Meth series: Butte meth dealer facing life in prison has history of light sentences

December 11, 2016 - Montana Standard

It was shocking when a man was arrested in broad daylight in busy Uptown Butte this time last year by a swarm of armed police.

Also shocking was the man’s admission to police that he had trafficked over 40 pounds of meth in the community in the last six months. More shocking still was that the man had fired a gun at associates in Anaconda and Butte at least five times for offenses as slight as dropping the bong.

But most shocking is that Lester Oxendine had managed to get away with so much for so long. Oxendine’s criminal record shows a history of light sentencing, second chances, and the failure by separate court jurisdictions to take into account his probationary status in other states, even as the danger he posed to those around him escalated.

The federal charges Oxendine now faces for his crimes in Montana may put him behind bars permanently, but if he manages to avoid a harsh sentence for his felony convictions, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Oxendine is 33 years old and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a mixed-race tribe best known for being the largest federally unrecognized Native group in America and for routing the Ku Klux Klan in the 1958 Battle of Hayes Pond.

Oxendine’s criminal history is extensive, spanning at least four states on both sides of the country and dozens of criminal charges over a decade and a half. The scope of Oxendine’s activity means there are gaps in information concerning his criminal convictions and sentencings, but from available documents, it appears Oxendine has spent little time behind bars, serving about one year in jail for 14 convicted felonies in North Carolina alone.

His first known appearance in the criminal justice system was at age 19 for bootlegging in Richmond County, North Carolina, in 2001, a misdemeanor. Over the next decade, he bounced back and forth between courts in both Carolinas on various charges.

Oxendine was arrested in South Carolina for the first time in August 2003 and charged with assault, felony malicious injury to an animal, resisting arrest, and failing to pull over for police, all from the same incident. The assault charges were dropped by the prosecutor, and Oxendine pleaded guilty to all other charges.

In September 2004, Oxendine was arrested again in South Carolina and pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, including two misdemeanor assaults, four felonies for breaking into fuel tanks, and two more bootlegging misdemeanors.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections only keeps a database of current, not former, inmates and did not respond to requests for clarification of Oxendine’s criminal sentencing history.

While the specifics of Oxendine’s sentencing in South Carolina are unclear, in 2009, he served 27 days in a North Carolina jail for two counts of misdemeanor larceny and 149 days for burning down a dwelling for fraudulent purposes.

2011 saw Oxendine sentenced on five felony forgery charges in Robeson County, North Carolina, from seven years prior, for which his probation was revoked, and he served eight months in jail.

Released in 2012, Oxendine was again convicted of multiple felonies in 2013 but would avoid jail time. Found guilty of identity theft, financial fraud, credit card theft, and motor vehicle theft, Oxendine was given a suspended sentence and placed back on probation.

Although it’s unknown when Oxendine first graduated from bootlegging to the drug trade, his first drug charges were filed by courts in the Bakken oil fields after he fled North Carolina, absconding from his probation.

With a low population density (and therefore smaller drug appetite) and great distance from the Southern border, ocean ports, and major cities, Montana and the Northern Plains are a relative backwater in the America’s drug war with Mexican cartels.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice, Southwest Montana serves as a tertiary overland meth trafficking crossroads, sitting between the Pacific Northwest ports and the major Chicago distribution center as well as at the northern terminus of the Interstate 15 and 25 routes that bring drugs up through Salt Lake City and Denver from the narcotics epicenters of Tijuana and Juarez.

While the DOJ says most of that drug traffic is diverted to major cities before it gets close to Montana, emerging markets like the Bakken oilfield boomtowns bring occasional spikes in demand for drugs that attract out-of-state dealers.

The man camps that followed the fracking of Bakken shale oil led to a sharp increase in western North Dakota’s drug crime, with out-of-state gangs sending members to run local trafficking rings, particularly for meth.

Oxendine was first arrested in Williams County, North Dakota, in September 2014 for driving without a seat belt or a license and later in early 2015 for carrying a concealed weapon, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, tampering with evidence, and continuing to drive without a license or a seat belt.

The North Dakota courts sentenced Oxendine to a year’s probation for some of the charges, but he absconded again, this time to Butte, before all his charges progressed fully through the legal system. The light sentences Oxendine received in North Dakota suggest the courts there were unaware of his sizable criminal history in the Carolinas or his status as a probationary absconder.

Oxendine’s last criminal charge in North Dakota was in April 2015 for driving without a license. His continued failure to secure a driver’s license would be the cause of his initial arrest by Butte police in December of last year.

Silver Bow County Sheriff Ed Lester said although police had circumstantial evidence that Oxendine had been dealing meth and shooting at people for several months before his arrest, they were still waiting on a search warrant for his Centerville home when they arrested him in Uptown Butte on a traffic stop.

Lester said they didn’t want to arrest Oxendine outside his home, which they knew contained multiple firearms, and also didn’t want to provoke a hostage situation by attempting an arrest when someone else was tagging along. When the surveillance team tailing Oxendine reported he drove away from his house alone, police pulled him over Uptown, confiscating a 9mm pistol and drugs with a search warrant acquired after the K9 unit got a hit on his car.

More drugs and firearms were found in Oxendine’s home, and the man later told police in an interview that he had trafficked over 40 pounds of meth in the Butte area from Las Vegas after moving to town in July.

With his cases in Silver Bow and Deer Lodge counties transferred to federal court, Oxendine pleaded guilty in November to charges he distributed meth and used a gun to make it happen. Because Oxendine fired his weapon in furtherance of selling meth, he’s facing a potential life sentence and millions of dollars in fines. Sentencing is currently scheduled for March 2017.

Other felony drug and weapons charges were dismissed in exchange for his guilty plea. But this time around, federal prosecutors likely have enough to end Oxendine’s criminal career.

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