Major drug dealer gets 30 years

Ilsa Matthes | Daily Press Kenneth Brunke, right, whispers to his attorney Derek Swajanen during his sentencing Thursday.

MANISTIQUE — A former murder suspect and confessed drug dealer was back in court Thursday to be sentenced for operating a large-scale cocaine distribution system responsible for pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine into the Manistique area.

Kenneth Daniel Brunke, 47, formerly of Manistique and currently assigned to the Alger Correctional Facility in Munising, pleaded guilty on April 3 to one count of possession with intent to deliver 1,000 grams or more of cocaine, one count of conspiracy to deliver 1,000 grams or more of cocaine, and one count of delivery of less than 50 grams of cocaine. The plea was made unexpectedly during a pre-trial conference held in preparation of a two-week jury trial, which was cancelled as a result.

At Brunke’s sentencing Thursday, 11th Circuit Court Judge William Carmody sentenced Brunke above the minimum state guidelines for the two charges relating to the conspiracy and distribution of 1,000 grams or more of cocaine. The state guidelines recommended 11 to 30 years in prison for the charges, but Carmody ruled that Brunke should spend between 18 and 30 years and pay $250,000 for each count, plus state and administrative costs of $566. He received 752 days credit for time already served on the conspiracy charge.

On the lesser charge of delivery of less than 50 grams of cocaine, Brunke was sentenced to 752 days in jail and credited for 752 days already served. He was charged $25,000 in fines, plus an addition $68 for state costs.

All three sentences will be served concurrently. At the time of sentencing, Brunke was already serving three years and four months to five years for obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer during a violent crime investigation.

The court was obligated to disregard his prior crimes, which stemmed from 2015 when he was initially charged with the murders of sisters Heather Aldrich, 25, and Carrie Nelson, 31, both of the Newberry area, and Jody Hutchinson, 42, of Gould City. Brunke was cleared of the murder charges when codefendant Garry J.C. Cordell, 48, confessed to the murders.

Cordell is now serving three life sentences in the Michigan Reformatory Prison. A third defendant in that case, Marietta Carlson, died while in police custody from endocarditis, a heart condition commonly seen in intravenous drug users.

However, fully separating the two cases was difficult, as much of the evidence and testimony related to the murders was also key to showing how Brunke’s cocaine operation worked, and both Cordell and others related to the murder trial were identified as coconspirators in the cocaine operation.

“When I can’t completely keep them separate is today, and that’s here at sentencing, and why? I’ll tell you why. Three people died and a fourth one died in jail. Those deaths… pulled the curtain back on what was really going on here, and what was it? We’re talking about nearly two decades of cocaine distribution in Schoolcraft County,” said Schoolcraft County Prosecutor Timothy Nobel, explaining that in all other aspects he had worked to keep the two cases separate.

According to testimony from Cordell and other witnesses during the triple homicide investigation, Brunke would acquire one kilogram of cocaine a month on average from Chicago during one three year period. That cocaine would then be separated into smaller portions and sold through dealers in Schoolcraft County. Cordell was one of Brunke’s users and dealers, who would sell almost exclusively to women, and frequently purchased drugs from Brunke on credit.

“Then he’d sell it, keep a little bit for himself, and whatever woman he was with at the time, they would get high, and then when he would get into debt problems, he would essentially try to sell women into service for Mr. Brunke for the debt,” said Nobel, adding that Aldrich had been approached by Cordell in this manner.

Based on witness accounts, Brunke had been running his cocaine operation in Schoolcraft County for more than 20 years. Nobel estimated that at one kilogram of cocaine a month, Brunke was making between $25,000 and $50,000 in profits each month.

Multiple accounts given by witnesses during both the homicide and cocaine cases indicated that Aldrich had stolen cocaine from Brunke prior to her murder, and that Cordell had been with Carlson at Brunke’s home the day of the murders to guard the home against theft. Despite admitting to offering Aldrich morphine by text message to get her to come to his home, Brunke claimed during the court proceedings related to the homicides that the drugs never existed and that the stolen items included bottles of change.

However, Aldrich came to Brunke’s home with Nelson, and Hutchinson on April 16, 2015, in search of the drugs, where they were met by Cordell and Carlson. After being tied up and drugged, the victims were suffocated. When Brunke returned home from work that day, he, Cordell, and Carlson drove the bodies to a remote road in Doyle township in Hutchinson’s Oldsmobile Bravada and lit the vehicle on fire.

“Not all drug cases end with a coconspirator killing three people in the main leader’s house. That’s where this case ended,” said Nobel.

Brunke’s attorney, Derek Swajanen, argued that for a drug crime, the sentencing was above the norm for an individual with Brunke’s criminal record — which was non-existent prior to his sentencing on obstruction and lying to a peace officer in February of 2016 — and that the case was unfairly tied to the homicide trial.

“What you have at that time (before the homicide case), back in 2015, is an individual standing before the court with no juvenile history, no misdemeanor history, no felony history, and a work history. … So when the court looks at that, that’s very rare to come across an individual being sentenced for a felony with those qualifications,” said Swajanen.

However, Carmody felt that, while it was necessary to avoid sentencing based on the prior case, it was important to recognize the entire circumstances surrounding the cocaine operation.

“If there was ever a case study for the problems coming from drugs this is it,” he said.

Brunke, who appeared significantly thinner than he was before to his incarceration, opted not to comment on his own behalf prior to sentencing.

Because of the scope of Brunke’s crime, the state Attorney General’s Office was involved in the case, with Assistant Attorney General Dan Magee participating in Thursday’s proceedings. Following the sentencing, the Attorney General’s Office issued a press release on the sentencing.

“Mr. Brunke’s drug crimes were very serious and his sentence today reflects that,” said Attorney General Bill Schuette in the release. “While no prison sentence will undo what happened in 2015, I hope this sentence provides some sense of closure to the local community and serves as a reminder that criminal activity comes with consequences.”