Fresno police Deputy Chief Keith Foster on Friday pleaded not guilty to federal drug charges and was allowed to remain free while the case makes its way through the courts.
Foster, 51, entered U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Oberto’s courtroom wearing the same street clothes he had on when he was arrested Thursday afternoon on charges of conspiracy to distribute and/or possess with the intent to distribute oxycodone, heroin and marijuana. He sat alongside his five alleged co-conspirators, who were all dressed in Fresno County Jail jumpsuits.
The maximum possible sentence Foster faces is 45 years in prison and a $2.5 million fine. The heroin and oxycodone charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and $1 million fines, and the marijuana charge carries a five-year maximum and a $250,000 fine.
Friday’s hearing was short, and Foster only said a few words in response to Oberto’s questions. After the hearing, he met with federal officials and then had a brief meeting with Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, fellow Deputy Chief Pat Farmer and Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd. He then slipped out a back entrance to Fresno’s federal courthouse along with his attorney, E. Marshall Hodgkins.
“We have just started this journey,” Hodgkins said after the hearing. “I have not had a chance to look at one page of the (evidence). Both Mr. Foster and myself would ask everybody to reserve judgment, at least until I’ve had a chance to review the (evidence). If you see me in trial, that means I disagree with the allegations that are made. If you see me not in trial, that usually means I’ve chosen to enter into plea negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They’ve been working on this case for a year. I have literally been working on it for two hours.”
These are tense times for Foster — a reality acknowledged by federal officials who, as part of the conditions of his release, are requiring him to enroll in a medical or psychiatric treatment program.
He remains on paid administrative leave — for now. But after meeting with Foster, Dyer said he should know by the end of next week whether the deputy chief’s status remains that way. In the meantime, Dyer, Rudd and Farmer said they reiterated to Foster that his police-officer powers have been removed (Foster oversaw patrol operations for the department’s four districts). They also told him to not have conversations with anyone that may be involved in the investigation and tried to make arrangements for Foster to be interviewed by the department’s Internal Affairs division.
Foster and five others were named in the federal criminal complaint.
The others are Rafael Guzman, 41, charged with conspiring with Foster to distribute and/or possess with the intent to distribute heroin; Randy Flowers, 48, conspiring to distribute and/or possess with the intent to distribute oxycodone; Jennifer Donabedian, 35, conspiring to distribute and/or possess with the intent to distribute marijuana; and Iran Dennis “Denny” Foster, 44, and Sarah Ybarra, 37, who both were charged with conspiring to distribute and/or possess with the intent to distribute marijuana. Iran Dennis Foster and Ybarra also are charged with shipping a package of marijuana to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Keith Foster and Iran Dennis Foster are related, a federal official said. Dyer said he believes Keith Foster also is related to Flowers.
Federal authorities recommended that Keith Foster be immediately released because he is a police officer, has been a lifelong Fresno resident and has no history of substance abuse. Oberto agreed. Officials also recommended immediate release for Donabedian, who is described in court papers as Iran Dennis Foster’s “co-habitant.”
The other four, however, remain in the Fresno County Jail until hearings next week in which they will likely have to put up enough capital that federal officials are confident they won’t flee or otherwise violate terms of their release. If not, they will have to remain in jail until the case is settled.
At the hearing, the biggest debate was over a prescription Foster has for oxycodone, a powerful painkiller that is a key part of the case. Prosecutor Melanie Alsworth offered a peek at the government’s case when Foster’s access to the drug was debated.
Oberto initially proposed that Foster shouldn’t be able obtain oxycodone unless it was prescribed by an authorized medical practitioner and approved by court officials managing his case.
“Your honor, I can’t agree to that,” Alsworth said. “That’s the subject of this case.”
She said federal law enforcement officials believe Foster legally obtained oxycodone with prescriptions, and then illegally distributed it.
“If there were legitimate pain issues I would think there would be some other manner the prescribing physician could find to address those issues,” Alsworth said.
Oberto agreed. Now, one requirement of Foster’s release is that he not obtain a prescription for oxycodone.
The arrests stemmed from an “intensive,” ongoing, year-long joint investigation by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that involved “considerable” surveillance and wiretaps, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, the region’s top federal law-enforcement official.