A federal appeals court has upheld a police officer’s conviction on heroin trafficking and gun charges, keeping his sentence at 15 years for his role in the FBI drug sting code-named “Operation Rockfish.”
The court, however, eliminated a bribery conviction against Antonio Tillmon, formerly an officer in the Bertie County town of Windsor. One of 15 people indicted in the case involving other law enforcement officers in Eastern North Carolina, Tillmon was the only one to plead not guilty and go to trial, court records said.
Operation Rockfish began in 2013 after FBI agents got wind of police corruption in Weldon, near Interstate 95 in Halifax County. Undercover agents set up a warehouse in Rocky Mount for storing fake heroin and cocaine.
Phony narcotics were packaged to look like drugs seized in raids and were transported to Maryland by teams of cars, one serving as a scout and another as rear guard.
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The 2015 arrests, which included 13 active and former law enforcement officers, brought a 54-count indictment.
“Deputies and correctional officers used their law enforcement positions to line their own pockets,” John Strong, head of the FBI in North Carolina, told The News & Observer at the time. “They vowed to protect and serve but instead were motivated by pure greed and tarnished the badges they were trusted to carry.”
Tillmon was recruited by Ikeisha Jacobs, a former co-worker who was working for the Weldon police, court records said. He and several others made three trips to Maryland, where he netted $6,500, one of the payments being delivered on a Ferris wheel ride at the National Harbor, court records said.
After his conviction by jury in U.S. District Court, Tillmon’s attorneys moved for acquittal, arguing insufficient evidence. But the court kept the convictions on seven of nine counts, and the appeals court backed much of that decision in its Feb. 26 ruling.
Tillmon argued, court records said, that even though a team member pointed to the packages getting loaded into a vehicle and described them as a million dollars in heroin, the evidence does not show Tillmon either heard this description or believed it.
“We disagree with Tillmon,” wrote the three-judge panel. “To say that he lacked intent and was ‘a mere passive observer of these goings-on, would defy reason.’“
They also backed the court’s conviction on drug-trafficking conspiracy, rejecting arguments that no evidence showed Tillmon knew he was moving heroin or that he touched the packages.
“The jury would have had to believe that Tillmon thought he was paid a total of $6,500 to accompany his friend Jacobs on three innocent drives to Maryland so that he could, on one occasion, take photographs of the harbor,” the judges wrote. “This conclusion, too, defies common sense.”
The court upheld Tillmon’s conviction on conspiracy to use firearms in a drug trafficking offense but vacated his sentence for federal bribery on grounds of insufficient evidence.
But the bribery charge going away does not affect Tillmon’s 180-month sentence, the court wrote, and there will be no new hearing.