26 years in prison for drug operation leader in what Baltimore DEA says was one of its biggest cases

The leader of what the Baltimore DEA says was one of the biggest drug operations it has ever investigated was sentenced Thursday to 26 years in federal prison, after an 11th-hour effort to unravel his guilty plea was rejected.

Richard Byrd, 43, pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana, admitting that he was the leader of an organization that moved millions of dollars worth of drugs from Mexican sources in California and Arizona to buyers in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Members of the organization used freight companies to ship drugs across the country. On one day in April 2013, authorities in two states seized more than 950 pounds of marijuana and 26 kilograms of cocaine from the group, authorities said.

"This case represents the very height of drug organizations operating out of Baltimore in recent history," Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Don Hibbert said in a statement. "The Byrd organization had it all; sources of supply, couriers, and lots and lots of money. But now all they have to show for it is a great deal of time behind bars to think about how they destroyed lives with the drugs they put on the street."


Charges against Byrd were filed in the U.S. District Court for Maryland in April 2014, and his case was postponed multiple times — delays that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett charged were deliberately brought on by Byrd.

After his initial attorney left the case, Byrd went through three court-appointed attorneys, and at one point sought to represent himself.

Appearing in court for sentencing Thursday, Byrd said he wanted to undo his plea, claiming he had been pressured into it. The night before, a lawyer who said he tried to represent Byrd in the fall sent a scathing letter to the court attacking Bennett and Byrd's current lawyer and saying Byrd's plea should be pulled back. Byrd said he wanted to adopt the letter as a motion of his own.

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"I've been seeking to do that since the day I accepted the plea," Byrd told Bennett. "My plea was not of my own free will."

Bennett walked through the delays in the case, and reminded Byrd that he said under penalty of perjury during his plea that he was not being pressured or coerced to plea guilty.

"Sooner or later, this rotation has to stop, Mr. Byrd," Bennett told him. "I cannot think of a more clear case of a defendant seeking to inconvenience the court and waste judicial resources."

Hibbert, of the DEA, said the case had started with a tip in 2011. He recalled answering the office phone, and the voice on the other side of the line said a million dollars along with bank slips had been seized in Arizona. "They said it might have something to do with Baltimore," Hibbert said. He said wiretaps were ineffective in the investigation, which instead relied on "good, old-fashioned police work."

In addition to prison time, Bennett ordered Byrd to pay a money judgment of $20 million, and forfeit his interest in two properties, three businesses, and 10 vehicles. The Jamaican national faces deportation at the end of his prison sentence. No one spoke on Byrd's behalf at the hearing.


Several other co-defendants have previously pleaded guilty in the case.