Public Safety

Feds' chief opioid prosecutor in Iowa district receives award for 'superior performance'

Dan Chatham has prosecuted over 80 cases, 40 of which involved injuries or deaths

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Chatham of the Northern District of Iowa holds the national award he received in December 20
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Chatham of the Northern District of Iowa holds the national award he received in December 2020 for his work prosecuting opioid cases. (Submitted photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Chatham was among only nine others across the country honored recently for “superior performance” as a federal prosecutor.

“I never expected it,” said Chatham, who was recognized last month by the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys with a Director’s Award for Superior Performance. “It’s not for a particular case but for the overall work.”

Chatham, 39, who has been with the office for over 12 years, is the chief opioid prosecutor. He has prosecuted over 80 opioid cases, 40 of which involved deaths or injuries.

These cases are not easy to prosecute because when overdoses are involved there usually are issues with evidence, Chatham noted. The heroin has to be traced back to the dealer, and other substances often are mixed in, so it can be difficult to prove the toxicity of the drugs.

Chatham has taken six opioid overdoses that resulted in death or injuries to trial. The others were resolved with plea agreements. Many of the defendants were sentenced to 10 years or more, and Chatham has had a few who received life prison terms.

The number of trials is “unusual” for drug cases, but is based on the priorities of the Northern District of Iowa, Chatham said.

“Through his outstanding work, he has prosecuted the most difficult cases involving incredibly dangerous opioids at a time when the nation has been going through an opioid crisis,” U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan said last month. “Mr. Chatham showed tireless dedication, hard work and unyielding pursuit of justice while ensuring that those who distributed drugs that hurt and killed others were held accountable for their actions.”

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Chatham is a nationally recognized expert in the investigation and prosecution of overdose cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Morfitt said. He has been invited to speak about opioid cases and to consult with other prosecutors across the country.

Chatham has prosecuted some of the most difficult and “noteworthy” opioid cases in the district.

In 2015, he prosecuted Max Julian Wright, now 40, the first known fentanyl dealer in Cedar Rapids. Wright and others were bringing fentanyl-laced heroin from Chicago into Cedar Rapids.

Wright was convicted by a jury in March 2016 for two counts of distribution of fentanyl — a synthetic opiate more potent than heroin — and one count of conspiring to distribute heroin, crack cocaine and fentanyl that resulted in six serious bodily injuries and two deaths. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Two defendants working with Wright also were sentenced in 2016. DeShaun Anderson, now 48, was sentenced to 20 years, and Marcus Wallace, now 25, was sentenced to 14 years. Chatham said this was a rare case because the overdoses caused by the defendants’ drugs were happening one after another. All the victims were from Cedar Rapids.

In 2017, Chatham prosecuted a dealer in Dubuque, Antrell Lewis, now 27, of Chicago, Ill., for distributing heroin and furanylfentanyl — a fentanyl analogue — resulting in death and serious bodily injury.

Evidence at trial showed Lewis sold heroin in Dubuque to four men from Maquoketa in March 2016. The Maquoketa men shared the drugs with others. Two of those used it and overdosed immediately.

Emergency responders saved their lives using Narcan, an opiate reversal agent.

Another of the men used the heroin after emergency responders left. He died about 18 hours later.

Lewis was sentenced to over 20 years in prison.

Chatham said the office also started focusing on prevention, treatment and outreach to fight opioid abuse. He has seen “measured” success over time and said the numbers have leveled off in Iowa, but it’s difficult to say how much progress has been made.

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One of the biggest improvements, he said, has been in public awareness of the opioid problem and how collaborations were formed among law enforcement, medical and treatment professionals, and public health officials to find solutions.

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

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