Laramie Man Charged With Smuggling Fentanyl Into Jail Takes Plea Deal
Federal prosecutors drop their pursuit of a life sentence
- Published In: Criminal Justice
- Last Updated: Oct 08, 2023
A Laramie man who reportedly distributed fentanyl inside the Albany County Detention Center in March 2022 pleaded guilty on Friday. Prosecutors say the fentanyl in the jail led to the death of one inmate and the near-death of another. (Courtesy image taken from Google Street View)
By CJ Baker
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Days before he was set to go to trial, a man alleged to have smuggled fentanyl into a Laramie jail decided to take a plea deal.
Federal prosecutors had been seeking a mandatory life sentence for 44-year-old Christopher Charles Baker of Laramie. They’ve alleged one of Baker’s fellow inmates fatally overdosed on pills he brought into the Albany County Detention Center in early 2022 and that another inmate came close to dying. Baker, meanwhile, planned to argue at trial that he wasn’t the one who brought the drugs into the facility.
Instead of life in prison, federal sentencing guidelines suggest Baker will now face somewhere between five and 12 years for distribution of fentanyl, said Lori Hogan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The sentence will ultimately be determined by presiding U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson.
According to court records, the series of events started on March 11, 2022, when Albany County sheriff’s deputies spotted a stolen truck outside Baker’s Laramie residence. Inside the vehicle, they reportedly found Xanax and two counterfeit Oxycodone pills that appeared to be laced with fentanyl. Baker denied that the pills were his, and he wasn’t charged in connection with the stolen vehicle or drugs. However, he was booked into the Albany County Detention Center for missing a court date on a nearly year-old misdemeanor drug possession charge.
The serious trouble began the following day, when one of the inmates in Baker’s pod collapsed. Robert Ridinger hit his head on the cement floor, and despite CPR and other efforts to save his life, he died, according to court records. The cause of death was determined to be an overdose from fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has poured into the country and state.
The next day, March 13, another inmate in the pod similarly collapsed. Responders were able to resuscitate him with Narcan, but prosecutors quoted an ER doctor as saying that, if Joshua Nichols hadn’t received medical attention, his risk of death was “extreme to certain.”
A state investigation
DCI agents were brought into the jail to investigate the overdoses, and Nichols eventually said he’d received a half-a-pill of fentanyl from Baker, according to charging documents. Nichols reportedly said it was one of roughly 15 pills that Baker had brought into the pod.
When he spoke with DCI, Baker offered that he had “provided Ridinger with a generic pill of Xanax,” then-Special Agent Troy Bartel recounted in an affidavit. However, Baker said it was his cellmate, Nathan Kallevig, who had fentanyl.
Kallevig was found to have hidden a fentanyl pill inside his anus, but he asserted that Baker had coerced him into concealing it. Kallevig said Baker alluded to being affiliated with a white supremacist prison gang, and felt “he would be physically harmed for not doing as Baker commanded him to do,” DCI Special Agent Jon Briggs wrote in an affidavit.
A later review of the surveillance camera footage showed Baker interacted with both Ridinger and Nichols shortly before they collapsed, Agent Bartel wrote, saying it appeared to corroborate the allegation that Baker provided the drugs that caused the men’s overdoses.
The agent added that after Nichols overdosed, “Baker was seen walking down to his cell and flushing something down the toilet.” A test of Baker’s blood showed that he, too, had ingested fentanyl, court records state.
Still, Baker’s lawyer said prosecutors had no evidence his client brought the drugs into the jail. Attorney Mark Hardee noted jail staff presumably followed “all of the standard search and safety procedures” and didn’t find any illegal substances on Baker.
“The government’s theory is that the defendant, somehow, must have smuggled fentanyl into the facility in order to distribute it to the other inmates,” Hardee wrote in a filing last week. However, he said the prosecutors’ theory “fails to consider and completely ignores the possibility that fentanyl was already present in the facility at the time [Baker] arrived there and that all of the individuals in the facility had access to it.”
Prosecutors said there are “countless ways in which contraband items are smuggled into prisons.”
“… strategies and methods are ever changing, with inmates seeking security vulnerabilities and adapting their criminal activities to exploit weaknesses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson wrote in a July filing that outlined planned expert testimony on the subject. Jacobson added that, “no single technology or strategy will solve the contraband problem.”
The Albany County Sheriff’s Office added a body scanner and more training following the fentanyl overdoses. The death became an issue during last year’s race between Sheriff Aaron Appelhans and challenger Joel Senior.
Reaching a deal
Baker was initially charged in state court, but federal prosecutors picked up the case in October 2022, charging him with one felony count of distributing fentanyl.
Baker’s prior attorney tried to negotiate a deal before the case was presented to a grand jury, court records say, but Baker was indicted in March on three revised and enhanced counts of distributing fentanyl. The charges alleged that Baker provided the drug to Ridinger, Nichols and Kallevig, resulting in Ridinger’s death and serious bodily injury to Nichols.
In August, prosecutors announced their intent to seek a mandatory life sentence for the count of distribution resulting in death; Baker qualified for an enhanced penalty because of a prior felony drug conviction for selling cocaine and marijuana in Laramie in 2008.
A deal had looked unlikely: Just two weeks ahead of the Oct. 10 trial, the parties told the court that, “there are currently no ongoing plea negotiations.” On Thursday, however, they announced they’d struck an agreement
Baker pleaded guilty on Friday to a lesser count of distribution of fentanyl, while the other two charges were dismissed. Though the terms were outlined at an hour-long hearing, documents detailing the agreement and the prosecution’s summary of the case were not made available to the public. Hogan said she couldn’t comment on the reasoning behind the agreement; Hardee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Baker is set to be sentenced on Dec. 22 in Cheyenne.
The author of this article and the defendant are not related.