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Last December Justin Berger of Lynchburg was walking around as an 18-year-old teen with $4,000 cash in his pocket and another $12,000 at his home ? and he didn't have a regular job.
Now that money is in the hands of law enforcement officials and Berger stands guilty of three counts of distribution of cocaine and one count of possession with the intent to distribute. Berger pleaded guilty in Bedford County Circuit Court last week to the charges and faces five to 40 years on each count.
Berger was arrested Dec. 29 last year after having sold crack cocaine on three different occasions (Dec. 15, 27 and 29) to an undercover officer with the Bedford County Sheriff's office, according to Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Krantz. "He had come to the attention of the narcotics unit as a fairly large drug dealer, dealing drugs in the area," Krantz said.
The undercover officer infiltrated Berger's drug dealing operation which led to the actual purchases, along with some additional information, that led to his arrest.
Krantz said the undercover officer learned about a "large delivery of drugs" that Berger would be receiving.
O'Dell Martin, 54, of Moneta, was driving Berger. Krantz said Martin, who pleaded guilty to drug charges in June related to the case, transported Berger around during his drug dealing. Martin pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, receiving a 10 year prison sentence, with six years suspended. He also received an additional year for eluding police when police attempted to stop the car he was driving.
Following the Dec. 29 drug purchase, officers put the car driven by Martin, with Berger inside, under surveillance. When officers went to make the arrest, Martin attempted to flee from them. The car was pursued and eventually stopped.
During the chase, officers noticed some drugs thrown out of the car, which were also recovered.
Krantz said riding in the car, in addition to Martin and Berger, was Berger's teenage brother. Krantz said Berger told officers he would tell them what happened if they didn't arrest his brother.
Krantz said Berger told officers he was a drug dealer, selling about 5 ounces of crack cocaine every week. He went on to tell the officers that he obtained his drugs in Pittsylvania County, adding that he had just taken delivery of 9 ounces. Krantz said that statement could be important at sentencing because sentencing guidelines go up by one-third with every one-half ounce of cocaine involved.
Krantz said one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine sells for $200 or more. If Berger was dealing 5 ounces a week, that could mean $7,500 or more in value of the crack cocaine.
"That's a pretty significant amount," Krantz said.
Krantz said he plans to use Berger's statements to the officers at sentencing in an attempt to get a higher sentence.
Berger also told police that other drug dealers in the area would only let him get so big, Krantz said. "They would limit the amount of cocaine he could get."
Krantz said in addition to the crack cocaine rocks sold to the undercover officer (.59 grams, .65 grams and .29 grams), officers seized 12.2 grams of cocaine from the car during Berger's arrest and found another 47.42 grams that they say had been thrown out of the car during the chase. He said the bag of drugs seized from the car appeared to have been eaten of swallowed because saliva was found on it.
A presentence report will be completed prior to Berger's sentencing. He is currently out of jail on $15,000 secure bond.
Krantz said Berger is believed to have been dealing drugs in Bedford, Lynchburg and Roanoke and his arrest was part of the Operation Heat Wave effort last year. He said the arrest shows how meticulous officers have to be during such an effort and how they must convince drug dealers that they are not undercover officers.
He said while there may be rumors that someone is dealing drugs, it's important that the officers actually get them to sell something to an officer.
In this case, Krantz said not only was the officer able to make several buys, but also he was able to gain information that led to even more cocaine being seized.
Krantz said while Berger might attempt to get a lighter sentence because of his age, he believes the amount of cocaine involved will be a significant factor in the sentence. Krantz added that Berger, with no plea agreement, also named who was dealing drugs to him. That information was passed along to other jurisdictions.
Also seized from the arrest was a 1993 Mercury Tracer. "We're trying to make the cost of doing drugs more expensive," Krantz said. "We're also trying to follow the money and go after the incentives."