Feds: Grandma flew to Metro Detroit with $595K in drugs

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

She drew suspicion almost immediately after stepping off the plane at Detroit Metro Airport early Friday.

Drug Enforcement Administration task force officers assigned there spotted Cheryl Cheatham, who had just flown in from Las Vegas, eyeing her suitcases at the Delta baggage claim “as if she did not own the luggage for a very long period of time,” read an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court. Then, after waiting at a Metro Car stand, the 63-year-old stopped to “make sure she was not followed.”

The grandmother from Phoenix seemingly had reason to fear extra attention. Federal authorities allege Cheatham, who already had a lengthy criminal history, was toting 17 kilograms of cocaine, worth an estimated $595,000.

“This is a significant sized seizure for the DEA in this area,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting during a court hearing Monday.

Cheatham’s arrival from Las Vegas already raised flags since federal investigators consider the hotspot “a source city in which illegal narcotics, to include cocaine and heroin, are flown ... to be distributed in the Metro Detroit area,” a special agent wrote in the court filing.

After leaving the airport with a pair of suitcases, agents followed her taxi to the Westin hotel in Southfield, where she went straight to its restaurant, according to the document. She re-emerged about two hours later, at 8:45 a.m., with the luggage then entered a Metro Car Lincoln Navigator.

Agents alerted a Michigan State Police trooper, who stopped the SUV near Fenkell in Detroit. A K-9 officer, Otto, sniffed out the presence of narcotics coming from inside, authorities said.

The trooper searched the suitcases in the rear and found the scent’s source: eight individually wrapped kilograms of cocaine in one, then nine more packaged identically in the other.

Richard Isaacson, a special agent and public information officer with the DEA Detroit division, said the investigation is ongoing and declined to comment on specifics Tuesday. “It’s interesting and should be noted that obviously cocaine is still a major drug of concern here in Michigan,” he said. “It’s not just an opiate and heroin problem. ... A seizure of this size would indicate that.”

Cheatham was arrested for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances. When allowed to call someone, the grandmother allegedly told officers she wanted her daughter but instead tried dialing a number associated with the contact name “Loverboy” in her phone, Hutting said.

At Cheatham’s detention hearing Monday, prosecutors argued she posed a threat to the community. Hutting cited the woman’s phone call stunt as well as her criminal background, which includes a 1972 arrest for importing a controlled substance; shoplifting convictions; a 6.5-year prison stint; and failing to appear in court seven times. Cheatham also had an outstanding arrest warrant in Arizona.

Her appointed lawyer, Todd Shanker, said his client has been diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, which along with many health issues leaves Cheatham unable to work full-time. He also argued that the initial criminal complaint “doesn’t even have clear and convincing evidence that she had knowledge of what was in these bags. ... At best this looks like a mule situation.”

But Magistrate Judge David Grand ordered her detained pending a trial, noting her “escalating pattern” in brushes with the law and how the federal case showed “a very significant kind of trafficking conduct to be involved in.”

“All of those things on a whole favor detention,” he said.

If convicted, Cheatham faces a minimum 10-year mandatory prison sentence, Grand wrote in his order filed Tuesday.

Reached for comment, Shanker told The Detroit News that his client “apparently was off her meds at the time of the arrest.”

“She is in great need of those meds right now, so ensuring she receives her medication is my first priority,” he said. “Given these facts, and that I have received no discovery yet from the prosecutor, I can only say that I will do everything possible to represent her to the fullest, and to try to learn how this kind yet mentally ill woman ended up in this situation.”