Nicole Hopkins, the Pierre woman who says she was with Nathan Thoe when he was shot dead Jan. 13 by federal agents, faces a possible sentence of life in prison after pleading not guilty last week to a charge of conspiracy to deal methamphetamine.
Hopkins, 35, was arraigned in federal court in Pierre on Thursday, May 16, and pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Moreno.
The same day in the same courtroom, Andrew Bunch, 29, was arraigned on the same meth-dealing charge, plus a count of being illegally in possession of a handgun.
A federal grand jury indicted Bunch and Hopkins on May 14.
Both counts carry a maximum penalty, on conviction, of life in prison and a $10 million fine, according to a news release Friday from U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons.
The charges against Bunch include that in November 2018, he had possessed a Colt .22 cal. Semi-automatic Woodsman Sport pistol, “knowing he had been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year and knowing he was an unlawful user of and addicted to a controlled substance . . .”
Bunch also faces drug-related charges in state court in Pierre but his court hearing scheduled for Tuesday, May 14, was canceled shortly before the hearing, likely because of the federal court proceedings.
Bunch remains in the Hughes County Jail where he’s been since early January.
Although Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Dilges opposed Hopkins’ request to be released pending trial, Moreno agreed on Thursday to release her, under certain conditions, to the custody of her father, who lives in central South Dakota, according to court documents.
Bunch is represented by Pierre attorney Bradley Schreiber; Hopkins by Jason Tupman and Edward Albright, federal public defenders.
The arraignments of Hopkins and Bunch give the first official outline of the wide-ranging federal investigation into alleged drug and related crimes involving Thoe, who was killed in January during an attempted arrest.
A local prosecutor in southwest Minnesota earlier this year told the Capital Journal that Thoe and Hopkins and Bunch and others were suspected of stealing vehicles and trafficking in firearms and drugs in Fort Pierre and in Minnesota and other states and that law enforcement agencies had traded warnings about the group being dangerous.
The arraignments of Hopkins and Bunch apparently are linked to a drug investigation that led to the shooting death of Thoe Jan. 13.
Bunch, 29, has been in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre since early January, facing several meth-related charges from a traffic stop in which a police officer said he found drugs.
Bunch had been arrested in December at the Walmart store in Pierre and released on bond. He was living in Sioux Falls last year and moved to Faith, South Dakota, a few months ago, which puzzled residents of the small city, the Faith police chief told the Capital Journal.
The FBI has not said much about Thoe, except that he was shot to death during an altercation at a rest stop east of Chamberlain on Jan. 13.
Thoe grew up in Hortonville, Wisconsin, southwest of Green Bay. A relative of Thoe told the Capital Journal it seemed like federal agents used more than enough force at his arrest, leaving Thoe’s body with a dozen or more bullet wounds. The relative saw his body after an autopsy in Sioux Falls.
Hopkins told the Capital Journal shortly after Thoe’s death that she was with him on Jan. 13 when they were stopped by law enforcement. She was out of the vehicle on the other side from Thoe when he was shot, she said.
Hopkins said Thoe had a handgun but she didn’t know if he had it in his hand. She said it sounded as if federal officers fired at least 10 rounds at Thoe.
“On the evening of Jan. 13, federal officers from more than one agency attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Thoe,” an FBI news release stated at the time. “During the arrest, Thoe was shot and killed.”
The FBI has said little else about the case and had not mentioned Hopkins as part of the investigation connected to Thoe.
Hopkins told the Capital Journal in January she knew the FBI was watching her.
The federal charges allege Bunch and Hopkins, beginning about March 1, 2018, “knowingly and intentionally,” conspired with “persons known and unknown,” to distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount” of meth.
The charges allege Hopkins was conspiring about until she was charged this month; and that Bunch continued the conspiracy until about Feb. 1; he was jailed in early January.
Thoe had been living in Fort Pierre at the time of his death.
An FBI spokesman told the Capital Journal Thoe is the only person shot to death by federal agents in the state since an incident in January 2015 in Sioux Falls.