At age 12, Vashty West began abusing drugs and alcohol. Within five years she was selling drugs as well, earning a place as a low-level dealer with a major heroin ring operating out of Charleston’s Bridgeview Village apartments.

By age 17 West had become so entrenched in the drug trade that she began plotting with three fellow street dealers to knock off their leader. And on a hot August day in 2010, they carried out their plan, putting a bullet in the back of his head.

“It is what it is until you die,” were the words West lived by back then, according to her attorney, Marco Torres.

He explained West’s troubled past to a federal judge Monday morning as she was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison for her involvement in the slaying of 28-year-old Jamar Gathers, a drug dealer known as “Juice.”

West, now 20, spent about 21/2 years behind bars before pleading guilty in March to her role in Gathers’ slaying. During that time, Torres said, she has changed. Now sober, West counsels other inmates, he said.

Three years ago West read at a third-grade level when she was caught up in the world of drugs, guns and money that surrounded the heroin pipeline feeding Charleston’s East and West sides.

Torres hoped her low intellectual ability and young age at the time of the killing would be mitigating factors that would cause the judge to be lenient when sentencing West for her involvement in Gathers’ murder.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Kittrell argued that most of the defendants in the drug conspiracy, and the three other co-defendants in the murder case, were also young.

“This is a cold-blooded murder,” Kittrell told the judge.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Duffy called the case nothing short of a tragedy before he sentenced West to more than two-dozen years behind bars. She had faced a maximum sentence of more than 30 years.

After Duffy imposed the sentence, West, who wore glasses and a jail jumpsuit, turned around and nodded to her family as she was escorted from the courtroom.

Her mother, Mary Denise Arline, who attended the hearing, told the judge that she believed people could change, as she herself had done. She once stood before a judge after being caught selling drugs, she said. “I did what I had to do to take care of six kids,” Arline told Duffy.

A judge at the time gave her a second chance instead of sending her to prison. She said she turned her life around and she has had a stable customer-service job for nine years. She saw a similar change in her daughter, she said.

West admitted to being involved in the plotting, execution, and cover up of Gathers’ killing. He was ambushed in the breezeway of Building 105 of the Bridgeview Village apartments on Aug. 21, 2010.

During the sentencing hearing, West apologized to her mother and to Gathers’ family for their loss. Gathers’ mother, Ruth, told the judge she misses her son. “None of us are winners. We all lost today,” she said.

Three other co-defendants also are awaiting sentencing for their involvement in Gathers’ murder — Shawn Demetrius Blount, 22; Cephus Mitchell, 21; and Shakeneth Deveaux, 22.

The four were young drug dealers for Gathers inside Bridgeview, according to federal court documents. Around August 2010, Gathers was getting suspicious of some of his crew members after some of them shorted him on cash from their sales, court documents state.

Gathers didn’t keep his suspicions to himself, and word soon got out that he wanted to cut the young dealers out of the network. The four caught wind of it, and while counting money in a Bridgeview apartment one Saturday, they decided to get rid of Gathers first, according to court records.

On Aug. 21, 2010, Blount lured Gathers to the Bridgeview apartment on the pretense of picking up money and drugs, according to prosecutors.

“Juice in the gate,” Mitchell exclaimed as Gathers arrived, court documents stated.

Before Gathers made it up the stairs, he was ambushed and a shot tore through the back of his head.

It still remains unclear who pulled the trigger, but witnesses saw West holding the gun immediately after the shooting, according to court records. West also hid the weapon following the shooting, Kittrell said.

Gathers’ killing was the beginning of the end for that drug ring, which was later toppled by authorities. Twenty-seven people were indicted and accused in the drug conspiracy in the two years that followed Gathers’ murder. In May, the last of the defendants pleaded guilty for their involvement in the drug ring.

West was the first of the four defendants in the murder to be sentenced.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.