A 29-year-old Vassar man was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for planning to unleash what Tuscola County Prosecutors called an area “heroin apocalypse” that essentially ended before it began with the fatal drug overdose of his girlfriend.
Tuscola County Circuit Court Judge Amy Grace Gierhart sentenced Caleb Hills to 15-30 years in prison for conspiring and possessing with intent to deliver roughly a pound of heroin with an estimated street value of up to $50,000.
Hills had faced up to life in prison on a third charge — delivery of a controlled substance causing death – in connection with the fatal drug overdose of his girlfriend, Amanda Byrd. That charge was dropped as part of a plea deal with Tuscola County prosecutors. Hills and Byrd conspired to facilitate the sale of a $50,000 brick of heroin last Thanksgiving from a Reese apartment. However, just a few hours into the operation, Byrd died after snorting heroin. Emotions were high with family and friends of both Hills and Byrd in the courtroom during sentencing Wednesday.
“I can only ask that both families here consider how to put the anger and upset arising out of this horrible tragedy to some positive use,” Gierhart said during proceedings. “Talk to parents, talk to kids, talk to community providers about treatment, share your experiences, if you reach just one kid who’s thinking about using this junk or help one parent who needs to understand the importance of valuable treatment.
“What’s done is done, but please try to influence this epidemic going forward,” Gierhart said. “The evil here is heroin.”
“However…it’s my job as the circuit court judge in this community to send a clear message, and, that is, Mr. Hills, if you bring a half-a-kilo of heroin into this county, I’m gonna send you to prison for as long as I can.”
Gierhart then sentenced Hills to 15-30 years on the two counts related to conspiring and possessing between 499-599 grams of heroin.
Because of the plea agreement, there wasn’t a trial.
Prosecutors instead relied heavily on testimony from a March 14 preliminary hearing in Tuscola County District Court that revealed how Hills and Byrd were involved in a plan that went into action around midnight, Thanksgiving 2015, to sell a large quantity of heroin. The amount was equivalent to roughly a pound and a law enforcement officer testified it had a street value of about $50,000.
Crystal Emery testified allowing the duo to conduct business from her apartment in Reese. She is currently in Tuscola County jail and set to be sentenced Tuesday on several narcotics-related charges.
She was one of nine witnesses called by Tuscola County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Eric Wanink during the March preliminary hearing.
Emery testified that Hills and Byrd planned to go to Flint to pick up the heroin and bring it back to Tuscola County to sell. However, the source of the drugs in Flint didn’t trust Hills and Byrd, Emery said. As a result, three men came back with Hills and Byrd from Flint and handled cutting and packaging the heroin while Hills and Byrd sent texts and made calls trying to move the drugs.
Other witnesses testified to being asked by Hills and Byrd in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving to buy heroin.
At about 3 a.m., Byrd went into a bathroom where the heroin was being cut and packaged, snorted some of the drug, came out, walked a few steps, fell over, and was pronounced dead a few hours later.
“The facts of this case are that Mr. Hills and Miss Byrd were drug users,” said Hills’ attorney, Greg Bringard, in arguing Wednesday for a shorter sentence. “It’s not disputed that they both went to Flint to purchase heroin.
“(Amanda) was in the car with him. It’s not disputed that she rode back to Reese with him, they went up to the apartment of another individual where they sold heroin. That’s not disputed.”
Further, Bringard said, the “prosecution has this whole time deemed (Amanda) as a victim. She’s not a victim according to the law, your honor. She’s a coconspirator according to the law.”
In June, Bringard successfully motioned the court to drop the charge against Hills relating to Byrd’s death based on the fact the two were working together on dealing the drugs.
Wanink, however, argued Wednesday that the court should consider the overall impact of Hills’ actions, including and beyond Byrd’s death.
“This is about the defendant’s ambition,” Wanink said. “The defendant’s ambition that particular night was he was trying to establish himself as a major, high-level drug trafficker here in Tuscola County.
“He had befriended several other drug trafficking individuals from the Flint area and had convinced them that he could move a tremendous amount of product if they would just give him the chance. And so they did.
“If he had been successful, I can’t imagine the resulting overdose deaths, the addicts, the legions of addicts that he would have created, the resulting crime that would have been the fallout from all of those addicts by way of home invasions, property offenses and violence that would have resulted.”
Wanink pointed out that although Hills and Byrd were working together to sell the heroin, it was Hills who had all of the contacts and arranged for the drugs to be in Reese – and in front of Byrd – that night.
“Because of his ambition, his greed, he tried to introduce what I would call a heroin apocalypse upon Tuscola County and because of that would have created a wave of crime that would have resulted,” Wanink said.
Jennifer Guinn, Amanda Byrd’s mother, was given an opportunity to read a victim’s impact statement before Gierhart sentenced Hills.
Guinn told The Advertiser in December that she believed Hills didn’t act fast enough when Amanda Byrd toppled over after ingesting the heroin.
“From what we were told by the police and investigators, due to your negligence and selfishness, we lost a courageous, loyal piece of our family,” Guinn said, fighting back tears. “Daily people are saved from overdoses with the proper medical attention. You stole Amanda’s second chance when you failed to do that for her. You were blocks from the (Reese) police station and mere miles from the hospital. There is no excuse why she arrived far too late to save her.”
Dan Hills, Caleb Hills’ father, laughed out loud as Guinn read her statement and said, “Lies. It’s all lies,” before being warned by a detective from the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Department to be quiet. It was his second warning. Before proceedings began, he loudly questioned why Caleb Hills – in Tuscola County jail for the previous 202 days – was lead into the courtroom by three sheriff’s department officials.
Guinn continued with her statement, addressed to Caleb Hills, who did not look at her.
“You knocked on my door the day before (Thanksgiving 2015), and when I did not answer, you just walked in. And when I questioned you, you said you came here to take her to an (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting. Instead, you took her to a drug deal that you set up, and you let her die.
“Amanda was a loving mother, daughter, and sister whose children will never know her loving creativeness or feel the love of her embrace,” Guinn said. “That may be saddest of all.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org