Drug dealer who kidnapped stripper’s siblings loses appeal of life sentence

A Detroit drug dealer who orchestrated the Indianapolis kidnapping of the minor brother and sister of a stripper who stole from him will spend the rest of his life in prison, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Thursday.

Drug dealer John Thomas’ volatile relationship with stripper Whitney “Strawberry” Blackwell began on Thanksgiving night 2014 at the Motor City’s Club Venus strip club, where she offered him sex, and eventually ended with a multistate manhunt.

Thomas took in Blackwell as one of his girlfriends after their initial meeting, Judge David Hamilton wrote Thursday. Thomas supported her with his drug dealing, and she never worked at the club again.

“Their short and volatile relationship erupted on Valentine’s Day, 2015,” Hamilton wrote. “Blackwell testified at trial that Thomas ‘beat me up’ that day, apparently because she ‘drank all of his water,’ though this supposed provocation never made it before the jury. After that beating, Blackwell decided to leave Thomas.”

When Blackwell was able to sneak away, she did so with $50,000 of Blackwell’s cash, 2,500 OxyContin pills and an ounce of cocaine, according to the record. She first fled to Chicago, then to Indianapolis, where she had grown up and still had family.

Thomas and his henchmen tracked down Blackwell and drove to her house, kicking in the door in the early morning hours of March 2. Blackwell wasn’t home, but her mother and minor brother and sister were. Thomas demanded the mother tell him where her daughter was, but she said she didn’t know.

Then, “Thomas and his henchmen drove away from the house with (Blackwell’s) brother and sister in separate vehicles,” Hamilton said. “After driving back to Detroit, Thomas ordered the brother to be kept in Michigan. He told a group of his underlings to take the sister to his house in Kentucky.”

The mother called police, who overheard several ransom calls and arrested Thomas in Detroit. They also traced his accomplices’ cellphones and made arrests, and the accomplices eventually abandoned the children, who were later found.

Thomas was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and two counts of kidnapping, with virtually every victim and participant testifying against him, Hamilton noted. Judge Richard Young sentenced him to life in prison, and the 7th Circuit affirmed in USA v. John Thomas, 17-1002.

The panel held that the district court did not plainly err in dealing with Blackwell’s testimony and her apparent inability to follow instructions about answering what she was asked and not raising certain subjects. It also did not err by admitting the cell-site location evidence where Thomas did not move to suppress or even object to that evidence, nor did it plainly err in its sentence guideline calculation.

But the 7th Circuit found the court did err under Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013), by failing to have the jury decide that the kidnapping victims were under 18 years old, which increased the mandatory minimum sentence. But the panel found this error was harmless, calling for no remedy under the plain-error doctrine.

“…Thomas’s guideline calculation of an offense level 52 was literally off the chart, well above the offense level 43 for which the guideline sentence is life in prison for all six criminal history categories,” Hamilton wrote. “Without those enhancements, the offense level would have been 48, still off the chart.

“Judge Young made clear at sentencing that the life sentence he imposed was driven by his overall assessment of the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). He considered Thomas’s personal characteristics, noting that Thomas engaged in illegal activity ‘all his life and admits that. He has no other employment history,’ Hamilton continued.

“The judge noted in particular the terrible nature of the crime, saying, ‘These young children, I’m sure, were terrified. They had to be … taken in the middle of the night by strangers, armed, threatening, to a place where they didn’t have any idea where they were going or whether they would remain alive.’ He also noted the importance of protecting the public from Thomas’s future crimes, stating that if he were released, ‘these young victims will still be alive. And will they have to be constantly looking over their shoulder if the defendant is released?’”

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