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Utah justice court judge pleads guilty to possessing drugs

Published August 27, 2013 7:09 pm

Courts • Virginia Ward could face up to 15 years in prison at November sentencing.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tooele • The former Salt Lake City judge walked silently into the courtroom Tuesday with her hands clasped firmly behind her back.

She stopped when she reached a wooden lectern, glanced briefly around the room, seeing it this time from a defendant's perspective.

Virginia Ward, 46, has not presided over a court case in about five months. On Tuesday, she pleaded guilty to picking up packages of Oxycodone to deliver to her dealer.

Ward was charged in July in 3rd District Court with two counts of drug possession with intent to distribute, second-degree felonies that each carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

But in a deal with the Utah Attorney General's Office, one of those counts was dropped in exchange for Ward's guilty plea. The former justice court judge faces up to 15 years in prison when she is sentenced Nov. 5.

Ward — who has been a judge for the city since July 2002 and has tried countless cases against defendants facing misdemeanor drug charge — resigned Aug. 19 in anticipation of entering her guilty plea, her attorney said.

"There's no possible way she could sit as a judge after pleading to this charge," said defense attorney Earl Xaiz. "The idea was always that she would resign before entering her plea."

Ward, 46, whose case is being handled by Judge Robert Adkins from Tooele County to minimize conflict, was the subject of a federal investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration that began early this year.

According to a probable-cause statement, the DEA was investigating packages believed to contain Oxycodone, a highly addictive and oft-abused prescription drug.

For weeks, DEA agents staked out the UPS Store, 358 S. 700 East, where they knew Ward was receiving mail.

On five occasions, the documents state, agents witnessed Ward pick up parcels from the store. One time, agents said, she opened the box, pulled out a pill and swallowed it while sitting inside her car.

On March 30, the day she was arrested, Ward had received two packages containing 338 tablets of Oxycodone, the documents state.

She told agents that she had been taking the drug to treat her neck pain and also admitted that she had traded "controlled substances that she had received in order to obtain Oxycodone and other controlled substances," according to court documents.

Ward allegedly told investigators that the pills she had received March 30 belonged to someone else — someone named Jose or Josh Anderson. She said she was planning to meet Jose and give him the packages, and in exchange, he would supply her with some of the Oxycodone, according to court documents.

Documents state that Ward admitted to knowing the pills were meant for illegal distribution to others, and said she had conducted a similar transaction with Jose once before.

"On March 30 of this year, Ms. Ward went to a UPS store located in Salt Lake City and picked up two packages that contained several tablets that were Oxycodone," Xaiz said in court Tuesdayas a basis for Ward's guilty plea. "She picked up these pills to deliver them to another party who was then going to distribute them to a number of other individuals including Ms. Ward herself."

Investigators suspect Ward has received about 170 packages from various senders around the country during the past seven months, including one that arrived six days after Ward was arrested. Inside the final package addressed to Ward, DEA agents found an additional 60 pills of Oxycodone, documents state.

Asked by Judge Adkins Tuesday if she was currently taking any drugs, Ward said she was no longer taking Oxycodone but has been prescribed anti-depressants since her March arrest.

In her resignation letter to Salt Lake City Justice Court Director Curtis Preece, Ward said, "I ... deeply apologize." She also offered to make herself available "to discuss anything necessary that assists you in vacating the position."

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant placed Ward on administrative leave at the time of her arrest pending the completion of the criminal investigation.

In addition to any criminal sanctions imposed by the court, Ward may be subject to court sanctions pursuant to an investigation by the state Judicial Conduct Commission.

Ward declined to comment on her position or future plans as she left the courtroom Tuesday.

Despite her guilty plea, Ward has been allowed to retain her driver's license — a right typically revoked for six months when a defendant pleads to drug charges.

According to a biography on the Utah State Courts website, Ward received a law degree from the University of Utah in 1993 and worked as a senior assistant prosecutor in Salt Lake County from 1994 to 2000. She has managed the Salt Lake City Justice Court's Focus Program, which handles repeat DUI offenders, according to the bio, and is the chair of the board of directors for the Utah Law-Related Education Project.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: marissa_jae