One Man, 26 Years, 112 Convictions

What sort of system allows a drug dealer to walk in and out of prison and get convicted more than 100 times? Ours.

Smooth is on the phone. “I’ve been charging $750,” he tells his customer one day in 2007. “You know, I just give you a deal… my prices [between] me and you don’t be the same prices to everybody else.”

Jersey, his customer, listens. “I’ve been getting $250 a quarter [ounce],” Smooth says over his cell. “Two a quarter, you know.” Jersey, a police informant, agrees to meet up, handing the phone back to a Seattle vice detective.

And Smooth is busted for drugs again.

In a word, busted is the life story of Stacy Earl Stith, street name Smooth. He’s been caught a lot, often stumbling into the hands of police. In 1996, when a prostitute at Seventh and Bell asked what he was doing, Smooth said, “Selling, man!”—and pulled a cache of rocks from his pants pocket. “I sell to everyone!” The undercover police hooker beckoned her backup team, and Smooth went to jail.

In 2006, plainclothes cops were nabbing another dealer when Smooth and his girlfriend made two drug sales practically in front of them in City Hall Park, next to the King County Courthouse, where he’d already been convicted of nine felonies. He was arrested and went to jail only hours after he had been released from prison that same day.

According to court records and interviews, catching him wasn’t complicated. He was mostly a street dealer—a cop’s easy quota—distributing his stones, as he calls crack cocaine, hand to hand from Belltown to SoDo or by vehicle to home-delivery customers in the ‘burbs. At times he stowed the tiny bags of stones in his car’s or van’s engine compartment, from where, an informant told police, the bags would occasionally drop onto the street, requiring Smooth to hop out and run back through traffic to retrieve them. Other times he’d spread the stash around: In a 2004 bust, cops found more than 15 grams of marijuana separated into 16 different bags in Smooth’s pants pocket, 27 grams of marijuana and nine grams of crack in the trunk of his vehicle, 11 grams of crack in bags tucked into his waistband, and 49 grams of bagged crack in his underwear.

A 230-pound black man, his braided hair often dangling from under a sideways ball cap, Smooth has been relentlessly, if ineptly, selling and using drugs in Seattle for more than 25 years. Along the way, he’s compiled a criminal record that’s something of a record itself, authorities say: Adding up misdemeanors and felonies since the mid-1980s, he has 112 convictions. Not arrests, convictions: 94 misdemeanors and 18 felonies, revolving through the doors of juvenile court to municipal court to district court to superior court to federal court, from traffic and theft offenses and weapons and assault charges to burglary and crack sales. His first day in court was at age 13; his most recent, in January, at age 39.

“I have never seen anyone with this number of convictions around here,” says 12-year King County deputy prosecutor Andy Colasurdo, who couldn’t think of another violator who even came close. Some had a similar number of felonies, but “most of them only had 20 to 40 misdemeanors.”

For all those convictions, Smooth has served an aggregate 14 years behind bars in local jails and state prisons, by Colasurdo’s count. He had been sentenced to considerably more time, but his terms typically ran concurrently and he was usually released early. So he’s had to work fast, scoring those 112 convictions in just 11 years of freedom. That’s an average of 10 guilty verdicts per year.

“He,” by the way, could mean Stacy Stith—or James Howard or Cal Beaver or Eric Smith, among others. Smooth has used 18 aliases, five dates of birth, and four Social Security numbers. It’s possible, given that older court documents are often incomplete and crimes could be recorded under some of those aliases, Smooth’s record may be even longer.

On the street, beat cops would recognize him on sight and assume he was in violation of something—parole, work release, curfew, loitering; most likely there was an arrest warrant somewhere with his name on it. (Court records show he had been sought on 52 warrants over two decades for a variety of crimes and failures to appear in court.)

