ALBION — Tony J. Skaggs didn’t get prison time Tuesday, instead, the judge gave him what he deemed a “loaded gun to your head.”

That hypothetical gun is loaded with a 12-year sentence, and it will be up to Skaggs himself whether he ultimately shoots himself with it and sends himself to the slammer.

But after a lengthy two-hour sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Noble Superior Court 1 Judge Robert Kirsch gave Skaggs a chance that he didn’t give his father, Tony L. Skaggs, during a similar sentencing hearing last week for the same meth-dealing conspiracy the entire family was caught up in.

Tony J. Skaggs, 31, known as T.J., and his attorney Seth Tipton made their case Tuesday that for the first time, he’s been clean off meth and making real strides to turn his life around.

T.J. Skaggs, who has only a third-grade education and was giving methamphetamine for the first time by his father at the age of just 6 years old, didn’t shy away from admitting he had been a lifelong addict and didn’t deny his role in the meth-dealing ring he was involved in with his mother, father and sister.

Facing sentencing for a Level 2 felony conspiracy to deal methamphetamine and Level 6 felony receiving stolen property charges he pleaded to, Tipton presented copious testimony from witnesses to show that T.J. Skaggs was, for the first time, cleaning himself up.

The July 2019 arrests of the five members of the conspiracy came after a yearlong investigation by the Noble Drug Task Force, which now includes officers from the Kendallville and Ligonier police departments and the Noble County Sheriff’s Department.

The conspiracy charge was filed because “they all agreed to sell drugs, and took various steps toward accomplishing that goal,” Noble County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Mowery said in July 2019. Evidence gathered in the case suggested they were importing as much as a pound of meth per week from South Bend and then dealing it in and around Noble County.

Kitty Hasse, 55, T.J. Skaggs’ mother, said she originally started dealing meth in order to get her son stop cooking it. The conspiracy also involved T.J. Skaggs’ father Tony L. Skaggs and his sister, Kursty Fugate, as well as a local dealer Pedro Macias.

T.J. Skaggs, who testified at his own sentencing hearing on Tuesday, said he never thought he would get clean and doomed himself to someday die from his meth use.

“I didn’t get clean or think there was any hope I’d get clean,” T.J. Skaggs said. “I thought I would use until the day I died. And that’s rough.

“Even though I knew it was killing me, I couldn’t stop,” he said.

That almost happened shortly after his arrest in 2019, when while on pre-trial release in this case, he was found unconscious in his home high on meth.

T.J. Skaggs thanked Kirsch for revoking his release at that time and throwing him back in jail. That incident started him on the path to finally trying to kick his lifelong addiction.

“You locked me up and it’s exactly what I needed at the time,” he told Kirsch.

In the two years since, T.J. Skaggs got involved with meth recovery programs locally and has stuck with them, graduating and continuing to help other enrollees in their own journeys.

Christina White Gomez, who runs the Kick the Addiction program that Skaggs took part in and completed, said that T.J. Skaggs helped her son, also an addict, when he overdosed on fentanyl in a bathroom while at a treatment house. After that, he’s become like part of her family and continues to assist other people working through programs in whatever way he can.

“Luckily, T.J. got arrested,” she said. “He changed.”

Noble County Community Corrections Director Danyel Wagner recounted the violation where they “thought he was dead in his home” and brought him back to jail. Over time, T.J. Skaggs went from noncompliant with his release to becoming increasing compliant, although not without some bumps along the way for alcohol use violations.

T.J. Skaggs said he has turned to drink occasionally to deal with his problems instead of going back to meth, and acknowledged that he shouldn’t.

While he’s been getting clean, T.J. Skaggs recognized that he could be facing serious prison time and that’s hung over his head, making recovery even more challenging but still he’s pursued it. He’s gotten involved in the lives of his four children again and he’s been holding down a steady job, earning more than $40 per hour recently.

Tipton argued that all signs pointed to T.J. Skaggs making real changes in his life and said that while there was a price to pay for his actions, he asked that Kirsch give him “a sentence of community supervision at the highest level,” an opportunity to continue to contribute and continue to work on his recovery outside of the Department of Corrections.

Noble County Prosecutor Jim Mowery took a less optimistic view, looking back on a very, very long criminal history accumulated by T.J. Skaggs since even before became an adult.

Those past offenses, numerous in number, included mostly low-level felony and misdemeanor counts including driving while intoxicated, resisting law enforcement and possession of methamphetamine among others.

Throughout the years, T.J. Skaggs had never sought to alter his path and had violated alternative sentencing options numerous times.

“What you have is a fairly long and detailed history of failure on community corrections,” Mowery said. “We believe history is the best indication of future behavior.”

Mowery instead sought a 17 1/2-year sentence for the meth conspiracy charge, with 10 years in prison and 7 1/2 suspended, as well as two years with 18 months suspended on the lesser felony.

Kirsch, who is retiring from the bench at the end of this month, got emotional in one of the final major sentencing hearing he’ll tackle as Superior Court 1 judge.

