|Updated: 10/13/2011 1:36 pm
||Published: 10/13/2011 10:08 am
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Five Arkansas law enforcement officers arrested in a sweeping federal corruption investigation pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that they took bribes to guard drug shipments and look the other way on crimes.
The officers are among 70 people indicted as part of "Operation Delta Blues," which focused on corruption and drug trafficking near the Mississippi Delta town of Helena-West Helena. Dozens of those charged appeared in federal court in Little Rock for the first time on Thursday.
The four police officers and one sheriff's deputy are accused of accepting bribes to watch over shipments of cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Investigators say the drugs were distributed across points in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The five stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe in prison scrubs, handcuffs and leg chains. Dozens of family members sat in the audience. Several wept. Relatives declined to comment afterward.
Helena-West Helena police officers Herman Eaton, Robert "Bam Bam" Rogers and Marlene Kalb; Marvell officer Robert Wahls; and Phillips County deputy sheriff Winston Dean Jackson were all given court-appointed attorneys and will remain in custody until bond hearings Friday or early next week.
The five were tentatively scheduled for trial on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15, but those dates are likely to be pushed back. Eaton, Rogers and Kalb are accused of escorting drug shipments and receiving $500 each from someone posing as a drug dealer. Wahls is charged with accepting money from an informant and escorting a drug shipment.
Investigators say Jackson was caught on a federal wiretap talking to another deputy about a payment by a defense lawyer in exchange for "failing to perform law enforcement duties."
The unidentified deputy said the payment fell under "the good old boy" system and that anyone not involved would "get rolled over."
According to the indictment, Jackson responded, "You get rolled over, exactly. Cause nobody say ... ain't nothing but the good old boy system."
Alleged ringleaders of the conspiracy also pleaded not guilty in court Friday. Sedrick Trice is accused of directing a drug-trafficking ring that paid off law enforcement officials and defense attorneys, while Demetrius Colbert is accused of supplying kilograms of cocaine and crack to Trice and other dealers.
When Colbert said in court Thursday that he couldn't afford to hire his own attorney, prosecutor Julie Peters told Volpe that authorities had found $423,000 in cash inside an Oldsmobile Cutlass belonging to Colbert, along with other luxury cars. Volpe assigned an attorney to Colbert but told him he would be liable for attorneys' fees if authorities found later he could afford one.
Hundreds of officers from the FBI, Arkansas State Police and other agencies helped make Tuesday's arrests. An FBI special agent was shot during one arrest, but was not seriously injured and later released from the hospital.
Five people remained at large Thursday afternoon, an FBI spokesman said in an email.