Last year, one of the jurors in Frederick “Rick” Turner’s trial talked to the Washington Post after Rick’s sentencing hearing. “Mr. Turner has a problem, he made really bad decisions. But do I think he can be a productive member of society? Yes, and I don’t think he’ll ever get that chance. And it’s hard to reconcile that,” said the juror. Rick, a drug addict with no prior criminal convictions, was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The judge at his trial had no choice but to hand down the brutal sentence, calling it “wrong” and “excessive.” Rick, now 38, arrived at federal prison in July of 2018, knowing that he most likely would spend the rest of his life there.
Born in 1981 in Utah, Rick Turner was “the sweetest little boy, with a smile that could light up a room,” according to a cousin. Shy and gentle, he loved animals and was careful to be home when expected, before his mother’s shift as a night nurse started each evening. He was the baby of the family, with three older sisters who adored him.
“My early childhood was in most ways a pretty typical ’80s childhood. I grew up in an average middle-class neighborhood,” says Rick now. “The majority of my friends were Mormon and the majority of the neighborhood was Mormon. I loved school and I loved being outside. I was obsessed with Hot Wheels. My sisters teased me relentlessly and were bossy, but at school they protected me—I never had bullying issues!”
But there was another, darker side to Rick’s early life. At home, his abusive father upended the household daily. Rick was devoted to his superhero mother, who had to put up with her violent husband, was heavily involved in the children’s lives, worked two jobs, received her master’s degree, and survived multiple bouts of cancer. Rick made it through by keeping the two worlds — the chaos at home and the sunny personality he showed neighbors and friends — completely separate.
In his teens, he began to abuse alcohol and drugs. It would be a battle he would fight for years, coupled with mental health troubles, including hospitalization and a suicide attempt.
As he struggled to stay afloat into adulthood, he followed his mother into the field of healthcare. It turned out he had a gift for caring for people, becoming licensed as a health care assistant, a behavioral health specialist, and a psychiatric technician. “He was on the path to becoming a nurse,” says his sister, Mandy Richards. “He wanted to follow in the footsteps of our mother, whom he looked up to his entire life.”
Helping others, in fact, became Rick’s M.O., in a way. He lived with and cared for his grandmother as she battled dementia. He mended fences to some extent with his father and was by his side as he grew ill and then died from end-stage renal failure. He nursed his mother as she died from ALS. He helped a sister care for a nephew with autism, and another nephew who was born with no arms. It seemed that the boy who “brightened up a room” was still doing just that, even when things were tough.
But the darkness got the better of him. His parents’ deaths hit him hard, and then things got even worse. He’d always been especially close with his nephew Cody, only a decade younger, who was more like a best friend than a younger relative. “I can’t explain why,” says Rick, “but when Cody was born in 1991, being an uncle made me the happiest guy on earth. Cody instantly became mini-me, and straight into his teen years, we were side by side.” Their bond grew even stronger as Cody grew up. Then in 2016 Cody, then a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.
“I remember a text Rick sent to all of us sisters. He said he was in bad shape and just couldn’t keep it together anymore. He said that he was lost.”
Soon after his nephew’s death, Rick’s drug use increased and his mental illness worsened. He began dealing methamphetamine for a man called Bassam Ramadan, who would later admit that he had targeted Rick online for this purpose. In 2017, Rick began living in Ramadan’s house in Virginia. One of Ramadan’s customers was an undercover detective, “Mountain Man.” During one such deal at the dealer’s house, at Ramadan’s request Rick retrieved a gun for him to sell to Mountain Man and packaged it up with the drugs. The gun did not belong to Rick, nor did he ever use it. But he was arrested for drug and firearms crimes, as part of a wide crackdown on crime in the D.C. area.
Rick, then 37, was convicted on four counts of drug crimes and having a firearm while dealing drugs. His sentence was 40 years: a 10-year mandatory minimum for the drug crimes, plus a mandatory five years for the first offense and 25 for the second, both mandatory and both consecutive to the 10-year sentence. He had no prior criminal record.
Ramadan, the kingpin of the enterprise, got a sentence of 16 years.
Rick would not receive his outsized sentence if he were sentenced today. The First Step Act, passed in December of 2018, makes it so first-time offenders such as Rick won’t be sentenced like repeat offenders are. His sentence would be half as long as it is now. And without retroactivity, Rick is stuck serving 40 years.
Mandy and her sisters are haunted by the months leading up to Rick’s arrest. The man who seemed to have a limitless capacity to help others desperately needed help himself. “I remember a text Rick sent to all of us sisters,” recalls sister Amanda. “He said he was in bad shape and just couldn’t keep it together anymore. He said that he was lost.” And he was.
Now he’s lost in a criminal justice system sorely in need of reform. Rick’s path is depressingly common — drug addiction, involvement with dealers, prison. His absurd sentence means there is a high likelihood he’ll be spending the remainder of his days behind bars. And as the juror at his trial put it, “It’s hard to reconcile that.”
It’s nearly impossible to read Rick Turner’s story without feeling outrage at the fact that a man got 40 years in prison for what he did. Do you agree that incarcerating Rick for that long is an enormous waste of taxpayer funds — especially considering that his sentence would be much lower were he to be sentenced today? You can help us bring light to this kind of injustice — become a FAMM Advocate right now.
Name: Frederick “Rick” Turner
Sentence: 40 years
Offenses: conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; distribution and possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime; use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime
Priors: two misdemeanors (driving without a license)
Year sentenced: 2018
Age at sentencing: 37
Projected release date: 2053
Do you agree that incarcerating Rick for that long is an enormous waste of taxpayer funds? You can help us bring light to this kind of injustice — become a FAMM Advocate right now.