4 charged in trafficking case

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com
Jerry Roberts, left, the emergency management director for Osage County, helps a law officer open a container of material confiscated following an early morning traffic stop Jan. 9 in Pawhuska. Authorities have been unsure whether the material was industrial hemp or marijuana. District Attorney Mike Fisher said Tuesday morning that formal charges were going to be filed. Robert Smith/Journal-Capital

District Attorney Mike Fisher said Tuesday morning that his office would be filing formal charges that day against four men being held in the county jail in connection with the confiscation of a shipment of thousands of pounds of material thought for several days to be either industrial hemp or marijuana.

Fisher declined to go into details about what his office had learned or determined, but said that four men jailed in the matter would be formally charged with aggravated trafficking.

Matt Lyons, an attorney representing two men who were providing security for the shipment, said Tuesday that if the district attorney's office didn't go ahead and charge the men, it would have to let them go, along with the truck in which the contested 18,000-pound shipment was being transported. Lyons said he was aware of the decision to file charges.

Lyons said he learned that the Osage County Sheriff's Office requested that law enforcement in the part of Kentucky from which the shipment originated pull an audit on the facility that sent it. Lyons said his clients did due diligence before ever agreeing to carry a hemp shipment, to make sure they were participating in a legal activity rather than a black market drug scheme.

He also pointed out that Pawhuska police pulled over the truck, and if his clients (the security providers, who were riding in a separate van) had been up to no good, they could simply have kept on driving in an attempt to get away. Instead, they pulled over and made themselves available to law enforcement.

The suspects are identified in jail records as David Melvin Dirksen, 31, of Comstock Park, Mich.; Tadesse Degefu Deneke, 51, of Mobile, Ala.; Andrew Ross, 29, of Aurora, Colo.; and Farah H. Warsame, 33, of Cleveland, Ohio.

Fisher's decision to file charges came after days of being uncertain exactly how matters might proceed.

Law enforcement and prosecutors remained unsure as of 4 p.m. Friday exactly what to call the substance found earlier in the week in a transport truck stopped by police in Pawhuska.

“We don't know what we have yet,” District Attorney Mike Fisher said in a brief telephone interview.

Fisher said a lab in Dallas, Texas had examined a sample of the material from the truck and determined that the substance THC was an element of the sample. However, the lab was unable to give a THC percentage or make a determination whether it was dealing with industrial hemp or marijuana.

Fisher said state agencies in Oklahoma lacked the capacity to resolve the issue, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, commonly called the DEA, had sent a sample to a lab in the Washington, D.C., area, but that lab has been closed because of the ongoing federal government shutdown.

“So we are in a holding pattern right now,” Fisher said Friday.

As of Monday, Fisher told the Journal-Capital he wasn't sure yet exactly how he would proceed. He said that he would be speaking with a judge Tuesday.

Lyons, the defense attorney, said Tuesday that Osage County officials still had not been able to obtain testing results on the contested 18,000-pound shipment.

“They have not been able to test the THC levels,” Lyons said.

The men were booked into the Osage County jail about mid-afternoon Jan. 9, and were being held on $40,000 bail each, Fisher said Friday. He commented that because the case involves thousands of pounds of possible hemp or marijuana, the bail amounts would likely be much higher if there had been a determination the material was, in fact, marijuana. He said the individual bail amounts could range from $500,000 to $1 million per suspect if the substance is marijuana.

Fisher clarified it was not yet clear last Friday if this matter would develop into an actual criminal case. No formal charges had been filed when the district attorney commented that day.

The entire situation flowed from an early morning Jan. 9 traffic stop in Pawhuska.

A traffic stop just before 3 a.m. in Pawhuska led law officers to a transport truckload of what the people transporting it said was “industrial hemp,” Pawhuska Police Chief Rex Wikel said.

Wikel said one of his officers pulled over the 18-wheeler about 2:58 a.m. and a van stopped along with the truck. The explanation provided to the police officer conducting the traffic stop was that the van was providing security for the transport truck, Wikel said. He added that the officer conducting the stop called for backup.

The truck was reportedly traveling from Kentucky to Colorado.

By late morning Jan. 9, a large section of the municipal parking area behind Pawhuska City Hall was the scene of a multi-agency investigation by city, county, state and federal law officers. Pawhuska police handled security on the portion of the parking area being used. There were barricades and yellow crime scene tape. The transport truck and the van that pulled over with it were at the center of activity. Passersby had questions, such as, “Did someone die?” Television crews scrambled to get good images.

Law-enforcement involved in the investigation included federal drug-enforcement officers, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the Osage County Sheriff's Office and the Pawhuska Police Department, Wikel said. Fisher and members of his staff were present on the investigation scene, as well.

Wikel said the federal officers were taking over the investigation. Wikel added the material being shipped in the truck had field-tested positive for marijuana, but he clarified that industrial hemp can do that. He said law officers found paperwork during the investigation that listed Illinois, Kansas and Texas as states to be avoided with the cargo in the truck.

Officers moved the transport truck from the municipal parking area downtown to the training center at the Osage County Sheriff's Department, south of town, to unload the shipment. By early afternoon Jan. 9, law officers were busy breaking open containers and examining their contents.