Smooth was a sometimes hapless lawbreaker. One early-morning call brought officers to a smashed display window at the downtown Bon Marché, where they found him standing nearby with a pile of stolen clothes at his feet, department store tags flapping in the wind. But he was no comic figure. In 1999, he sped away from a police stop and careened around Central District corners in his ’85 Buick. The chase ended when he slid sideways to a stop, tossed a loaded 40-caliber Glock out a window, and bailed. An officer pinned him down, but needed backup help to get him into handcuffs. Smooth was later convicted of being an armed felon.

He also has six convictions for resisting or obstructing police officers. In South King County in 2004, holding $1,300 in powder and rock cocaine, Smooth had to be Tasered four times before two cops could cuff him. Court records describe him as “a high-risk offender who presents a significant threat to the community.”

Smooth has been found guilty so often that the word may be meaningless to him. Once he’d reached 50 convictions—as he did by age 19, for one of 31 theft offenses in his career—what was another 50?

Colasurdo, who is on loan as a special assistant prosecutor in gun and drug cases for the office of U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan in Seattle, thinks Smooth “is either incapable of changing his criminal ways or unwilling to do so.” So today the law has finally come down on Smooth. Except it landed so hard his defenders think the system might have gone too far the other way. Seattle attorney John Crowley, who has represented Smooth, says, “He has a dope problem. Like many of these guys when they’re young, he couldn’t figure out how to market himself, and found the best thing he could market was drugs.”

Another attorney, public defender Lynn Hartfield, thinks some compassion is in order. Smooth’s criminal career, she says, is “a testament as much to his being a victim of crack cocaine as it is to his being a perpetrator of its harms.”

But after 112 convictions, can Smooth possibly make a case for leniency?

Stacy Stith was five days shy of his 13th birthday when he was first arrested, for third-degree theft. He was convicted a week later in King County Juvenile Court, but given no time. Smooth was convicted of the same crime 15 more times in the following three years, with sentences ranging from a few days to a few months.

He later informed a drug counselor that he began using marijuana at age 12, and has continued to smoke it through adulthood. He also started drinking as a juvenile, and as an adult could down a fifth of liquor daily. Additionally, Smooth first used cocaine at age 16, a habit that grew to more than 10 rocks a day, he said.

Smooth has told counselors, attorneys, and judges that he just can’t beat his addiction, and that’s what led to his life of crime, which includes convictions for felony theft, forgery, and burglary. Court records show he’s done time in juvenile hall for possession of marijuana and cocaine, and has 11 felony convictions for possession or distribution of crack cocaine, not counting two charges that were dropped.

He was at least occasionally drugged up when he broke the law. In 2004, a Seattle police officer stopped Smooth in a ’72 Pontiac for erratic driving and displaying license plates that had expired four years earlier. He was driving without a license, something he’d already been convicted of 20 times, along with a DUI and a dozen other traffic offenses. He was worried the cop might see a baggie of rocks on his floorboard, so he confessed to having just smoked weed. Really, he said, “if I had stones, I would have run or something.” The cop found the drugs anyway.

Born in St. Louis and raised in the Seattle area, Smooth dropped out of high school at 15. His mother and father divorced when he was young, and his mom remarried and ran a day care. Family members couldn’t be reached, but prosecutor Colasurdo says Smooth “had parents at home who loved him, provided for him, and served as good role models.”

Smooth worked at times in the construction industry, but court records state his drug use had a “negative impact on his employment… such as being late for work, diminished productivity, absences, and using [drugs] at work, and termination.”

For much of his adult life, when not in jail, prison, or a halfway house, Smooth has lived in apartments in South King County or has been homeless. He recently suffered a minor heart attack from cocaine use, he told a drug counselor, who noted in his report that Smooth “enjoys playing basketball, fishing, and dancing with his girlfriend,” who was also busted for drugs.

Smooth married a Tacoma woman in 1998. She did not respond to phone calls for this story, but court papers show they have a child and she filed for divorce in 2004. It did not seem a happy union. Smooth, she said in her divorce filing, “resided in the penitentiary for the duration of the marriage.”

