Fargo meth dealer blamed for friend's fatal overdose
The last page in Betty Thomas' scrapbook displays her son's gravestone and death certificate, dated Aug. 10, 2009.
"This is how using meth ends," she said Thursday in Fargo's U.S. District Court.
During an emotional and lengthy hearing, the man blamed for Jason Thomas' methamphetamine overdose was sentenced to 27 years in prison on federal drug and weapons charges.
Jesse Ryan Walters of Fargo also was ordered to pay nearly $31,000 in court fees and restitution costs for his crimes in relation to a multistate meth-trafficking conspiracy known as "Operation Budapest."
Court officials said the case exemplifies the region's problems with drug trafficking and the type of harm street-level dealers like Walters can inflict on local communities.
Walters had been Jason Thomas' friend and meth supplier.
Two days before Thomas' death last year, his then-girlfriend Ashley Pierson received a phone call from Walters, she recalled during Thursday's hearing.
Walters had said Thomas called him from Bismarck, saying he'd ingested 2.5 grams of meth and couldn't stop shaking. The 25-year-old Thomas wondered if he should go to the hospital.
Pierson recalled that Walters said he told Thomas it was OK, he'd eaten more than two-and-a-half grams before and been fine.
"Just go back to the hotel and sweat it out," Pierson said Walters told Thomas.
Three days later, though, Pierson got another phone call from Walters.
"He didn't actually tell me; he just said: 'Are you sitting down?' " Pierson said in court. "I hung up, because I knew (Thomas was dead)."
Walters' actions in the months that followed were "stunning," Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said.
Despite losing his friend, Walters didn't stop dealing. Even when he knew federal authorities had him on their radar, he continued.
Walters was ultimately arrested in a drug bust in March, after being found in possession of meth and two loaded firearms.
Myers said Walters has assisted authorities with their investigation of "Operation Budapest," but the remorse over Thomas' death was late-coming.
"He may well truly have remorse now, but he did not have remorse immediately after the death of his friend," Myers said. "This defendant didn't miss a beat. He continued to possess firearms and sell drugs, even after."
In a tearful speech before the court, Betty Thomas described her son as "good, kind, gentle, caring and loving," and she condemned Walters for taking advantage of him.
"You did nothing. You could've called 911, but you told him to walk it off," she said. "He trusted you. ... I believe (Jason) would still be alive today had he not met you."
Walters faced a possible life sentence for the charges against him.
Myers requested a sentence of 30 years, while defense attorney Johnathan Judd requested 14 years.
In arguing for leniency, Judd said Walters began his life of drug abuse around the age of 12. His father was a heavy drinker, and his parents worked, so they weren't around while Walters was growing up.
Repeated attempts in the past to get Walters clean had failed, Judd said, adding that "if Jesse was not high, he was incarcerated."
Walters' criminal record includes 12 Class C felony convictions in Cass County since 2001. The crimes included theft and possessing drug paraphernalia and narcotics.
Judd noted that "in a twisted bent of irony," Thursday was Walters' 27th birthday.
He asked District Court Judge Ralph R. Erickson to give Walters "the gift of his life: Don't sentence him to life in prison."
"Whatever time he has left in his life, he needs to make things right," Judd said. "We're merely asking the court for the opportunity to be able to do that."
Walters teared up throughout the hearing and apologized to Thomas' family members in the audience before his sentence was handed down.
"Words cannot describe how truly sorry I am for your loss and for my role in this," Walters said. "I hope someday you can forgive me."
"I know I can never truly rebuild all the things I've destroyed, but I hope to become a productive member of society someday," he added.
Judd said Walters was merely a street-level dealer who supplied himself and his friends with meth.
But Erickson said Walters' role is "really an irreplaceable cog in this business model" of drug-trafficking conspiracies.
"Cartels would have no one to sell to if there weren't street-level dealers moving this stuff," Erickson said.