RC courthouse

Brad Widener’s hearing took place in Ripley Circuit Court on the second floor of the courthouse, which was built in 1860 in Versailles.

VERSAILLES — On Sept. 5, 2018, Indiana State Police Trooper Joseph May applied for a search warrant for the residence of Brad Widener, 4108 E. County Road 600 N., Sunman, according to an affidavit that he wrote. “l had probable cause to believe that Widener had conspired to deal methamphetamine, and that he had omitted required information on his sex offender registration. The search warrant was signed and issued by Ripley County Circuit Court Judge (Ryan) King.”

When the search warrant was executed that evening, “Widener was found inside and quickly detained and placed into handcuffs for our safety. Widener also had his newborn baby inside the residence.”

The suspect told investigators, “l knew it was only a matter of time before this happened.”

During the search, a quantity of a crystalline substance was found on an individual. The trooper reported, “Due to my training and experience, l believed the substance to be methamphetamine.” This individual, who was not identified in the court document, admitted that the substance was about 2 grams of meth, and that it was sold to the person by Widener for $200.

The man was later transported to the Ripley County Jail, Versailles, by Trooper Robert Hutson.

At the jail, he agreed to be interviewed by May. The man admitted that he had been buying and selling meth for about a year. Widener said that earlier that week, he had purchased the drug in Ohio.

Widener reported that he sold and sometimes just gave small quantities of meth to various Ripley County residents, from his house, to support his personal use.

Widener also admitted that he had Facebook and Facebook Messenger, but that he did not use them. He is currently registered as a sexually violent predator due to a felony conviction for child molestation, the affidavit noted. As part of Widener’s conditions for the sex offender registry, he is required to report any electronic mail address, instant messaging user name, electronic chat room user name or social networking website user name that he uses or intends to use. A review of Widener’s sex offender registry revealed that he had not disclosed any internet or social media accounts.

Widener was charged with four felonies: dealing in methamphetamine between 1-5 grams, Level 4; dealing in methamphetamine, Level 5; and maintaining a common nuisance – controlled substances, and failure to register as a sex or violent offender, both Level 6.

He signed a negotiated plea agreement, filed in Ripley Circuit Court July 25, that said the defendant pleaded guilty to Level 4 dealing and failing to register as a sex offender in exchange for the other two counts being dismissed.

For each of the remaining counts, Widener agreed to be sentenced to 12 years and 2.5 years in the Indiana Department of Correction, respectively, to be served concurrently, with all suspended to reporting probation.

The probation terms were spelled out in the agreement. Widener will “not commit a criminal act or violate any traffic law; defendant shall complete a substance abuse treatment program ...; any other terms and conditions of probation as determined by the court; defendant may petition for early termination after six years of successful probation if defendant has no violations or pending violations and the state will not object; defendant shall comply with all terms and provisions (of the) Sex Offender Registry under Indiana law.”

A potential sentencing hearing took place Nov. 12 at 2:30 p.m. The judge told Widener’s attorney, William Dillon, North Vernon, “I think you’ve got a tough burden here today.”

Dillon said, “I appreciate your honesty.” He acknowledged that in a court hearing just prior, a Batesville man was sentenced for a similar offense to five years in prison. But “individual situations differ... the facts in certain cases could also be different. I think in this case it has more to do with ... things my client has done” when not incarcerated.

Four witnesses, including the defendant, “have information the court should have before making a decision,” Dillon said.

Joseph Burdette, who has employed Widener at his firm, Burdette Builders, for 14 years, took the stand first. He reported, “Brad shows up every day, works all day long ... knows what to do. He is very respectful to my customers, does exactly what I ask of him.” In fact, “he was working an hour and a half ago.”

When asked if there were any problems with Widener or if he mishandled money, the answers were no. Did he ever show up hung over or under the influence of drugs?” Burdette responded, “No, I wouldn’t put up with that.”

The witness knew Widener when he was growing up in Milan and said his kids “love him to death. He takes them out fishing” at his place and his brother’s. “He’s a good dad.”

Since the charges were filed, the defendant has changed, according to Burdette. “He’s more got his stuff together. He went through a tough time there, losing his kids’ mom. I’m sure that was rough on him.”

Victoria Fuller, 32, Moores Hill, died June 18, 2018, at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital.

“He was depressed after she died. We were constantly trying to keep him busy and keep his spirits up.”

Burdette caught up Widener’s house payments after signing an agreement with him. Payments come out of his paychecks.

The builder contended, “It’s not going to do any good to put him in jail. He loses his place. Those kids, they don’t have their mom. They need ... a parent.”

When Dillon asked if the defendant has a big support system, the answer was yes. “Brad gets along with everybody” and teaches new employees skills.

Kay Russell, Moores Hill, was the next to testify on Widener’s behalf. She explained, “My daughter Victoria was his fiancee. She’s the mother of the (three) children.” The oldest child stays with Russell and her husband 15 minutes away from Widener’s home.

Aware of his background, when she first met him, Russell attended meetings about sexual predators. “We were able to ask questions. I do not have any worries about the kids.” The witness told Dillon she wouldn’t hesitate to ask for custody if she was concerned about their welfare.

She reported Widener takes the kids to sports and fishing, prepares meals and helps with schoolwork, although it’s “not his favorite thing.”

