CLEARFIELD – Amid the legal squabbling of four attorneys during the sixth day of the Operation Drive Thru trial, jurors heard more testimony from the chief investigating agent, two co-defendants in the case, including one who had previously refused to speak and a witness who shared a jail cell with the alleged Philadelphia-based drug supplier.
The defendants currently standing trial are Michael Styers, 55, of Mercer; Charles Gearhart, 41, of Woodland; and Maharaji “Bean” Hemingway, 36, of Philadelphia, who are accused of operating a massive cocaine ring in Clearfield County.
Styers is charged with 14 counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance; criminal conspiracy; criminal use of communication facility; two counts of dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity; two counts of corrupt organizations; persons not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer firearms; burglary; theft by unlawful taking or disposition; criminal attempt; criminal trespass; and racketeering.
Gearhart is charged with 14 counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance; criminal conspiracy; criminal use of communication facility; dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity; two counts of corrupt organizations; and racketeering.
Hemingway is charged with six counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance; criminal conspiracy; criminal use of communication facility; dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity; two counts of corrupt organizations; racketeering; and false imprisonment.
The defendants’ charges resulted from an investigation into a drug trafficking organization operated by Styers, who allegedly traveled to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Wilkes Barre and obtained cocaine to resale to customers in Clearfield. Styers’ operation allegedly imported more than 20 kilograms of cocaine into Clearfield beginning in 2004 and also generated millions of dollars in profits, according to a press release from the state’s attorney general’s office in 2008.
The investigation was dubbed “Operation Drive Thru,” because it has been alleged that both Charles and Danielle Gearhart regularly sold cocaine to multiple customers through the rear window of their trailer in Hyde. Defendant Charles Gearhart was allegedly second in command to Styers, and their supplier was Hemingway, or “Bean,” of Philadelphia.
A low-key investigation into the Clearfield-based cocaine ring began in 2004. However, that investigation intensified on April 12, 2006 after the Lawrence Township Police Department discovered a large quantity of cocaine in a vehicle during a traffic stop on Mann Road. Gearhart was the operator of that vehicle.
Agent Dave Jordan testified he wasn’t positive how his office calculated that the Clearfield cocaine ring imported more than 20 kilograms. He said they conduct historical reviews of all individual testimony as well as any drugs that were seized. Afterward, they attempt to determine the “overall totality” within a starting and ending point.
According to him, he hasn’t personally attempted to go back historically and do the calculations. However, in referencing the 156 grams, or 7 ounces, seized in the Mann Road incident, he said from his experience, it wasn’t an amount for “personal use.”
Jordan described the Mann Road incident as a “catalyst” for their investigation. In 2004-05, he and Clearfield County Deputy Sheriff Robert Snyder suspected there was a cocaine operation in Clearfield. He said the Mann Road incident “accelerated” the investigation and indicated there was “definitely” a drug trafficking organization present.
In addition, he told the jury it helped them determine who and what was involved and caused their investigation to “spider-web” out beyond the four individuals linked to the Mann Road incident. He said it was indicative that multiple ounce quantities of cocaine were being trafficked.
Because it was a historical investigation over an extended timeframe, Jordan said it wasn’t an “active” investigation in its early stages. He said they didn’t have confidential informants who were purchasing from targets. From his experience, he said it’s difficult to have confidential informants in small towns, such as Clearfield.
“In small areas like this, everybody knows everybody, and word spreads fast. It’s a very difficult thing in a tight-knit community,” he said. Midway through their investigation, he indicated that Tara Swatsworth had served as a confidential informant for a controlled purchase with a low-level target, but that person wasn’t the focus of their investigation.
During his questioning, Jordan also addressed his procedures for approaching witnesses within an investigation. He told the jury he usually doesn’t approach a witness unless he has sufficient information for him to conduct a successful interview. He said he prefers to know more than the witness he’s interviewing.
He said that he doesn’t “force” anyone to speak with him. He provides them with the type of investigation as well as who is being investigated. The witness subsequently determines if they’re willing to cooperate.
“I only ask that they tell the truth and don’t minimize anything. I don’t force them to tell me anything. At some point, they’re going to be on the witness stand, and I want them to tell the truth. It’s not my job to force them to cooperate,” Jordan said.
He said that plea agreements do help motivate witnesses who could also potentially face charges to cooperate in an investigation. Citing his 22 years of experience, he said this happens in almost every case.
During his testimony Friday, Michael S. Gearhart said that Jordan and other deputies were telling him what happened and what this person and that person said when he met with them at some point prior to his testimony before the grand jury. Under cross-examination, he added that he believed he simply regurgitated the information from that briefing when he testified before the grand jury.
On Monday, Jordan said that Michael S. Gearhart wasn’t treated any differently than any other witnesses in this or any case. He said he didn’t instruct him to regurgitate any information during their meeting. He said that they neither attempt to threaten nor intimidate any witnesses when meeting with them over the course of an investigation.
Jordan told the jury that sometimes, it’s difficult to pinpoint certain dates and times in a long-term investigation in which you’re working with drug users with short-term memories. Under cross-examination, he explained they attempt to tie significant events within an investigation to significant events in the witnesses’ lives, such as times of incarceration, pregnancy, etc.
