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Press Release

Defendants Sentenced For Drug Trafficking, Witness Tampering, And Other Related Offenses

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Michigan

          GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN — U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge announced today that U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff sentenced Melvin James Harris, 46, of Peshawbestown, Michigan, to 240 months in prison for committing five felonies between August and November, 2019.  A jury convicted Harris in July 2020 of distributing cocaine, assaulting a federal officer, contempt of court, conspiracy to witness tamper, and witness tampering.   The jury also convicted Harris’ sister, Vanessa Louis Hunter, 45, of Rockford, Illinois, of conspiring with Harris to tamper with a witness.  A third member of the conspiracy, Corey John Raphael, pled guilty to joining the conspiracy as well.  Hunter was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and Raphael was sentenced to 33 months.

          The evidence at trial showed that on August 14, 2019, Harris sold cocaine to an individual who was assisting police with narcotics investigations.  Harris chose the location for the sale – a spot within the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians’ community, commonly known as Peshawbestown.  Four days later, Harris assaulted a federal officer who was attempting to arrest him.  

          In September 2019, Harris was charged in federal court with distributing cocaine and assaulting an officer.  After he learned the identity of the person who had assisted police with the narcotics investigation, Harris conspired with Hunter, Raphael, and others to tamper with that witness, in an effort to discourage the witness from testifying against him.  Harris ultimately succeeded in contacting the witness through intermediaries and asked the witness not to go to court.  Harris also disseminated the witness’s name and other personal information in violation of a court order.  He used the jail’s phone system to do so, and he directed his co-conspirators and associates to further disseminate the information through Facebook and other means.  Additional charges against Harris, Hunter, and Raphael soon followed. 

          Harris has a long, violent criminal history and was classified as a “career offender” at sentencing.  In its sentencing memo, the United States emphasized Harris’ extensive criminal history, which started in his teens and continued unabated into his 40’s.  The United States noted that violence and drug trafficking were recurrent themes throughout his history, and he had earned 18 criminal history points.  The United States noted at sentencing that Harris had literally made a career out of crime, and it was time for that career to end. 

          As for Harris, Hunter, and Raphael’s efforts to tamper with witnesses and obstruct justice, the United States argued that this conduct struck at the heart of the criminal justice system and warranted a significant sentence.

          “The sentences imposed in this case send a clear message to those who would try to sell drugs, assault federal officers, and tamper with witnesses,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge.  “My Office takes these cases seriously and will vigorously prosecute them.” 

          This case was jointly investigated by the Traverse Narcotics Team, Drug Enforcement Administration, Grand Traverse Band Tribal Police Department, Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office, and Michigan State Police.


Updated December 10, 2020

Drug Trafficking