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Film Student in $2.9M Heroin Bust Says Drugs Were Fake, Used as Video Props

By Erin Meyer | May 28, 2014 8:05am | Updated on May 28, 2014 8:18am
 Film student Joseph Gatheright as seen in this Facebook photo.
Film student Joseph Gatheright as seen in this Facebook photo.
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COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — A director busted with what officials say was nearly $3 million worth of suspected heroin claimed Tuesday that the white powdery substance — along with a replica handgun found in his trunk — were props for the filming of a video, public defenders said.

Joseph Gatheright, 22, who says he is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and a current film student at Northern Illinois University, was stopped by police Monday night for failing to use his turn signal in the Gresham neighborhood, according to a police report and prosecutors.

Police pulled Gatheright over in the 1600 block of West 78th Street, an area known for having a lot of gang and drug activity, about 8:30 p.m., according to the report. A witness stopped the officers and alleged that another person in the car with Gatheright had her cellphone.

When Gatheright opened the trunk of the car to retrieve the cellphone, police saw several backpacks containing 23 duct-taped plastic bags containing a white powdery substance and a replica gun, according to the report.

Believing the white powder to be heroin — which, based on its weight, would be worth nearly $3 million — police arrested Gatheright for the manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance, prosecutors said.

But attorneys representing the young man argued Tuesday in court that Gatheright was a budding film director and said the suspected drugs and weapon in his trunk were fake and to be used in the filming of a video.

"So they're props for filming?" Cook County Judge Donald Panarese Jr. said.

He later allowed Gatheright to go free on his own recognizance, but Gatheright will be on electronic monitoring.

Gatheright, who lives in Champaign, has no apparent criminal record.

Questions about whether the white powder was heroin or some look-alike substance will not be officially answered until the Illinois Crime Lab has tested the substance, which frequently takes several weeks.

An NIU official said Wednesday that Gatheright has not completed any coursework at the university. A person by the same name is, however, listed on the NIU website as an employee.

NIU could not confirm that the Gatheright charged in the case works there.

Gatheright has taken classes at Columbia College, though he did not graduate, a spokesman said.

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