“Have the two of you worked together since your daughter passed away to raise these kids?” Yes, Russell said, adding that the youngest, Jaxon, is “not in the family.”

According to Russell, “It would be devastating if he had to go to jail” after battling depression. “Brad didn’t realize how sick Tori was.” The longtime addict was pregnant and had an idiopathic blood disorder. “She needed to have surgery, but was too sick. ... Not only did he lose Tori, but he had three children to raise on his own. ... That’s what’s important to me, my grandkids. If Brad wasn’t good to them, he wouldn’t be around.”

After Fuller’s death, Russell saw Widener daily. “I knew when he was using.”

She volunteered, “I’m the one who reported him” to police, worried he would overdose. “What if we didn’t do anything and he died? It would be my fault.”

“I don’t know what the answer is to drugs. My daughter was on them for 10 years. I would have done anything to save her, but I couldn’t. ... Putting them in jail isn’t the answer. There has to be a program to help these people.”

The attorney questioned if Widener has changed. “I think Brad has really matured. It’s been a rough time for him in lots and lots of ways... He loves his kids. He would do anything for them.” Since being jailed on the current charges, Russell said she hasn’t observed him being on drugs.

She admitted Widener’s record doesn’t look good. “If you go by that alone, you would think he’s a terrible person. But he’s not like that. Brad really is a good guy. He’s made some mistakes.”

Russell pointed out she used all of her retirement savings to try and save her daughter. The family needs Widener’s income to provide for the children.

The next witness, Crystal Meiggs, who has no criminal history, began dating Widener last November. “I looked up his criminal record. I was a lot worried” until he explained the circumstances. “He’s not the person he is on paper,” she said, tearing up.

They live together now and she’s helping raise the kids.

Dillon questioned, “How would you rate Brad as a father?” Meiggs answered, “I’ve never seen a father so hands-on as he is.” Widener makes their breakfasts and lays out school clothes. “We’re always doing things as a family.”

She has never seen her boyfriend under the influence of drugs and would know the signs. “I have a brother who was an addict and my (adult) children’s father as well.”

Both Russell and Meiggs insisted they would not tolerate him using drugs and would turn Widener in if he did to protect the children.

Meiggs believed Widener could adhere to proposed probation terms because “he’s walking those lines now.”

Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Marshall noted a recent judge-ordered drug screen that was negative corroborated what she said.

The judge asked Meiggs, “Where’s Jaxson now?” In the care of a foster family in Kentucky, after Fuller’s sister looked after him initially following his mother’s death.

King observed the son, 10, “has lived with the Russells for quite some time.” According to Meiggs, “He feels comfortable at his grandma and grandpa’s.” When stayed with Widener, “he felt weird because his mom wasn’t there.” The middle child, an 8-year-old girl, stays mostly with her dad and Meiggs, visiting her grandparents.

The judge quizzed, “Are you aware he has a history of violating his probation twice after doing eight years in prison” for child molesting? Yes.

The judge asked her if the defendant’s an addict. She didn’t know, but Widener told her he would benefit from a program. King pointed out, “He’s been out of jail for over a year, and hasn’t gone to a program yet.”

It was Widener’s turn to testify. Dillon asked if he was surprised Russell was the one who turned him in to police. said, “She did it for the goodwill of the kids. It kind of hurt me.”

Does he see his son on a daily basis? “Pretty much. I took him to a Purdue basketball game not too long ago.”

The attorney asked about his drug history. The 41-year-old reported he used meth for 9 months before being arrested. “Tori would bring it home.” The habit grew from once or twice on the weekend to two or three times a week. Prior to that, alcohol was the only substance he used.

Would counseling help with the drug addiction? The defendant replied, “I don’t crave it, I don’t want it, but the depression is still there. The anxiety is always there still.” Widener confessed he was under a lot of stress: “Tori’s death, these new charges,” and the worry his kids would be taken away from him. “If it wasn’t for my kids, I wouldn’t care if I lived or not, to be honest with you.”

Dillon pointed out, “You’ve agreed to 12 years of probation. You know if you slip up, Judge King could send you to 12 years of jail.” Widener realized the consequences and admitted that although he disobeyed probation requirements before it would be different this time. “I got more to live for, I guess. I’m more mature. I haven’t had an alcoholic beverage in ... a year and a half.” He stays away from alcohol so he can make good choices about avoiding drugs.

The defendant told the judge, “I ask you to give me one more chance” to prove he’s a good citizen.

King said it’s not often a person convicted of a sex crime who then admits to dealing meth requests a sentence of probation. “I’ve read this case with a fine-tooth comb.”

“This is not about an addiction or about possession. This is about dealing. ... You’ve essentially had Jaxon in a meth house.”

The judge concluded, “I wish it was justice to accept this, but this plea agreement is not justice.”

There was a long pause. “You may be worthy of some leniency, but you’re not worthy of a fully probated sentence.”

King rejected the plea agreement. “I don’t think that comes as a surprise.”

He set a jury trial date of March 10, 2020, at 9 a.m., asking Dillon and Marshall, “In lieu of that, present another plea agreement.”

The judge reported, “Emotionally, I feel sorry for you and I feel sorry for these people,” pointing to about 10 supporters in the courtroom, including his mother and co-workers.

In the hallway afterwards, Widener said he was “a little disappointed” with the outcome.

An extended version of this story is online.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-717-3113.