Feds: Grandma snuck $500k in cocaine into Detroit

In a bizarre drug bust involving a grandmother with a checkered past and a person known as "Loverboy," the federal government has charged a 63-year-old woman with sneaking $500,000 worth of cocaine onto a Detroit-bound plane from Las Vegas and then trying to deliver the coke after landing.

The woman, court records show, looked suspicious at the luggage carousel at Metro Airport, so federal agents followed her.  She was arrested three hours later in Detroit and made her one allowable phone call: It was supposed to be to her daughter, a prosecutor said, but the contact on her phone read "Loverboy."

She was lying, argued the prosecutor.

Charged is Cheryl Cheatham of Phoenix, Ariz., who was ordered jailed Monday — three days after federal agents followed her from the airport and arrested her in Detroit in the middle of what authorities believe was a major drug hand-off.  She was denied bond due to the size of the drug bust and her lengthy criminal past:  Since her early 30s,  the woman has had numerous convictions including shoplifting, selling and possessing drugs, theft and failing to appear in court seven times, a prosecutor argued. She also served 6.5 years in prison for theft.

The defense argued the woman — who lives in Phoenix with her daughter and three grandchildren — has serious mental health issues and needs medical help, not jail.

The judge sided with the prosecutor.

In denying her bond, Magistrate Judge David R. Grand cited her lengthy criminal history and her age, noting that she couldn't attribute her latest alleged crime to reckless youth.

"People make bad choices when they're younger,"  Grand said, stressing that "as they get older" better decisions are made.

"Unfortunately, in  your situation, that doesn't seem to have happened," Grand said. "Here we are in 2016 and you're caught with this substantial amount of narcotics."

According to court testimony and documents, Cheatham arrived at Metro Airport on Friday at 5:39 a.m. aboard Delta Flight 1979 from Las Vegas. At the baggage claim, airport authorities noticed Cheatham was acting suspicious and alerted federal drug agents, who arrived and set up surveillance. They saw Cheatham looking at the tags on several pieces of luggage on the carousel "as if she did not own the luggage for a very long period of time." Eventually, she picked up two large suitcases and headed for the taxi stand.

The agents followed her.

About an hour later, at 6:43 a.m., Cheatham's cab pulled into the Westin Southfield Detroit but she did not check in. Rather, the complaint said, she went to a restaurant and stayed about two hours. At 8:45 a.m., a hired Lincoln Navigator pulled up and Cheatham got inside.

Federal agents followed the car and police pulled it over on Southfield near Fenkell in Detroit.

A state trooper made the stop, at the request of the agents. The driver gave consent to search the vehicle, records show. The trooper then used his police K9 named Otto to sniff the vehicle.

Otto detected drugs.

The trooper then found the two suitcases with bundles of cocaine wrapped in plastic: eight in one suitcase; nine in the other, records show. The drugs were tucked under some towels and clothes, a prosecutor said in court.

Cheatham ended up in handcuffs.

In court Monday, her attorney, public defender Todd Shanker, pleaded with the judge to release the woman on bond and let her live with her daughter in Phoenix, where she has been enrolled in a program that treats her mental illness. According to Shanker, Cheatham has bipolar disorder,  schizophrenia, diabetes and emphysema among other health problems. He said she is not a danger to society and has never been involved in any crime of violence.

"At best, this looks like a mule situation," Shanker said. "When all is said and done, locking her up is not ... good. I think she needs help."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting argued for incarceration, saying Cheatham has had a long history of failing to appear in court.

"This is a significant seizure in this area,"  Hutting said, adding her criminal history should be held against her.  "We can't chalk this up to youth and immaturity. These are crimes she committed as an adult."

Hutting argued that the woman's health problems didn't stop her from getting on a plane "with 17 kilos of cocaine in her suitcase."

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which oversaw the arrest, declined comment on the specifics of the case.

DEA spokesman Richard Isaacson would say only: "A seizure of this size of cocaine should demonstrate that cocaine and other drugs of abuse are still a problem here in Michigan. It's not just the opiate problem, there are other drugs that are still prevalent here."


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