CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a Cheyenne man to serve 20 years in prison for his role in providing the heroin that resulted in the overdose deaths of three people last year, including a young professional bull rider.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson said he will recommend that Vernon Violas Ellefson Jr., 45, serve his sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., so he can receive treatment for a malignant brain tumor. Ellefson declined to speak on his own behalf before sentencing.
Ellefson pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy to distribute heroin that resulted in the overdoses of 21-year-old bull rider Bryan Guthrie, as well as Valarie Anne Sena, 34, and Martin Christopher Gerhold, 32, both of Cheyenne.
Guthrie was ranked as high as third in bull-riding in January 2009 in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He was knocked out of competition with a leg injury in March 2009.
Guthrie's death was shocking in Wyoming, where such drug use in its cowboy culture was unheard of.
The investigation into the overdose deaths uncovered a drug-dealing network that brought heroin from Denver to Cheyenne.
Ellefson, a concrete mason, is one of six men who have pleaded guilty to federal drug charges in the case. A seventh man is awaiting extradition from Canada.
Johnson on Tuesday declined a request from Ellefson's lawyer, Thomas Smith, to change a presentence report to state that Ellefson was only marginally involved in the deaths of Guthrie and Gerhold.
"I recognize that it is not a pleasant thing to face up to the conspiracy," Johnson said.
Johnson said the presentence report stated that Ellefson had supplied Sena with the heroin that killed her.
In addition, Johnson said Ellefson had supplied Gerhold regularly with heroin before his death. The judge also said Ellefson introduced another defendant in the drug case to a Denver supplier who provided the heroin that killed Guthrie.
Robert Murray, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office, said in court, "At this time, it's really difficult for a person to stand before the court and realize that he is responsible for the events set in motion that resulted in the deaths of three individuals."
Johnson said the situation prompted him to think about the ancient alchemist Parcelsus.
"I think the principle that he mentioned is that poison is in the dose, and virtually anything can be fatal if enough of it is injected, or taken into the body," Johnson said of Parcelsus.
The danger with heroin, Johnson said, "is that the dose is totally uncontrolled, and the quality is unknown and not considered."
Johnson said he received letters from the families of the three victims, expressing their pain at their loss.
The judge ordered Ellefson to serve a 5-year sentence for a jail escape charge concurrently with his drug sentence. Ellefson had failed to turn himself in after he was granted a furlough from jail to attend his mother's funeral in February. He was arrested four days later.