A deacon who leads the ground-keeping committee at Marshall Chapel Baptist Church, Trevor Hull is better known for his work as director and operation manager at Second Chance Ministry.

“I would not be here without him. Trevor has so many people that count on him daily like me,” Shawn Lankford wrote, stressing that 40 or so residents relied on him for a chance as recovery.

Lankford joined two pastors, two funeral directors, a neighbor and a relative in asking for leniency, pointing to the Greenwood man’s faith, work ethic and care for others.

Hull was one of 13 people indicted in connection with a Greenwood-linked drug ring that was importing heroin and fentanyl from Mexico, then distributing it across the Carolinas.

Greenville-based attorney James B. Loggins said Hull participated in just one delivery — other filings indicated federal agents were surveilling that particular transaction — and qualified as a “minimal participant.”

“Mr. Hull had no part or understanding in the scope or structure of the criminal activity. He took no part in any planning. He exercised no control over decision-making authority. There have been no allegations that Mr. Hull benefited financially from his involvement,” Loggins wrote in a motion seeking a lesser sentence for his client.

Hull pleaded guilty in January to one count of unlawful use of a communication facility — in this case, he communicated with others by phone in connection with distributing drugs — in exchange for prosecutors dropping three other counts. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Donald C. Coggins Jr. sentenced him to two years in prison followed by a year of supervised release.

While the COVID-19 pandemic briefly turned court calendars on their heads and led to two defendants being released on GPS-monitored house arrest because they were more at risk for serious illness from the virus, Coggins was able to sentence nine people in the case in the past two weeks. Of the 13 defendants, 10 have been sentenced, two have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing and one is going through a pretrial diversion program in lieu of prosecution.

The investigation traces its roots to a series of drug buys in October 2017.

In a joint investigation, Greenwood police and State Law Enforcement Division officers bought more than 300 fentanyl pills across five controlled purchases. Investigating the source for those pills led to what U.S. Drug Enforcement agents believed was a “drug trafficking organization.”

“Based on law enforcement sources of information, confidential source information, undercover law enforcement operations and an ongoing financial investigation, local law enforcement identified” four Greenwood-connected people “as distributors of significant quantities of cocaine and heroin and fentanyl,” prosecutors wrote in a motion for pretrial detention. Greenwood police said once they understood the scope of the operation, they referred the case to the DEA.

Court documents detail investigators tapping phones, planting a surveillance camera and undercover agents posing as representatives of a Mexican drug cartel while gathering the evidence used to indict 11 people in February 2019, with two additional people being charged through a 46-count superseding indictment handed up in June 2019.

Prosecutors say agents seized more than 20 kilograms of heroin during the investigation, which included raiding two suspected stash houses in Laurens County, and court documents indicate authorities were seeking more than $3 million through forfeiture.

The person authorities put at the center of the operation is 47-year-old Detric Lee “Fat” McGowan, who gained internet fame after buying out Girl Scout cookies days before his arrest in the case, then tried to hire someone to kill a federal prosecutor and two codefendants from jail while awaiting trial.

McGowan pleaded guilty last summer to charges stemming from drug trafficking and money laundering as well as the attempted hit. Before the pandemic slowed courts to a crawl, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Court filings show some defendants were major figures in the drug case while others, like Hull, had little or no knowledge of the overall operation and did not play a major role in the drug ring.

Attorneys: 2 clueless about source of money

Lauren Brooke Poore and Valencia Danielle Suber had no knowledge of the drug operation and instead thought they were helping McGowan hide money associated with his clubs, their attorneys said in filings and court appearances.

Poore, 37, is McGowan’s longtime significant other and they have two children together, both younger than 5.

“McGowan owned two bars. Ms. Poore believed that the cash that he provided to her came from those businesses which are typically cash-oriented businesses. She suspected that perhaps Mr. McGowan was not treating his partners fairly or perhaps he was not paying proper taxes, but Ms. Poore certainly did not know the source of the funds deposited came from illegal drug sales,” Greenville-based attorney Joseph Jerrold Watson wrote.

Suber’s attorney, James F. Brehm, said she worked as a manager at McGowan’s Greenwood club, Elite Lounge, before he convinced her to go into business with him as the legal owner of Legends Bar and Grill in Greenville.

“He sought the defendant out and talked about how he wanted to reward her for all her hard work and loyalty throughout the years, by helping her open a club of her own. After several conversations, the Defendant agreed. Had these conversations not taken place, the Defendant asserts she would have never gotten in trouble,” Brehm wrote.

