All eight defendants pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. All will serve years on probation after their release from prison.
Melanie Maxwell O'Connor: 70 months in prison
Raymond Scott Knox: 67 months
Benjamin "Chuck" Brown: 92 months
Hank Sherwood: 160 months
Wallace "Boonie" Stokes Jr.: 300 months
Shane Lee Runyon: 148 months
Deveria McCall: 70 months
Joseph Dunkin: 151 months
Brandon Steele: 135 months
Marcus Dean "Crow" Grissom*
* Sentencing set for January
Source: U.S. District Court
When Wallace "Boonie" Stokes pleaded guilty to federal meth conspiracy charges this summer, he said in court it was a better option than facing the death penalty in the 2010 killing of Monroe County, Tenn., elections official Jim Miller.
When Stokes was sentenced to 25 years Thursday, he learned that charges in the Miller robbery-slaying are still on the table for him as well as the friend whose name he gave the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as the killer.
Stokes was named in a multicount federal indictment as leader of a ring that made methamphetamine in his rural Monroe County home -- the locals called it Hell's Kitchen -- between 2009 and 2012. Of a dozen defendants, all have pleaded guilty. Eight, including Stokes, were sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier.
Stokes' lawyer, Russell Leonard, of Winchester, Tenn., questioned whether Stokes should get time shaved from his sentence, like some of his co-defendants, because he'd cooperated with investigators.
Stokes claimed he'd gotten assurances that "you could help yourself" from TBI Special Agent Josh Melton on Oct. 19, 2012, when agents showed up at the house with a search warrant. That was well before the indictments were handed down.
"Mr. Stokes 'fessed up first. ... He was first and he was honest," Leonard said Thursday. "... Here's a full confession -- it exposes everything and everyone."
Melton took the stand and in answer to Leonard's question said Stokes had not only talked about the meth conspiracy but the Miller killing.
"He knew we would ask about the conspiracy and potentially an unsolved murder. I thought he wanted to divert the attention away from the homicide," Melton testified.
He said Stokes denied any role in the Miller killing but said one of his co-defendants in the meth case is the killer.
Melton didn't mention a name, but last year Stokes and co-defendant Brandon Steele were named as Miller's killers by the only person to be charged so far in the death, Jessica Kennedy.
Miller's body was found in his burning car near the Hell's Kitchen meth lab. Kennedy had told investigators at least a dozen versions of how the crime happened. A jury in August 2012 found her guilty of facilitation of murder, robbery, arson and abuse of a corpse and she was sentenced to 22 years.
When Leonard asked Melton if the Miller investigation remains open, he said yes.
And if Stokes is a suspect?
"Yes, he is," Melton said.
Melton said he didn't make any promises to Stokes except to report his cooperation to the prosecutor.
Seated at a side table, Stokes interrupted, calling out, "That's a lie! He's a liar!"
He apologized after a lecture on decorum by Collier.
But at his plea hearing in July, Stokes told Magistrate Judge Susan Lee he'd agreed to plead guilty to the meth conspiracy because "they've threatened me with the death penalty."
During his early interviews with Melton, Stokes said, "I told them everything, but it incriminated me on this. ... I told on myself to keep myself from getting in trouble on this other thing and they used it all against me. ... This [guilty plea] is better than the death penalty."
During that July hearing, Leonard clarified for Lee: "There was a gentleman by the name of Joe [Jim] Miller who was murdered. Josh Melton was actually interviewing Mr. Stokes initially about the murder and as a result Mr. Stokes panicked, basically, just told Mr. Melton everything he knew about everything and everyone."
When Collier allowed the eight defendants to make statements before imposing sentence, most apologized to him and their families. Some wept.
When Stokes' turn came, he turned around from the judge to face Melton, sitting at the prosecution table.
Looking straight at the agent, Stokes said, "I hope, Josh, you find out who killed Jim Miller. I hope with all my heart you do, because I think it played a large part in all this today."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at 423-757-6416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...