Entrapment trial: Jury rejects task force’s $50 heroin sting

Ryan McLernan started out on painkillers and his addiction escalated to heroin use. His goal now is to repay his parents for legal expenses and rehab.
Photo Mina Pirasteh Ryan McLernan started out on painkillers and his addiction escalated to heroin use. His goal now is to repay his parents for legal expenses and rehab. Photo Mina Pirasteh

Ryan McLernan admits he’s an addict. But he’s adamant he never sold drugs until another addict—a confidential informant for the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force—asked McLernan if he could help him score. McLernan did, and, six months later, he was indicted for distribution of $50 worth of heroin.

The 22-year-old Western Albemarle High graduate was in Albemarle Circuit Court January 13 facing a felony charge and possible five years in prison. The jury deliberated for a little more than an hour before coming back with a not guilty verdict in a case that shines a spotlight on opiate addiction in the area and how JADE uses junkies to set up other junkies.

McLernan was already struggling with addiction in 2014 when he met Taylor Magri, who worked with his roommate in a Crozet restaurant. Magri testified he came to Charlottesville to get clean. “It didn’t pan out that well,” he said on the witness stand. He started using again and selling drugs to make money and keep using.

In April 2014 Magri was busted for selling synthetic LSD and marijuana. Facing three distribution charges, he entered into a contract with JADE: If Magri set up nine people, buying drugs from them two to three times each, two of his distribution charges would be dropped and the other reduced to a misdemeanor, said defense attorney Janice Redinger.

“It was a deal he could not turn down,” said Redinger. “He asked everybody for heroin.” And because he’d only been in the area a year and a half, she said, “It’s doubtful he knew nine drug dealers.”

One thing Magri did know, according to Redinger, was the addict mindset. “He knew how to prey on addicts. He makes it known to Ryan he needs him. He said he was feeling sick.” And sniffles for a heroin addict, she said, are a sign of withdrawal. “It feels like every bone in your body is being crushed with the worst flu ever. All Ryan wanted to do was help.”

Detective Matt McCall with the Albemarle County Police and JADE, who took part in a prostitution sting last February in which those busted could become confidential informants and buy drugs multiple times in exchange for having their misdemeanor charges dropped, testified that he was training to make controlled purchases of narcotics on October 14, 2014.

He met with confidential informant Magri, code named Pickford, searched him, wired him for audio and visual recording and gave him $50 to make the buy from McLernan in Crozet. McCall said he and another officer, Detective Joe Smith, strategized with Magri on how to get McLernan to make the deal so he could be filmed handing off the smack and receiving the cash after he told Magri he’d leave the drugs in the console in his car.

The prosecution showed a poor quality video of the deal that took a few seconds, and it was only by freezing the images that one could make out the transaction.

JADE typically makes multiple buys with its confidential informants before making an arrest.

“Shortly after this operation, McLernan wouldn’t return communication from the CI,” said Detective Smith, who acknowledged JADE did no further investigation into McLernan’s alleged drug dealing.

Six months later, McLernan, who was then living with his parents, getting treatment at a methadone clinic on Pantops and attending Narcotics Anonymous, was indicted.

Magri, who still faces charges in April, said he had set up 10 people and would say whatever he had to to get people to sell drugs to him. Judge Cheryl Higgins cited that testimony in allowing entrapment to be included in the jury instructions.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elliott Casey had the last word to the jury: “This is a dirty business, selling heroin.”

The jury apparently agreed, but not in the way the commonwealth intended, and came back with a not guilty verdict around 9:15pm. The jury believed the deal was entrapment, said a juror who refused to give her name. “I was the last to go with that,” she said.

Her advice to law enforcement: “They need to go after the dealers,” she said. And get better video equipment.

McLernan crumpled after the verdict was read. Later, he said he’s been on methadone trying to stay clean with the stress of a five-year prison sentence hanging over his head.

And despite being set up by Magri, he said, “I’m terrified JADE could retaliate” and put him in jail.

“They don’t look at me like an addict who needs help,” he continued. “They look at me like a felon who needs to be in jail.”

“I know that JADE has brought down big enterprises,” said Redinger after the trial, “but this isn’t doing anything but making a bunch of junkies felons. We ought to be better than that. This is the war on drugs on steroids.”

JADE’s Lieutenant Joe Hatter did not return calls from C-VILLE.

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