While entering a guilty plea, Suber told the judge she had no knowledge that the cash came from drug trafficking.

“He had two clubs. Her understanding was is that the transactions, the money was coming to her from the clubs as cash, and he was trying to get a way around the reporting requirements,” Brehm added.

Suber no longer owns the club, while Poore lost a job that paid $70,000 because of her arrest last year and also lost her house with McGowan as part of forfeiture.

Letters written on her behalf say Poore is a good mother and woman of faith who excelled academically before working in microbiology labs. In a filing, her lawyer said she’s making strides in reestablishing her career.

Poore and Suber each pleaded guilty last fall to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering while having a number of additional money laundering counts dismissed. Neither had a prior conviction. Each was sentenced this month to time served and three years of supervised release.

Greenwood barber just gave directions, filing says

Eddie Lee “Speedy” Childs Jr. grew up in Ninety Six, where he survived the tornado of 1973 — a newspaper clipping shows at age 4, he was among the youngest of the 24 injured — and worked hard as a student and athlete.

He went to work as a successful barber, supporting his wife and children while coaching and helping youth programs, according to letters sent on his behalf.

Before his arrest, Childs had a spotless record and acted as the primary caregiver to his parents, attorney William G. Yarborough III said in a motion seeking a lesser sentence.

Childs mistake, Yarborough wrote, was that he “gave directions to a stranger at the request of a friend, but had no knowledge at the time of what was being delivered, much less the quantity.”

Calling Childs a “minor participant” who “inadvertently facilitated only a singular drug transaction,” pointing to a section of the pre-sentencing investigation report that read: “The probation officer has no additional evidence that Childs participated in this conspiracy other than assisting Detric McGowan with the sale of imitation opioid pain pills to Celest Blocker on one occasion. Childs helped direct a courier, Trevor Hull, to deliver pills to Danny Lopez in Columbia, South Carolina.”

Prosecutors alleged Childs relayed information to Hull on McGowan’s behalf.

A number of people wrote to the court to vouch for Childs’ character, including Danny Webb, a retired highway patrolman and former John de la Howe president who now pastors at Old Mount Zion Baptist Church, as well as former Ninety Six Town Councilman Gregory D. Griffin.

The barber, who pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, had three other counts dismissed. He was sentenced on Aug. 21 to time served and three years of supervised release.

Drug courier from N.C.

Danny Morales Lopez admitted to acting as a drug courier for someone in North Carolina.

The 31-year-old was born in Puerto Rico but moved several times growing up because his father was in the military. Most recently, he lived near Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is home to Fort Bragg.

According to court filings, he told agents he met Hull in January 2019 in Columbia as part of a drug transaction and that he had acted as a courier once before, receiving $1,000 for deliveries.

“He was not involved in any of the other activity involved in the Indictment, which involved millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of pills by importing, purchasing or manufacturing pills or laundering money,” according to his attorney, Columbia-based Jack B. Swerling.

Lopez pleaded guilty in September 2019 to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and had three other counts dismissed. He was sentenced Aug. 20 to 41 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

Owner of stash house No. 2

During the course of the investigation, McGowan found a surveillance camera that investigators had set up outside the place they thought he was using a pill press as part of his drug-selling operation.

According to court filings, he proceeded to take the camera down and walk it inside what authorities labeled a stash house, where the device captured images of the operation and McGowan’s brother, Richard Lamond “Bam” Longshore.

After three years of pressing pills out of this rural residence with a Mountville address, McGowan quickly decided it was time to move. He called Kevin O’Neill “Man” Wheeler and arranged using a shed behind a double-wide Wheeler owned in Laurens, according to intercepted phone calls.

Public court documents don’t say how much Wheeler knew about the operation, but he was the first to enter a guilty plea in the case.

Supporters wrote the court about a charitable veteran who collected toys and Easter baskets for children, helped raise funds for scholarships and even raised $1,500 for a friend with cancer. A cousin even suggested this was yet another case of someone taking advantage of his generosity.

Wheeler pleaded guilty in July 2019 to maintaining a stash house and felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced on Aug. 20 to time served and three years of supervised release.

Hired by his brother

Longshore, 48, grew up poor and found himself on the wrong path early.

He experimented with alcohol when he was 12 and began using marijuana at age 14 before dropping out of school, Greenville attorney Cameron G. Boggs wrote.

