Over Thanksgiving weekend 2007 -- two days before he was to appear in court to face charges of illegally distributing the painkiller oxycodone -- 58-year-old Julius Braxton "Butch" Nesbitt left for a boat ride in Winyah Bay outside Georgetown.

He never returned.

Hours later, the Coast Guard found his boat abandoned in the marsh with the ignition still on. His lunch and cooler hadn't been touched, and there was no sign of footprints leading away from the wreck to indicate whether Nesbitt survived.

Instead, all signs appeared that he'd perished in the November waters, until six weeks later when he was arrested hundreds of miles away in Indiana, living on counterfeit currency.

A strange tale of a faked death and drug-dealing in rural western Georgetown County is unfolding this week in the federal courthouse in Charleston, where Nesbitt faces six criminal counts, including illegal distribution of prescription drugs and gun possession.

Prosecutors contend Nesbitt was a popular peddler of prescription pills in the tiny hamlet of Andrews, with as many as 20 customers a day visiting his home.

His source and supply, authorities say, apparently came from buying prescriptions from others who'd been getting their medications legally, and that his operation had become so large that he'd recruited others in the region to distribute the pills for him.

But once Nesbitt was caught selling to an undercover informant, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Modica told jurors he'd do anything to escape prison, including fake his own death.

"He hoped law enforcement would call it a day and he would be a distant memory and never be held accountable," Modica said during opening arguments Monday.

The case came together in July 2007 after a confidential informant came to the Georgetown County Sheriff's Office and agreed to make a buy of prescription drugs. A week later, when authorities served a search warrant at Nesbitt's home, they found more than 100 illegal pills inside, along with a stash of shotguns, a rifle and a Smith & Wesson handgun.

The guns showed Nesbitt was ready to defend himself, Modica said, if things turned sour since drug dealing is "a very violent business."

"In order to protect yourself, your money and your drugs, you have to have protection," he added.

Nesbitt was charged with possessing a stolen vehicle and possession and distribution of several controlled substances, including oxycodone.

The case died down until Thanksgiving, when Nesbitt left on his 16-foot fishing boat, telling friends he'd be gone for just a little while. Hours later, the boat was found undamaged on Hare Island, less than a quarter-mile from where he put in.

Even though authorities knew he'd been indicted, the search for Nesbitt went on for days, eventually costing the Coast Guard more than $170,000.

Nesbitt's trail went cold until January 2008 when he was arrested at a friend's home in Terre Haute, Ind. He was charged with counterfeiting more than $65,000 in U.S. currency and sentenced to a year in prison.

Back in South Carolina, the charges against Nesbitt were upgraded to six federal offenses that could put him behind bars potentially for decades if he's convicted on all counts. The sixth charge covers triggering a false distress signal, or "knowingly and willfully" causing the Coast Guard to attempt to save a life and property when no help was needed. It can draw a maximum five-year sentence.

Nesbitt, who recently has been held in the Charleston County Detention Center, appeared pale as he sat at the defense table but occasionally would take notes or talk to his lawyers. Lead defense attorney David McCann did not go deep into his defense strategy during his opening argument, only asking that jurors "keep an open mind" as the case unfolds over the next several days.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.