Federal drug slated to begin Monday

ALBANY, Ga. -- An Albany man accused of using his 13-year-old nephew to deal drugs for him has ties to one of the largest drug operations ever discovered in Lee and Terrell counties, court officials said Friday.

Jerome Fletcher, who is scheduled to go to trial Monday, faces a mandatory life term in federal prison if convicted on a two-count indictment that accuses him of dealing in cocaine and methamphetamine, court officials say.

During an evidentiary hearing Friday before U.S. District Court Judge Louis Sands, Fletcher and his attorney, Robert Pinnero, asked Sands to keep a video of his client reportedly arranging and allegedly selling quantities of crack cocaine and methamphetamines to Jeff Boyd -- a government "cooperator" who himself was linked to the grow operation in Terrell County in 2007 -- away from jurors when Fletcher's trial begins Monday.

Pinnero argued that the video evidence amounts to hearsay and doesn't meet federal court requirements that exempt it from the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Fletcher, who had until the close of business Friday to accept a plea deal from prosecutors that would have resulted in a prison term of less than 30 years, would be sentenced to life in prison if convicted, Sands said.

"You need to understand, a life sentence is just that. It's not 20 years; you're in until the day they roll you out lying down flat on a stretcher," Sands said.

Ordinarily, there is no early release or parole in the federal court system.

Boyd and his son, Brandon, were arrested by federal agents in Alabama on Thursday night and were brought into court Friday under a material witness warrant for their initial appearances.

They, along with Fletcher's 13-year-old nephew, are expected to testify to Fletcher's alleged deals.

As GBI Special Agent Nikki Rhodes gave testimony Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah McEwen showed Sands a series of video recordings that were made via hidden camera wired to Boyd on several occasions.

During one of the conversations made in June 2008 at a restaurant on North Slappey Boulevard, Boyd and Fletcher talk about several key figures in a multimillion-dollar indoor marijuana manufacturing operation that spanned three states.

On the tape, Boyd and Fletcher talk about "Tony," or Anthony Rutkauskas, who is currently serving a stint in federal prison for his involvement in that operation. "Dean," or Dean Slaymaker, who was also arrested in the investigation and pleaded guilty, was mentioned, as was "Frankie," or Frank Spring who is in federal prison following his plea. Scott Renfroe, who also was jailed in connection to the grow operation, was also mentioned in the discussion.

Later, the tape shows Boyd purchasing what Rhodes said was a volume of crack cocaine from Fletcher.

Another tape was aired that captured a separate encounter in December 2008 at a restaurant off Dawson Road where authorities say Fletcher got his 13-year-old nephew to deliver a brown bag of methamphetamines to Boyd, who then gave the boy several thousand dollars.