On appearance alone, Cheryl Cheatham was the ideal drug mule, prosecutors say.
She was an older woman traveling alone — seemingly a retiree and someone unlikely to raise suspicion by federal agents.
But the 64-year-old Arizona grandmother was really an experienced drug runner for big-time dope dealers who sneaked millions of dollars worth of cocaine into Detroit from Las Vegas and Phoenix, prosecutors say.
She racked up so many frequent-flyer miles smuggling drugs onto planes — she made as many as 39 trips to Detroit — that she was even granted access to a cockpit once to take a photo of herself, they say.
Those days are over.
In U.S. District Court in Detroit on Wednesday, Cheatham was sentenced to 12 years in prison for her role as the main drug courier for the Terrell Drug Trafficking Organization a — cocaine ring run by father and son that prosecutors say transported massive amounts of coke between Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit. Cheatham helped make this happen by successfully sneaking drugs onto major airline carriers, including Southwest, Delta and United.
But on Oct. 14, 2016 — the gig was up.
Cheatham was arrested in Detroit after getting caught sneaking $500,000 worth of cocaine onto a Detroit-bound plane from Las Vegas and then trying to deliver the coke after landing, according to court documents. The cocaine was wrapped in towels in her luggage, court records show.
Following her arrest, records show, she made a call to a person she claimed was her daughter. But the contact on the phone was "Loverboy," who turned out to be Jerome Terrell — the son who ran the drug ring, records show. Terrell and his father, Darryl, are also charged in the case.
Months after her arrest, Cheatham pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 5 kilograms of cocaine.
The crime carries a mandatory 10 years in prison, though prosecutors sought a stiffer punishment — 236 months, given her criminal history: Since her early 30s, the woman has had numerous convictions, including shoplifting, selling and possessing drugs, theft and failing to appear in court seven times. She served 6½ years in prison for theft.
The defense argued the woman — who lives in Phoenix with her daughter and three grandchildren — has serious mental health issues and needs medical help, not jail. In court documents, the defense wrote that Cheatham has had a long and difficult life: Her mother abandoned her when she was 10; her two husbands both abused her and left her widowed; and she suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, diabetes and emphysema.
The defense also requested that Cheatham get no more than 10 years, as the sentencing guidelines called for.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy gave her 12 years in prison and five years of supervised release, with a recommendation that she serve her sentence in a federal medical facility out West.
If the sentence is any indication, it appears the prosecution's view of the woman's health issues carried weight.
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting argued early on, her health problems didn't stop her from getting on a plane "with 17 kilos of cocaine in her suitcase."
This story originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.