A Johnson man, who was the planned getaway driver in a Montpelier bank robbery case that turned deadly in 2018, has pleaded not guilty in federal court to two unrelated felony drug charges.

Joshua Preston, 32, was initially arrested last week on charges of possession with intent to distribute heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and crack cocaine in a March 2020 case in Williston. 

As the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration moved in to arrest him at his Lamoille County home on last Wednesday, federal agents observed Preston conduct what appeared to be a drug transaction, officials said. They said Preston was later arrested, and a subsequent search of his home netted nearly 5,000 bags of suspected fentanyl and about 140 grams of powder cocaine.

Defense lawyer Robert Behrens asked in U.S. District Court last Friday for 90 days to investigate the two incidents. He said he also needed time to review the “significant criminal history” for the Lamoille County man.

Behrens said he would not contest — for the time being — a motion filed by the prosecution to hold Preston pending trial. Behrens said he might ask for reconsideration if a release plan could be developed.

The DEA said in court papers that a federal agent was conducting surveillance near Walmart on Harvest Lane in Williston Feb. 28 when he saw a man, later identified as Preston, pull out a knotted clear plastic baggie with a white compressed powder, a court affidavit said.

DEA Special Agent Tim Hoffmann reported Preston then removed a digital scale from a blue backpack and eventually put it on the dashboard. Hoffmann saw a male passenger provide currency to Preston before running to a nearby sedan, records show.

Preston was followed back to DaVinci Laboratories of Vermont, 929 Harvest Lane, later determined to be his place of employment at the time, records show. Williston Police officer Travis Trybulski later told Hoffmann that records showed Preston’s past drug involvements including distributing heroin and crack cocaine in the Johnson area, the affidavit said.

On March 5, Hoffmann and three other task force agents conducted more surveillance near the Walmart parking lot and spotted Preston in a back seat of a car with two front-seat passengers, court records show. After about five minutes, agents moved in, but Preston failed to comply until one officer pointed a firearm in his direction.

Preston admitted he had drugs in his car parked nearby and agreed to a consent search, court records show. Agents recovered four kinds of suspected drugs: about 33 grams of crack cocaine, 32 grams of cocaine, 51 grams of fentanyl and 6.5 grams of heroin/fentanyl, the affidavit said. Also found was a digital scale with residue, $6,186 in cash, and some inositol, a common cutting agent for illegal drugs, including cocaine, records show.

“During the interview, Preston had to cancel a drug meeting with a persistent caller on his cellphone,” the DEA said in court papers.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said Preston was accused of providing a ride to Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex so he could commit an armed

robbery at the Vermont State Employees Credit Union on Jan. 16, 2018.

The case led to a lockdown at Montpelier High School across the street when Giffin ended up on the athletic fields. He refused to put down his gun and was eventually fatally shot by police at the end of the one-hour standoff. The shooting was ruled justified by Thibault and Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan.

Preston was on escape status from the Vermont Corrections Department starting the day after the robbery, Thibault said. Preston was serving time for a 2014 burglary conviction when the bank robbery went down, but was living on furlough at a sobriety house in Burlington.

It took four months for police to locate Preston in an apartment in Barre City.

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