BROOKSVILLE — In October 2006, at the start of "Operation Raw Deal," narcotics detectives at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office focused on Marcus Fields.
Authorities said Fields, also known as "Raw," was one of the major players in a large drug-trafficking organization based in Brooksville. The network was closely tied to a notorious dealer and "assassin" who shot and killed a Polk County deputy earlier that year.
Within a year, authorities toppled the ring. Three of the dealers were caught, convicted and sentenced to prison for at least 20 years each.
But Fields, who managed to stay on the run until his arrest in September, landed a far better deal.
Earlier this week, Fields was acquitted of assisting in a drug deal. Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to possess the drug Ecstasy with the intent to distribute.
Fields, who had a lengthy criminal record, could have faced as much as 30 years in prison. But he was sentenced to a year, and after time served is tallied, he'll likely spend about nine months behind bars.
The 32-year-old Fields will also serve two years of house arrest and another three years on probation.
"We were surprised and disappointed" at the jury's verdict, said Chief Michael Maurer of the Sheriff's Office. "But it's still a success. He still has a conviction and that's something he won't be able to get away from."
Assistant District Attorney Rob Lewis reached an agreement with Fields and his attorney, Joe Caimano of Tampa, while members of a new jury pool in another charge against him were gathered in the waiting area outside of Circuit Judge Jack Springstead's courtroom.
"After the acquittal (Monday), I wanted to make sure every member of the organization was convicted of a serious felony," Lewis said. "And they were."
Indeed. Brock Shade, 29, was sentenced to 24 years in state prison. Bobby Walter, 32, received a sentence of 22 years. And Dontay Washington, 32, got a 20-year sentence. All of them were found guilty on a number of drug sale and trafficking charges.
But Fields was harder to pin down, Lewis said, because he seemed to catch on to the Sheriff''s Office investigation in its early stages.
"He didn't let his hands get dirty," Lewis said. "He understood what was going on and took off."
According to court records, "Operation Raw Deal" got its start in October 2006 during the investigation of Polk County cop killer and drug kingpin Angilo Freeland.
The connection was discovered in cell phone records that linked Freeland to Walter, also known as "Benny the Bug," who had a long history of drug arrests.
A month later, the Sheriff's Office had a confidential informant who cultivated a relationship with the drug ring. Lewis said authorities eventually bought nearly 600 grams of crack cocaine and 27 pounds of marijuana from the organization.
All told, multiagency busts in Orange and Hernando counties recovered dozens of firearms, thousands in cash and large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and assorted pills, authorities said.
Another twist was the involvement of two employees of the Clerk of Circuit Court's Office: File clerk Kijafa Brown was sentenced to three years of probation and court clerk Jasmine Rivera got two years of probation for disclosing information about an undercover detective to the drug ring.
"It was a significant case," Maurer said. "We went after the organization and everyone in the organization that we were able to identify has been convicted."
Fields was arrested in that investigation but later failed to appear for court. For more than two years, authorities considered Fields one of the county's most-wanted fugitives.
Lewis said investigators believe Fields bounced around from Port Richey, Riviera Beach and Tampa during that time.
He was finally arrested in September as he left a bait-and-tackle shop on Ridge Road in Port Richey. At the time, the Sheriff's Office touted the arrest and called Fields a "big fish" in the drug ring.
But Fields' attorney Caimano said there simply wasn't a lot of evidence that his client was part of the drug network.
"I was actually upset that it got this far," Caimano said. "But we asked the jury to listen to the evidence, set aside their prejudices and they did that. We're pretty satisfied with the result."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.