Public Safety

Federal gun and opioid cases continue to grow in Iowa's Northern District

Prosecutors have refined their priorities to target more serious offenders

On Feb. 27, 2018, U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan Jr. speaks at a news conference at the U.S. District Courthouse for the Nor
On Feb. 27, 2018, U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan Jr. speaks at a news conference at the U.S. District Courthouse for the Northern District of Iowa in Cedar Rapids to highlight gun violence cases. The number of federal firearms prosecutions in the district has continued to rise, more than doubling from 2016 to 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Federal firearms prosecutions have continued to increase this year — not necessarily due to any spike in gun violence but rather because of the high priority of pursuing crimes of violence.

Federal firearms prosecutions show a steady increase over the years, more than doubling since 2016. That year, 90 people were charged; 103 in 2017; 166 in 2018; and 189 this year, according to data from the office.

Peter Deegan Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, said that although opioid cases also continued to rise, the overall number drug offenses charged this year has decreased.

Yet that drop could be deceiving, as Deegan doesn’t think drug crimes are actually on the decline. The decrease in overall cases reflects a “refinement” in focusing on the most serious drug offenses — methamphetamine and opioids — and targeting large-scale meth traffickers.

While the nation’s opioid crisis has overshadowed meth offenses, he said, meth violations remain prevalent as the drug’s purity has grown more potent and the price has come down.

Those charged with federal drug offenses were 146 in 2016; 165 in 2017; 149 in 2018; and 114 this year. While the total of all drug cases fluctuated, the proportion of cases involving opioids grew sharply — from 6 percent in 2017 to 16 percent in 2018 and 25 percent this year.

For all crimes, the Northern District charged 388 defendants in 2016, 425 in 2017, 437 in 2018 and 428 in 2019.

‘Tremendous’ teams

Deegan attributes the increasing numbers on gun prosecutions to the “tremendous” cooperation with state, county and local law enforcement in the district.

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But “it’s not about the numbers,” he said. “It’s about keeping people in Iowa safe.”

Many times, drugs and firearms are intertwined in the same cases, illustrating why cooperation among area law enforcement is so important: Information and resources can be shared to determine if a case should be prosecuted in state or federal court.

Deegan said he routinely works closely with Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Dubuque police, as well as U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives on gun cases.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said he also regularly coordinates efforts with Deegan on these crimes.

“We compare the facts of the case and determine who can get the best results,” Vander Sanden said. “In federal court, someone with a lengthy criminal history is going to get more time and there are different federal laws from the state, which result in higher prison terms. And it’s the priority for both offices to prosecute crimes of violence. ”

A good example of that cooperation is solving the fatal stabbing last year of Chris Bagley.

The investigation into the killing started in federal court with several men, connected to Bagley through drug activities, being charged with firearms and drug charges, Vander Sanden noted.

Those investigations helped Vander Sanden develop a murder case involving three men.

Drew Blahnik and Drew Wagner, both 32 of Cedar Rapids, were charged last month with first-degree murder, obstruction of prosecution and abuse of a corpse. They are accused of fatally stabbing Bagley, 31, on Dec. 14, 2018.

A third man, Paul Hoff, 40, of Cedar Rapids, already sentenced to 14 years for firearms and drugs in federal court, is charged with abuse of a corpse and obstruction of prosecution. He is accused of lying to authorities about Bagley being killed at his mobile home and moving his body.

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At a federal court hearing in April, authorities said Blahnik and Wagner confronted Bagley and fought with him Dec. 14, 2018, over drug robberies of Andrew Shaw, 31, of Cedar Rapids, a convicted, large-scale marijuana trafficker. The four sold drugs for Shaw, according to testimony.

Wagner started fighting with Bagley about the robberies and Blahnik stabbed Bagley, federal agents testified. The men then buried Bagley in a yard of where Wagner was living at the time, authorities said.

Deegan said he wanted to point out a nationwide strategic plan to reduce gun violence.

“Project Guardian,” launched in November by Attorney General William Barr, emphasizes the importance of using technologies available to law enforcement.

Deegan wants to use one of the technologies — the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network — more frequently because it’s a “leads generator.”

A ballistics machine, which has been available in the state for many years at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation crime lab, allows technicians to enter a gun cartridge casing into the system. There, it is compared with others locally, regionally or nationally in a database, according to the ATF.

Deegan said this machine is essential because it can give authorities a quick turnaround on leads, which is vital since shooting investigations can quickly go cold.

Key cases in 2019

Among the district’s other most notable cases of 2019:

• Greg Stephen, 43, of Monticello, former Barnstormers youth basketball coach, sentenced in May to 180 years in prison for “repeatedly sexually abusing children” from 1999 to February 2018 by covertly recording naked teens in the bathrooms of his homes and hotel rooms, posing as young girls to receive explicit photos and videos and touching them while they slept.

Stephen pleaded guilty in October 2018 to five counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count each of possession of child pornography and transportation of child pornography.

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• Rossi Adams II, 27, of Cedar Rapids, a social media influencer, who recruited his cousin to break in to a man’s home and force him at gunpoint to transfer an internet domain to him. Evidence showed Adams founded a social media company called “State Snaps” while he was a student in 2015 at Iowa State University. At one time, Adams had over a million followers on his sites, which mostly contained images and videos of young adults engaged in crude behavior.

He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $9,000 in victim restitution. He also had to pay $3,957 for costs of prosecution and $22,000 in attorney fees.

• Randy Constant, 61, of Chillicothe, Mo., committed the second largest fraud scheme in the northern district, dubbed “Field of Schemes” by prosecutors. He was convicted of making $142 million in sales by passing off grains as organic, when the majority were not. His sales were through a brokerage called Jericho Solutions, which he owned in Winneshiek County.

He was sentenced to 10 years. Constant died by suicide the next day before reporting to prison.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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