TAMPA — A fleeting transaction made three years ago in a series of text messages — $50 for a batch of fentanyl — culminated Tuesday in a pair’s admission to homicide charges and an agreement to spend 12 years in prison.
Melissa Hanna and Jose Marti, in back-to-back court hearings Tuesday, admitted they provided the drugs that caused two people to die in August 2020.
They each pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter, a reduction from the first-degree murder charges they originally faced. Identical agreements with prosecutors mandated that Hanna and Marti serve a dozen years in prison — and testify against the person cops believe was their source for the drugs.
It was a perfunctory end to the latest in a handful of local cases in which prosecutors have sought to hold drug sellers responsible for the deaths of users. The practice is one that prosecutors have embraced amid efforts to combat an alarming rise in recent years in deaths attributed to fentanyl and other opioids.
Hanna, 45, and Marti, 53, each donned orange and held their hands behind their backs as they stood at a lectern Tuesday in a Falkenburg Road Jail assembly room. They each answered several standard questions from Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez meant to ensure they understood their guilty plea and its consequences.
The pair also admitted to several drug-related charges, including trafficking in amphetamines, for which the judge ordered both to serve 10 years on probation after their release from prison. For the trafficking conviction, both were also ordered to pay a mandatory $100,000 fine.
No family members of the people who died spoke in the hearing.
They are identified in court records as Melissa Parish and Michael Baughman. They were found dead Aug. 11, 2020, in an apartment at the Windwood Oaks complex, near the Lake Magdalene area of Tampa.
Hillsborough sheriff’s detectives found drug paraphernalia in an apartment bedroom and what they determined was fentanyl. They also found the couple’s cellphones. On Baughman’s phone, they could see a series of text messages to a number with an 813 area code. The messages referenced fentanyl with a sale price of $50, according to court records.
Two detectives sent their own text to the number, posing as Baughman, and asked for $50 worth of drugs again, records state. A reply came, stating that the deal was “official” and the seller could meet to deliver the requested drugs. A few hours later came another text. It said the seller was parked outside the apartment in a white Toyota Scion.
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The detectives approached the car. They found Hanna in the driver’s seat and Marti in the passenger seat. It was Marti who’d sent the text messages, court records state. The detectives ordered them out and searched the car. They found scattered baggies, scales, crystal methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Hanna and Marti spoke with detectives after their arrest. They described a visit earlier that day to a storage unit, where they obtained the drugs. Hanna went inside the unit, where she said she saw a kilogram of fentanyl and a “large amount” of money. She met her drug dealer there, a man she knew as “J.R.,” according to court records.
A law enforcement database identified “J.R.” as a man named Jimmy Garrison. He was arrested on drug trafficking charges after the detectives obtained a search warrant for the storage unit and found plastic bags that held large amounts of methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to court records. The cops also found a broken iPhone in a trash receptacle.
They later listened in when Garrison made a phone call to his mother from jail. She asked where his phone was.
“I mashed it up,” he said, according to court records.
“You mashed up your phone?”
“I did,” he said.
“Good job,” his mother said.
Garrison earlier this year pleaded guilty to trafficking amphetamine and obstructing a criminal investigation, records show. He is serving a seven-year prison sentence. He has not been charged in relation to the overdose deaths.