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James F. Battin Federal Courthouse

James F. Battin Federal Courthouse

A California man who supplied former Montana Republican House Majority Leader Michael David Lange of Billings with at least 18 pounds and possibly up to 50 pounds of nearly pure meth in a large conspiracy will spend 12 years in federal prison.

In sentencing Jose Soltero, 44, of Lake Elsinore, California, on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters said it was “hard to fathom the devastation” caused by 18 pounds of meth being dumped into the community and that Soltero was “more than just a middleman” in the conspiracy.

Still, Watters gave Soltero a break from the 19 to 24 years he faced under the guideline range, finding credible his explanation for getting involved was because he and his family were being threatened.

Soltero pleaded guilty earlier to conspiracy to possess meth for distribution and admitted to arranging drug deals between Lange and his supplier in California.

The conspiracy ran for about six months, from April to October 2016.

Watters will sentence Lange on Thursday on trafficking charges. Prosecutors are seeking a 28-year prison sentence for Lange, whose preliminary guideline range is about 24 years to 30 years. Lange’s sentencing recommendation was filed under seal.

Soltero apologized and said he made a mistake. “I’m a good person. I was forced,” he said as he asked for leniency.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sullivan recommended a low-end sentence of 19 years and seven months, saying the 18 pounds of meth was “a conservative amount” and that 50 pounds was a credible figure based on what another convicted co-defendant, Sherry Murphy, received from Lange and distributed.

Murphy was sentenced to five years for her role in the case.

Soltero, Sullivan said, was the most important person in the conspiracy because he arranged for the meth to be delivered from his supplier, identified as “Manny,” in California to Lange in Billings and took the drug proceeds back to California. Soltero helped Lange get meth eight times, he said.

Law enforcement officers learned that Lange was trafficking large quantities of meth and also learned from Wyoming agents in a drug case there that Lange was supplying Murphy.

Agents executed a search warrant on Lange’s house on Oct. 11, 2016, and found more than 2.5 pounds of meth, cocaine and $27,400 in U.S. currency. Soltero also was at the residence and was questioned by agents.

Sullivan said Soltero lied initially in the first hour or so but then provided credible information.

Soltero’s attorney, Lance Lundvall of Billings, asked for a five-year sentence, saying Soltero was simply the middleman who acted out of duress because of threats being made to him and his family.

Lundvall also said that except for an old felony drug conviction at age 22, Soltero had no recent criminal record and has worked full-time at the same job for more than 20 years.

Soltero testified at his sentencing that he was friends with Lange before the drug trafficking started and that he got involved after a conference call with Manny, a cousin and Lange in which he translated Spanish and English.

Soltero said his cousin disappeared after the phone call and has not surfaced since. Manny, he said, told him to meet with Lange.

Soltero also said he thinks Manny sent people to his residence with photos of his family to threaten him. “I was very scared for my family,” he said.

Soltero told prosecutor Sullivan that he didn’t contact law enforcement while he was trafficking drugs but did tell agents after the search at Lange’s house that he felt threatened if he didn’t participate.

Watters, noting Lange’s upcoming sentencing, questioned Sullivan about the differences between the government’s sentencing recommendations for Lange and Soltero if Soltero was at the top of the drug chain.

Sullivan responded that Lange has a more serious criminal record, which includes a 2014 felony meth conviction in California. Lange also did not provide credible information when questioned, he said. There was no plea agreement between Lange and the prosecution. Lange faces a minimum mandatory 10 years to life in prison and a $10 million fine.

In Soltero’s plea deal, he faced a minimum mandatory five years to 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine for admitting to a lesser drug charge. Watters accepted the plea agreement and dismissed other more serious drug charges.

Lange served three terms in the Legislature and supported giving $4 million in state money to the Montana Meth Project, an anti-meth public relations campaign. He was ousted from his leadership position in 2007 after a video showed him delivering a profane tirade against then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. Lange called Schweitzer a dictator and said he could “go straight to hell.”

Lange did not seek re-election but ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to challenge former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.