said.

The second offer, which Hyde called unusual, included an agreement that Melvin had only 11 pounds of cocaine. With either agreement, he would have to cooperate with authorities.

Melvin, however, said he wanted a trial.

Harris' offer, which he also turned down, didn't have the same unusual agreement on how much cocaine he was accused of having. Hyde also didn't give a sentence range for the man believed to have been high up in the drug group.

Both men are accused of possessing cocaine with the intention of distributing it between Jan. 1, 2004, and Dec. 15, 2007.

Authorities say both men were part of a drug organization that police raided in 2005 that included 12 Columbus locations, in what they estimated to be a $37 million drug bust. Further investigation led to an additional $5.5 million of cocaine to be seized in Harris County.

That drug bust led to the arrest of 11 people, one of whom, Torrance Hill, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to more than 20 years. The others lingered in Harris County Superior Court for two years before the federal government decided to take the cases.

Others, including disgraced former Columbus police officers Larry Lightning and Cory Wilber, also have been linked to the drug organization. Wilber pleaded guilty to helping cover up a felony and was sentenced to six months in prison. Lightning pleaded guilty to selling the names of police informants to drug dealers. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Eric Virden, who was the accountant for the drug group, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Hyde said Wednesday Virden could testify for the prosecution in Melvin and Harris' trial.

The trial is scheduled for Sept. 2.

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