‘Grey Death’ – how the feds took down ‘Crossley Hill Boys’ drug network responsible for overdoses
MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Leigh Wade was concerned when a strange man called her daughter’s Facebook Messenger account on Oct. 11, 2018.
“Are you good?” he asked, according to Wade’s account.
The Theodore resident said the man quickly hung up when he realized he was talking to the wrong person. Wade said she got in her car and went looking for her 27-year-old daughter, Kelsey Johnston. She said she knew only that Johnston was going to be in Tillman’s Corner that day.
Mother’s intuition, she said, led her to a string of low-end motels off of Interstate 10. She said a heavy police presence was visible when she pulled into the parking lot of the Rodeway Inn that afternoon.
That’s how Wade learned her daughter had become a statistic in the ever-growing tally of America’s overdose victims. The mother of two, a Theodore High School graduate who had been a cheerleader in both middle and high school, received a lethal dose of fentanyl that day.
“I lost it,” Wade recently told FOX10 News. “I hit the dirt. And never in a million years did I imagine that that was what I was gonna roll up on. Never.”
Johnston succumbed to fentanyl, an incredibly potent drug that has wrought havoc across the country and was then just beginning to hit the streets in Mobile.
When investigators probed the circumstances of Johnston’s death, they uncovered a loose network of dealers operating mostly in south Mobile County. It was not the volume of drugs or the amount of money changing hands that drew the attention of federal prosecutors. The $24 million enterprise run by convicted kingpin Darrin “DD” Southall was much bigger on both fronts.
“It’s more of an impact case, because it had a definitely adverse impact on the community here when you look at the overdose deaths,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Luis Peral, the lead Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force prosecutor in Mobile.
Peral and U.S. Attorney George May said federal investigators were on to the so-called Crossley Hill Boys for months in an investigation that included surveillance and undercover drug purchases.
The players: 42 indicted
Much of the enterprise was focused a house on Crossley Hill Drive in Grand Bay. That’s where the group got its informal name. One of the defendants even had the initials “CHB” tattooed to his hand, according to court records. The ensuing indictment named 42 people, an unusually high number for a single conspiracy case, and alleged drugs from the conspiracy were responsible for at least four overdose deaths and “numerous” hospitalizations.
All but three of the defendants have been convicted, and prosecutors told FOX10 News they have developed several spinoff cases from those initial defendants.
One of the key players, Martin Carlton “MC” Melton, admitted to dealing drugs from the Crossley Hill Drive house, owned by his mother and her husband. Court records show that Annetta Graynell Owens and Ed Ray Patterson – who also have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges – gambled large sums of the drug proceeds at Biloxi casinos. Raids in 2019 of that house and one on Dawes Road turned up drugs, scales, stolen weapons and ammunition.
Court records show that Melton, who earlier this month received a sentence of more than 13 years, conspired with other dealers to sell methamphetamine “ice” and then branched out into other drugs.
“Methamphetamine was the constant drugs and, you know, dozens of kilograms of methamphetamine distributed over the course of the conspiracy,” May said. “And then … methamphetamine dealing never stopped. But the heroin and fentanyl became more in demand that customers were looking for that.”
May said investigators uncovered a network that was “less top-down hierarchical” and more like independent sellers who pooled money and shared other resources. Court records point to a wide array of sources spread across the Gulf Coast and beyond. A dealer named Lemont Stevens admitted getting “ice” from a Mexican man living in Mississippi and selling large quantities to Melton.
Melton also got “ice” from suppliers in Moss Point, on Jones Road in Theodore, and from his uncle in a wooded area off of Bellingrath Road.
Mortimer “Boss” Cottrell was another supplier, who admitted that he sold heroin to Melton in Louisiana. Court records show that Louisiana state police broke up one delivery on March 4, 2020. A trooper stopped Cottrell’s car on I-10 in Calcasieu Parish. A search of the vehicle turned up 70 grams of heroin, according to his plea agreement.
A supplier in Pensacola named Reginald Burgess admitted to providing heroin to members of the conspiracy.
