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Former Va. sheriff gets 8 months in corruption scandal involving reselling seized drugs

The Associated Press

ROANOKE, Va. The former sheriff of a struggling, rural county was sentenced Tuesday to eight months in prison for lying to authorities about a scheme to resell drugs and guns seized from criminals.

Former Henry County Sheriff H. Franklin Cassell was also fined $15,000 and ordered to serve two years probation.
Cassell pleaded guilty in May to making false statements to federal investigators who were looking into the allegations of corruption within his department. He could have faced up to five years in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines suggested six to 12 months.

"I took great pride in being able to serve my fellow man for nearly 50 years," Cassell said at the hearing Tuesday. "I made a critical error in judgment."

Cassell, along with 12 current and former members of his department and seven others, were indicted last fall on charges that included racketeering conspiracy, narcotics distribution and weapons counts.

Prosecutors alleged that, from 1998 to the arrests, cocaine, steroids, marijuana and other drugs that had been seized by the sheriff's department were resold.

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

After the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas 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.

"The integrity of the criminal justice system is based on 99.99 percent of law enforcement officers telling the truth," Bondurant said. "If they don't, the entire system fails."

Defense attorney John Lichtenstein said the sheriff was not aware of all of the illegal activity and said a former sheriff's officer working undercover for the government basically entrapped Cassell. Lichtenstein quoted that officer and another charged in the case as saying in a recorded conversation: "We've got to get somebody big."

Cassell was the first of 11 in the case to be sentenced this week. In all, 17 have pleaded guilty to at least one felony. One is scheduled for trial in October, and the government agreed to clear two others if they stay out of trouble.

Cassell, a career law enforcement officer, had been sheriff since 1992 in the economically distressed county along the North Carolina line. He retired shortly after his indictment.

The region, which used to be a center of the furniture and textile industries, is best known for the Martinsville Speedway, where NASCAR races are held.

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