Drug dealer gets 20 years in teen's fatal overdose

Rarely used federal law carries stiff mandatory penalty for distributors

December 05, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Robert Carroll Eichelberger - Robbie to his mother - started using drugs before he reached puberty.

By age 12, he had run away from home. In his 20s, he was in and out of Washington County District Court on charges that included assault and burglary. In his 30s, he added credit-card theft and eluding police to his record. And at 35, he and his girlfriend were selling prescription drugs to high school students to support their own addictions. Last year, one of those teenagers died.

"I know my saying 'I'm sorry' won't bring him back, but I am sorry. I wish it had never happened," a tearful Eichelberger said yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, just before he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for distributing the methadone that killed 17-year-old Harry L. "Trey" Angle.

Eichelberger's case was the second of its kind filed in Maryland since the early 1990s. It relied on a seldom-used federal statute that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for those convicted of distributing drugs that result in death - essentially holding dealers accountable for their products' effects.

Interest in the federal charge has risen. During the past year, the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland has opened at least five investigations into drug-induced deaths based on it, and the local Drug Enforcement Administration office is working on a sixth.

None of those investigations has led to federal charges in Maryland. But in Virginia last month, a 19-year-old man was charged under the statute after allegedly distributing heroin that led to an overdose death. Two other defendants in the case, in which police uncovered a ring of young heroin users and dealers living in the state's affluent suburbs, were charged with drug distribution that caused the same user to overdose half a year earlier. Both charges carry a 20-year minimum sentence.

When Eichelberger's case came up last year, the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland began exploring whether the statute might apply. Prosecutors would have to link Angle's death definitively to his dealers - a near-impossible task in many drug overdose cases. Users often buy from multiple street sources, making it difficult to identify the one whose drugs led to the fatal dose.

But Angle's case was different. Friends knew where he got the methadone, and Eichelberger's girlfriend, Kathleen Ann Harris, had left a damning message on Angle's phone days after he died, according to his mother, Laureen Valentine. She said Harris wanted to know if he needed more drugs.

Harris also pleaded guilty to distributing drugs that resulted in Angle's death. Sentencing is scheduled later this month.

In an interview yesterday, Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said overdose cases must often be treated as murder investigations. "Where did the drugs come from, and who is responsible for distributing them?" are the questions to ask, he said.

An October 2007 memo from the U.S. attorney's office urged police and prosecutors to further investigate overdose deaths, noting the 20-year minimum sentence. Holding such dealers accountable "may save lives and deter drug dealing," the memo stated.

The lengthy prison term is among the reasons that prosecutors find the statute attractive. Drug convictions often carry minimal sentences if the quantity is small or dealers have no prior record, and the sentences do not reflect the seriousness of a death, Rosenstein said.

Eichelberger's attorney, Robert H. Waldman, said the 20-year sentence was too harsh and that his client did not know what he was doing. Waldman portrayed Eichelberger as a victim raised in an atmosphere of alcoholism and abuse.

Angle's family appeared not to empathize.

Both of his parents, now divorced, made emotional statements before the court yesterday, backed by his two younger sisters, his aunts and his grandmother.

Trey was a doting big brother, a teen who wanted to join the military after high school, then go to college. He ultimately wanted to be a journalist, said his father, Harry Angle.

Both parents described Trey as a good kid who had issues. He'd struggled with substance abuse, and his dad knew he'd tried marijuana, but they never suspected anything stronger. Both had frank talks with their son about drugs and the future, and both felt they were doing what they needed to as parents.

On July 25, 2007, Eichelberger and Harris met Trey Angle at his home, drank alcohol and sold him methadone, according to a statement of facts in the case. The next day, his father found the boy's lifeless body in bed. It is an image he can't get out of his mind.

"My pain is as sharp today as it was [then]. This will be my burden until the day I die," Harry Angle said.

"There will be no wedding for Trey, no grandchildren from Trey," Valentine told the court. "I'm constantly reminded that he's gone. I think I see him at the mall or walking down the street." She still gets mail addressed to her son. Days that were once celebrated - Mother's Day, his birthday, Christmas - are now mourned.

Angle's parents said they do not excuse their son for his choices, but they try to remember that he was just 17. They also struggle to define their role and wonder if they were somehow to blame.

"In the final analysis, you weren't responsible for this," Judge J. Frederick Motz told Angle's anguished father. "Don't let this terrible, terrible tragedy ruin your life, too."

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