COEUR d'ALENE - Drug charges against eight of the 11 people allegedly connected to a cocaine ring between Washington and Coeur d'Alene were dismissed Tuesday.
They could be re-filed later, the Kootenai County Prosecutor's Office said.
The informant on whose testimony the charges were based, James R. "Slim" O'Neill, is facing federal charges and invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself by testifying.
Without that witness statement the state cannot move forward, said Barry Black, deputy prosecutor.
"The reality is the situation could change in the future, and if it does we'll obviously take that into consideration whether we will file at a later date or not," Black said.
The charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning the state could re-file them. The charges couldn't have been re-filed had they been dismissed with prejudice. They were dismissed during a pre status conference call Tuesday morning. The preliminary hearings had been scheduled for Thursday.
"We'll see how it goes considering the charges against that witness (O'Neill)," Black said.
O'Neill, who was arrested with nine other people in a multi-agency drug sting May 25, is scheduled to go to trial on federal drug charges with six other people at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26 before federal Judge Edward J. Lodge, according to federal court documents.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys representing four of the eight defendants who had charges dismissed were upset that charges had been filed in the first place. Several of the people owned or were tied to businesses in the area, and the reaction after the arrests has hampered their businesses, defense attorney James Siebe said.
"They filed these without legal basis. We were surprised you forward a case just on somebody's testimony," Siebe said, calling the charges unfounded and an attempt to grab headlines. "It was an attempt to make a splash."
The eight who had charges dismissed were: Michael G. Rice, 48, trafficking; Cynthia VanSlate, 45, trafficking; Shaun R. Williams, 49, possession; Wayne R. Cofield, 52, trafficking and possession; Jennifer L. Fitzgerald, 47, trafficking; Shelley L. Ourada, 46, trafficking; Stephen A. Heberer, 49, and Michael P. Sadrianna, 51, trafficking.
Siebe, who represented Cofield, Fitzgerald and Ourada, said his three clients were professionals around the community whose businesses have been hurt since news of the arrests.
"They were looking forward to a trial and clearing their names," he said, adding that there is a lingering sentiment out there "because the allegations were made in the first place."
Gary Amendola, who represented Rice and called the charges a "smear campaign" that used undocumented amounts of drugs that didn't meet trafficking regulations, said he was pleased the charges were dismissed.
The remaining three defendants have since had their charges bound over to 1st District Court, according to court records.
They are: Diane T. Moreno, 44, possession; Kent R. Winn, 49, trafficking and possession; and Christina L. Johnson, 44, possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.
The suspects were arrested following a July 30 warrant.
All 11 were originally named by O'Neill, 48 at the time of his arrest, after O'Neill was apprehended on May 25.
The sting also netted the owner of Chillers Bar in Coeur d'Alene, Christopher McFarland. McFarland was also 48 at the time of his arrest.
Federal court documents filed by the Drug Enforcement Agency said McFarland was suspected of using his bar as a location "to use and facilitate drug transactions," and that O'Neill distributed drugs to a "close-knit clientele" of friends and family in the area for around 20 years.
Ten people were arrested in the May 25 sting, five of whom are also facing federal charges with O'Neill and McFarland.
They are Lecia O'Neill, 44, Manuel Rivera, 34, Gary Votava, 51, Stephen McCabe, 51, and Debra Margraff, 48 (ages at the time of the arrest). They face charges of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and conspiracy to launder money.
Each faces a possible mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, with the possibility of a life sentence and up to $4 million in fines, according to a press release at the time of the arrests.
Three other people also face state charges from the May sting.
James W. Lunceford, 52, Kelli R. Lunceford, 46, and Michael G. Wachholz, 47, were arrested for possession of a controlled substance. James Lunceford pleaded guilty Sept. 2 and will be sentenced Nov. 1. Wachholz is set to go to trial Dec. 6 and Kelli Lunceford's case was sealed, so an update since the arrest wasn't available.