JACKSONVILLE – After an hour-and-forty minutes of deliberation late Tuesday afternoon and another hour Wednesday morning, a 7-woman, 5-man federal jury found an Orange Park man guilty of selling fentanyl that killed a local woman in November 2016.
Dressed in a black waist coat and white dress shirt, Trumaine Devone Muller, 33, looked down and shook his head when the guilty verdict for all four counts was read before U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard in federal court in Jacksonville. In the hall, family members from both sides cried in response to the verdict.
Muller was found guilty of selling a fatal dose of fentanyl that led to the death of 18-year-old Ariel Jade Brundige who died of a drug overdose at 4:45 a.m. Nov. 10, 2016. in an apartment in the 1400 block of Berrier Street in Orange Park.
Originally indicted in state court in May 2017, the case was transferred to U.S. District Court on May 10, 2018 when Muller was indicted by a federal grand jury. The main count for the sale of fentanyl that led to Brundige’s death carries a mandatory life sentence. Muller’s sentencing is tentatively set for May 6 at 9:30 a.m.
The night of Nov. 9, Christopher Williams, 34, and Tyler Hamilton, 28, – Brundige’s boyfriend – accompanied her to buy what they thought was heroin.
According to testimony, Williams and Hamilton reached out to several drug dealers in the area. On the witness stand, they pointed to Muller, also known as “Lucky,” or “Jolly” as their dealer.
After acquiring the drugs, Hamilton was dropped off at his house and used a “point” or one-tenth of a gram of fentanyl, at about 11 p.m. and went on to overdose. A family member warned Williams and Brundige, who were waiting outside, that paramedics were on their way and they headed to Williams’ residence.
Williams injected a hit of heroin, nodded off and said he gave a fourth of the point to Brundige. Williams took Hamilton back to his house where Brundige was, though she hadn’t used the heroin when he left, Williams said. When Williams and Hamilton returned around midnight, Brundige was sleeping, according to Hamilton.
At about 1:30 a.m., Hamilton, who turned his phone over to authorities, did a Google search on “How to snap people out of opiate overdoses” and searched forums on drug websites. They saw Brundige vomiting in her sleep and called 911 at about 4:15 a.m.
In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tysen Duva and defense attorney Jeremy Lasnetski attempted to sort out who sold the drugs that led to her death.
Duva cited phone records where calls from Hamilton’s phone, Muller’s phone and data from Brundige hit the same cell tower on Collins Road, the closest to Muller’s residence.
Text messages from Hamilton’s phone show attempts to reach a dealer named “Chop,” who Hamilton had bought heroin from that morning. Chop said it was too late and a dealer known as “Ross” didn’t respond about 30 minutes earlier. Texts from Williams, using Hamilton’s phone, to Muller between 10:14-10:32 p.m. show Williams asking for heroin and Muller asking Williams to “come through.”
“There’s a 15-minute period when they’re all in the same spot,” Duva said.
Lasnetski, however, questioned that Muller was the dealer, and stated the cellphone data was irrelevant because Hamilton, Williams and Muller lived within half a mile of each other. Lasnetski also wondered why there was no thorough investigation of Ross, Chop or other dealers mentioned by Williams or Hamilton. He cautioned jurors about Williams and Hamilton’s testimony.
Both Williams and Hamilton pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in state court last year. They face a maximum sentence of 15 years but have not been sentenced. Lasnetski, in his questioning and closing statement, said they were telling prosecutors what they wanted to hear to get time knocked off their sentence, which Duva disputed.
According to testimony, Williams and Hamilton initially lied to Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputies immediately after Brundige’s death, and denied they knew what happened. Williams later told authorities about “Lucky” and Lasnetski argued Williams had enough time to tell Hamilton to get their stories straight. Hamilton was questioned later in the day and implicated Muller as well.
Jacksonville Chief Medical Examiner Valerie Rao, M.D. testified that the amount fentanyl in Brundige’s blood was 16 nanograms per milliliter, and she had seen deaths occur at as low as 3 nanograms per milliliter. Lasnetski said Brundige may have brought additional drugs, which Duva responded in his rebuttal, stating it was nonsensical that an 18-year-old with little to no experience with opiates would happen to carry around that much fentanyl.
Another witness testified Muller had sold him heroin that turned out to be fentanyl and he overdosed three times. He said he was a frequent customer of Muller’s and rented out a yellow Ford Mustang to him from the airport. He described Muller as “nonchalant” about the mix-up.
“It’s hard to believe there’s something stronger than heroin, but there is,” he said. “It’s a different dog.”
The defense only called one witness, a woman who worked with Brundige and Hamilton at the same Cracker Barrel in Orange Park. She said Hamilton sold her heroin that happened to be laced with fentanyl and she overdosed about a month before Brundige’s death.
Trumaine Muller also faces charges of distributing heroin Jan. 31, 2017 during a sting operation, and on Feb. 8, 2017 for possessing cocaine with intent to sell and possessing as a firearm as a convicted felon. Murder charges for Brundige’s death were dropped last May.
Clay County Sheriff’s Office detective Mike Calhoun was told Muller had a yellow Mustang and tailed him the afternoon of Nov. 10, 2016. Calhoun said he witnessed a drug deal occur and found $1,942 in Muller’s girlfriend’s purse, but no drugs. On Jan. 31, 2017, an informant purchased heroin from Muller. Jurors were shown a video of the transaction.
The heroin came back from tests as heroin with furanyl fentanyl indicated, an expert from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement testified. Authorities then executed a search warrant of Muller’s apartment on Feb. 8, 2017 where they seized cocaine laced with furanyl fentanyl and found a loaded .38-caliber pistol. Early in the trial, which began Jan. 14, Lasnetski said Muller would concede the charges of distributing heroin and possessing cocaine.
“Charge him only what he is guilty of,” Lasnetski said.
“That’s a trial tactic,” Duva countered in his closing statement.
Duva said, based on the evidence presented, Muller was guilty.
“Hamilton wanted (Brundige) to try heroin. She went from the lower level to wanting to try heroin. It takes access. It takes somebody like him,” Duva said, pointing at Muller.
In his closing argument, Lasnetski described Williams and Hamilton as habitual liars, and as “Rivers of heroin with many tributaries.”
He said Muller was the first and only target from the beginning for the government. He mentioned State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who was briefly in the audience, and wondered why, if Duva’s word to the state about Hamilton’s and Williams’ cooperation meant nothing because they hadn’t been sentenced.
“(Hamilton and Williams) have everything to gain by sticking to the story the government perceives,” Lasnetski said.