OSSIPEE — A Tamworth man was sentenced on Oct. 4 to serve 4 years in state prison for possession of a drug used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants. He was also sentenced on an older charge of possession of heroin.
Eliot Steele, 33, formerly of Tamworth, was sentenced last Friday in Carroll County Superior Court to 1 1/2 to 3 years in the New Hampshire State Prison for possessing carfentanil. He had been convicted of possessing carfentanil, subsequent offense, on July 31, following a jury trial.
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid approximately 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
According to the Department of Justice, carfentanil is a "tranquilizing agent for elephants and other large mammals." The drug can be absorbed through the skin or even inhaled.
Steele may earn up to six months off the minimum of his sentence if he completes substance abuse treatment while incarcerated.
On a motion to impose a suspended sentence on possession of heroin conviction, the court sentenced him to a one year in prison, a sentence to run after to his sentence on the carfentanil charge.
"That is not just an opioid of high additive potential; it's far, far more dangerous than fentanyl, and fentanyl is far more dangerous than heroin," said Judge Amy Ignatius, adding that carfentanil cases are rare and the drug is not intended for human consumption.
"We're fortunate in this case no one was killed ... which could have easily have happened."
However, Ignatius said she thought the prosecution's proposed sentences, which would have totaled four to eight years, were too harsh. On the other hand, she found defense attorney Diana Bolander's suggestion that Steele get a deferred sentence after completing a lengthy treatment program of six months to a year to be too lenient.
Ignatius let Steele out on bail after sentencing. But she revoked it after a mid-August incident in which a man answering Steele's description was found slumped over in his mother's truck. The man reportedly got into a dust-up with responders before fleeing the scene.
Subsequently, Steele was given a bed at Riverbank House, a residential treatment facility in Laconia. Bolander and Steele both said he was thriving there and hoped Ignatius would allow that to continue.
The charge against Steele stemmed from the execution of a search warrant by police on May 4, 2017, on a vehicle in which Steele was a passenger while his wife, Nina, was driving.
The search was the result of a traffic stop made after police were alerted to a couple who appeared intoxicated at the Dunkin Donuts store on Route 16 in Ossipee.
A substance, later determined to be carfentanil, was found in the glove box of the vehicle. Drug-use related items were found throughout the vehicle as well.
Nina Steele's case was resolved with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor. She was given probation.
"The state's case against Nina Steele was frankly not as strong as the state's case against Eliot Steele," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Danielle Sakowski.
Sakowski said he had a lengthy criminal record and had been given deals in the past.
But Bolander suggested giving long-term treatment to Steele would be more productive than punishing him over and over.
At her husband's sentencing, Nina Steele addressed the court, urging Ignatius to show mercy. She said they fell in love with each other at first sight in August 2010. She said "horrible life experiences" as well as "undiagnosed mental illnesses" led them to self-medicate.
She said Eliot grew up in a loving home with a teacher mother and carpenter father who both farmed. According to her, they split up over his brother's mental illness. Then, when he was 14, his parents sent him to a "boot camp for troubled teens in West Virginia," Nina Steele said. On a winter hike, some of the students killed themselves, she said.
"I want to share something I would have shared under oath at Eliot's trial had I been called," said Nina Steele. "Eliot did not know there were drugs in the car. He didn't know there were drugs, period. Those were mine, and that's why I pled guilty."
Ignatius replied to that statement, by saying it was "remarkable" and "disturbing" to her that Nina Steele allowed the man she loves to "take the blame for something that he did not do."
His mother, Helen Steele, a former member of the Tamworth School Board, said her son has struggled with learning disabilities and drug addiction.
"He has made poor choices, suffered through a difficult divorce, seen what no one should ever have to see; his brother get extremely sick, a suicide, a drug overdose, " said Helen Steele.
Eliot Steele said he has been making progress in treatment where he felt supported. In fact, he said at morning meditation at 4:30 a.m. many said a prayer for him before he left for court.
"It's my fear that going back to prison or jail will put me back into a place (mentally) that I've been spending the last few years trying to get away from," said Steele.