On Sept. 15, former Box Butte County Public Defender Jon Worthman stood trial in Scotts Bluff County District Court with Judge Richard Birch, of North Platte presiding over the case.
Maren Chaloupka, who has represented Worthman since he was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, a class 1D felony, painted her client as an addict in her opening statement. She described the relationship between Worthman and Jeff Lujan, who had given Worthman cocaine in the past, as one built on lies and fantasy.
Describing Lujan, who later testified during the trial to giving Worthman cocaine in exchange for legal services for his other associates and himself, Chaloupka portrayed him as a snitch who was looking to get out of serving time in prison in other cases when he told investigators that Worthman was distributing cocaine to an unnamed prosecutor in Scotts Bluff County to make deals on criminal charges.
“Of course, there was no distribution by Mr. Worthman to a prosecuting attorney in exchange for dismissing Mr. (Isaac) Palomo’s forfeiture,” said Chaloupka. “Mr. Worthman had lied to Mr. Lujan. If your scam is, ‘I’m going to get free cocaine by tricking my dealer into thinking he’s getting service from the prosecuting attorney,’ then telling your dealer to package it for delivery to the prosecuting attorney is a great way to further that scam. And Mr. Lujan was not enough of a criminal mastermind or a legal sophisticate to figure out that he’s being taken by an addict for free cocaine.
“If anyone wonders how these damaging, small-town drug dealing rumors start, they start like this,” Chaloupka said. “Addicts and their dealers telling each other ridiculous stories that suit fantasies. The only thing that makes this story different is that this addict was, by all outward appearances at the time, a normally-functioning criminal defense lawyer. Mr. Worthman’s addiction was secret. The rest of the 12th Judicial District did not know of the life that Mr. Worthman had that you see in these text messages. At that time he was living at the Gering Golf Course, putting on his necktie, going to court every day, living a very different life from what we see in these text messages, covering up his addiction and the deceptions he was committing to further his addiction.”
Chaloupka said if the state had charged Worthman with only possession of cocaine, they would have pleaded guilty. She said the case created by the state relies heavily upon three factors: Lujan’s testimony, the amount of cocaine Worthman received from Lujan and texts between Worthman and Lujan about giving a prosecutor in Scotts Bluff County cocaine in exchange for reduced charges against Lujan.
She cited several cases of wrongful convictions in the state of Nebraska, including the Beatrice Six case, while urging Judge Birch to carefully review the evidence in the case before making a decision.
“That’s what brings us here right now: crazy texts, crazy talk by somebody who is addicted to cocaine,” said Chaloupka. “Your highest calling, your honor, is to stop wrongful convictions.”
After opening statements wrapped up, prosecutor Doug Warner called Andrew Soucie, an investigator with the W.I.N.G Drug Task Force, to testify regarding Lujan’s work as a confidential informant. Soucie reviewed Lujan’s history of working with the task force, noting several charges and other contacts with law enforcement involving Lujan before and during his work as an informant. He noted investigations into criminal activity, including a pistol whipping incident, possession of methamphetamine, shoplifting and forgery.
Soucie said that in the past Lujan had failed to comply with the agreement as a confidential informant and stopped serving as one for a brief period before resuming work with the task force after a search warrant was served on Lujan’s residence.
Soucie said Lujan spoke to him about Worthman receiving cocaine from him in the past, and the possibility of executing a controlled delivery of cocaine to Worthman. W.I.N.G. Task Force officials set up a controlled delivery, gathering a little more than one ounce of cocaine from a previous incident to be delivered to Worthman.
On Jan. 7, the controlled delivery was executed after Worthman returned to Scottsbluff from court in Rushville. Lujan was equipped with recording devices before the delivery was executed. Investigators handed Lujan the bag containing the cocaine when Worthman arrived at his residence, and Lujan met Worthman at his truck, entering the passenger side of the vehicle. Once the officers who were listening to the audio heard cues that the deal had been done, they went to arrest Worthman and retrieved the cocaine from his vehicle.
After Worthman was taken into custody, Lujan met with Soucie later to show him text messages from Worthman that revealed his requests for cocaine for himself and the prosecutor in exchange for deals relating to criminal cases.
Chaloupka cross examined Soucie, asking about the charges against Lujan relating to deception, including forgery and theft. Soucie confirmed that Lujan had been charged with forgery, saying Lujan was, “not good at getting away with it.”
Soucie said that during his time working with W.I.N.G., Lujan helped solve 14 other cases pertaining to drugs in Scotts Bluff County before executing a controlled delivery of cocaine to Worthman.
Chaloupka noted that Lujan had not delivered cocaine to Worthman since August 2019, and that text messages between Lujan and Worthman show that Lujan initiated the discussion about cocaine, saying Worthman could buy an ounce from Lujan for $500 in addition to paying off a debt Lujan owed him. Chaloupka reiterated that Lujan spoke to Soucie about only providing cocaine to Worthman up to his arrest, emphasizing the accusation of Worthman dealing cocaine only came up after Worthman was taken into custody.
“If I look at your testimony right, you said that he (Lujan) wanted to make sure he couldn’t be charged with certain things,” said Chaloupka, asking if Soucie made any promise to Lujan about not being charged.
Soucie responded that Lujan signed a proffer form with federal prosecutors to ensure his evidence would not lead to charges. Chaloupka admonished Soucie and Warner for not disclosing the proffer form before the trial.
“That has not been produced to me,” Chaloupka said. “That is the reason why I asked questions like that in depositions. You’re kidding me.”
Soucie said he knew about the proffer agreement because of the nature of the messages, they had contacted federal prosecutors, anticipating a federal case. Chaloupka referred to Soucie’s deposition, noting that he had not mentioned the involvement of the federal prosecutors when asked about other agencies involved in the case.
After a brief break, Chaloupka resumed the cross examination of Soucie, pressing him for more information about the proffer agreement which was signed on Jan. 10. She said during his deposition, Soucie noted that the FBI was involved in the investigation, though did not say anything about the United States Department of Justice.
“You told me the FBI and only the FBI, correct,” Chaloupka asked, and Soucie confirmed her statement. “Is it reasonable for me to trust you and rely upon you, being a law enforcement officer, right?”
Soucie explained that the federal prosecutor and the FBI had worked closely together.
Later in her cross examination, Chaloupka pressed Soucie about challenges to Lujan’s statements regarding Worthman, including a story he told Soucie about seeing Worthman had an envelope of cocaine to the unnamed prosecutor at the Gering Country Club. She asked why he did not try to verify Lujan’s information. Soucie said he was trying to gather information from Lujan, noting that if challenges were presented to Lujan during the interview, he would have likely stopped providing information.
After some more discussion about stories Lujan had told the investigators, Chaloupka allowed Warner to redirect. Warner asked Soucie about the amount of cocaine that had been delivered to Worthman in the past, citing text messages that showed Lujan had given Worthman eight ounces of cocaine. Soucie responded that the amount of cocaine is larger than regular users typically go through, noting it was an indication that Worthman was distributing the drug.
Readers may see the second part of the story in the Oct. 7 edition of the Alliance Times-Herald.