Former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long apologized publicly for the first time Wednesday at his sentencing hearing in federal court, but he couldn’t explain why he became a drug dealer, a decision that destroyed his 31-year law enforcement career and netted him a 14-year prison term.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Mr. Long told a packed courtroom as about 15 supporters looked on, many of them in tears. “I hurt a lot of people, especially my wife and our kids. I never intended to do things like that ... I don’t really have an answer for you.”
The speech took less than 30 seconds, topping off a seven-hour hearing designed to convince a judge to have mercy on the fallen public official. Wearing his red jail jumpsuit with his hands and feet shackled, Mr. Long, 55, left the courtroom with his eyes pointed at his feet, never looking up at his wife, who cried intermittently throughout the day.
She and other family members declined to answer questions about the case that began with Mr. Long’s arrest in February and his resignation just four days later.
Mr. Long qualified for up to 18 years in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines, but U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice Jr. gave him the least amount of time he could have received after pleading guilty in May to 27 crimes involving extortion, money laundering, gun and drug charges. Mr. Long received a separate mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for one charge involving possession with intent to distribute cocaine, but Judge Mattice ruled that the two sentences will be served concurrently.
The judgment did not go below 10 years, something for which defense attorney Jerry Summers vigorously campaigned, using allegations that the government engaged in “outrageous conduct” by allowing its cooperating witness to coerce the former sheriff to commit increasingly serious drug crimes that authorities knew could land him in jail for years.
But FBI Special Agent Wayne Jackson testified that the government’s undercover sting to nab the defendant had to incorporate increasing amounts of cocaine and money simply to “add credibility to the operation.” They needed to find out how far the former sheriff would go, Mr. Jackson said, and whether anyone else from the department was willing to join their boss in his aspirations for making money in the drug business.
“Mr. Summers was paid to get his client off,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said after the verdict. “I don’t think anybody paid any attention to (the defense’s accusations). Our proof was substantial.”
Mr. Long’s crimes, in which authorities established he acted alone, began in early 2007 with his shakedown of local Indian convenience store owners, taking in about $23,000 with threats of violence caught on videotape.
The government then created the premise of a fictitious drug cartel in Mexico that needed Mr. Long’s help to launder its money, something Mr. Summers admitted his client bought “hook, line and sinker.”
Judge Mattice ultimately rejected claims that the government’s year-long undercover sting somehow influenced Mr. Long’s choice to continually break the law. He also largely dismissed hundreds of pages of documents Mr. Summers filed to expose the “shady” and “manipulative” character of cooperating witness the Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet, a convicted felon and former cocaine abuser who was paid $18,000 by the government to lead the former sheriff into the drug business.
An undercover sting involving entrapment and lies may have substantial “moral ambiguity,” Judge Mattice pointed out, but such efforts long have been used as a legal tool for catching criminals in the act.
“It really all goes back to you,” Judge Mattice told Mr. Long. “I don’t think you should be treated more harshly (because you worked in law enforcement), but the law requires that I impose the same sentence I would on anyone else.”
Billy Long sentenced to 14 yearsFormer Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long was sentenced Nov. 19 to 14 years in prison on federal extortion, money laundering, drug and gun charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said the illegal activity was in the former sheriff's "nature." Mr. Long’s attorney, Jerry Summers, said an undercover informant, the Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet, steered Mr. Long into criminal activity.