A routine springtime traffic stop in Greene County opened a window into a Ruckersville man’s brazen drug-trafficking scheme that enlisted his son and girlfriend to do his dealing even after he was incarcerated and even after another associate died from an overdose. Michael Watkins Hayer, 41, pled guilty Friday, Oct. 14, to federal charges of fentanyl distribution and firearm possession by a convicted felon.
“We are always glad when a case involving an overdose is brought to justice and those responsible are held accountable,” Greene County Sheriff Steven S. Smith said in a statement.
The wheels of justice began turning against Hayer on April 16. On that day, Hayer was at the wheel and allegedly speeding through Greene with his 18-year-old son, Christopher. A records check found that Hayer’s license had been suspended and that, as a felon convicted of felony drug possession in Buckingham County five years earlier, he should not have had any firearms. However, a search of the vehicle produced three firearms, including a 9-millimeter Ruger pistol. The search also turned up, according to Hayer’s signed statement, 90 grams of methamphetamine and 50 grams of fentanyl.
A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is a legal component of several controlled pain-relief medications, when the compound is produced in a regulated laboratory. The prescribing of drugs with fentanyl is typically reserved only for treating intense pain, such as that caused by certain late-stage cancers, or crippling arthritis. Just two milligrams— two thousandths of a gram— of the substance can be lethal. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Because illegal fentanyl is not made in regulated laboratories, fentanyl sold on the streets can be even more deadly. And, it is often added to street drugs such as heroin and cocaine. It can kill instantly. Because of the growing danger of the drug, the DEA has had a special initiative underway this year called “One Pill Can Kill” to increase efforts to find fentanyl traffickers.
The 2018 death of musician Tom Petty was linked to an overdose of prescription medication that contained fentanyl. The deaths of Justin Townes Earle in 2020 and “The Wire” star Michael K. Williams in 2021 were also linked to drugs that contained fentanyl.
In an alarming trend that began 2015, fentanyl overdose deaths have become the number one cause of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 71,000 Americans died last year from overdoses related to fentanyl, accounting for about two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021. In addition, the 71,000 deaths represent a 25% increase in fentanyl overdose deaths from 2020, indicating the growing threat of the highly toxic drug.
By the time of the traffic stop in Greene, Hayer knew something more personal about the danger.
Two months earlier and by his own admission, Hayer sold an unnamed person a “half-brick,” 25 packages, of fentanyl. The drug had been packaged in small, glassine waxed envelopes and stamped on the front with a decoration such as the logo of the Walt Disney movie “Toy Story.” The unnamed person was supposed to sell it for $8 per envelope. However, the next day, February 19, according to a federal filing, that person died of acute fentanyl toxicity.
Hayer admitted that he fled from Greene County after his lieutenant’s death.
The April 16 arrest came after a Virginia State Trooper pulled Hayer for speeding. According to the government, Hayer’s license had been revoked, and he was wanted on a felony hit-and-run charge from the Farmville area.
That Prince Edward County court file shows that Hayer’s alleged hit-and-run occurred April 10. The only such event listed on that day’s Farmville police activity report occurred at 4:02 a.m. when officers and EMS responded to a Sheetz store for a female thrown out of a vehicle and her foot run over. “Driver identified,” concludes the report. “Warrants are pending.”
Despite his arrest and jailing at Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, Hayer’s drug trafficking continued, according to his own admission. The file shows that Hayer would make calls on the jail telephone to instruct his son and his former girlfriend, 41-year-old Felice E. Mills of Stanardsville, to travel to North Carolina, where he had a supplier.
He demonstrated a lack of awareness or concern for the fact that jailhouse phone calls are recorded. An affidavit from FBI special agent Robinson N. Blake indicates that Hayer would urge Mills to go and get “packages” and “bricks” from his North Carolina supplier.
“Just get to f—-ing Carolina,” the affadavit indicates Hayer instructed Mills, “… and get me some (profanity deleted) drugs.”
The affidavit also indicates that Hayer told his girlfriend to arm herself with a pistol when visiting the North Carolina source, told her to keep only two packages in the house in order to “flush them” if necessary, and to keep the remaining packages buried in her yard.
He instructed her, the documents allege, not to use the drugs and to touch the drug packages without wearing gloves.
“Fentanyl… dope… methamphetamine ain’t nothing to f— with,” Hayer also instructed his son, according to his admission.
“Fentanyl has the potential to kill just by contact, and it is far too dangerous to be sold on the street,” said FBI Richmond Acting Special Agent in Charge David C. Lewis in a statement. “With this guilty plea, Mr. Hayer has finally accepted responsibility for his actions.”
Drug penalties in the federal system can last decades even when nobody has died, according to New York-based lawyer Matthew J. Galluzzo.
“If a person is convicted in federal court of selling even a small amount of drugs, and one of his customers dies from an overdose, the minimum penalty immediately becomes 20 years,” Galluzzo has written. “If the convicted person also has a prior conviction for selling narcotics, that person may face a life sentence for having sold drugs that results in an overdose.”
The government alleges that Hayer has both a prior distribution conviction and that his trade resulted in death. However, according to the terms of a plea agreement, Hayer has been allowed to serve 20 years under a plea that omits these allegations. He will also get credit for admitting responsibility, something that could further trim his sentence.
All that’s left is the official pronouncement of his punishment. As he remains incarcerated, Judge Norman K. Moon has ordered production of a presentencing report in advance of the March 2, 2023 sentencing hearing.
On May 1, according to the FBI affidavit, Hayer telephoned his son from jail to instruct the 18-year-old to drive to North Carolina for more drugs and to avoid using Interstate highways or speeding his vehicle. The son and the girlfriend were arrested on state charges three weeks later.
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