A search of Cheryl Cheatham's cab revealed 17 kilos of cocaine in her suitcases, prosecutors alleged in her criminal complaint

By Harriet Sokmensuer
October 19, 2016 04:09 PM

A 63-year-old grandma remains behind bars after federal authorities accused her of smuggling half a million dollars in cocaine through Detroit’s Metro Airport on Friday morning.

Authorities became suspicious of the woman, identified in court documents obtained by PEOPE as Cheryl Cheatham, when she allegedly started acting strangely after arriving in Detroit from Las Vegas.

She was later arrested after officers followed her from the airport to a nearby hotel. She is charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

A search of Cheatham’s car as she left the hotel revealed 17 kilos of cocaine in her suitcases, prosecutors alleged in her criminal complaint.

Cheatham’s defense attorney has argued that it appears she was a drug mule and that she has serious mental health problems.

Authorities said that among other bizarre behavior upon landing, Cheatham allegedly acted as though she had not owned her luggage for very long, closely inspecting the tags of other bags at baggage claim.

At one point while leaving the airport, she allegedly paused to make sure she wasn’t being followed, authorities said.

(It was not immediately clear how authorities believe the drugs were brought through airport security.)

Credit: Arizona Department of Corrections

A Long Criminal History

Cheatham appeared in federal court Monday for a detention hearing on her charges, where a magistrate judge denied her bond. He cited the amount of drugs discovered and her 30-year criminal history, according to court audio obtained by PEOPLE.

Since 1986, Cheatham has been convicted of shoplifting, theft, selling and possessing drugs and failing to appear in court (seven times), according to court documents.

She also served six and a half years in prison for theft, according to audio of her detention hearing.

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting requested Cheatham remain behind bars because of her history of skipping out on court appearances.

Magistrate Judge David R. Grand agreed, and he scolded Cheatham for her inability to grow up. He told her, according to the audio, that “people make bad choices when they’re younger” and “as they get older” they learn to make better decisions.

“Unfortunately, in your situations, that doesn’t seem to have happened,” Grand said. “Here we are in 2016, and you’re caught with this substantial amount of narcotics.”

Hutting further claimed that Cheatham was not only guilty of possessing cocaine but also lying to officers.

While in police custody, Cheatham allegedly asked to call her daughter on her cell phone, he said. However, to officers’ surprise, she allegedly called someone listed in her phone as “Loverboy.”

The identity of that person has not been revealed.

Defense: ‘She Needs Help’

Cheatham’s attorney, Todd Shanker, argued at the hearing that his client has serious mental health issues and needs to be in a hospital bed, not a jail cell.

According to Shanker, Cheatham, a Phoenix native, lives with her daughter and three grandchildren.

“At best, this looks like a [drug] mule situation,” Shanker said, according to the audio, claiming Cheatham has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia among other health problems. “When all is said and done, locking her up is not … good. I think she needs help.”

Prosecutors countered that Cheatham was allegedly strong enough to carry 17 kilos of cocaine in her suitcases.

“This is a significant seizure in this area,” Hutting said, according to the audio. “We can’t chalk this up to youth and immaturity. These are crimes she committed as an adult.”

Judge Grand has ordered a medical and mental health evaluation of Cheatham, according to court documents.

Neither her family nor her attorney could not be reached for comment. It is unclear whether she has entered a plea.