Greenville, South Carolina — United States Attorney Peter M. McCoy, Jr. announced today that Fernando Lara, 45, of Marietta, Georgia, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, marking the thirteenth and final defendant to be sentenced in a large methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy in Georgia and the Upstate region of South Carolina. The sentences, which total 145 years in federal prison, come after twelve guilty pleas and Lara’s conviction at trial.
“These armed drug dealers posed a serious threat to the people of South Carolina and Georgia, which is reflected in the more than a century of federal prison time imposed,” said U.S. Attorney McCoy. “Along with our federal, state, and local partners we brought this criminal enterprise to an end and we will continue to vigorously prosecute those who endanger their communities.”
“Methamphetamine continues to ravage many communities in our nation,” said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Atlanta Field Division Special Agent in Charge Robert J. Murphy. “Because of the positive results yielded in this case, other methamphetamine manufacturers in the upstate of South Carolina and elsewhere should be put on notice that DEA, its law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate their continued efforts to manufacture and distribute this insidious drug.”
“Cases like this have an immediate and positive impact on the community,” said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Charlotte Special Agent in Charge Vince Pallozzi. “A substantial number of firearms have been recovered, a large amount of narcotics seized and taken off the streets, and, most important, numerous individuals that threatened our communities are now in prison. This is a collaborative win for public safety.”
Evidence presented at Lara’s trial established that he was a methamphetamine trafficker from Georgia who would sell pure methamphetamine in kilogram quantities to a co-defendant, Angela G. Skelton, 41, of Starr, who would bring the methamphetamine back into the Upstate region of South Carolina for distribution. Lara would often offer a better price on methamphetamine in exchange for firearms from Skelton. On January 16, 2019, Lara and Skelton were pulled over on Interstate 85 in Anderson County with approximately two kilograms of methamphetamine and a loaded pistol in the vehicle.
As to the other co-defendants, evidence presented to the court established that beginning in or around August 2017, co-defendant Briand F. Zapata-Rodriguez, 45, of Sandy Springs, Georgia, would transport kilogram quantities of methamphetamine from around Atlanta into the Upstate region of South Carolina, primarily into Anderson and Abbeville Counties. Zapata-Rodriguez would then use a network of runners and distributors to break up and distribute the methamphetamine throughout the Upstate. Several of the traffickers illegally possessed firearms and ammunition during the course of their drug trafficking activity. During the course of the investigation, agents seized over 30 kilograms of methamphetamine, 36 firearms, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than $157,000 in cash. Evidence presented to the court indicated that this drug trafficking organization was responsible for the distribution of over 214 kilograms of methamphetamine during its time operating in Georgia and South Carolina.
United States District Judge Donald C. Coggins, Jr., presided over the case. In addition to Lara’s 300-month sentence, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision, the following Defendants were sentenced in the case:
- Skelton: 52 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Zapata-Rodriguez: 280 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Christopher C. Presley, 29, of Honea Path: 145 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Jonathan E. Gilmer, 37, of Starr: 360 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Tara M. Thomason, 41, of Iva: 108 months, to be followed by a ten-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Tena M. Todd, 47, of Calhoun Falls: 72 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Randy N. Gilliam, 60, of Honea Path: 48 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Michael R. Mitchem, 55, of Iva: 80 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Matthew J. Green, 41, of Belton: 48 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Christian D. Black, 30, of Honea Path: 96 months, to be followed by a five-year term of court-ordered supervision;
- Jesse L. Williams, 30, of Honea Path: 125 months, to be followed by a four-year term of court-ordered supervision; and
- Florence A. Gilmer, 43, of Anderson: 36 months of court-ordered supervision.
There is no parole in the federal system. This case was investigated by the DEA, ATF, Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, City of Anderson Police Department, Abbeville County Sheriff’s Office, and City of Greenwood City Police Department. This case was prosecuted as part of the joint federal, state, and local Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), the centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s violent crime reduction efforts. PSN is an evidence-based program proven to be effective at reducing violent crime. Through PSN, a broad spectrum of stakeholders work together to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in the community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them. As part of this strategy, PSN focuses enforcement efforts on the most violent offenders and partners with locally based prevention and reentry programs for lasting reductions in crime.
Assistant United States Attorney Sloan P. Ellis of the Greenville office prosecuted the case.
The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice. Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years.