But he got his life in order, with supporters putting the key event as his marriage in 2000. Afterward, he earned his GED, maintained stable employment and helped raise a family.

Among those writing on his behalf was Greenwood County Councilwoman Edith Childs, who said Longshore would help her with anything she asked, using as an example distributing food to needy families.

Then his brother started paying him to help in his drug operation.

“His involvement is best described as an assistant to and runner for McGowan,” Boggs wrote. “(Longshore) utilized two locations procured and maintained by McGowan to manufacture and store illegal drugs. He assisted in the manufacturing of imitation opiate pills as directed by McGowan. Essentially, he helped run a pill press, clean up afterwards, and followed McGowan’s directions. He never knew the full of scope and breadth of the conspiracy.”

When investigators raided various locations, including the two suspected stash houses, while taking 10 defendants into custody in February 2019, they could not locate the pill press. According to court filings, McGowan told authorities his brother knew where the press was — which Longshore denied. Investigators picked up a pill press the following month from McGowan’s attorney, who declined to name who brought the device to his office.

Longshore pleaded guilty Aug. 28, 2019, to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and had four other counts dropped. He was sentenced on Aug. 21 to 75 months in prison and five years of supervised release.

Helping as a friend

Attorney James W. Bannister said Christopher Cunningham became involved in the drug ring because of his friendship with Donald Nathaniel “T.J.” Thomas who, along with McGowan, was considered a leader in the drug operation.

“Cunningham had known TJ since they were kids,” the lawyer explained. “TJ operated a used car dealership called ‘EZ Ridez Auto,’ which had significant legitimate business. TJ sent used car-related business to Cunningham. These referrals included mechanical work, paint jobs, towing, and transporting used cars. Cunningham viewed TJ as his best friend and, therefore, was willing to participate in the things TJ wanted him to do. This unusual connection with TJ is likely due, in part, to the difficult circumstances he had experienced with unknown father, abusive step-father and crack-addicted mother.”

Bannister said Cunningham’s role in the drug operation was as “an occasional errand boy” to Thomas. He twice cut heroin at Thomas’ direction and made several drug and money transactions, including a few trips to North Carolina. He made $500 for trips to North Carolina, nominal amounts for shorter trips and wasn’t paid for cutting heroin.

Insisting that Cunningham “is not this criminal mastermind, drug dealer the media and prosecutor (are) portraying him to be,” his fiancé, Krystal Lewis, wrote that he was between full-time jobs and stitching together odd jobs to get by.

“He has nothing to show for the crimes he was accused of,” she said in a frustrated letter to the court. “He has no money, cars, or properties. Nothing!!”

Cunningham’s daughter also sent a letter to the judge seeking leniency.

“Please don’t send my daddy to jail,” she wrote, “because that’s going to be a long time to be without him in my life. He needs to be able to see me driving for the first time, go on my first date, wipe my tears away when things go wrong.”

Cunningham pleaded guilty Sept. 23 to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and had four other counts dropped. He was sentenced Wednesday to 65 months in prison and five years of supervised release.

‘Leader organizer’ gets nearly 20 years

Described in documents as a “leader organizer” within the Greenwood-linked drug ring, court filings show investigators connected Thomas to much of the ring’s criminal activity.

When authorities say Jamal Demarcus Latimer, who is still awaiting sentencing, flew to Texas to meet with undercover agents he thought were representing a cartel, it was Thomas’ bank account that paid for the tickets and Thomas spoke with Latimer via FaceTime during the encounter.

When $1 million was being taken to rendezvous with those same undercover agents, Thomas was part of the group intercepted by law enforcement. He lied to agents about the money’s purpose. Thomas was directing heroin cutting by Cunningham and Latimer, while also arranging for the two to make drug deliveries and cash pickups.

Thomas pleaded guilty on Sept. 26 to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and false statements to federal agents. He was sentenced on Aug. 21 to 225 months — or nearly 19 years — in prison, followed by five years of supervised release.

Thomas’ sentencing memorandum was sealed and it’s unclear from public filings if anyone wrote letters on his behalf, but a transcript shows his mother showed up to his detention hearing, as did others who supported him.

“You would never disappoint me. You’re the best son that anybody could ask for. I love you. We all love you,” said his mother, who is not named in the transcript.

She then talked about the people he had helped before saying, “I’m very proud of you.”

Thomas responded: “Yes, ma’am.”

“And we all make mistakes,” she added. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Contact Assistant Editor Matthew Hensley at 864-943-2529 or on Twitter @IJMattHensley.