For five weeks, Cindy L. Atkinson faced the possibility of spending years in federal prison for a drug crime she did not commit.
The Medina woman was one of 25 people accused last month of running a major cocaine and methamphetamine ring headquartered in Lockport.
But Atkinson has been cleared, with federal agents and prosecutors admitting her arrest was a case of mistaken identity.
"We're very thankful that the case has been dismissed, but she never should have been arrested in the first place," said Timothy W. Hoover, a federal public defender who represented the 54-year-old Atkinson. "Anytime an innocent person is arrested and charged with something she didn't do, we all should be concerned."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott dismissed a felony drug conspiracy charge against Atkinson this week. The drug charge carried a potential sentence up to 20 years.
A prosecutor said the charge was dropped after another woman came forward and admitted that she -- and not Atkinson -- had been involved in drug transactions that were observed by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"After this other person came forward, we began re-examining the evidence, and we learned a mistake had been made," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick J. Platek. "The arrest (of Atkinson) was an honest mistake, based on compelling circumstantial evidence."
Agents who investigated the narcotics ring observed a woman, similar in appearance to Atkinson, using Atkinson's car to pick up drugs and taking drugs to Atkinson's home, Platek said.
"On wiretaps, they heard a woman using two different telephones to arrange drug transactions. Both phones were listed to Atkinson," Platek said. "We had substantial evidence that pointed to (Atkinson.)"
Agents also learned that Atkinson had a record of previous felony convictions for selling drugs and grand larceny, authorities said.
When Atkinson was arrested March 19, she insisted she was innocent, Platek said.
"It was only later, when another person came forward and we did a closer examination of the wiretap tapes, that we began to realize a mistake was made." The woman who came forward was staying at Atkinson's house while the drug dealings were happening. She is now under investigation and is likely to be charged, Platek said. The second woman's name was not released.
Hoover commended Platek for "doing the right thing" after realizing a mistake had been made. But he was critical of the DEA, saying agents should have done a more thorough job of identifying their suspect.
"Cindy Atkinson had a foot amputated years ago. She uses a wheelchair or a walker," Hoover said. "The woman who bought the drugs does not use a wheelchair or walker. The agents should have made sure they had the right person before making arrests."
Mark T. Peterson, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo DEA office, defended his investigators.
"This investigation was conducted in secrecy for months. We had no actual contact with (Atkinson) before the arrest, so we didn't have the opportunity to find out that she used a wheelchair," Peterson said. "The standard for making an arrest is probable cause -- not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We certainly felt we had probable cause."
Atkinson could not be reached for comment. Hoover said she does not want to speak publicly about the case.