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United States of America v. Brian Lee Wells

July 26, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: February 17, 2011

Before SMITH, GRUENDER, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

A jury found Brian Wells guilty of conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846, and 841(b)(1)(A), and the district court*fn1 subsequently sentenced Wells to a mandatory-minimum term of life imprisonment. Wells appeals his conviction, contending that (1) the government presented insufficient evidence of his entry into an actual agreement with others to manufacture methamphetamine, (2) the district court committed plain error by admitting certain evidence, and (3) his trial lawyer rendered ineffective assistance of counsel. For the following reasons, we affirm.

I. Background

On September 10, 2009, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Iowa returned a one-count indictment charging Jeffrey Scott Wessels ("Jeff"); Jeff Wessels's son, William Andrew Wessels ("Andy"); Stacey Lynn Shanahan, and Wells. Specifically, the indictment charged that, "beginning on a date unknown to the Grand Jury, but beginning no later than during or about the Fall of 2007, and continuing to on or about March 20, 2009," Wells and his co-defendants conspired "with each other and with other persons," unnamed and uncharged, to manufacture methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846, and 841(b)(1)(A).

At trial, the government presented the following evidence of methamphetamine manufacturing at three separate properties in rural Johnson County, Iowa. On March 20, 2009, a joint unit comprised of the Johnson County Drug Task Force and the Iowa State Patrol "tac team" executed a search warrant at 1603 Blains Cemetery Road NW, a rural property located in Swisher, Iowa, northwest of Iowa City ("Swisher House"). Several law-enforcement officers who executed the warrant testified that, at the Swisher House, they uncovered large amounts of "lab trash" and other evidence of methamphetamine manufacturing such as an "off-gassing HCL generator." Indeed, one of the executing officers testified that "[t]here was a lot of manufacturing remnants," and opined that the Swisher House was "probably one of the largest labs that [she had] ever been to."

Nevertheless, no physical evidence linked Wells to the Swisher House or its resident methamphetamine operation. Law enforcement testified that, when they arrived to execute the warrant, they found only Jeff, his son Andy, and two others in a camper and that Wells was not on the property. Moreover, law enforcement conceded that they found "no indicia" that Wells had ever lived at the Swisher House, worked there, or even frequented there, nor did they observe Wells at the Swisher House during their surveillance of the property two days prior to the search warrant's execution. As one official testified, "[t]hrough the course of the investigation[,] it was determined that Jeff Wessels, Andy Wessels, Stacey Shanahan, and Troy Pritchett were the primary [methamphetamine] cooks on that property." The only trial evidence that placed Wells at the Swisher House was Jeff's testimony that he assisted Wells in manufacturing methamphetamine there "probably three or four times" and that his assistance was limited to "[j]ust providing [Wells] the location and probably g[iving] him anhydrous [ammonia] a couple of times."

On July 21, 2009, four months after raiding the Swisher House, the same task force conducted a consent search at 3181 Half Moon Avenue NW, in Tiffin, Iowa ("Tiffin House"). The task force received information from that property's owner that an individual named Scotty Young ("Young") and another unidentified male were living at the property without permission and possibly manufacturing methamphetamine. In a metal outbuilding situated on the southwestern portion of the Tiffin House property, law enforcement found evidence of methamphetamine manufacturing. Specifically, officers observed ice chests and a sack containing a hydrogen chloride gas generator that was "actively offgassing," two half-full cans of Coleman fuel, sacks of lithium battery components, coffee filters, tubing, and a container with blue-tinted "sludge." One task force member testified that, during the investigation, officers "learned" that Wells was the unidentified male living with Young and that he was in fact manufacturing methamphetamine. In addition to the discoveries made in the outbuilding, agents discovered a plastic spoon bearing white residue in a room that Young identified as Wells's bedroom.

The government also offered the testimony of Donovan Wyse, a "jailhouse snitch" who was Wells's cellmate for the month immediately preceding trial. According to Wyse, Wells admitted to cooking methamphetamine at the Swisher House "three or four times." Additionally, Wyse testified that Wells told him about "a lab in Tiffin that also got raided" and how, at that lab, Young and another unidentified individual would acquire anhydrous ammonia, "call [Wells] up and tell [Wells] that they had it so [Wells] could cook there." Bruce Cotton, another jailhouse snitch and former cellmate of Wells's, also testified against Wells. According to Cotton, Wells stated that he taught Jeff and Andy how to perfect their respective methamphetamine recipes at the Swisher House and that he also manufactured methamphetamine with Young at an undisclosed farmhouse in Tiffin.

Despite this testimony, law enforcement conceded at trial that, much like the Swisher House, no physical evidence linked Wells to the Tiffin House. Specifically, Wells's fingerprints were not found on any of the methamphetamine-making equipment and ingredients in the outbuilding. The only fingerprints recovered were lifted off of an empty Coleman fuel can and belonged to Dawn Bean. Indeed, one of the agents conducting the search admitted that officials found no physical evidence that Wells was ever present in the outbuilding or even on the Tiffin House property. Moreover, Young testified that he and Wells had only "squatted" on the property for "probably four nights," and he conceded that, when he told law enforcement during the search that the items in the outbuilding belonged to Wells, he really did not know whether they belonged to Wells or a prior occupant.

Finally, the government presented extensive testimony concerning methamphetamine manufacturing, distribution, and consumption at 1410 Hickory Hollow ("Hickory Hollow"), as well as in the surrounding wooded area where Wells himself allegedly cooked methamphetamine. For instance, Andy testified that he lived at Hickory Hollow from 2005 or 2006 until the summer of 2008 and that soon after he moved into Hickory Hollow, Wells began manufacturing methamphetamine there once a week. Specifically, Andy and others testified that Wells used a two-stage methamphetamine-manufacturing process. First, he conducted the more hazardous anhydrous-ammonia phase "in the woods out in front of the house." The second stage moved to the upstairs portion of the house for the final "bubbling, finishing" phase.

Andy also testified that Wells cooked at Hickory Hollow with his nephew, Scotty Abram, Tony Brown, and "Lil Nick," an individual identified by several witnesses as Wells's frequent companion. Indeed, Abram testified ...

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