By Tim Eberly
A suspected leader of a Hill County drug ring pleaded not guilty last week to conspiracy charges in federal court.
Lawrence Joe "L.J." Bauer, 23, and his older sister, 27-year-old Crystal Blatt, pleaded innocent Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Great Falls to a charge of conspiracy to distribute more than 500 grams of methamphetamine. Bauer and Blatt are the last of a group of nine Hill County residents seven of whom are from Havre to be indicted on meth distribution charges by a federal grand jury.
They were both arrested after FBI agents served search warrants Feb. 25 at their Havre homes. A small amount of marijuana was found on Bauer during his arrest, the FBI said.
If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $4 million fine. Both are being held without bond in the Cascade County Detention Center.
FBI agents in Havre said they believe Bauer has distributed six pounds of meth, with an estimated street value of $270,000, to lower-level drug dealers since 1998. He is belived to be one of the most active drug dealers in Hill County in recent years, the FBI said.
The FBI said Bauer's drugs were obtained from out-of-state sources.
Blatt's involvement included distribution of smaller amounts of meth and collecting money for Bauer, who is her brother or half-brother, the FBI said.
Information from people who had a "drug relationship" with Bauer and Blatt led to their indictments, the FBI said.
Bauer's association with two Washington state drug dealers 23-year-old Victor Saucedo and Alejandro "Alex" Rodriguez, 28, both of Yakima contributed to his movement up the drug-dealing ladder, the FBI said.
Saucedo and Rodriguez were convicted of federal drug charges within the last two years. Saucedo is serving a life sentence in a California prison, while Rodriguez is serving an 11-year sentence in New York. Saucedo was also convicted of money laundering.
Saucedo was the leader of a drug ring that funneled at least $4.5 million worth of methamphetamine from Yakima into north-central Montana, including Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Investigators seized between 100 and 250 pounds of meth from that drug operation.
Excluding Bauer and Blatt, all seven members of the alleged Hill County drug ring have pleaded guilty since November.
A married couple from Rocky Boy, Corrina and Fabian "Juice" Saddler, pleaded guilty to meth distribution charges. Siblings Richard and Audrey Mae Bauer, along with Audrey's spouse, Robert "Junior" Healy III, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to distribute meth in January. All three are from Havre.
Two others 25-year-old Travis Hawk and Gabe Lawrence, 32, pleaded guilty to similar charges.
L.J. Bauer is Richard Bauer's nephew, the FBI said.
A separate incident with L.J. Bauer in 1999 led the Montana Supreme Court to place more specific limits on police departments in the state. In November 1999, Bauer was arrested and taken to the Hill County Detention Center on a charge of minor in possession of alcohol. At the jail, detention center officers allegedly discovered a bag of cocaine in his possession and charged Bauer with drug possession.
Bauer pleaded guilty to a drug charge, but later appealed to the higher court, arguing that the police had no legal reason to jail him for a minor-in-possession charge. In December, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Bauer's favor, saying that police officers cannot jail someone after arresting them for a minor crime that does not carry a jail sentence.
As a result, the Supreme Court overturned Bauer's drug conviction.
Blatt is on state probation for a recent conviction in Hill County District Court. She received an 18-month suspended sentence on Feb. 4 for a charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs. Blatt was also convicted of felony assault in 1997.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.