CHRISTIANSBURG — Montgomery County’s Operation Crankdown methamphetamine smuggling case moved a few steps closer to completion last week with two defendants pleading guilty and sentencing arguments for a third.

In separate hearings Monday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Heather Renee Hixon, 44, of Blacksburg, pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute a Schedule II drug and was sentenced to serve three years in prison, and Michael Thomas “Possum” Dowdy, 53, of Salem, argued that he should be able to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for prior drug and gun convictions in the case.

On Tuesday, also in the county’s circuit court, Brandon Michael Keister, 32, of Blacksburg, entered a “bare plea” of guilty to a charge of conspiring to distribute more than 10 grams of meth. A bare plea is a plea agreement that contains no recommendation about sentencing. Keister has a sentencing hearing scheduled for Dec. 17.

Thelma Renee Keister, 47, Brandon Keister’s mother and also of Blacksburg, was scheduled to make a plea Tuesday but that was canceled and a jury trial was scheduled for Jan. 21. She faces a charge of possessing a Schedule II substance.

Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Partin announced the Operation Crankdown investigation a year ago. Officials described a meth pipeline that reached from Georgia into the New River Valley, organized by Heather Hixon’s husband Aaron Wayne Hixon. Authorities said that between February 2017 and January 2018, Aaron Hixon brought pounds of meth from Georgia, sometimes made multiple trips per week to buy the drug, then selling it from his garage on Hightop Road in Blacksburg.

In October, Aaron Hixon was sentenced to serve 18 years behind bars for convictions on two drug distribution charges and a conspiracy charge.

In all, 22 people were charged in connection with Operation Crankdown. So far, 20 have been convicted.

That leaves Thelma Keister and Renee Woolwine Buckland, 56, of Pembroke, to have their charges resolved. Charges against Buckland were dropped earlier this year, then re-instated by a grand jury last month. Buckland now faces two drug possession charges and a charge of possessing a gun while possessing drugs.

Three of the defendants who have been convicted — Dowdy, Brandon Keister and Terry Wayne Miller —still await sentencing

On Monday, Dowdy’s attorney, Bruce Phillips of Christiansburg, argued that mandatory minimum sentences should not apply to his client because of a provision of Virginia law known as the “safety valve.” This would let a judge set aside the mandatory minimum punishments for defendants who provide investigators with information about their criminal activities.

Dowdy faces a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug conspiracy conviction and a two-year mandatory minimum for being convicted of being a felon in possession of a fiream.

Phillips and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jennifer Wolz agreed that Dowdy gave information to investigators – in a four-sentence written statement delivered after he was convicted.

Phillips said that this was enough to qualify Dowdy for the safety valve provisions, and would let Judge Robert Turk give Dowdy a sentence of less than seven years in prison if the judge chose to do so.

Wolz said that Dowdy’s four sentences just weren’t enough, prompting Dowdy to say from the witness stand, “If you want a longer statement, I can write one.”

At least a half dozen Operation Crankdown defendants already have invoked the safety valve to escape mandatory minimum sentences. They did so by each sitting for hours of interviews with investigators, Wolz said.

Sgt. Ronnie Alley of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the lead investigator on Operation Crankdown, testified Monday that Dowdy’s brief statement lacked many details and seemed to downplay his role in the drug operation. Other defendants had identified Dowdy as one of the major receivers of the Georgia meth, Alley said, and Dowdy had then sold the drug to others.

Phillips said that Dowdy, like other defendants in the case, was a meth user and his sales were only to pay for his own habit.

Turk said that he would need time to research and consider the safety valve arguments, and would announce a decision, and Dowdy’s sentence, on Dec. 16.

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