A Missoula methamphetamine dealer who was shot in a botched drug sting in June was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court to nine years in federal prison.
Harry Louis Steven Van Pelt pleaded guilty to a felony methamphetamine distribution charge in an agreement with prosecutors that dropped four other charges.
Another suspect involved in the drug case, Van Pelt’s uncle, Mark Andrew LaRoque, 57, was also sentenced Thursday morning to five years in federal prison followed by five years of supervised release. LaRoque pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute meth.
The June 28 drug sting that led to the arrest of Van Pelt, LaRoque, Shayla Dee Clark and Michael Wayne Powell took place at Missoula’s Magic Diamond Casino on West Broadway, where an undercover law enforcement officer arranged to purchase 9 ounces of methamphetamine from Van Pelt.
During the course of the drug deal, Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Jonathan Stineford shot Van Pelt when he and his partner, Dave Merifield, approached the suspect in his parked car.
The incident sparked an external investigation into the shooting by the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department.
In Stineford’s testimony, he stated that Van Pelt stared at the officers as they pulled into the parking lot of the casino to make the arrests, and heavy traffic on Toole Avenue hindered their attempt to surprise him.
Both Stineford and Merifield were wearing vests that clearly indicated they were with the sheriff’s department, the investigation stated.
Stineford got out of the car and ordered Van Pelt to put his arms in the air. Van Pelt initially agreed to the command, but suddenly lowered his arms as if he was grabbing a gun, Stineford stated.
Stineford fired two rounds in Van Pelt’s door, and one of the bullets hit Van Pelt in the leg.
Save for a pellet gun in the back seat, no deadly weapon was found in Van Pelt’s car or on his person.
The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department cleared Stineford of any wrongdoing.
However, a sentencing memorandum submitted by Van Pelt’s attorney, Briana Kottke, asserts Van Pelt was attempting to drive away when he lowered his hands.
She wrote the sheriff’s detectives had the word “Sheriff” printed in black across the front of their dark-colored vests, and Van Pelt didn’t hear any commands issued by the law enforcement officers.
Furthermore, the officers were driving an unmarked car with tinted windows.
Van Pelt thought he was in the midst of an armed drug robbery given the large amount of methamphetamine he possessed in his truck, she argued, and he was attempting to drive away from a man carrying an assault rifle.
“It is unfortunate that Harry was shot when they could have let him drive away and pulled him over down the road with the same end result and less danger to the community,” she wrote.
Kottke argued for a seven-year sentence for Van Pelt followed by five years of supervised release.
In her sentencing memorandum, Kottke argued her client had very few role models growing up and started abusing intoxicants at the age of 5 or 6.
Aside from a five-year stint of sobriety in his 30s, Van Pelt used methamphetamine every day from the time he was 16 until the time of his arrest, she wrote.
His sobriety ended three months before he was arrested when he moved from Butte to Missoula and re-connected with his uncle, LaRoque, and other meth users like Clark, Kottke wrote.
Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ordered a sentence of 108 months, or nine years, less than the standard 151 to 188 months.
According to a sentencing memorandum submitted by attorney Josh Van de Wetering, LaRoque’s involvement in the drug conspiracy was minimal.
Van de Wetering argued for a five-year sentence for LaRoque, whom he described as having severe emotional problems, a “serious addiction” to meth, and an IQ of 72. Van de Wetering wrote LaRoque was simply used as a middleman and a “shield until Van Pelt and Clark were comfortable with the buyer.”
“He was simply doing as he was told so he could get methamphetamine,” Van de Wetering stated.
Van Pelt and Clark handled the money and the drugs, not trusting anyone else to do so, he argued.
LaRoque received the minimum sentence of five years.
Clark was sentenced last week to four years in federal prison, also for conspiracy to distribute meth.
The court deemed the fourth suspect, Powell, mentally incompetent, concluding he couldn’t understand the nature and consequences of the charges against him.
The court also denied his request to change his plea from not guilty to guilty, based on the psychiatric exam conducted by Dr. Cynthia Low.
According to court documents, Powell was committed to the custody of the attorney general for hospitalization and treatment.