A District Court judge heard evidence against a former public defender accused of drug charges over a two-day bench trial.
Judge Richard Birch, an 11th District Court judge based in North Platte, heard the case against Jon Worthman, 53, of Gering, during a bench trial Tuesday and Wednesday in Scotts Bluff County District Court. A bench trial does not include jurors, only the judge.
Prosecutors charged Worthman after his Jan. 8, 2020, arrest with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, which is punishable by a mandatory minimum of three years imprisonment and a maximum of 50 years imprisonment. Doug Warner, a former Scotts Bluff County Attorney and a current deputy attorney with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office prosecuted the case. Warner represented the state, due to a conflict of interest as the current Scotts Bluff County Attorney Dave Eubanks is a former law associate of Worthman and allegations by the informant in the case..
An informant made accusations during the investigation that Worthman sold cocaine to prosecutors and probation officers in Scotts Bluff County. At the time of his arrest, Worthman was a public defender for Box Butte County and also worked in private defense work. Since then, Worthman has been disbarred by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
In court, testimony provided details about Worthman's Jan. 8 arrest where he was found to have possession of large quantities of cocaine. The cocaine was in separate packages, as if ready for sale. Worthman admitted to police that he intended to purchase "two 8-balls" from an informant. An 8-ball is approximately an eighth of an ounce of cocaine.
Worthman's defense attorney Maren Chaloupka did not argue Worthman's guilt about purchasing cocaine from the informant, but whether or not he purchased cocaine with the intent to distribute it.
The crux of the case comes down to that informant, Jeffrey Lujan, a Scottsbluff man.
"This is their star witness," Chaloupka said as the state objected to the questioning of Lujan about crimes that he had been attempting to resolve by becoming an informant. "Their (prosecution) claim he (Worthman) is not just a user, but distributing, comes down to this witness."
According to testimony Wednesday, Lujan had twice agreed to be an informant for the WING (Western Nebraska Intellegience & Narcotics Group) drug task force. Either WING terminated that relationhip or Lujan did after others learned that he had agreed to be an informant. As of January 2020, when he became an informant again, Lujan had seven cases pending against him that involved forgery, theft and weapons charges. According to testimony, he faced more than 20 years imprisonment on at least two counts of forgery, if convicted.
After completing some controlled buys and sales, Lujan eventually offered a WING investigator his attorney, Jon Worthman, to whom he had been selling drugs. He accused the man of selling drugs, as part of an agreement to get charges against him dismissed.
"I paid him off in drugs and cash," Lujan testified Wednesday.
Lujan referred to himself as “well connected” in the drug-trafficking world and claimed he was able to purchase large quantities of cocaine or methamphetamine since he was a young man. He testified that he provided cocaine to Worthman in exchange for legal favors worked through Worthman on behalf of himself or family members.
In his testimony, Lujan testified he sold cocaine to Worthman on at least two occasions before that January 2020 arrest for Worthman to provide to his “buddies at the club” as Lujan referred to them in text messages. Lujan testified, and text messages were produced, in which Worthman and Lujan discussed exchanges.
Lujan's allegations remain unsubstantiated. In court, none of the persons who Lujan alleged that Worthman had been selling cocaine to were referred to by name, in text messages, Worthman asked Lujan for cocaine quantities for himself and "the prosecutor," "the prosecuting attorney and "the DA."
Throughout cross-examination, Chaloupka presented Worthman as “having an addiction.” She got Lujan to admit he could not testify that he had witnessed Worthman sell or deliver cocaine to anyone.
Lujan testified that Worthman said he had gotten information from prosecutors, including court documents, plea deals and relaxed sentences and the return of cash and guns seized in a case against an associate of Lujan, who had paid for his friend’s representation from Worthman.
Chaloupka asked Lujan if he knew how the court system worked, noting that the documents provided to Lujan were public record documents, and that plea deals and return of property seized are part of the processes in the court system. She noted court dates and other facts in relevant cases..
On several occasions, as she cross-examined Lujan, Chaloupka referred to Worthman manipulating or scamming Lujan with claims that he had been working with others to resolve cases to "get free cocaine for himself." She asked him repeatedly if he realized that Worthman had lied to him. In opening arguments, she said Worthman capitalized on "small-town rumors" that Lujan eagerly accepted to feed his ego as a drug dealer.
"It's one form or another of dishonesty," she said in cross-examining Lujan, saying that it was common in the drug world. She noted that the relationship consisted of various allowances, with Worthman even loaning Lujan money to purchase cocaine and guns so he could be supplied cocaine by Lujan. On the stand, Lujan denied he had been manipulated, saying that Worthman "worked miracles" on cases he had handled for him.
During the trial, law enforcement officials testified that an investigation had not corroborated Lujan’s claims. According to opening arguments, the FBI and other agencies were involved in investigations to evaluate the claims and found no evidence that they were valid. Testimony during the case also included that Lujan had made an immunity agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska during the investigation. No one has been charged in connection with the case against Worthman.
Law enforcement and Lujan made up the witnesses who took the stand for the prosecution. Chaloupka didn’t call any witnesses, only entering the deposition of the “prosecuting attorney.”
Birch asked for closing arguments in the case to be submitted by the end of November and said he will then take the case under advisement and issue a ruling.
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