Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department narcotics investigators have opened up a new, seven-defendant front in federal court in the battle against crystal-meth dealers, and the lead defendant, 55-year-old James Alan Ward, played a pivotal role in Hamblen County crystal-meth history, according to authorities.

Ward, who lived on Harbin Road in Rutledge, went to prison for cooking meth several years ago when pseudoephedrine was easy to come by and before highly potent Mexican cartel-manufactured crystal meth dominated the market, according to Gene Watson, who leads narcotics investigations for the sheriff’s department.

When Ward was released from prison, Watson says, he moved onto the new product, and was an associate of Ricky Dale Munsey, the No. 1 defendant in the sheriff’s department’s first large-scale federal crystal-meth case in 2016. Munsey, 50, was sentenced to 262 months – nearly 22 years – and won’t be eligible for release until May 2035, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Ward avoided going down with Munsey, but he stayed in the game, and his name continued to surface as an alleged dealer. Once the sheriff’s department began picking off Ward’s largest customers, it was fairly easy to connect the dots, according to Watson.

“It’s really just one big circle,” Watson said. “Whoever has got the supply at the time is who they find.”

Ward and a codefendant, Lynn Richard Norton, a 61-year-old man who lived on Three Springs Road, allegedly were holding 30 grams of crystal meth when they led Hamblen County deputies on a chase in May that ended in a crash. The federal grand jury also indicted Norton for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

Ward’s one-time girlfriend, Krystal Gail Loftin, 32 – like all the others – was indicted for conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams, which normally means a minimum-mandatory 10-year federal prison term.

The No. 2 defendant in the case is Luis Daniel “Donnie” Martinez Patino. Patino, 25, allegedly was holding 3.5 grams of crystal meth when he was arrested by the Morristown Police Department in July. It was Patino’s second meth-related arrest in less than a month.

Next in line is Gustavo Reyes Palacio, a 37-year-old man who was also indicted for possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense and possession of stolen firearm.

When Palacio was arrested by the sheriff’s department in June, he allegedly was carrying 3.3 ounces of crystal meth, nearly $3,800 in cash and six firearms, three of which had been reported stolen in Hamblen and Jefferson counties, according to an arrest warrant.

The No. 5 defendant, Nicholas Nivaro Nick, 32, allegedly failed to disclose he was carrying 10.4 grams of meth and 3.6 grams of cocaine when he was booked into the Hamblen County Jail for aggravated assault in May.

The final defendant is Brock Adam Bullard, 29. He allegedly was carrying 10.8 grams of a cocaine and fentanyl mixture when he was taken into custody in September 2018, according to authorities. The grand jury also indicted Bullard for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense and felony possession of cocaine.

The seven were indicted on Sept. 10. The case was unsealed on Tuesday.