A Haywood County man who pleaded guilty to numerous felonies — including an admission of habitual felon status — is heading to prison for at least the next 15 years.
It took a lot longer than the District Attorney’s office seemed to think it would take to secure the plea, but Jonathan Thomason, 37, who faced decades in prison, went through three attorneys before finally proceeding with Ted Besen of Asheville.
In prior hearings, Superior Court Judge Brad Letts, who delivered Thomason’s sentence Thursday, mentioned at an August hearing that going through so many attorneys can be a stalling tactic on the part of the defendant.
“Some people want to delay the process by simply saying they can’t work with their attorney,” he said.
Letts had praise for Besen for accepting the appointment as Thomason’s defense attorney, even though he isn’t on Haywood County’s list of court appointed defense attorneys. Likewise, Thomason, who didn’t say much during the hearing, said he was happy with Besen’s services.
When Thomason entered the courtroom Thursday morning, he smiled and waved at friends and family, including his new wife, who showed up in support.
The charges to which Thomason pleaded guilty stemmed from three separate incidents, all of which were briefly described by Assistant District Attorney Kaleb Wingate.
First, on Feb. 28, 2017, Thomason was pulled over by Waynesville Police when it was noticed that his license plate number didn’t match the vehicle he was driving. The officer noted that Thomason looked nervous, and a search of his person revealed what Wingate called “a large amount of U.S. currency.”
A search of Thomason’s person and vehicle turned up methamphetamine and marijuana in separate baggies, as well as a 9mm handgun that had the serial number scratched off.
Related to that stop, Thomason pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine, possession with intent to sell or deliver marijuana, possession of a firearm with an altered serial number, maintaining a vehicle for a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Next, Thomason was again pulled over by Waynesville Police on Dec. 2, 2017. Under similar circumstances, officers discovered methamphetamine, pills, heroin, two 9mm handguns, scales and baggies, and Thomason was arrested.
From that date, Thomason pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine, maintaining a vehicle for a controlled substance, possession of a schedule II controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a felon.
The third set of charges stemmed from Thomason’s failure to appear for a superior court hearing on pending felony charges on March 8, 2018. Two days later, on March 10, Thomason was pulled over by Waynesville Police after being spotted driving while not wearing a seatbelt. Wingate noted that while the officer recognized Thomason, he couldn’t recall exactly who he was. But the officer was quick to notice that the driver’s license Thomason provided wasn’t even his.
“He noticed the picture was not of the driver,” Wingate said.
As before, a search of the vehicle turned up numerous illicit items, including, drugs, paraphernalia, a 9mm handgun and quite a bit of cash.
From that incident, Thomason pleaded guilty to the failure to appear, possession with intent to sell or deliver marijuana, possession with intent to sell or deliver a schedule II controlled substance, identity theft, possession of a fire arm by felon, and two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, one for possession and one for transportation.
“Officers found large amount of US currency, mainly 5s, 10s, and 20s, which is consistent with the sale of narcotics,” Wingate said.
All of those charges had added weight because of Thomason’s admission of habitual felon status. As part of the plea arrangement, several charges were dismissed, including more drug offenses.
After Wingate offered the summary of the facts behind the plea, Besen offered some startling insight into his client. Along with mentioning that his client’s cooperation in all three stops should be a mitigating factor when it came to sentencing, which was decided by Letts because it was an open plea, Besen discussed the heartbreaking things Thomason has endured in life.
To begin with, difficult family situations left Thomason spending most of his childhood in group homes, and by his teenage years, he was left to fend for himself.
“He’s basically been living on his own on the street since he was 15,” Besen said.
That same year that Thomason found himself on his own, he also witnessed a close friend accidentally kill himself with a shotgun when the two were playing with the weapon. These events, coupled with undiagnosed mental health conditions led to a downward spiral into alcoholism. Only recently has Thomason received the mental health treatment and medications he’s so desperately needed.
“Those medications have turned him around,” Besen said.
Along with friends and family, there was another ardent supporter of Thomason’s present. Max Wicks, a retired police officer who worked in law enforcement for 35 years, works with Sheriff Greg Christopher in the jail ministry program, where he met the defendant.
“I’ve seen a great change in him,” Wicks said.
Wicks may have helped nudge Letts toward choosing a more lenient sentence by reminding the judge that people are sometimes simply born into situations they can’t control.
“He wants to do good,” Wicks told Letts. “He knows he’s done wrong, and he wants to pay for it.”
When asked, the only thing Thomason told Letts was “keep in my mind my charges were nonviolent.”
The sentencing was bittersweet for Thomason and his supporters. While Letts acknowledged how heartbreaking it is to think about people born into circumstances that often lead to addition, mental health issues and criminal activity, he was also firm in saying people must be held accountable for the crimes they commit.
Ultimately, Thomason was sentenced to a total of 180-237 months in prison and will have to pay a mandatory $50,000 fine for the trafficking charges — which were consolidated into a single judgment — along with $1,800 in lab fees. Thomason was given credit for 330 days served in pretrial confinement.
The time Thomason will serve is far less than he was initially facing.
“This means you’ll have an opportunity to get out of prison,” Letts said. “You won’t die in prison.”
Following the guilty plea, Besen said he and his client are okay with the result.
“We were hoping to get 10-15 years, and we got 15,” Besen said. “He’s satisfied. He’s not upset. He accepted responsibility.”