Desperate to be heard at his sentencing, Bruce Holder disrupted a federal courtroom Wednesday complaining that his trial was a lie built on faulty evidence. At one point he stood up and walked to the exit door.
“I’ve had enough of this,” he told the deputy before he was convinced to calm down.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Arguello gave him life in prison anyway.
“Mr. Holder, I have spent 100’s of hours on your case,” said Arguello. She explained that a life sentence for the 2017 fentanyl-involved death of Jonathan Ellington was sufficient and told Holder that he should save his breath for an appeal.
Holder’s punishment is the longest sentence ever given for a fentanyl-involved death in a federal Colorado case. Prosecutors say the 57-year-old Grand Junction man was the patriarch of a booming fentanyl business for which he recruited his own children and lifelong friends to help sell for him. The Denver Gazette wrote a series on his network entitled "Fentanyl Family."
Prosecutors say Holder made dozens of trips to Mexico where he would transport thousands of fentanyl pills in zip-lock bags hidden behind his glove compartment. To ensure that he wouldn't get caught, he would wait days before he would tear open the dashboard to get them out, according to testimony from his trial. Investigators said he paid $12 wholesale per pill, but they were sold on the street for as much as $30 apiece.
Holder was convicted in April 2021 of distribution resulting in death and of a second charge of distribution resulting in serious bodily injury along with two other related charges.
Prosecutors contend that Holder supplied the deadly pills which killed Ellington, 30, a marijuana dispensary worker and Aspen hotel bellman who bought them from a co-worker a couple of days after Christmas 2017. He was found slumped over in his room by a roommate Dec. 28, a syringe stuck in his leg.
Though Holder was only charged with Ellington’s death, federal prosecutors insist that he was responsible for at least eight others which were clustered together over a 17-month stretch in 2017 and 2018 as fentanyl was first starting to appear in Mesa County. At that time, fentanyl was new to the streets and investigators believe he had cornered the market on the drug.
Before Holder had his courtroom meltdown, families who gave their victims’ statements asked the judge to send him to prison for life.
In a 12-minute video shown on court monitors, Ellington’s parents, Dave and Cheryl Ellington, described a son who had dreams of becoming a doctor, but became hooked on oxycodone after a surgery.
They said he moved with friends to Colorado to get a new start, but had a relapse three days after Christmas 2017.
“Bruce Holder is a predator. He is evil. He will destroy and kill again,” Dave Ellington said as his wife wiped tears from her face. “He should remain incarcerated for the remainder of his life.”
Ellington’s last text to his parents came on Christmas Day from a ski lift. It said, “Merry Christmas from above the clouds.”
Andrea Thomas sobbed as she shared the chaos the night she got the call that her daughter, Ashley Romero, had died from ingesting half of a fentanyl pill. Her boyfriend bought the drugs at a local Burger King. He also overdosed and then committed suicide the next day.
Just behind her in the gallery, Romero’s 13-year-old son Daniel held a photo of her.
“My daughter will never see her son graduate. She will never see his children,” Romero said through tears.
Holder was not charged in Romero’s death, but investigators believe he sold the original batch of pills which eventually made their way to Romero through a couple of layers of resales.
As he waited to speak, Holder intently watched the row where Romero and her family were sitting the gallery from behind black-rimmed glassed. He faced them, his hands clasped in front of him.
“The people who lost their lives? Bless them all, I have great remorse for that, but I didn’t do it," he said.
His attorneys argued that that he only supplied the pills to various foot soldiers who then fanned out to sell them. During his statement, defense attorney Patrick Ridley brought up the fact that Holder graduated from high school and trade school even though he never knew his parents and was “bounced around to foster families and group homes.”
He was tried in federal court because the State of Colorado did not have a distribution resulting in death statute in 2018 when he was arrested. Dan Rubinstein, 21st judicial district attorney who would have prosecuted Holder, kept an eye on the case from his office.
“Mesa County is grateful to the United States Attorney’s Office for prosecuting this case in federal court while Colorado went through the legislative process of adopting a similar state version of the crime,” he said.
The war on fentanyl appears to be gaining traction. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Rocky Mountain Division announced this week that 2022 was a record year for fentanyl seizures with more than 5.8 million potentially deadly doses. The division covers Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
Holder’s life sentence eclipsed the previous milestone sentence which was given under a week ago. Nathaniel Corser, 23, of Colorado Springs, received a 20 year federal prison sentence last Thursday after being convicted of selling a man two fentanyl pills at a Colorado Springs park on July 4, 2021. Kaeden Norlander died after taking two blue pills which he thought were Percocet.
The point was not lost on U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, Cole Finegan.
“I want to reaffirm the commitment of our office to go after the predators and criminals who are making and selling this poison to our children," he said. "While we’ve reached this moment, this battle will continue."