Defendant in fentanyl case jailed after overdose, failed drug test

The lights of a police vehicle are shown in a June 24, 2021 AP file photo. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The lights of a police vehicle are shown in a June 24, 2021 AP file photo. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One of two twin brothers who pleaded guilty to involvement in a fentanyl distribution ring based in Little Rock was ordered to jail Monday to await sentencing after he failed drug and alcohol screens and overdosed on fentanyl while staying at a motel.

Mathew Papez Zuerlein, 31, of Little Rock was indicted in 2019 along with Clifton Williams and 21 others -- including his twin brother Andrew Zuerlein -- on charges related to a fentanyl trafficking conspiracy headed by Williams. In October 2019, Zuerlein was indicted on one count of conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. He pleaded guilty last November to a reduced count of using a telephone in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime -- for which he faces up to four years in prison -- and was allowed to remain on pretrial release pending sentencing.

Both brothers had been up for sentencing in July, but both tested positive for marijuana use prior to that hearing, so U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker postponed the hearing while allowing both brothers to remain free on bond.

According to court records, between Jan. 1 and July 30, 2022, Mathew Zuerlein failed seven drug screens, testing positive for marijuana six times, positive for fentanyl twice, positive for alcohol use once and submitted one urine specimen that was diluted. Then, on Feb. 14, he overdosed on fentanyl while staying at a Little Rock motel and was taken to an emergency room for treatment. A week later, the U.S. attorney's office filed motions for an arrest warrant and revocation of his bond.

On Friday, Mathew Zuerlein turned himself in to the Little Rock FBI field office and was booked into the Pulaski County jail, said his attorney, Blake Hendrix of Little Rock.

Baker noted that a pre-sentencing report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office had been completed as a precursor to sentencing but that no date had been set for sentencing.

"We can take up that matter, but first let's talk about what to do with respect to Mr. Zuerlein moving forward," Baker said.

Baker noted that Zuerlein had struggled with substance use throughout the duration of the case and said she had three options to consider: detention, residential substance abuse treatment, "or you get released on some other conditions and I'm open to suggestions from both parties."

Hendrix said he had located bed space at an inpatient facility in Searcy and a chemical-free living facility in Little Rock. However, he said, one issue was Zuerlein's employment.

"Matthew is recently employed in a good job with an understanding employer," he said. "It would be beneficial for him to keep that job, but obviously you would want him under some pretty severe restrictions."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benecia Moore, although not making a specific case for detention, noted that several release options had been tried since Zuerlein's indictment, without success.

"He has been in inpatient rehab ... outpatient rehab, etc. and yet we find ourselves here culminating in his overdose a couple of weeks ago," she said. "I don't know to what extent we're trying the same things and expecting different results ... It's his life at stake. We want to get him to and through this sentencing hearing and work on his future, but we are concerned about his safety, the safety of his baby and wife and any others in his small community."

"I understand addiction, I really do," Baker said. "I'll be very candid, the timeline with the new job and the understanding employer, trying to square that with the events from the police report, all that seems to have been going on at the same time."

Hendrix said he shared Baker's concerns and said he believed Zuerlein's missteps were fueled by drug addiction. He said the overdose may have been a turning point.

"The overdose has just flat scared him to death," Hendrix said.

"This is his first experience sitting in the Pulaski County jail, and he expressed to me today what an eye-opener that is as well. So, there's already been some consequence to this."

Following a brief recess, Baker returned to say the most important task at hand was to ensure that Zuerlein would make it to his sentencing in good health and sound mind. She said although the pre-sentence report was completed, the case could not progress until a sentencing date was set.

"So here's what I'm going to say about this whole situation," Baker announced. "As the pressure built for the first plea, we scuttled it because you came in and tested positive."

Despite that, she said, she allowed Zuerlein to remain on bond, but now she would have to order him into custody.

"I need you to stay healthy, and I need you to stay clean and [that] we resolve this pending sentencing with no other slip-ups," Baker said. "The way to do that is to keep you detained."

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