Local man pleads guilty in Aspen cocaine case
ASPEN – A local resident pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver to one felony count of using a telephone to facilitate a drug transaction with the ringleader of a cocaine network that federal agents say spanned from Aspen to Los Angeles.
The 41-minute plea hearing for Joseph James Burke, 64, marked the resolution of a second case involving six local residents snared in a federal drug sting last spring. Burke’s sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 23.
He faces a maximum prison sentence of four years, no more than one year of supervised release, and a fine up to $250,000. Burke is currently out of custody on $20,000 bond. His court-appointed attorney, Philip Cherner of Denver, declined comment when asked about the likelihood of a prison term.
Details surrounding the case have been limited to a press release issued May 20 – one day after the arrests, and a month after a grand jury’s May 19 indictments – by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said feds had broken up a cocaine ring that imported 200 kilograms over the past 15 years. Other details came out of a June detention hearing for suspected ringleader Wayne Reid and another defendant.
But Burke’s role in the alleged ring, which feds contend was linked to Mexican drug cartels, had not been publicly specified until Monday, court records show.
According to a plea agreement, Burke, an Aspen Village resident, admitted that on March 12 he made a phone call to Reid to arrange a cocaine purchase.
“On or about the same date, agents observed [Burke] meet with Reid in Aspen, Colorado, and receive an envelope containing approximately three ounces [85.05 grams] of cocaine,” court documents say.
The 11-page agreement goes on to say that Burke “received the cocaine in order to sell it to other individuals.” Reid also admitted to selling the coke to Burke, the agreement says. Federal agents have said that Reid, who has previous drug-related convictions, was the ringleader of the network. He remains in federal custody without bond.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop the two felony charges for which Burke was indicted: conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, and aiding and abetting in the distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Burke originally had pleaded not guilty to the two charges in May, but later reversed his course, setting the stage for Monday’s change-of-plea hearing.
The hearing, which Judge Marcia Krieger presided over, came four weeks after prosecutors dismissed one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine against Aspen resident Peggy Schlauger, 51.
With Schlauger’s case dismissed and Burke’s case settled, the charges against four other local residents – Joan Anastasi, 67; Jack Fellner, 61; Reid; and Christopher Sheehan, 65 – are pending.
Additionally, the same grand jury indicted four Southern California residents in April. Three of the four were arrested May 19, the same day as the six local suspects. A fourth California defendant remains at large.
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