Centreville Heroin Ring Defendant Is Found Guilty

Skylar Schnippel, seen in a 2007 yearbook photo.
Skylar Schnippel, seen in a 2007 yearbook photo. (Westfield High School Yearbook)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Skylar Schnippel, identified at his trial as a high school cocaine dealer, a police informant and a heroin addict, was convicted yesterday in federal court in Alexandria of providing the heroin that killed his girlfriend in Centreville last year.

Schnippel, 20, did not testify in his defense. His lawyers and his tearful family declined to comment as they left the courthouse.

Prosecutors said Schnippel was part of a ring of dozens of young heroin users, almost all onetime students at Westfield High School in western Fairfax County. He was one of 16 who were charged by federal authorities. Four young people who were part of the ring died of heroin overdoses in the past two years, including Alicia Lannes, 19, Schnippel's girlfriend.

The other 15 people pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to various drug charges. Two have been sentenced to about 20 years in prison. Schnippel pleaded not guilty to conspiring, possessing and distributing heroin that led to the death of Lannes in March 2008.

Schnippel's former friends and fellow addicts testified against him yesterday, in some cases saying he sold them cocaine, then introduced them to heroin. "He said, 'It's nice, you should try it,' " co-defendant David Schreider, 21, recalled Schnippel saying in spring 2007. Schreider said he was soon using and dealing heroin.

After Schnippel was observed by Fairfax police leaving Schreider's home in July 2007, a detective testified that Schnippel signed a form offering to provide information against his friends, and testimony showed that he might have provided police a tip that led to the arrest of one of his friends and future co-defendants.

Schnippel's attorney, Rod Leffler, said Schnippel was a heroin addict, not a dealer. He would share the drug with friends, but he did not intend to cause harm, Leffler said. No witnesses testified on Schnippel's behalf, though a Facebook page has been established to support him.

The case was heard by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema after both sides waived a jury trial. After closing arguments, Brinkema barely paused before pronouncing Schnippel guilty of all three counts, each with a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, though the judge said she would merge two of the counts.

"I'm satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt," Brinkema said, "that the government has met its burden as to all three counts. There's overwhelming evidence of a loose conspiracy in the Centreville area" involving dozens of young people, almost all of them heroin users.

Brinkema heard from so many young heroin addicts that she stopped the government from calling any more to the stand, saying it had become cumulative. Yesterday, she listened to a string of young men in green jail jumpsuits, discussing in detail how they began using heroin, with some driving into the District to buy it from co-defendant Antonio Harper and then distributing it among themselves.

J.R. Quick, 20, sentenced to 19 years in prison, acknowledged buying as much as $1,000 worth of heroin in a single trip to the District, as often as every other day, returning to Centreville to sell to other teens at twice the price he had paid.

Daniel R. Nash, 20, sentenced to 20 years in prison, said Lannes introduced him to intravenous drug use, as did other witnesses, and that he injected drugs with her and Schnippel more than 100 times. By 2008, Nash said, he was using as much as $1,000 worth of drugs a day as well as selling to others.

Schnippel obtained heroin from Nash on March 4, 2008, prosecutors said. Schnippel then met with Lannes early March 5, but was called home by his parents before he could use the drugs, they said. Lannes went home and overdosed in her bedroom while Schnippel listened on the phone, prosecutors said. Schnippel alerted friends but did not call 911 or Lannes's parents. Paramedics were not summoned until four hours later, after Lannes had died.

Lannes's death helped spark a larger police and federal investigation, and her father has become publicly active in trying to stop the spread of youth drug use. Greg Lannes, Alicia Lannes's father, has closely tracked the cases of all the defendants and attended almost all of their hearings. His wife, Donna Lannes, testified yesterday that she had resuscitated her daughter after an earlier overdose, as Schnippel tried to walk away.

"It's not a question of going after these kids and putting them behind bars," Greg Lannes said. "It's saving their lives. And saving the other kids who might be getting involved, and then dealing, and then their victims, and it's exponential."

He and his wife were planning to visit their daughter's grave upon leaving court.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company