ORLANDO -- The Daytona Beach drug dealer stood defiantly before a federal judge Tuesday, proclaiming her innocence and demanding the government provide for her children before she was sentenced to 24-plus years.
Melissa Ross, 30, a high school dropout who grew up in public housing in Caroline Village on the city's west side, learned how to hustle drugs at a young age and shared in the riches her boyfriend had parlayed from millions in street sales, police said.
Often, when confronted by police who were on to her way of life, she'd give them the finger or curse, said a veteran narcotics officer.
" She was nasty -- really nasty," said Daytona Beach Police Sgt. Craig Capri, who handled several of her 21 arrests prior to the big one that landed her in federal court Tuesday fighting to stay out of prison.
Ross turned her head sideways and squinted her eyes at prosecutor Rick Jancha, demanding, "I deserve something out of this -- my (three) children need counseling, public assistance. I'm not guilty of these charges and my children are suffering. What is to become of my children?"
Jancha responded, "Your honor, the children would be better off without her. "
Ross learned the drug-peddling trade at an early age and was not only the girlfriend of a notorious drug dealer arrested a year ago, but also his trusted right-hand person, Jancha said.
U.S. District Judge Anne C. Conway heard enough.
"Two-hundred and ninety-two months," Conway said, handing down the sentence that translates to 24 years and seven months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack.
Ross is the girlfriend of Patrick Torrence, the mastermind of a $54 million cocaine ring. He pleaded guilty in November to drug trafficking and was sentenced in February to life in prison.
Jancha said Torrence did business in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia for five years before the ring was smashed in June 2001.
Besides Torrence and Ross, 10 others associated with the Torrence gang have been convicted and sent to prison since November.
A jury found Ross guilty in March following a four-day trial that included testimony from lower-level distributors in the Torrence organization.
Ross called them and police officers who testified against her "liars," and called use of wire taps and other surveillance "corrupt."
She did not mince words in naming Ormond Beach Police Officer Michael Drake, on loan the past six years to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Central Florida, an "evil cop" bent on "vengeance."
" Drake embellished to the grand jury and that's why I'm here today," she said.
Jancha said Ross' involvement in illicit drug dealing, supported by ample evidence not only from her inner circle of dealers, but also police, wiretapping and other surveillance evidence was overwhelmingly convincing to the jury that took less than two hours to render a guilty verdict.
About 600 people have been arrested as part of organized drug operations in Volusia County in the last decade with the help of police officers such as Capri and Drake, said Jancha, who lives in DeLand.