INDIANAPOLIS — Closing arguments were held Wednesday in the trial of four Kokomo men who police say were involved in one of the biggest drug rings in Howard County history.
The investigation came to be known as “Operation Law and Order,” and it culminated in around 130 local and federal law enforcement officers conducting several drug raids across the city in 2018, netting around 50 arrests in total.
And now the fate of those arrested as part of the investigation, Michael O’Bannon, 34, Jason Reed, 50, Shaun Myers, 36, and Michael Jones, 37, rests in the hands of the 16-person jury, who will begin deliberations Thursday morning.
All four men are facing a felony count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, a charge that carries with it a possible weight of 10 years to life in federal prison and a $10,000,000 fine.
O’Bannon is also facing preliminary charges of conspiracy to use interstate commerce in the commission of murder-for-hire, possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and possession of a firearm as a previously convicted felon.
Reed is also facing preliminary charges of distribution of controlled substances and a felon in possession of a firearm.
Jones is also facing preliminary charges of distribution of controlled substances, possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, possession of a firearm by a previously convicted felon and laundering of money instruments.
Along with his preliminary conspiracy charge, Myers is also facing a count of attempted possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.
Throughout the nearly three week trial, the prosecution has brought forth roughly 1,000 pieces of evidence that they believe address each of those charges specifically, including surveillance footage, intercepted telephone calls and the physical drugs that law enforcement confiscated during several traffic stops in the months leading up to the arrests of the four defendants.
After the prosecution rested last Friday, the defense took up its case Tuesday morning, with the testimonies of O’Bannon and Reed, leading up to Wednesday’s closing arguments.
Prosecutor Michelle Brady took nearly 90 minutes addressing the jury on Wednesday during her closing arguments, methodically going through each of the case’s 20 charges and pointing out how each one specifically applies to one or all of the four defendants.
Brady also compared local drug ring kingpin Reggie Balentine, who has already taken a plea deal and is awaiting sentencing, to a CEO of a company, with O’Bannon, Jones, Reed and Myers playing the part of a sales team.
“There is competition, but the objective is the same,” she told the jury, citing that the goal was to push as many drugs on the street as possible to keep the operation financially successful.
The state also referenced the nearly 200 intercepted phone calls they presented in court over the last few days –mostly dating from Feb. 2018 through April 2018 — saying that those calls were indications of a mutual awareness of what was taking place.
“They’re businessmen,” Brady stated. “These individuals were all involved in a drug company surrounded by Balentine.”
During his closing arguments, O’Bannon’s attorney, James Edgar, told the jury that there is no conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, let alone one that involved his client.
Edgar also told the court that his client possessed firearms not as a “tool of the drug trade” but in order to protect his family and himself from a man who O’Bannon believed robbed him in the spring of 2018.
That man – later identified as a confidential informant – was also the subject of a murder-for-hire scheme that was foiled by law enforcement officers before two Atlanta hit-men were able to carry through with the act.
“The guns [O’Bannon had on the morning of his arrest] were a reaction to [the informant],” Edgar told the jury. “… He wouldn’t back off. … When O’Bannon had a gun in his couch, he did so out of fear of [the informant].”
And in terms of the actual drug ring itself, Edgar told the court that none of Balentine’s drug ledgers had his client’s name listed on them.
“He was not one of Reggie Balentine’s people’s people,” Edgar said. “… They were trying to ruin him.”
Anytime of day, you could call Balentine and ask for drugs, and he’d be able to supply them, Jones’ attorney, Charles Hayes told the jury on Wednesday.
And while Hayes said Balentine did sell drugs to his client, he claimed there were no calls between Balentine and Jones that warranted the conspiracy charge.
Telling the court that Jones did not know anything about the murder-for-hire scheme or other facets of the investigation, Hayes told the jury that just buying and selling drugs off of somebody else is not in and of itself a conspiracy.
Hayes also noted that there was no photographic evidence of Jones purchasing firearms during a drug deal, and there was no DNA evidence or fingerprints linking the firearms found at his residence during his arrest to him.
An author and aspiring motivational speaker, Reed was trying to establish a career when the bottom fell out in 2017, Reed’s attorney, Jeannie Cook told the jury.
Facing eviction, Reed eventually met and began a romantic relationship with Baird, who Cook said then introduced her client to Balentine. Baird and Balentine had known each other for years, Cook told the jury, and Balentine trusted her.
“But the fact that he knew Reggie Balentine or had a relationship with Melissa Baird doesn’t mean he was in on the conspiracy,” Cook said on Wednesday. “… They didn’t help each other out. They didn’t configure things together.”
And short of the February 2017 methamphetamine deal between Balentine and Terre Haute resident Derrick Owens – allegedly set up by Reed – Cook said there is no other instance in which her client bought or sold methamphetamine to anyone.
“Mr. Reed never considered himself a member of this drug trafficking operation,” she stated in court. “… Mr. Balentine never considered Justin Reed a partner in the operation. … Chatter does not mean a meeting of the minds.”
Balentine never stops talking, Myers’ attorney Kenneth Riggins told the jury on Wednesday. Painting Balentine as a trickster who likes to be multiple steps ahead of everyone else, Riggins asked the jury to look at the case from “30,000 feet above.”
“Reggie Balentine excluded Shaun Myers from the inner circle and lied to Shaun Myers repeatedly,” Riggins claimed.
Riggins then went to the evidence table sitting near the jury box and held up the few items that he said pertained directly to his client, saying that there were no weapons, drugs or other “tools of the drug trade” within that section of evidence.
“Reggie Balentine… he’s a liar from his head to his toes,” Riggins said. “And they want you to think he’s in a conspiracy with Shaun Myers? … There’s no conspiracy between Reggie Balentine, Shaun Myers and anyone else [here].”
Riggins also told the jury that knowing about a conspiracy doesn’t make you a co-conspirator, recalling a situation in which Baird testified that Myers was at Balentine’s house the night before she left to conduct a drug deal in Georgia.
“There’s no objective evidence that relates to Reggie Balentine and Shaun Myers,” he claimed. … They [state] have nothing to show you on Shaun Myers. Where is the surveillance? … Reggie loved Reggie, and he used people.”