“I’m glad I’m retiring,” Kirsch said, his voice cracking. “These are tough, These are very tough.”

In weighing the crime with the testimony about the changes T.J. Skaggs has been making in his personal life, Kirsch said that offenders must face accountability and punishment, but if the ultimate goal is rehabilitation, those goals must be sometimes tempered.

Kirsch said he did believe T.J. Skaggs has worked hard to address his addiction and said ultimately, he’d like to see a Tony J. Skaggs who becomes a functioning, contributing member of society for the rest of his life.

“I don’t know if I’m doing you any favors or not,” Kirsch said, prefacing his sentence by calling it a “a loaded gun to your head.”

Kirsch delivered a sentence of 12 years, all suspended except for for 1,756 days, with 296 days credit for time served. The remaining 1,460 days, four years, would be split between two years direct commit to the county’s work release program — T.J. Skaggs had been denied admittance to work release but Kirsch overruled it — followed by two years home detention and three years of probation.

For the Level 6 felony count, he was given 296 days with 296 days credit for time served on pre-trial release.

Kirsch handed down that sentence with a warning that any violation of any of those programs could result in him back in court and facing the balance of his suspended sentence. And if that happens, Kirsch won’t be the one on the bench to hear it. He expressed concern about the alcohol use T.J. Skaggs talked about, reminding him that drinking any amount at any time is a violation if, or more like when, he gets caught.

“That’s a loaded gun I’ve given you,” Kirsch said. “Will you be foolish enough, stupid enough, weak enough to pull the trigger?”

T.J. Skaggs was also ordered to complete a substance abuse evaluation and any ordered treatment, ordered to complete at least three addiction support ground meetings per week, fined $100 and ordered to pay court costs.

T.J. Skaggs sentencing brings to a close the cases against the six people arrested when police busted their meth ring in July 2019.

Police began to investigate a Brimfield property where the Skaggs resided as part of a burglary investigation. Officers were later told by multiple inmates at the Noble County Jail that they had either worked for or provided stolen property to Tony L. Skaggs in exchange for methamphetamine.

Police began monitoring that residence, a pickup truck used by the Skaggs and another residence in Ligonier they visited often as part of a wider narcotics investigation.

According to court documents filed in the case, Tony L. Skaggs allegedly admitted to detectives that he would drive a companion to South Bend to purchase a pound of methamphetamine roughly once per week.

Fugate allegedly told investigators Hasse, Tony L. Skaggs’ ex-wife, was supplied the drugs by the unnamed companion, and that Hasse and Tony J. Skaggs were “in charge of everything,” with Hasse allegedly controlling who T.J. Skaggs sells to.

In court Tuesday, T.J. Skaggs said he took over the operation for a short time when his mother stopped after the death of her mother, but was not normally running the ring and only did so in substitute to ensure that he and others kept getting their fix.

Hasse told investigators she had been dealing for more than a year. She said she got involved in dealing methamphetamine so her son, T.J., would “stop cooking meth.” Hasse, who was not using methamphetamine, oversaw operations of the ring.

Mowery said initially, investigators believed only one or two of the family members were involved in the sale of illegal drugs, but found out through the investigation that “They all were,” Mowery said.

At approximately 5:30 a.m. July 8, 2019, the Indiana State Police SWAT Team executed a search warrant at 1015 W. Third St., Ligonier, where five people were taken into custody.

Hasse and three minor children were located sitting on a bed in Hasse’s upstairs bedroom. Police allegedly seized a pouch, located under the headboard, between the mattress and the wall, which contained approximately 40 grams of methamphetamine and several small, clean plastic baggies, digital scales and an amount of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana.

Tony L. Skaggs and T.J. Skaggs were located downstairs. Police allegedly located a cache of firearms, including rifles and handguns, located in a mechanical closet in the utility room/bathroom area. On top of the firearms was in a black backpack, which allegedly contained methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and marijuana. One of the firearms had been reported as stolen to the Albion Town Marshal’s Office.

Fugate, Bradley Davis and a juvenile were located in Fugate’s bedroom. Methamphetamine, a large amount of small, clean, plastic baggies, several smoking devices, scales and hypodermic needles were allegedly recovered from that room.

When a confidential informant went to purchase meth at Macias’ home that, he said he did not have that quantity on hand. Officers then followed Macias to the home shared by the Tony J. Skaggs, Fugate and Hasse, resulting in the warrant being issued for that Third Street address.

Hasse and Fugate were sentenced last week, receiving no additional jail time beyond time served.

Hasse received nine year, with three years to be served on community corrections and the rest suspended. Fugate also received nine years, with two years probation and seven suspended.

Macias and Davis also received no additional jail time, with Macias’ sentence suspended after receiving 734 days credit for time served and Davis getting nine years, two years probation and seven years suspended.

Tony J. Skaggs, who prosecutors pinned as the true “leader” of the ring, was sentenced last week to 17 1/2 years in prison, with 10 years suspended and the 7 1/2 remaining to be served in the Department of Correction.

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