‘Even the maids’ were corrupt
One of the dealers, a record producer named Chad Delevieleuse – aka “Chad the Pilot” – admitted to buying fentanyl from a supplier in California who sent the drugs through the mail to his home in Lake Forest and other addresses.
Only one defendant went to trial. A jury last month found William Grant “Whip” Owens of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute drugs. Testimony at the trial linked him, specifically, to Johnston’s overdose death. Court records indicated he would meet a drug dealer named “Dogman” at a Pascagoula gas station to buy heroin, according to his plea agreement.
Much the drug activity by members of the conspiracy took place at the house on Crossley Hill Drive, the so-called “Blue House” on Dawes Road and low-end motels off of Interstate 10 in Tillman’s Corner. At least two overdose deaths, including Johnston’s, occurred at the Rodeway Inn, later called the Regency Inn.
The motel is gone now – torn down after a storm damaged the building. But while it was operating, the motel drew frequent visits from the police. The Mobile Police Department told FOX10 News that officers responded 134 times in 2018, alone – for offenses ranging from drug crimes to prostitution to stolen cars to robberies.
So rampant was the drug dealing and prosecution, according to court records, that any woman who was in the parking lot generally would be propositioned for sex in exchange for money. Prosecutors indicted three of the motel’s owners under a statute designed to go after crack cocaine houses.
However, a federal judge ultimately granted the prosecution’s request to dismiss the charges against motel owners Jaikumar “Jay” Rameshbai Patel, Paresh Patel and Mitesh Desai. Prosecutors did not explain why they decided not to pursue the charges.
Jeff Deen, an attorney who represented Jay Patel, said the owners did the best they could but did not work on site full time.
“It looked really sinister, ‘cause there was a lot of drug dealing and prostitution going on at the hotel,” he said.
Deen said Patel and his partners “were doing everything they could to stop it. But they couldn’t it.”
Deen said Patel and the others bought the motel as an investment for about $1.2 million and spent another $600,000 to renovate it. But he said his client’s own employees often took bribes to look the other way.
“He had incompetent corrupt security guards,” he said. “He had corrupt people working at the night desk. Even the maids.”
‘We have a problem with fentanyl killing people’
Fentanyl, a synthetic drug called “Grey Death” by dealers, is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and has fueled a dramatic jump in overdose deaths. The latest provisional government data show 1,232 drug overdose deaths in Alabama in the 12-month period ending in November. That was up 28 percent year over year.
For several years, fentanyl has wrought havoc across the county. May said it was late coming to Mobile. He recalled prosecutors from other parts of the country telling horror stories when he would go to conferences. At the time, he said, Mobile had been spared.
“We have a problem with fentanyl killing people,” he said.
Drug dealers often “cut,” or mix their product with other substances. The idea is dilute the drug in order to stretch the supply, thereby boosting profit.
But May said fentanyl is so potent and so cheap that dealers have flipped the formula. Now, he said, dealers can stretch the supply of a drug like heroin by adding just a tiny amount of fentanyl.
“It’s also the only time I’ve seen in my career prosecuting drug cases where a cutting agent is more powerful than the drug, itself,” he said.
May pointed to testimony from an expert witness at last month’s trial who used a penny to demonstrate the impact of a quantity of fentanyl small enough to cover only the date on the coin.
“He testified that was a deadly amount of fentanyl – deadly dose,” he said. “And I think it was 2 milligrams, which is a very small quantity.”
Johnston’s dose proved more than enough to be fatal. Her cousin and best friend, Allison Johnston, said Kelsey had struggled with post-partem depression after the birth of her second child and began using meth. She recalled pressing her to explain why.
“Her response was something that didn’t really fully make sense to me until after this case,” she said. “She said, ‘It’s not that I love the drug so much. It’s just the pain that I feel is unbearable.’”
Download the FOX10 Weather App. Get life-saving severe weather warnings and alerts for your location no matter where you are. Available free in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
Copyright 2022 WALA. All rights reserved.