Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
In 2017, James Steele was arrested with possession with intent to manufacture sell distribute (PWIMSD) methamphetamine, PWIMSD Heroin, and maintain a vehicle/dwelling place of a controlled substance, all felonies. At the same time in 2017, Steele was arrested and charged with felony possession of a firearm by a felon. Steele received the felon designation after a 2005 conviction for possession of a controlled substance.
While awaiting his day in court for his 2017 arrest, Steele was one of 25 people arrested as part of the Macon County Sheriffs Office’s Operation JAWbreaker. Steele was identified as one of three co-conspirators behind the criminal enterprise that was part of the more than a year undercover operation.
The operation was named JAWbreaker because of the three individuals, James Steele, Arthur Potts, and Wade Ennis, who were believed to have led the drug trafficking operation. During Operation JAWbreaker, investigators were able to identify at least three additional sources of suppliers living in the Atlanta area and supplying Macon County. Investigators spent hundreds of hours conducting surveillance in both Western North Carolina and Georgia, including the Atlanta area. Warrants for the arrests of the Atlanta, Ga., suspects will be issued and they will be extradited to Macon County upon their arrest.
During the gathering of intelligence, investigators discovered that drug purchases and transactions were arranged by Steele, Potts, or Ennis and that the three men made additional arrangements for those drugs to be transported back to this area for distribution. During the operation, investigators were able to identify the three suppliers of heroin and meth in the Atlanta area. In collaboration with their local, state and federal partners, investigators were able to intercept various shipments of heroin and meth during traffic stops by law enforcement as it headed back to Macon County.
In April 2018, Steele was arrested and charged with continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to traffic opium/heroin, trafficking opium/heroin, possession of heroin, deliver heroin X2, possession controlled substance on jail premises.
He was booked into the Macon County Detention Center on a $1.3 million bond. Steele was able to make bond with the help of a bail bondsman who required him to wear an ankle monitoring device while awaiting his court date. Steele has appeared on the Macon County Superior Court Administrative docket regularly since being charged, but has yet to be convicted. He continues to appear in court on both the 2017 and 2018 charges; his most recent court date was Sept. 24, 2019.
Just days after leaving Macon County Superior Court with yet another court date, this time for Nov. 18, Macon County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Bean observed a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed along the Highlands Road. Bean initiated a traffic stop and identified the driver as James Steele, although the vehicle he was driving was registered to Wade Ennis. Deputy Bean asked for permission to search the vehicle, which Steele denied. Deputy Bean then called Macon County Sheriff’s K9 Deputy Nick Lofthouse for assistance. K9 Diesel gave a positive alert on Steele’s vehicle. Officers searched Steele’s vehicle and found a small amount of heroin. Steele was arrested and charged with a new count of felony possession of heroin and was booked into the Macon County Detention Center on a $6,600 bond.
While the car Steele was driving belonged to Ennis, Ennis has not received any additional charges since the JAWbreaker arrests in 2018. Like Steele, Ennis’ case is still sitting in Macon County Superior Court. Ennis was charged with two counts conspire to traffic opium/heroin, two counts of trafficking, opium/heroin, PWIMSD methamphetamine, two counts of maintain a vehicle/dwelling place of a controlled substance, continuing criminal enterprise, possession of heroin, possession of methamphetamine, all fo which are felonies, and other misdemeanor charges.
The third member of JAWbreaker, Arthur Potts, has had additional run-ins with the law since his 2018 arrest. Potts was recently arrested and charged with felony breaking and entering as well as felony larceny after breaking and entering. And like Steele, at the time of his JAWbreaker arrest, which resulted in a slew of felony drug trafficking charges, Potts was out on bond awaiting charges that date back to 2016.
Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland said that he is confident that his department will continue to deal with the likes of Steele and Potts and the problem lies in the need for “tougher laws and stiffer penalties which I believe will encourage addicts to seek help,” said Holland.
Superior Court has two levels for cases, administrative court and trial court. Administrative court is where cases stay with the District Attorney’s office evaluates cases and gathers evidence. While in administrative court, attorneys for those who have been charged can discuss possible plea deals with the DA’s office in hopes of avoiding a trial. According to court documents, Steele is represented by Rich Cassidy, Wade Ennis is represented by Ward Collins, and Arthur Potts is represented by Brad Tisdale. District Attorney Ashley Welch said that plea deals are not likely in these cases and her office is currently working to review all high-priority cases throughout her district this week to develop a trial schedule for each of them.