He was out for awhile in 2004. That September—the month he and his wife officially separated—Smooth was arrested for possession of crack and marijuana, and was booked and released. Twelve days later he was arrested for selling crack, and again booked and released. Less than a month later he was arrested again for possession. He awaited trial in jail, and in 2005 was convicted of all three charges.

Smooth faced a maximum of 120 months. He got 24, and ultimately did 12, gaining his release on Sept. 2, 2006. “Amazingly,” Colasurdo says in court papers, “Stith was arrested on drug charges that same day after officers observed him selling drugs in a Seattle park [the City Hall Park incident]. Then, after being booked and released on that charge, he was arrested 11 days later, on September 13, 2006, after he was found in possession of both crack cocaine and marijuana.”

Smooth had repeat opportunities to escape his drug cycle, but always wound up in court again, records show. He was first told by a judge 20 years ago to undergo drug-diversion counseling, an order repeated with every drug conviction thereafter. Awaiting trial on the pair of 2006 busts, he asked again for treatment.

“I’ve been to prison several times,” he told a drug counselor, and received some drug counseling while going cold turkey. “I always come home and use drugs and alcohol. I’ve been a drug addict for 25 years. Please, for once, can you give me a chance to get sober and stay clean by going through with the recommendation [for drug counseling]? Thank you.”

He was allowed to enroll as an outpatient at a Renton treatment center in early 2007. After attending 25 two-hour sessions, completing about a third of an 18-month program, he bailed.

Then came the call from Jersey.

On June 29, 2007, still facing his two latest King County drug felonies, Smooth met with Jersey, the police informant, at a First Hill parking lot and sold him an ounce of crack for $700. Seattle police detectives watched and took pictures.

In July, outside a convenience store in Tukwila, Smooth sold Jersey another ounce, also under surveillance. A week later, after another buy was set up, plainclothes cops moved in on Smooth’s Dodge Caravan at a Denny’s parking lot in Tukwila. They found 11 ounces of crack and three ounces of powder cocaine hidden in the engine compartment. Another quarter-ounce rock was discovered under the gas cap. Police began typing up four charges—two for possession and two for distribution of cocaine—potentially his 109th through 112th convictions.

Prosecutor Colasurdo isn’t sure how, exactly, the case came to him. He’s been on assignment from the county to the U.S. Attorney’s Office since 2004, and coordinates with local agencies on extraordinary cases. “It was SPD detectives or someone from the local task force, or maybe the [King County] prosecutor” who were concerned about the amount of drugs Smooth was selling, says Colasurdo. Only later did the breadth of his record emerge.

“Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find a defendant who has been convicted of 10-plus felony offenses, or even close to 20 if juvenile felonies are included,” says Colasurdo. “What really distinguished Stith from others was the total amount of convictions.”

Statutes allow five-year sentences for cocaine convictions in state court, but Smooth’s offender level—a scoring system, based on past offenses, used to determine sentence ranges—mandated lower and concurrent terms, and judges are reluctant to hand down exceptional sentences to drug users. “We tried to get the maximum or near the maximum on him,” says Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “And yet Mr. Stith just kept committing crimes.” What’s more, his mostly nonviolent felonies also did not qualify him for a “three strikes” prosecution. “I don’t see what else we could have done to lock him up longer,” Goodhew says.

But under federal law, as a career offender Smooth could be prosecuted not only for his recent offenses, but in a sense for all of them. And he easily passed the test—a convicted federal offender needs only two prior felonies to receive an enhanced sentence as a career criminal.

“The fact that he has continued to re-offend so quickly after his last two stints in prison is extremely concerning, as is the fact that he has re-offended every time he has been released from jail and while charges have been pending,” wrote Colasurdo and fellow prosecutor Kit Dimke in court papers. “Not once did he repay the mercy shown to him by the prosecutors and/or the courts with law-abiding behavior. Each time he fell back into his old patterns, each time he made the same bad decisions, and each time he re-offended. Clearly, these prior sentences have not had the desired effect on him or his behavior. A sentence of 360 months surely will.”

