DENVER — A 57-year-old man from Grand Junction was sentenced to life in federal prison after he was convicted of multiple drug charges, including distributing fentanyl that resulted in death.
It is the longest sentence handed down in Colorado federal court for such a crime, United States Attorney Cole Finegan said after the sentencing.
"I want to reaffirm the commitment of our office to go after the predators and the criminals who are making and selling this poison to our neighbors and to our children," he said. "And you have our commitment that we will continue to pursue justice in these instances. But we understand that there is a long battle evolving here. And that the opioid pandemic that is sweeping across Colorado is sweeping across our nation."
After a trial in April 2021, Bruce Holder was convicted of conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and counterfeit substances, distribution of fentanyl resulting in death, distribution of fentanyl, and distribution of a counterfeit substance, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.
According to facts presented at the trial, Holder worked with co-conspirators — which included members of his family, such as his wife and children — to distribute pills. They looked like 30mg Oxycodone pills, but were counterfeit and spiked with fentanyl, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. According to the Associated Press, he had his teenage son sell pills to help pay for shoes and equipment he needed to play sports. Holder's wife and daughter also were previously prosecuted and sentenced for their roles.
Between 2017 and 2018, he imported tens of thousands of the pills from Mexico. Along with his co-conspirators, he then distributed them across western Colorado.
After taking one of these pills in 2017, Jonathan Ellington, 30, of Carbondale, died.
"Evidence presented at trial established that this man would not have died but for the fentanyl present in the counterfeit pills distributed by Holder and his co-conspirators," the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. "Despite knowing of this death, and hearing of other concerns, Holder and his co-conspirators continued to import and distribute these counterfeit pills."
According to the Associated Press, in the courtroom, Holder was also accused of selling the pills to two other people who died, including Ashley Romero. She died in June 2018.
Holder was arrested in August 2018, but he continued to talk with his co-conspirators about destroying evidence. They also discussed possibly murdering a witness who was cooperating with investigators.
After Holder's trial, where he was convicted of the multiple drug charges, United States District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello sentenced him to life in prison on Wednesday. Holder became frustrated during the sentencing hearing, at one point heading toward a courtroom door before being blocked by U.S. Marshals, according to the Associated Press.
Joined by officials after the sentencing, Romero's mother, Andrea Thomas, spoke briefly about how no amount of justice would bring her daughter back.
"But today, we have satisfaction and knowing that our system worked," she said. "It's been a long process. These cases are very hard to prosecute."
She said her daughter's story could have been simply an overdose — case closed.
"But the agents in my daughter's case, in the Ellington's case... went above and beyond to work very hard and investigate and bring this case to where it is now," she said.
"I feel like this moment really speaks for the hundreds of thousands of parents out there that have never had the opportunity to have their child's death investigated," she continued. "...I hope this case sets precedents in our state and across the country for counterfeiting, counterfeit fentanyl pills, distribution. And we have to take our country back right now. We have to value human life."
United States Attorney Cole Finegan said he hoped this sentence brought some amount of peace to the victims' families.
"Today has been a long time coming," Finegan said. "For all of us involved and for over five years, we've waited for this moment. And while justice has arrived, there is no joy that comes with this moment. Because while justice has arrived, people behind me, the people in the courtroom earlier this evening — their loved ones will not be returned to them."
DEA Rocky Mountain Special Agent in Charge Brian Besser thanked the investigators who worked on the case for years to seek justice for the impacted families.
“There is no outcome that will bring back loved ones; but we do hope today is a small step forward for the families, and a stark reminder that DEA’s work to protect our communities from dangerous and greedy fentanyl distributors continues this very hour and we will not stop," Besser said.
He said in 2022, the DEA Rocky Mountain division seized 5.8 million potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.
"The State of Colorado only has roughly 6 million people and it shows you the gravity of this public health crisis, of this public safety crisis," he said.
In March 2022, one of Holder's co-conspirators, Christopher Huggett, 30, was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. He sold counterfeit pills that were laced with fentanyl that appeared to be oxycodone. Huggett obtained the pills from and sold them alongside Holder, who was his source. Despite learning from Holder that several people overdosed and some people died after using the pills, Huggett continued distributing the pills throughout Western Colorado, according to a plea agreement.