BURLINGTON — A Philadelphia man, who officials say set up a drug distribution business in an apartment of a Barre woman whose brother is a federal drug investigator, was sentenced Friday to 6 years in prison.
Wendell E. Saunders, 41, learned he will be on federal supervised release for 3 years after release, but also is wanted for a possible parole violation in Philadelphia.
"I let my addiction take the best of me," he told U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss, adding he had medical issues related to pain.
He pleaded guilty to possessing heroin with intent to sell in 2015.
Saunders, who used the street name "J," began selling drugs in Chittenden County and spread into Washington County in early 2015, U.S. District Court records show. He was eventually arrested on Sept. 17, 2015, in Barre.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force members followed the suspect back to an apartment on South Main Street, which belonged to Allison Paquette, court records show. Her brother works for the DEA.
Investigators arrested Saunders after he drove to the Big Lots parking lot in Essex Junction to complete a negotiated heroin sale, a court affidavit said. Police said they found 120 bags of heroin, but Saunders denied ownership.
During a subsequent search of the Barre apartment investigators found 1,030 bags of heroin, 88 grams of raw heroin, 64 grams of crack cocaine and some powder cocaine all inside a Coach bag in a bedroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller wrote in court papers.
Officers also found $10,000 in cash and two firearms, including an assault rifle in the couch in the living room and a .22 caliber revolver in a jewelry box in the bedroom, Fuller wrote. Paquette said the handgun was hers, but not the assault rifle, police said. Saunders was indicted on four heroin sales and one charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin and crack cocaine. On Friday, Fuller asked for 12½ years in prison because of the nature of the crime, that guns were found and Saunders is considered a career criminal under federal law. Among his felony convictions is an aggravated assault where he shot a person three times, Reiss noted.
Defense lawyer Jordana M. Levine said a 5-year sentence was more appropriate. She objected to claims he was a career criminal.
Reiss said it appeared Saunders had some strong family ties with his children, his mother, daughters and with Paquette, and said a shorter sentence was proper.
Paquette was initially charged in U.S. District Court with making her home available for the distribution and use of illegal drugs, but the case was later dropped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
During questioning of Paquette, DEA agents attempted to use her brother's employment to get her to cooperate, but it did not seem to work, court records show, suggesting their relationship was strained.
"She is not a person on Team USA," Fuller told the court on Friday. "She is in love with (Saunders). She wants to protect him."
While Paquette was initially charged in the Saunders case, the case was later dropped. An investigator with the Federal Public Defender's office conducted an interview in a related case with Paquette and a portion of the interview about Saunders was inadvertently disclosed to the government, court records show.
U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan had not taken over the office when the case was dropped, but offered a general comment late Friday afternoon about the dismissed Paquette case, saying U.S. attorneys make decisions about whether to prosecute based on strength of evidence and other factors.
"These factors were carefully considered with respect to Alison Paquette," she said.
The Vermont Drug Task Force also linked Paquette, while living on Pearl Street in Burlington in 2014, to a heroin distribution case, court records show.
The Saunders case dragged on in part because of its complexity and due to the defendant going through five court-appointed lawyers during the past three years.
Saunders will get credit for his three years in prison. He also faces a potential parole violation in Pennsylvania when he is released. Fuller urged Reiss not to consider that case and allow authorities in that state to deal with the violation.