ALTON — A local couple say their health and financial well-being are suffering as they ready for a possible second criminal trial.
Eric Weil, 50, admitted in an interview last week to blowing fentanyl powder into the air outside his house late last August. But he doesn’t understand how Alton police officer Jamie Fellows — who Weil says was standing about 30 feet away — was harmed.
Worse, Weil is in disbelief that he was charged and convicted by a jury of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon, a felony.
“What I did was reckless,” Weil agreed, “but not in a dangerous or devious way.”
In a twist, after Weil was found guilty on Sept. 13 in Belknap County Superior Court, Judge James O’Neill took the unusual step of setting aside the verdict.
In his order Nov. 1, O’Neill wrote that the verdict was “conclusively against the weight of the evidence,” adding that the injuries claimed by Fellows were belied by his own testimony that his exposure to the fentanyl “caused slight, temporary harm.”
The state “offered no direct admissible/competent evidence that fentanyl could produce death or serious bodily injury in the quantity that was inhaled or from inhalation generally and presented only circumstantial evidence that any contact with fentanyl could produce injury,” said O’Neill.
The judge noted that there was “conflicting testimony” about how far Weil was from Fellows.
Assistant Belknap County Attorney Adam Woods stated in an email last Tuesday that the Attorney General’s office declined to appeal O’Neill’s nullification.
“At this point in time,” wrote Woods, “We intend to retry the case.”
Woods did not reply to questions asking whether the same or different charges would be filed against Weil, but he did confirm that the next step will be a Jan. 2 status hearing.
According to Weil and his partner Belinda Mclin, this is what started their troubles:
On Aug. 27, 2017, the couple suspected that a house guest, the son of a longtime friend of Weil’s, was under the influence of drugs. Weil and Mclin had taken in the young man with the hope of helping him deal with his substance abuse problem.
As a condition of his residing with Weil and Mclin, the house guest had to work for Weil’s business and was prohibited from possessing or using any drugs in the house.
When the couple found drugs in his room, they called 911. Several Alton police officers, including Fellows, responded to their Gilmans Corner Road home. When Fellows arrived, Weil tried to give him a folded piece of paper that he recovered containing a substance that the state later determined to be fentanyl.
Fellows ordered Weil to put the paper on the ground, and Weil did, but frustrated by what Weil thought was a slow response by police to secure the substance, he later picked up the paper and either blew the substance off himself or off the paper into the air and toward Fellows.
Weil said it was ironic that in trying to help someone else, he himself was charged with a crime.
Mclin added that while Fellows was checked by medical personnel for exposure to fentanyl, she, Weil and the house guest weren’t evaluated.
“We called them for help,” said Mclin, “not to start a scene or make an arrest. We didn’t do anything to the police officers to warrant what happened.”
Weil thinks the Alton Police Department is prosecuting him because of past encounters with its officers. Those encounters, he said, included one at the Hannaford’s supermarket in Alton with Fellows, who Weil said claimed he had a headlight out. None of the encounters ended with citations or criminal charges, said Weil.
Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath referred inquiries about Weil’s case last week to the Belknap County Attorney.
Before the initial case went to trial, prosecutors offered Weil a chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, which he said would have required him to undergo anger management, perform 100 hours of community service and serve probation.
Weil said he rejected the deal because he is innocent. In retrospect, Weil said, maybe that was the wrong move.
“I should have taken the plea,” he said.
The penalty for a misdemeanor reckless conduct charge compared to a felony is significant. The felony charge carries a sentence of 3½ to seven years in state prison while the former provides for a maximum of 12 months in the county house of corrections.
Mclin and Weil said Weil’s defense has cost them “thousands of dollars” and also had a deleterious effect on their health. Mclin said she has begun taking medication for anxiety while Weil’s high blood pressure has been exacerbated.
Mclin said she and Weil in recent years had temporarily taken in several people who were down on their luck, but letting their friend’s son stay was a mistake.
“We should have thrown his stuff out the door and let the cops deal with him,” she said. “We should not have cared.”