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Merrill couple sentenced for transporting marijuana from California

MADISON, WIS. – Scott C. Blader, United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, announced that U.S. District Judge William M. Conley sentenced Joel Helding, 32, Merrill, Wisconsin, on October 10 to 18 years in federal prison, and Valerie Flores-Helding, 25, also of Merrill, on October 5 to 10 years in federal prison, for possessing more than 300 pounds of marijuana with the intent to distribute it.

Valerie Flores-Helding pleaded guilty to the drug charge on July 25, 2018.  Joel Helding pleaded guilty on August 14, 2018, to the drug charge and an additional charge of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  The two defendants are husband and wife.

On January 18, 2018, Marathon County and Drug Enforcement Administration investigators, with the assistance of the Wisconsin State Patrol, apprehended Helding and Flores-Helding in Trempealeau County.  The defendants were driving two vehicles in tandem, which together contained hundreds of pounds of marijuana that they were bringing to Wisconsin from California.  They each fled the attempted traffic stops, attempting to evade law enforcement by driving at high speeds and then on foot, but they were apprehended a short time later.

In addition to the marijuana, two handguns were found in Helding’s possession.  Both Helding and Flores-Helding faced minimum mandatory sentences of 10 years based on the amount of marijuana and their prior drug convictions.  Helding has two prior felony drug convictions, and Flores-Helding has one prior conviction.

The charges against Helding and Flores-Helding were the result of an investigation conducted by the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, Wausau and Merrill Police Departments, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Wisconsin State Patrol.  Prosecution of the case has been handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Anderson. 

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