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Drug dealer gets 17 years

Kuhnke sentenced in fentanyl death

By Scott Bellile

A New London man will spend 17 years behind bars for distributing a lethal dose of fentanyl to his cousin last spring.

Chief Judge William Griesbach sentenced Tyler A. Kuhnke Monday, March 26, at the United States District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin in Green Bay.

Kuhnke, 27, avoided a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 20 years in federal court by pleading guilty to one count of first-degree reckless homicide by delivery of drugs and accepting a plea agreement.

By signing the plea agreement, Kuhnke legally acknowledges that he distributed what he thought was heroin but was actually fentanyl to his 23-year-old cousin Johnathon D. Ernst of New London on June 3, 2017.

Furthermore, Kuhnke agrees he did so despite being aware of the dangers of controlled substances as an experienced drug dealer – including having caused Ernst to overdose once before.

Kuhnke also provided Ernst methadone in December 2016 that, according to the plea agreement, resulted in a “serious overdose.” It was reversed using the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone.

Once Kuhnke is released from prison in his mid-40s, he will spend another eight years on supervised release, more than the mandatory minimum of three years’ supervised release.

Kuhnke spent seven months in jail prior to his sentencing. He was initially charged in Outagamie County Circuit Court in September when a $100,000 cash bond was set.

In October, the case was dismissed from state court and moved to federal court. New London police said the transfer occurred because the case involved drug dealers in multiple jurisdictions. Court documents indicate Kuhnke obtained the fentanyl from a source in Oshkosh.

According to court documents, Kuhnke drove Ernst to Oshkosh to pick up the fentanyl on June 3, 2017. On the ride home, Ernst ingested some of it. Ernst used more at home that evening.

Ernst’s fiancee discovered him dead on the couch the following morning. The Fond du Lac County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death was fentanyl toxicity.

The homicide case was scheduled to be heard before a grand jury in December, but the defense and prosecution removed the trial from the calendar and reached a plea agreement in January.

During Monday’s sentencing hearing, the late Ernst’s fiancee testified that the wedding was supposed to happen next summer. She said it “kills” her every day to think about what life may have been if she could have married Ernst, bought a house with him and started a family.

“Every night when I go to bed, that’s all I see in my mind is him laying dead, over this stupid drug,” she said of Ernst.

Ernst’s fiancee called out Kuhnke for almost killing Ernst with the methadone in 2016 and for holding a gun to her head once before.

She accused Kuhnke of knowingly selling fentanyl to his cousin and following through on a “selfish” deal to make money.

“I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but from my history with Tyler, in my eyes he is not a good human being,” she said. “I don’t have the words to describe the disgust I have toward him.”

Kuhnke’s attitude during his last seven months in confinement was a “joke,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Humble, the prosecution in this case.

Humble said Kuhnke tried to obtain narcotics from outside of jail, jokingly told a family member to give his mother a gun so he would have a firearm when he is released from prison, and listened to a heroin user nod off over the phone.

Thomas Erickson, Kuhnke’s attorney, said he felt the sentence is too lengthy. He said he practiced law during the crack epidemic when criminals got incarcerated for excessive periods of time and he worried Kuhnke’s sentence is an example of the justice system sliding back into that tendency, especially during an era when the U.S. president is calling for the death penalty for drug dealers.

Ernst was not murdered by gunshot, Erickson said. He died because he wanted the drug.

The focus should be on rehabilitation, Erickson said. Griesbach said he did not disagree with Erickson’s point but he has yet to see treatment work effectively. He pointed to methadone as an example, which Griesbach said transfers a person’s addiction from one drug to another and, in Kuhnke’s case, just became another drug to sell.

Kuhnke apologized to his family, Ernst’s family and Ernst’s fiancee for the death.

Kuhnke told Griesbach his mind has been “more clear” in his seven months of forced sobriety.

“You’re physically locked up while in prison but you’re not mentally locked up,” Griesbach told Kuhnke. He urged Kuhnke to spend his time in prison reading, embarking on self-exploration and helping society to find a way out of the drug epidemic.

“Once you’re free of this addiction, I hope that that ability to shine through will prevail,” Griesbach said.

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