TAMPA — A federal judge ordered a 25-year prison term Friday for a man convicted of running an organization that moved large quantities of heroin into St. Petersburg.
The sentencing of William Harold Wright punctuated a criminal case that was emblematic of law enforcement efforts to combat the supply side of the nation’s opioid crisis.
"Heroin is a poison," U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore said. "And it is an epidemic in this country."
Wright, the judge said, helped worsen the problem.
Prosecutors estimated that Wright’s organization moved as much as 30 kilograms of heroin — with a street value of more than $4 million — into St. Petersburg over an 18-month period.
Just as he did during his January trial, Wright handled his own defense at sentencing. In the two-hour hearing, he used his speaking opportunities to deliver screeds arguing his innocence and attacking the evidence and testimony used to convict him at his January trial.
Witnesses lied, he said. Government agents lied, he said. The government’s estimates of the amount of drugs involved were "delusional," he said. He was never a leader or organizer of anything.
Wearing his orange jail scrubs, Wright shuffled between a lectern and a defense table, flipping through stacks of paper, rambling as he struggled to match legal knowledge and procedural know-how of the federal prosecutor seated nearby.
When the judge denied his objections to a set of sentencing enhancements, Wright gave up.
"It seems like these decisions are already preconceived," he said. "So I would like to just move on."
The judge asked what sentence he thought he deserved.
"None," Wright said. "I don’t even see how I got convicted. I was convicted on lies."
The judge told Wright he could take it up on appeal.
Wright’s assertions stood in contrast to those of several witnesses who testified in his trial. They included Robert Lorenzo Lee and Ernest Wooten, two men who admitted they helped store and distribute the drugs for Wright.
Witnesses testified that Wright flew into Tampa about once a month from his home in California to coordinate drug shipments and collect money.
FBI agents obtained covert surveillance video which showed Wright and Lee moving a large crate that held a vanity sink into the garage of Lee’s home in south St. Petersburg. They removed a portion of the sink, revealing a kilo of heroin.
The agents also recorded phone conversations in which Wright discussed drug shipments with other people involved in the smuggling efforts.
In court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Preston mentioned the testimony of another man, Dalton Baptiste.
An admitted drug user, Baptiste recounted an incident in which Wright gave him a plastic bottle that held a mixture of water and the powdered remnants of a brick of heroin. Wright asked him to test it.
Baptiste loaded 40 cc’s into a syringe and injected himself. It burned. He became dizzy. The drugs, he said, were powerful.
"Heroin is destroying lives," Preston said. "And this defendant did (the crime) without any regard for the lives he was destroying."
Wright dipped in and out of self-representation throughout his nearly two-year criminal case, taking up his own defense at the most important moments.
Whittemore asked if Wright wanted a lawyer appointed to handle his appeal, an offer the defendant immediately accepted.
"I hope you will cooperate with that lawyer," the judge said.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.