That’s what prosecutors sought: 30 years in federal prison. If Smooth was convicted and survived incarceration, he would be almost 70 upon release.

Prosecutors offered Smooth a plea deal, but he chose to go to trial, claiming the informant, whom he met in his drug-counseling classes, talked him into getting back into drugs before entrapping him into selling again.

The feds conceded that Jersey made other drug deals with Smooth out of the circle of their sting. Smooth claimed that it was Jersey who was the drug dealer, and that the informant wasn’t prosecuted for a separate felony drug deal. But a federal jury found it hard to overlook the nearly one pound of crack and powder cocaine in Smooth’s van. And by using the entrapment defense, Smooth opened the door for prosecutors to introduce his prior bad acts to show the jury he was predisposed to sell drugs. The June 2008 trial lasted three days, swiftly followed by a guilty verdict.

“The thing with Stacy is you look at his record, there’s a bunch of felony convictions, but they’re extremely low-level types of deals,” says his attorney, Crowley. “And it’s his priors, not rocks, that got him.”

Crowley, a onetime federal prosecutor who has been a criminal defense attorney for 11 years, says his client deserved some tough love early on that he never got. “The longest he served, I think, was six years, and he needed about 12 to see if the system could shake some sense into him. Damn, it hurts to watch [Smooth go down]. There’s a little boy in every one of these guys I represent.”

Smooth’s other attorney, Hartfield, a federal public defender who argued on his behalf at sentencing, said that her client didn’t deserve the three-decade term sought by prosecutors, instead asking for 20 years. Though she doesn’t want to discuss the case while it’s on appeal, she notes in court papers that her client was trying to turn his life around. She calls him an “addict, one whose craving for a drug is so strong that he continues to sell to support his habit, heedless of the consequences.”

Hartfield also pointed to the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, arguing that the laws discriminate against African-Americans such as Stith, who, while he’s used and sold powder in the past, was federally charged with holding and distributing crack. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set longer penalties for trafficking in crack than in powder, a disparity that critics say comes down hardest on blacks. (A U.S. Sentencing Commission study found that 82 percent of convicted crack offenders are African-American, while 72 percent of more lightly punished powder-cocaine offenders were white or Hispanic).

On that issue, prosecutor Colasurdo agrees. “Is there a disparity? Yes,” he says. (In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges can consider the unevenness of the laws when passing sentences; there are also reform efforts in Congress to balance crack and powder penalties). But the longer potential sentence had as much to do with Smooth’s criminal history and attitude, says Colasurdo. “The case involved more than 50 grams, and he had more than two priors. By law, that allowed us to go forward with the penalty enhancement. He was never willing to cooperate, never settle, or accept what he did was wrong. Our responsibility is to protect the community.”

Colasurdo says prosecutors could have gone for additional time—a mandatory life term, in fact—but chose not to. The U.S. actually threatened to seek life as part of its plea-bargaining with Smooth, but later withdrew the motion.

On January 12, U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart sentenced Smooth to federal prison for 24 years, with 10 years supervised release if and when he gets out. On the bench, Robart called Smooth’s record “remarkable.”

Still, notching his 112th conviction, Smooth got a couple final breaks. The two pending county drug charges from 2006 have been dropped now that’s he’s off to a federal pen. The federal court also gave him credit for the time he served awaiting trial. And his case isn’t over yet: His public defender is pursuing a reversal or a reduced sentence through the appellate courts.

Colasurdo hopes Smooth gets drug-abuse treatment in prison, if he’s amenable. “If not,” Colasurdo says, “those services should be reserved for those that are ready and willing to put forth the effort.”

Counting time for good behavior Smooth could earn while locked up, the Federal Bureau of Prisons projects his release date to be July 30, 2028, a month before his 59th birthday. That may not be life, but it will be a late start on having one.