This young woman worked hard to clear her drug record. A thief stole her future, mom says.

Ashlee Nicole Slade
Ashlee Nicole Slade Courtesy of Brenda Slade

Ashlee Nicole Slade was able to give up the meth, but not the man.

"She worked mighty hard," said her mom, Brenda Slade, who watched her daughter shamble in chains Wednesday into Circuit Court in Gulfport. "She threw her whole life away over someone who wasn't worth it."

Slade, a 26-year-old from Poplarville, was convicted in 2015 on a controlled substance charge in Hancock County. She buckled down, got a full-time job with benefits, showed up in drug court weekly and passed every drug screen she took, her mom said.

Then, March 12, she moved out of her father's house into a camper trailer in the country, allowing convicted felon and then-boyfriend Jason Eugene Conaway, 39, to move in with her.

Conaway is a thief and meth addict, an investigator with the Pearl River County Sheriff's Office testified at a hearing to revoke Ashlee Slade's probation.

Associating with a convicted felon put her probation at risk, as did committing any new crimes.

A little more than two weeks after she moved in with Conaway, Slade was arrested on a warrant out of Pearl River County that charged her with receiving stolen property.

The Pearl River investigator, Randy Messa, testified at the hearing that Slade came to law enforcement's attention because Conaway was a suspect in a multi-state investigation into car and truck thefts.

Investigators found a Ford F-250 parked behind Slade's trailer. The license plate on the truck had been switched, but the VIN number showed the truck was stolen from Jackson County.

A Pearl River County officer pulled Slade over in her car and arrested her. Back at the police station, she told an investigator that Conaway had been in the car with her but rolled out into some bushes and hid while the officer was turning around in his patrol car to make the arrest.

Gulfport police would arrest Conaway more than three weeks later on multiple charges from numerous jurisdictions. They were able to locate him, thanks to tips received after the media posted surveillance video of him ordering food in a Taco Bell drive-thru while behind the wheel of a stolen Ford F-350.

He later used the F-350 to steal a trailer from a Gulfport business, police say. Conaway, who has a teardrop tattoo on his right cheek, is being held without bail in the Harrison County jail on 17 felony charges, 16 related to theft and one involving drugs.

His drug and theft record in Harrison County dates to 2012, the jail docket shows.

Messa said Conaway would steal anything, but he had a preference for vehicles and trailers, particularly Ford F-250 and F-350 trucks.

Slade's mother is left wondering how things could have gone so wrong. She said her daughter had a sheltered childhood, attending a private Pentecostal school. Her parents divorced when she was a pre-teen but remained friends and always spent Christmas as a family.

"We're a close family," Brenda Slade said. "We're devastated."

She said her daughter started experimenting with drugs while a student a Pearl River Community College — first marijuana, then methamphetamine. She dropped out of school.

"I think she's co-dependent on bad guys," her mom said. "She's been in a couple of bad relationships."

After her arrest and conviction on the drug charge, Slade seemed to buckle down.

She has worked for two years at Arby's in a Love's Travel Stop in Poplarville. Her mom said she earned $12 an hour, with medical and dental benefits. She had bought and paid for a car. It is sitting in her mom's yard.

She went three times a week to Narcotics Anonymous and worked weekends so she could have Thursdays off for drug court, her mom said. She had also made substantial payments on her fines.

If she graduated from drug court, the drug charge would have been wiped from her record.

Instead, there she stood in court, where Messa explained that she knew what Conaway was up to. He said stolen property was in the camper, in the yard and in a shed, all found after a search warrant was issued for the property.

An enclosed trailer stolen from a Little Debbie vendor in Louisiana still had snack cakes inside.

Jason Conaway.jpg
Jason Eugene Conaway Harrison County Adult Detention Center

Messa said he had no proof that Slade had stolen anything in his jurisdiction but she is facing a grand larceny charge in Picayune. A grand jury will decide whether enough evidence exists to indict her, but she has no record of stealing.

She was shown in surveillance video dropping off Conaway in the Picayune Walmart parking lot. From there, Messa said, he went to another parking lot and stole a truck.

Conaway had no legitimate job, Messa said. Yet he showed up with trailers, trucks and lawn equipment. In a drawer of the camper, he had a birth certificate, driver's license and Social Security card belonging to three different people.

Slade said she didn't look in the drawer. She didn't look in the shed. She also apparently ignored the wires hanging down on the pickup consoles to bypass ignition switches.

When Conaway was arrested, investigators talked to him about Slade.

Ashlee jail.jpeg
Ashlee Nicole Slade Hancock County Detention Center

"He said that he didn't want her to be charged," Messa testified. "He wants to protect her. His words are, 'She never had any part in the actual thefts, but she knew what was going on.' "

Judge Larry Bourgeois took all this in while Slade stood with her attorney. As judges tend to do, he cut to the heart of the matter, saying her association with Conaway seemed to be "the root of the problem."

He noted her efforts to recover from her drug crime. And he said she knew Conaway was a liar and a thief.

"Knowing somebody's going to steal and driving him to a place to steal — that's an active participant," Bourgeois said.

He sent Slade to prison for five years, with credit for time served. She'll have a felony record now.

As deputies led her out the courtroom door used for inmates, Bourgeois told her, "Good luck, ma'am."

From the courtroom, Ashley's mom heard her crying after the door closed. And Brenda Slade said she thought, "Oh my God, Ashley, there's nothing we can do."

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331 or @CAnitaLee1