updated 11/27/2006 2:55:48 PM ET 2006-11-27T19:55:48

A former sheriff pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges that he took part with 12 former and current officers in a scheme to sell drugs seized from criminals.

Former Sheriff H. Franklin Cassell was arraigned in U.S. District Court along with two Henry County sheriff’s deputies and a captain, all of whom pleaded not guilty in the racketeering conspiracy. Arraignments for the remaining defendants were set through Wednesday.

Since 1998, prosecutors said, cocaine, steroids, marijuana and other drugs seized by the sheriff’s department have been resold to the public.

Cassell was glad to get moving with his defense, said his lawyer, John Lichtenstein, noting that defense attorneys have a substantial amount of government evidence to review.

The indictment returned Oct. 31 said Cassell, 68, looked the other way as officers sold drugs seized in criminal investigations and stole guns and other evidence. He is charged with impeding federal agents’ investigation and money laundering.

If convicted, Cassell faces up to 53 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.

Charges against the other defendants include racketeering conspiracy, narcotics distribution, weapons counts, obstruction of justice and perjury.

A former sergeant, James Alden Vaught, agreed to cooperate with investigators. His planned guilty plea Monday was delayed because his lawyer was ill, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant.

A civilian, William Randall Reed, pleaded guilty Monday to racketeering conspiracy under an agreement with prosecutors and may testify for the government, Bondurant said.

Cassell, who announced his retirement two weeks ago, earned more than $90,000 a year as sheriff in the economically distressed county along the North Carolina line that was once a textile and furniture hub. He had been sheriff since 1992, and previously had a career with the Virginia State Police.

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