Man pleads guilty to drug charges

An Atlanta man found with nine pounds of cocaine in his car only to later have the evidence tossed out of court pleaded guilty today to federal drug charges.

Eric Virden, 39, was connected by authorities to what they called the largest drug bust in Columbus history. He was arrested in May 2005 as police raided 12 spots 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.

During the raids, police found at a Beaver Creek home Virden's prints on three glass beakers used to transport cocaine, said U.S. Assistant District Attorney Mel Hyde. They found records of drug transactions at a 17th Avenue home that Virden admitted today to keeping.

Virden was scheduled to go to trial next week, and today's hearing was initially a pre-trial conference. This morning, though, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land learned Virden wanted to plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine.

Other charges against Virden, including possession with intent to distribute marijuana and two counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, were dropped.

Court records state that Virden was stopped and questioned by police May 4, 2005, after he stopped at a BP Station at J.R. Allen Parkway and Flat Rock Road. They had seen him leave a suspected drug house on 17th Avenue, though Virden told police he had come from a residence on 22nd or 23rd Street — a lie that Land previously ruled gave police probable cause to arrest him.

Land also ruled, however, that police didn't have the right to move Virden's Buick LaSabre from the convenience store to the Beaver Creek area for a drug-sniffing dog to search it, which meant the nine pounds of cocaine found in the trunk wasn't admissible as evidence.

Virden, wearing a dark gray suit, answered Land's questions Monday with a series of "Yes, sirs." He will remain free on bond until 10 a.m. Thursday, when he is scheduled to turn himself in to authorities in Columbus.

A pre-sentence investigation on Virden will be done and Virden sentenced after its completion. Hyde said Virden could face 10 years to life in prison.