Judge sentences ‘god of the Rodeway Inn’ to life in prison in fatal drug case

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a convicted drug dealer to life in prison for a conspiracy that resulted in the drug overdose death of a 27-year-old woman in 2018.

US District Judge Terry Moorer suggested that William Grant “Whip Owens, 55, hurt his case for leniency with an angry, defiant statement to the court.

“Sentencing is usually the hardest date for me,” the judge said. “Sentencing today is not a hard date. It was when I walked in here. It’s not now.”

Given the fact that there is no early release in the federal system, the sentence amounts to a “pine box parole,” in the words of the judge. Moorer said there were times during the defendant’s trial in March when he literally took a shower because he felt so “nasty” after hearing the testimony.

The jury determined that Owens was part of an organization informally known as the “Crossley Hill Boys” and that he played a key role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to sell drugs across the Gulf Coast. Those narcotics included methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl, a powerful and deadly drug that prosecutors called “Grey Death.” Federal prosecutors named 42 people in the indictment.

Much of the trial revolved around the overdose death of Kelsey Johnston, a mother of two who ended up at the now-defund Rodeway Inn in Tillman’s Corner off Interstate 10.

Assistant US Attorney George May argued for the maximum penalty.

“It there’s any defendant who deserves a life sentence, it’s this defendant. … He was the God of the Rodeway Inn,” he said. “That’s how he thought of himself.”

May pointed to testimony that co-defendant Jessica “Allie” Tubb injected Johnston with fentanyl, triggering an overdose that caused her death on Oct. 11, 2018. The judge in May sentenced her to 15 years in prison.

He also noted that the defendant admitted to an investigator that he had touched Johnston with her clothes off. May said testimony indicated that it appeared the victim’s clothes had been removed and then put back on after she had lost consciousness.

“This defendant, your honor, is evil incarnate to the flesh and bone,” he said. “He has earned a life sentence.”

Owens showed no emotion, looking off to the side as the judge pronounced sentence. He showed plenty of emotion when given a chance to address the court, however. As he did when he was tested at the trial, Owens denied responsibility for Johnston’s death and insisted he never was a drug dealer.

Owens said he had open-heart surgery in 2016 and was in and out of the hospital all year. Since, he said, he has suffered through a host of health problems and barely can get out of bed.

“I had nothing to do with this lady’s death, or any of the other deaths,” he said. “I miss my momma. But I’m glad she wasn’t here to see this injustice. … An innocent man is being sent to prison.”

Owens said he is an addict.

“I’m a crack user, not a heroin user,” he said. “If I had sold drugs, would have been that one.”

Johnston’s family blasted Owens. Her mother, Leigh Wade, recalled encountering him that day she showed up in the motel looking for her daughter.

“You’re standing up by the lobby, boating how you helped her,” she said.

Instead, Wade said, she came to learn that Owens caused her daughter’s death.

“You’re a sick, sick man. … My baby passed away in a rotten, nasty hotel in your hands,” she said.

The victim’s aunt, Ginger Baskin, looked directly at Owens when she spoke.

“God above sees what you’ve done. … You watched my niece lay on that flood and die,” she said. “She didn’t even get to tell her family goodbye.”

Defense Attorney Walter Prendergast indicated his client would appeal. He told the judge that Owens is “in a sense, a victim, as well” because he has battled addiction since the early 1990s. He said many drug dealers have millions of dollars in assets when federal agents close in. His client, he noted, is dead broke.

“He had no money, no bank account, no car, nowhere to stay,” he said.

Prendergast said given his client’s health problems, even the 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence is tantamount to life in prison.

“He believes, and I believe this is accurate, even a 20-year sentence is one that he will not survive,” he said.

May recounted evidence of a long list of misdeeds. He pointed to testimony from a woman who said Owens locked her in a bathroom until she went through withdrawal and succumbed to his sexual demands in order to get the heroin hit. He did something similar, May said, to a family friend who was addicted to heroin.

“You know what you have to do,” Owens said, while dropping his pants, according to May. The prosecutor said the woman resisted but could hold out no longer when Owens held a spoonful of heroin over her head, and she gave in to his demands.

“The depravities of this defendant are unconscionable,” he said.

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