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Woman pleads guilty to drug charge in W.Va.

March 17, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A fifth defendant has been added to an alleged cocaine ring that federal prosecutors are trying to tie to the slaying of a 20-year-old Hedgesville, W.Va., woman.

Vernel Michelle Newell, 29, of 100 Cottage Road in Martinsburg, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg on Tuesday to one count of distributing crack cocaine, according to Fawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of West Virginia.

Newell is not accused in the death of 20-year-old Vatressa Maria Miller, who federal prosecutors say was slain because members of a crack ring thought she was a police informant.

But when Newell is sentenced, the "relevant conduct" section of the sentencing guidelines will be applied, Thomas said.

With that section of the guidelines in effect, a stiffer sentence is more likely, she said.

The maximum sentence is 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, according to Thomas. A pre-sentence report is being prepared and a sentencing date has not been set.

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As part of Newell's plea agreement, the sentence will take into account "Newell's participation in the death" of Miller, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Melvin W. Kahle Jr.

Newell was freed on bond, but the amount of that bond was not available Thursday afternoon, Thomas said.

The one-count information alleged that Newell distributed crack cocaine at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Martinsburg on June 3, 1999.

A trial for four other defendants in the case is scheduled for April 18.

Three of them - Casey Michelle Holt, 25, of 84-T Apple Way, Inwood, W.Va.; Keyston J. West, 22, of Charlotte, N.C.; and Andrew Charles Jackson, 21, of 728 Winchester Ave., Martinsburg - have been charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and with attempting to further a criminal enterprise by killing Miller.

If convicted, they could face the death penalty or life in prison.

Police and prosecutors have said that Miller was beaten to death with an ax handle. Her body was found Aug. 10 in the woods near Greystone on the Opequon subdivision.

A fourth defendant - Kirk Leon Grantham, 22 of Avery Street, Martinsburg - is also facing drug charges, but is not accused of taking part in the killing.

Last month, a member of the Eastern Panhandle Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force testified in a hearing that Newell told police Holt pulled an ax handle from her pants waistband and struck Miller with it.

Newell and Jackson, her boyfriend, were present when Miller was killed and punched and kicked her, Martinsburg Police Department Detective Timothy Catlett testified.

But Holt's attorney, Barry Beck, said Newell's statement may have been colored by fear of Jackson. Beck testified Jackson had previously threatened Newell with a gun.

Holt has denied hitting Miller with anything but her hand, Beck said then.

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