An April trial date was set Thursday in the long-delayed drug case of a group of people associated with harness racing in the Buffalo area.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny scheduled jury selection April 24 for racehorse owner and trainer Hugh Stevens, 60, of Derby, and five co-defendants.
In September 2004, the defendants were accused of involvement in what federal drug agents called one of the biggest methamphetamine rings ever uncovered in North America.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration accused Stevens of being the drug ring's transportation coordinator, arranging for shipments of drug-making materials from Canada, through Western New York to California.
Stevens has denied the charges. One of his attorneys, David J. Seeger, said in court papers that Stevens "did not at any time know he was involved in illegal activity and did not willingly participate in the conduct charged in the indictment."
Rodger Bruneau of Canada, a key witness and co-defendant who could have exonerated Stevens, has died, Seeger added.
"Our client is not guilty, and there is no way the government is going to prove he's guilty," said Leigh A. Anderson, another attorney for Stevens.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas S. Duszkiewicz and federal agents disagree with the defense attorneys. After the arrest, DEA agents said they watched, followed and wiretapped Stevens for months before charging him.
Duszkiewicz and defense attorneys have blamed each other for lengthy pretrial delays in the case. Duszkiewicz said Stevens had two other defense attorneys before his current defense team, and he said Stevens filed numerous motions that were rejected by Skretny and Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr.
Anderson said Stevens has been suspended from racing and held in jail for more than two years while awaiting trial. She called Stevens a popular, highly respected horseman who strongly opposes illegal drug use.
"It's been catastrophic for him," Anderson said. "He suffers from arthritis and diabetes. He's lost over 40 pounds in jail. . . . It's been hell for him."
Facing trial on lesser charges than Stevens are his wife, Sandra Jacobi Stevens, and three local harness racers, Louis Russo and Christopher Russo, both of Batavia, and Kenneth Arthur Mego of Orchard Park. Lynn Hess of Blasdell also was charged in the case.
In addition to the local defendants, more than 80 people were indicted in the case in Canada, California and Mexico.
The Stevens case has been waiting for trial longer than almost any other criminal case in Buffalo's federal courts.