A Question of Justice

Three young men, two coke deliveries, one prison sentence

The call came early in the evening on September 30, 2003. Ashley O'Donoghue, 20, could feel his cell phone vibrating in the holster on his right hip. He flipped open the phone and glanced at the caller ID. "Hey, Peter," he said. "What's going on?" Every time Peter called, Ashley knew he was going to make some money.

Ashley didn't know much about Peter, not even his last name. He didn't know that Peter's father is a leader in the drug-abuse treatment field, or that Peter had just graduated from Collegiate, one of Manhattan's most prestigious prep schools. All Ashley knew was that Peter liked to buy cocaine two grams at a time, two times a week.

Then, at the end of the summer, Peter's buying habits had changed. He'd left the city for Hamilton College in Oneida County. No longer could Peter meet him on Upper East Side street corners. Now Peter wanted the coke delivered to him upstate.

Ashley O’Donoghue, now 21, inside Clinton Annex, a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border
photo: Michael Betts
Ashley O’Donoghue, now 21, inside Clinton Annex, a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border

A few weeks into the fall semester, Peter called looking for 30 grams—a huge order. The prospect of such a large sale excited Ashley; his customers usually wanted only a gram or two. Ashley boarded an Amtrak train to Utica and met Peter and two friends outside the station. He handed over the bag of coke; they gave him $2,000.

Peter called again several days later, wanting an even larger delivery. The next morning, on October 1, Ashley took the train up again. This was to be his biggest deal ever. In exchange for 70 grams, Peter had promised to pay $5,000.

Soon after Ashley's train pulled into the station, Peter called to say he was running late. Ashley wandered over to a vending machine for a pack of Newports. When Peter phoned again, he told Ashley, "I'm out front." Ashley headed for the exit.

Just outside the door, Ashley turned to a stranger and asked for a light. Moments later, that man and three others tackled him. "State police!" one of them shouted. "Get on the ground!" They yanked his arms behind his back and cuffed his wrists together. Lying facedown on the concrete, Ashley realized Peter had set him up.

A few weeks into the fall semester last year, word sped along the Hamilton College grapevine: If you were looking for cocaine, two freshmen were selling it. On this campus of 1,750 students, it didn't take long for the rumor to reach Patricia Ingalls, director of campus safety. On September 30, she phoned the local police chief, and he called the New York State Police.

Soon three undercover state troopers showed up on campus. Preston Kraus, one of the two students whose names had surfaced, was already seated in a room at the Campus Safety office. The three officers walked in, closed the door, and started asking questions. When the other suspect, Peter McEneaney, arrived at the office, two of the troopers interviewed him in a second room.

It took only a few minutes for the students to admit they had bought 30 grams of coke from a dealer in New York City. One of the officers, Trooper Eric Jones, walked with Preston to his dorm room. There he collected seven grams of coke from a desk drawer. Jones went with Peter to his room, too, and retrieved another seven grams.

"You're in trouble in a big way," Trooper Jones told the students. "Do you want to do the right thing? Try to help yourself out?" The "right thing," he explained, was to become informants, and to set up their supplier. "We can't make you any promises, but we have the D.A.'s ear, so if we tell them you cooperated, it usually goes a long way," Jones said.

Peter and Preston, both 18, agreed to cooperate. "It didn't really take any persuading," recalls Jones, the lead officer on the case. "I think they were thinking about saving their school careers. They're young, naive college kids who had probably never been in trouble in their whole lives."

Since Peter had more of a relationship with Ashley, the officers wanted him to make the phone call. They asked Peter to double his last order and get more if he could. "We told him, 'Get the most you can without being suspicious,' " Jones recalls. "We were shooting for two ounces . . . just to make the cutoff for an A."

This is standard state police procedure: Set up suppliers with enough weight so they can be indicted for the highest-level felony, known as an A. Sale of two or more ounces is an A-1 felony; it carries a mandatory minimum prison term of 15 years. Possession of the same amount is a slightly less serious felony, known as an A-2.

A few minutes later, Peter stepped out of the Campus Safety building, dialed Ashley, and placed an order for 70 grams, which is about 2.5 ounces. Trooper Jones stood nearby, listening. The next afternoon, Ashley arrived at the Utica train station. Out front, Trooper Jones sat in the driver's seat of an unmarked police car. Peter was in the back. When Ashley emerged from the building, Peter said, "That's him."

The police questioned Ashley in a security room at the train station and discovered a sandwich bag filled with white powder in his jacket pocket. That afternoon, he was arraigned on charges of second-degree drug possession—an A-2 felony—at Utica City Court. Afterward, the police took him to the county jail.

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