He said this particular investigation was more complex, as it included multiple individuals with multiple drug sources in multiple cities. Through the interview process, he said they were able to narrow it down with some specific dates and timeframes for a two- to – three-year time period, spanning from 2005 into part of 2007.
In other testimony:
Brandon Kifer was cross-examined first thing Monday morning after Hemingway’s attorney learned Friday afternoon that he’d shared a cell with his client at the Clearfield County Jail in 2009. Initially, when asked by defense attorney Lance Marshall, who represents Hemingway, Brandon Kifer said he’d only met Hemingway once in Philadelphia at which time he’d left his sister, Autumn, behind as collateral in a drug deal.
A short while later, the witness admitted he and Hemingway had been cellmates for 13 days between Feb. 6 and Feb. 19 of 2009 when they were both incarcerated at the CCJ. He said he was aware his cellmate was the man with whom he’d exchanged drugs with and whom had been accused of falsely imprisoning his sister.
“She’s a grown-up. She was willing. I felt bad. I felt like I was in the wrong,” Brandon Kifer said. “To me, he took care of her. He fed her. He clothed her.”
He told the jury it didn’t bother him that he’d stiffed Hemingway of the profits of a half-ounce of cocaine. He said he didn’t request for CCJ officials to move him out of his cell with Hemingway.
Later, under re-direct, Brandon Kifer said he’d spoken with the commonwealth, and it was his understanding to minimize any discussion of incarceration. He was aware he owed Hemingway a substantial amount for the cocaine, and he didn’t want to bring it up. He said he and Hemingway didn’t discuss the case while incarcerated together.
When Marshall asked about his cocaine habit in the summer of 2006, Brandon Kifer said it was hard to “put a number on” how much he’d used. He could only say it was “a lot,” “all the time” and “every day,” and he had as many as five or six sources. However, he frequented one or two sources more than others.
“It was an escape from reality,” he said, adding he’d used the half-ounce of cocaine that he’d acquired from Hemingway within the weekend. He couldn’t recall who or if he’d shared the cocaine with anyone.
When cross-examining Brandon Kifer, Marshall pointed out that he hadn’t mentioned Hemingway in his grand jury testimony Feb. 6, 2008. Under re-direct, he told the jury he wasn’t proud of his actions, and he didn’t mention Hemingway because he didn’t know what would happen and feared the consequences of his actions.
“Everything was coming down all at once. I just didn’t say anything then,” Brandon Kifer said. He confirmed that when incarcerated at CCJ, he knew his cellmate was Hemingway, or the man with whom he’d exchanged drugs and left his sister behind with.
Under cross-examination, Marshall pointed out that while sleeping at night at CCJ, Brandon Kifer would have been locked inside an 8-foot by 8-foot cell for 12 hours. The witness said he didn’t feel threatened by Hemingway.
Michael C. Gearhart, a co-defendant in the case, said he knew Styers during a timeframe from 2004 through 2006. He’d met Styers through Bill McCracken, and later on, he learned he could acquire cocaine from Styers. He told the jury he reached that conclusion based upon the “environment” at Styers’ garage. He described it as they were often “partying” and “indulging” in cocaine.
He testified he was getting cocaine from Styers, and he often used it there. He estimated that he partied at Styers’ garage about 12 times one summer, and he’d purchased cocaine from him a couple times. He paid $60 to $80 for a gram.
In addition, Michael C. Gearhart testified that he worked in the Lansdale area. He said Brandon Kifer was there with him for about a month. They stayed in a motel together, and he recalled his brother, Charles Gearhart showing up once with cocaine.
According to him, he and his brother and Brandon and Autumn Kifer “indulged” in the cocaine. He didn’t know from who or where his brother had acquired the cocaine. However, he wasn’t surprised that his brother had cocaine with him.
“I’d seen him with Styers. I knew he was indulging,” Michael C. Gearhart said. He wasn’t certain how much his brother had with him at the motel, saying they didn’t “scale it out.”
Under cross-examination, he told the jury he never purchased cocaine from his brother, Charles Gearhart.
Anthony Manchio, a co-defendant who refused to testify Thursday and who was then found in contempt at the time, changed his mind about speaking in court. Clearfield County President Judge Fredric Ammerman, however, prohibited the commonwealth from questioning him about his interactions with Hemingway after Marshall notified the judge he hadn’t received the supplemental report regarding it.
In summer of 2006, Manchio said he knew Autumn Kifer and was in “somewhat of a relationship” with her. He said her mother, Cindy Kifer, had contacted him about Autumn Kifer supposedly being kidnapped after a “bad drug deal” in Philadelphia.
At that point, he was neither provided with a telephone number or name. He received subsequent calls from both Cindy and Autumn Kifer. He said Autumn Kifer told him that she was in “Philly somewhere,” and he eventually traveled to pick her up.
En route to Philadelphia, he remained in contact with her, and she guided him to her location. He remembered traveling to a dead-end road, where Autumn Kifer came out and an African American male was with her. He spoke to the male briefly, and Autumn Kifer eventually got in his car.
Manchio said afterward, they proceeded to his home in Wilks Barre, and she stayed with him there for a short while.
Ammerman vacated his previous order that found Manchio in contempt when he refused to testify on Thursday.
The trial resumes today at 9 a.m. at the Clearfield County Courthouse. The commonwealth is expected to rest its case.