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Akron drug dealer gets life for selling fentanyl to woman who died of overdose

August 23, 2018

Akron drug dealer gets life for selling fentanyl to woman who died of overdose

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A drug dealer who sold fentanyl obtained from China to an Akron woman who overdosed and died in 2015 was sentenced Thursday to life in federal prison.

Ryan “TJ” Sumlin sold a powerful heroin-fentanyl mix to 23-year-old Carrie Dobbins, who was found dead at her mother’s house on Sumatra Avenue March 28, 2015. State and federal authorities used a series of text messages between Sumlin and Dobbins to help build their case.

A jury in April found Sumlin, 29, guilty of three drug-related charges, which included enhancements the U.S. Attorney’s Office tacked on to ensure Sumlin would never again be a free man. Investigators also said they connected the fentanyl Sumlin sold to a largescale Chinese supplier who shipped large amounts of drugs to the U.S. in other countries.

As the opioid epidemic in Ohio and elsewhere has ratcheted up, federal prosecutors have used such enhancements as a way to aggressively go after dealers they say sold drugs that caused overdose deaths. Such measures have been criticized as being too draconian and an ineffective way to reduce the number of overdoses from heroin and fentanyl.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliot Morrison said Thursday that Sumlin was one of the worst and that the judge should give the defendant as many life sentences as allowed.

Morrison said Sumlin, who has numerous previous convictions for drugs, theft and burglary, was the last one to see Dobbins alive. Sumlin continued to sell fentanyl after hearing of Dobbins’ death, and even after his arrest and release on bond, the prosecutor said.

“What did the defendant do? He went right back to selling fentanyl,” Morrison said.

Sumlin, a bespectacled man clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, briefly mumbled something inaudible when Senior U.S District Judge Donald Nugent asked him if he wanted to speak. His attorney Rhonda Kotnik said his client had a hard upbringing and characterized his prior convictions as mostly low-level crimes.

In addition to two life sentences, Nugent ordered Sumlin to pay more than $4,000 in restitution to cover the cost of Dobbins’ funeral.

Sumlin was indicted on drug charges in 2015, but prosecutors added a charge related to Dobbins’ death the following year. The charge, along with a specification that a drug caused someone to die, requires a judge to sentence a defendant to at least 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors then added another enhancement that says a judge must impose a life sentence if a defendant with a prior drug felony conviction sold drugs that led to a person’s death.

Kotnik asked Nugent to declare the additional enhancement constitutional, but the judge declined to do so. Nugent called Sumlin “the poster child for why Congress passed this law.”

At trial she cast doubt on whether he was the one who sold Dobbins the drugs that killed her. Kotnik said Dobbins texted with several people, any of whom could have been dealers, in the day leading up to her fatal overdose. Kotnik also said Dobbins’ texts showed that she took Xanax on the day before she died, and the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office did not do toxicology tests for prescription medication.

Kotnik said after the sentencing that prosecutors offered Sumlin a plea deal that included a prison sentence of more than 12 years.

The investigation and prosecution of Sumlin was a tangled web that spawned several other cases. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his visit to Cleveland on Wednesday, mentioned the case and Dobbins’ death, though not Sumlin by name.

Sumlin was charged along with Leroy Steele and Sabrina Robinson. Steele bought fentanyl from Chinese suppliers and had Robinson help him deal the powerful opioid. Steele and Robinson then gave Sumlin fentanyl.

Steele was sentenced to 20 years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and a drug charge that included a “death specification” for the fatal overdose of Thomas Rauh in March 2015. Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy and Nugent gave her 10 years.

Steele also cooperated with the government and showed investigators where he bought his drug from overseas suppliers. The information led the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to websites run by Fujing Zheng and his father Guanghua Zheng, two men in Shanghai who shipped fentanyl analogues and hundreds of other drugs to 25 countries, including the U.S., officials say.

Agents in July 2017 arrested Boston-area chemist Bin Wang, charging him with being the middleman for shipments from the Zhengs. Wang, after receiving drugs in his Massachusetts warehouse, would ship them throughout the U.S., including Ohio.

Wang pleaded guilty to federal charges on Aug. 6 and faces a recommended sentence of 57 to 71 months in federal prison. A federal grand jury in Ohio indicted the Zhengs last week, though it is unclear if or when they will be sent to the U.S. for prosecution.

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