While serving the citizens of Kansas City as a fire department captain, Gilbert Dowdy served another more nefarious cause — his own greed.
As leader in the 1980s of a drug trafficking ring responsible for distributing hundreds of pounds of cocaine, Dowdy reaped huge profits and enjoyed the lifestyle of a big-time kingpin.
His dope-dealing empire crashed with his 1990 arrest, and in March 1991 a federal judge told Dowdy it was “time to pay the piper” before sentencing him to serve the rest of his life in prison.
But now, 25 years after being locked up, the 67-year-old Dowdy is about to taste freedom again.
A federal judge recently reduced Dowdy’s life sentence to 30 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Dowdy has earned enough credit for good behavior to be released from a medium-security prison in Florida on March 9.
Dowdy, arguably Kansas City’s most infamous purveyor of illegal substances since the era of Prohibition, is one of thousands of federal prisoners serving time for drug crimes to benefit from sentencing guidelines changes the U.S. Sentencing Commission made in 2014.
The commission reduced the range of punishment in sentencing guidelines for most drug offenders, and it made the changes retroactive so they would apply to criminals sentenced before the change.
Based on that, assistant federal public defender Stephen Moss filed a motion last September arguing that Dowdy should be resentenced to 30 years.
He argued that Dowdy was sentenced at a time when crack cocaine was considered much more dangerous and destructive than the powder form of the drug. That crack cocaine “hysteria” largely has been disproved since then, he said.
Moss noted in his motion that Dowdy was a first-time offender when convicted and received only one minor disciplinary infraction early in his quarter century in prison.
Moss also pointed to Dowdy’s age and health problems in seeking a lesser sentence.
While conceding that Dowdy qualified for a sentencing recalculation, federal prosecutors argued that a life sentence still could be imposed under the new guidelines.
Prosecutors said Dowdy violated his sworn duty to protect the public to live the “extravagant and self-indulgent lifestyle of a drug trafficking kingpin.”
“Gilbert Dowdy deserved a life sentence when it was imposed in 1991, and he still deserves a life sentence some 24 years later,” prosecutors said last September in opposing Dowdy’s motion for a reduced sentence.
Prosecutors said that while then district judge Joseph E. Stephens Jr. was required to impose a life sentence, based on his comments, they believe the judge still would have imposed a life sentence even if it hadn’t been mandatory.
“I hope you enjoyed all those trips to Las Vegas and those fancy cars and those long, gold chains and those various female companions that you have had from time to time over the roughly 10-year period because this piper is going to get paid,” Stevens told Dowdy before sentencing.
The judge also said he wanted Dowdy to think about all of the drug-exposed babies affected by the “nasty commodity” he supplied to their mothers.
“I hope you lose some sleep over that,” he said.
The sentencing commission took its 2014 action to redress harsh drug sentences handed down in recent decades and to help ease crowding in federal prisons. They estimated that the changes could affect about 46,000 prisoners.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department reported that the federal prison system was operating at about 40 percent over capacity.
Dowdy’s current attorney noted in court documents filed last fall that of 277 sentence reduction motions filed in the Western District of Missouri, prosecutors had contested only Dowdy and one other case up to that time.
Moss requested a hearing on Dowdy’s request for a sentence reduction. Federal prosecutors objected. Last month, District Judge Brian Wimes granted Dowdy’s request without a hearing.
The judge’s reasons are not part of the public records.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the decision.
Dowdy was one of 11 defendants indicted on multiple counts of drug trafficking and money laundering.
His federal trial lasted 38 days and resulted in Dowdy being convicted of four counts. Trial testimony included details of Dowdy’s $300,000 cash purchase of a Kansas City nightclub from a Jackson County judge.
The trial also resulted in his attorney, Carol Coe, being disciplined for her courtroom behavior. She later served on the Kansas City Council.
The only defendant acquitted by the jury was Dowdy’s brother, Sam Dowdy, who was represented by Sly James, now Kansas City’s mayor.