Area drug dealer who faked his death guilty in federal court

Prescription pill dealer Julius "Butch" Nesbitt was convicted at the federal courthouse Thursday, ending a case in which he faked his own death to avoid prison time for peddling hundreds of pills to his neighbors -- mostly oxycodone or, in street slang, "hillbilly heroin."

After deliberating nearly five hours, Nesbitt was convicted on five of the six counts he faced, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and triggering a false distress call that prompted a two-day search of Winyah Bay in Georgetown County during Thanksgiving 2007.

While searchers combed the bay's many islands -- guns drawn in case of alligators or wild boar -- Nesbitt was long gone, setting up a new life in Indiana.

Under federal court procedures, Nesbitt, 60, won't be sentenced for at least three months but potentially faces up to 20 years behind bars, including five years for the false distress call.

The jury deadlocked on one of two gun charges covering the three shotguns, rifle and handgun found after authorities raided Nesbitt's home in Andrews, in western Georgetown County.

Prosecutors this week depicted Nesbitt as a major force in the illegal pill trade, buying legally prescribed prescription pain medication from others and then selling individual doses to addicts one at a time at a substantial profit, sometimes $30 per dose.

Officials had described his home as a "Grand Central Station" of drug sales, drawing up to 20 buyers every day.

Beyond ending the career of a rural drug peddler, prosecutors said the Coast Guard search for Nesbitt was particularly troubling, given the extent of what was called in and the lives put at risk. The search cost taxpayers at least $170,000 for a helicopter, 18-foot crew boat and 41-foot patrol ship.

Nesbitt's empty fishing boat was found on an island in Winyah Bay hours after he'd been reported missing by his family. At the time, officials thought the disappearance was a hoax. His wallet and I.D. were left on the boat, and the 16-foot vessel was found beached 20 feet up in marsh. Tide tests later showed it was an unlikely settling point for the boat, with a more probable course pushing it out to sea or back to a boat landing.

"From the beginning it did not make sense," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Modica said after the trial ended.

There is a chance Nesbitt will be made to reimburse the government for some of the costs; officials are seeking forfeiture of a couple acres of his property in western Georgetown County.

After his disappearance, Nesbitt was arrested six weeks later in Terre Haute, Ind., where he and an accomplice were surviving on counterfeit money.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips, who also prosecuted the case in Charleston this week, said the time Nesbitt spent on the run was reflective of the selfish extremes Nesbitt followed to avoid prison time.

"He was willing to let his mother think he was dead for six weeks," Phillips said. Nesbitt was also found in possession of fake identification issued in the name of a close friend.

Nesbitt has been in custody since his arrest and conviction in Indiana for counterfeiting. After the trial ended, he was returned to the Charleston County Detention Center.