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Felony drug charges against 4 tossed amid doubts about investigation

The state this week dismissed serious drug charges against four men after a Southwest District judge suppressed key evidence over issues with the investigation.

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The state had charged Dylan Maki, Paul Trawick, Brandon Lee Thomas, all of Dickinson, and Victor Ryan, of Navarre, Fla., with multiple felony crimes related to possessing and selling drugs, and the case was headed for trial.

But while parts of Dickinson police Lt. Dave Wallace’s testimony also proved to be false, it was larger issues with the investigation — trusting possibly unreliable informants — that meant there wasn’t probable cause to validate a search warrant, Judge Zane Anderson said in his order suppressing the evidence.

So the evidence found in a May 28 search of the 8th Avenue West house — powder substances and paraphernalia that could be used in dealing drugs — can’t be used in court. Without that, the state doesn’t have much of a case, so it dropped the charges.

The judge wrote that, basically, Wallace and Stark County sheriff’s Deputy Tim Josephson should have known better than to rely on testimony of informants whose reliability hadn’t been established.

The Dickinson Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into Wallace’s testimony, police Chief Dustin Dassinger said.

He wouldn’t comment on what the possible outcomes are.

Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said his department checked into the testimony, but he wouldn’t comment on the judge’s decision to suppress and couldn’t confirm whether there would be an internal investigation into Josephson.

The four men can be retried within the three-year statute of limitations, State’s Attorney Tom Henning said.

Problems with investigation

Travis Finck, Maki’s lawyer, filed a motion Sept. 9 to suppress evidence, saying the warrant was based on unverified information from sources whose reliability wasn’t entirely established.

The other defendants’ attorneys followed suit, and the requests were considered as one.

In a brief, Finck outlined his problems with the informant, Jacob Schmitt, who told investigators he bought methamphetamine at the house in mid-May. Schmitt had a lengthy criminal history, and investigators didn’t thoroughly verify that the man Schmitt described buying from was the defendant, Trawick.

Schmitt gave the information as a recent arrestee, not a confidential informant, and therefore wasn’t reliable and “comes under greater scrutiny,” Finck wrote.

And, he said, Schmitt’s information, already shaky because of his criminal history, was not corroborated.

Officers lacked similar corroboration for information gleaned from a confidential informant, Finck wrote.

“It appears as if bit[s] and pieces of otherwise contradictory evidence were thrown together to justify the warrant … It is not necessarily alleged the officers knowingly and intentionally provided false information, rather they did so with reckless disregard for the truth,” Finck wrote.

In its response, the state admitted only the two relatively minor falsehoods in Wallace’s testimony, and said without those, there was still probable cause enough for the warrant.

The admitted errors were that Wallace falsely testified that an informant physically took officers to the house and said he had bought drugs there — the informant had only described the location of the house. Wallace also incorrectly said the product Schmitt bought had been tested by Dickinson police and found to be methamphetamine.

But Anderson said Schmitt, as a member of the “criminal milieu,” needed to be proven reliable, and was not. Officers also did not prove reliability for the confidential informant, the judge wrote.

Damning evidence

In an evidence inventory, Josephson recorded finding plastic bags, scales with residue on them, powered substances, cash and grinders around the house’s living room.

Once Anderson suppressed the evidence, Henning filed to dismiss the state’s charges against the four because without the findings from the search, there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the trial.