Severe Thunderstorm Watch issued February 24 at 9:46PM EST expiring February 25 at 2:00AM EST in effect for: Adams, Brown, Delaware, Fairfield, Fayette, Franklin, Highland, Hocking, Licking, Madison, Pickaway, Pike, Ross, Scioto, Union
Severe Thunderstorm Watch issued February 24 at 9:46PM EST expiring February 25 at 2:00AM EST in effect for: Lewis, Mason
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Severe Thunderstorm Watch issued February 24 at 6:38PM EST expiring February 25 at 2:00AM EST in effect for: Adams, Auglaize, Brown, Butler, Champaign, Clark, Clermont, Clinton, Darke, Delaware, Fairfield, Fayette, Franklin, Greene, Hamilton, Hardin, Highland, Hocking, Licking, Logan, Madison, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Pickaway, Pike, Preble, Ross, Scioto, Shelby, Union, Warren
Severe Thunderstorm Watch issued February 24 at 6:38PM EST expiring February 25 at 2:00AM EST in effect for: Dearborn, Fayette, Franklin, Ohio, Ripley, Switzerland, Union, Wayne
Severe Thunderstorm Watch issued February 24 at 6:38PM EST expiring February 25 at 2:00AM EST in effect for: Boone, Bracken, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Kenton, Lewis, Mason, Owen, Pendleton, Robertson
MAYSVILLE, Ky. - Cars and cash have been seized by the Buffalo Trace/Gateway Narcotics Task Force. How many and how much?
We don't know.
Because the seven-county drug task force has not filed a single mandatory report of its forfeitures to the commonwealth in the last five years.
Like most multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, this Maysville-based agency partially funds its operations with money and property forfeited by accused drug dealers. But the I-Team uncovered at least one case where the director of the Buffalo Trace/Gateway Narcotics Task Force let admitted drug dealers go free in order to pursue another suspect who had property the director could seize.
The former director's name is Tim Fegan. He was a drug agent on the task force for two decades, and its commander beginning in 2010.
"I would love to see him go to prison," said Joey Osborne, "where he tried to put me under false pretenses."
A Mason County jury found Osborne not guilty of felony drug charges in 2010. Despite the acquittal on drug trafficking and possession charges, a judge ordered the 2006 Dodge Ram pick-up truck Osborne was driving at the time of his arrest to be sold at auction, with half the money going to the task force.
Agent Fegan was the one who arrested Osborne in 2008. The truck has been parked outside the task force offices in Maysville for nearly five years now, through the criminal trial and forfeiture appeal.
Osborne was addicted to pain pills at the time of his arrest, and he had a prescription for Percocet, but no pills were found in his truck that day.
The drug task force wasn't targeting Joey Osborne the day he was arrested.
Agent Fegan had sent a wired informant into a Maysville house to buy an oxycontin pill from the young parents who lived there. Fegan had given his informant $100 in marked bills to make the buy, and he was listening to the wire during the transaction.
Joey Osborne pulled up in his mother's new pick-up truck, and Agent Fegan's focus shifted from the drug-dealing couple to the truck.
"The task force changed its target, because Osborne had something to offer them that they desired more than what they were getting on tape," defense attorney Alex Lubens-Otto told the jury at Osborne's trial.
The defense tried to present evidence that the drug task force was "policing for profit" -- focusing on asset forfeiture instead of catching major drug dealers. Judge Stockton Wood, himself a former commonwealth attorney who had prosecuted task force cases in the past, limited such evidence, believing the defense was pursuing jury nullification to get an acquittal.
When Fegan was on the stand, Lubens-Otto tried to question him about his attempts to seize the truck before the judge shut her down (You can watch Fegan's testimony and the entire Osborne trial in the video players above. Mobile users, go to WCPO.com to see the videos):
Fegan: "If a vehicle was involved in a felony drug trafficking act, it is subject to forfeiture." Lubens-Otto: "And that's only if you've proven that case, correct?" Fegan: "That's what we're doing here today." Lubens-Otto: "No, you haven't proven the case yet, I'm asking you, you've held on to this truck from that day?" Judge Wood: "All right, we've had enough of pursuing this. Let's move on."
Part of this could have been a defense tactic to get a not guilty verdict, but Osborne and his attorney said they were approached by the prosecution before trial with an offer to make the felony charges go away if his mother would just sign over the truck.
"That was their words," said Osborne. "'This will go away. You'll have a misdemeanor if you give me your truck.'"
"If I signed over the truck to them, then it would all go away," said Jewell McLain, Osborne's mother and the owner of the truck. She's a retired police officer from Aberdeen, Ohio.
Facing 10 years in prison, Osborne begged his mother to sign over the title to the task force. "He said, 'just give them the truck,' and I said 'it's not about the truck. It's about the principle, and you're not guilty, and we're going to prove that in court' -- and we did," McLain said.
So what really happened the day Osborne's truck was seized?
Osborne said he drove from Aberdeen to a friend's house in Maysville to collect a debt. The father in the drug house was an old friend from high school, and Osborne said he owed him $100. He said the father had paid him back using the buy money from the informant.
The drug-dealing parents were not arrested that day, even though they were recorded on tape selling the pill to Fegan's informant in front of their 2-year-old son.
They were indicted a year later and had their felony charges reduced in return for testifying against Osborne. They admitted to selling the pill on the stand, but said they got it from Osborne.
After the felony acquittal, did Osborne and his mother get the truck back? No. It's still deteriorating in the task force parking lot.
A seized pickup truck deteriorates in the Buffalo Trace Drug Task Force parking lot.
It is unusual for police to seize a $20,000 truck on a misdemeanor drug conviction, but Judge Wood ruled that a drug deal did indeed take place in the truck. While the standard of proof for a criminal conviction is "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard for asset forfeiture is "clear and convincing evidence."
Because Jewell McLain's name was also on the title and she had paid for the truck, the judge ruled only half was subject to forfeiture. A three judge panel is expected to rule on Osborne's appeal of the forfeiture any day now.
"It got to be comical how badly they wanted this truck," said former police detective Wayne Wallace. "You'd have thought it was made of gold the way they wanted it," he said.
Wallace retired after an investigative career with the Kenton County Police and the prosecutor's office. He's now a forensic consultant and he took Osborne's case free of charge.
"They didn't say we're offended by you dealing drugs in our county, they said we want your truck," said Wallace.
The retired police detective said he was shocked by the deals Fegan would cut on the street.
"Fegan would allow drug users to continue using drugs, he would decide who to charge, he would decide who went forward to prosecute," Wallace said.
Fegan admitted on the stand that he would "continually" let drug felons go to further his cases against specific targets.
Osborne said, "not only did he keep these people on drugs, he paid them to go do drugs."
It came out in trial that those who agreed to work with Fegan saw their charges erased or reduced, and they earned $50 for helping on misdemeanor arrests, and $100 for felonies.
In all, three people charged with serious drug felonies were offered deals to testify against Osborne in a trial that netted a misdemeanor conviction and a pick-up truck.
The defense argument that the Buffalo Trace/Gateway Narcotics Task Force was running a "policing for profit" operation in 2010 is now seen through the lens of the recent termination of Agent Fegan and the investigation into missing money.