Due to ‘incredible success,’ sentenced only to time served
By Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First
A former Johnson woman, who was considered a major dealer of dangerous drugs in the Lamoille County area, has been given a break after successfully completing the Federal Drug Court program in Burlington.
Melissa A. George, 34, was living on St. Johns Road when she was stopped for speeding by Morristown Police on Aug. 14, 2020 and officers seized 1,634 bags of heroin, various drug paraphernalia and $5,200 in cash. They later impounded a handgun at her home.
George, who is now living at a sober house for women in Essex Junction, continued to struggle with her addiction after her arrest and was jailed after testing positive for cocaine multiple times while on pre-trial release. She was eventually given one final chance to try to turn her life around — she was allowed to enroll in the Federal Drug Court rehabilitation program. It appears to have done the trick, lawyers in the case said.
This week George was back in federal court for sentencing on a felony drug conspiracy charge and potentially facing a penalty of 108 to 135 months in prison. But the prosecution and defense said they reached an agreement that due to her incredible recent success in Drug Court the time she has served since her arrest would cover her crimes.
Senior Federal Judge WIlliam K. Sessions III told George on Monday afternoon she would still be on a short rope. He placed her under federal supervised release by the U.S. Probation Office with special terms for three years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew C. Gilman said George had been part of a major conspiracy that brought deadly controlled substances into the Lamoille Valley region from Massachusetts and Southern Vermont. She then was involved in hand-to-hand sales of heroin and crack cocaine, Gilman said in his sentencing memo.
Gilman acknowledged George had a challenging upbringing and a longstanding battle with substance abuse. The substance abuse and mental health issues played a significant role in her criminal conduct, he said.
“Through her success in Drug Court, George has demonstrated that she can control those challenges. Today, following this criminal justice intervention, her pattern of drug use and criminal conduct has ceased,” Gilman wrote.
“George deserves credit for her remarkable progress.”
Defense lawyer Gregory S. Mertz echoed Gilman’s thoughts. As part of his presentation, Mertz submitted letters of support showing George was now working as a drug abuse counselor at Act One/Bridge, the only detox facility in Chittenden County. George had become clean in part by her Vermont Foundation of Recovery Membership in October 2021.
She also is working at a childcare center in Williston.Mertz said his only disappointment was the U.S. Attorney’s Office would not allow George to plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge instead of the felony count for conspiring with others to distribute heroin and crack cocaine between January 2020 and August 2020.
He said the road to Drug Court proved long and uncertain. The U.S. Probation Office had said she was not an appropriate candidate given her history of non-compliance and lack of ties to Chittenden County. The prosecution also was skeptical, but eventually agreed to give Mertz time to develop a workable structured treatment plan.
Part of George’s rehab plan included identifying people that she needed to cut ties with in order to move forward, Mertz said in his sentencing memo. After completing Valley Vista, a residential drug rehab program in Vergennes, George moved into the sober house for women in Essex Junction. She serves as a mentor and also was the treasurer at one point.
George’s drug addiction and dealing had caused family problems. Her older sister from Hyde Park testified at a 2021 federal court hearing that she had refused to allow her two children be near George when she first learned about her drug use. George broke down as her sister testified about the ultimatum that she imposed even though they were very close. George did achieve sobriety, but later failed and was denied access to her nieces.
The George case actually stems from two unrelated drug arrests in Lamoille and Windham counties over two months and involves a co-defendant, Joseph A. Peets, 37, also of Johnson. He also pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison.
Morristown Police found the heroin in her car when they stopped George for driving 45 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone on Elmore Street about 1:50 a.m. Aug. 14, 2020, court records show. George also had $5,224 in a paper bag, MPD said.
George admitted in a post-arrest statement that she was a heroin distributor, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wrote in court papers. Morristown Police called in the DEA to assist in the interstate case.
Morristown Officer Nathan Wolfe, who was running radar, said George was emotional and upset and had slurred speech when she answered questions. He said George also had trouble pulling out her license and registration, but was able to perform sobriety exercises, police said.
As part of their drug conspiracies, George and Peets were southbound on Interstate 91 in Putney when their rental car crashed into the guardrails on June 29, 2020. Vermont State Police did a consent search and eventually uncovered 546 envelopes of heroin and fentanyl and $19,140 in cash, Trooper Zachary Van Valkenburgh reported.
George and Peets have agreed to forfeit the $19,140 found by state troopers in Windham County, court records.
George also agreed to give up the $5,224 seized by Morristown Police during the August 2020 traffic stop. She also forfeited the 9-mm semi-automatic pistol and ammunition found at her residence, court records show.
When George was initially arrested in August 2020, then-Federal Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy ordered her detained pending trial as both a danger to the community and as a risk to flee.
Conroy stated George had tested positive after her arrest for several drugs, including fentanyl, cocaine and benzodiazepine. He also noted she has a 2012 criminal conviction for false information to police in Lamoille County.
Conroy said George had an unaddressed drug problem.
Now George has a chance to show Conroy she could change for good.
A version of this story first appeared in the News & Citizen in Lamoille County.