Marijuana trial is unlikely 7 of 10 defendants reach plea agreements 

Dec - 15

Marijuana trial is unlikely 7 of 10 defendants reach plea agreements 

The federal case against 10 people charged with conspiracy to cultivate high-quality marijuana in local “grow houses” likely will end without a trial.

Known as the “phototron pot” operation for the way the plants were grown indoors, the case was expected to go to trial this month. But plea agreements were reached with most of the defendants in the past few weeks.

Three people pleaded guilty Dec. 1; two more are expected to plead soon; and four people, including one the government says was a leader, pleaded guilty Thursday.

Joseph “Jay” Bennett Smith III was accused, along with Victor Layman, of organizing the enterprise, in which police found that nine or 10 houses were used to grow the plants, employing elaborate lighting and irrigation systems in their basements.

Smith, 39, told U.S. District Judge James Turk he was pleading guilty to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute pot because “I grew some marijuana plants.”

“And you knew they were marijuana?” Turk asked.

“I assumed they were, yes,” Smith said, smiling.

Smith’s plea agreement calls for him to get extra time added to his sentence for being a leader of the conspiracy and for obstructing justice by cleaning out one of the grow houses before police got there, thus destroying evidence.

He will be held responsible for between 40 and 120 kilograms of pot when he is sentenced in March. It will be up to Turk to decide how much. The length of prison terms is based in part on the amount of drugs involved.

Smith faces up to 40 years and a $2 million fine. He also must forfeit a home computer on which police found pot-growing instructions and a list of aliases.

His attorney, Jonathan Rogers, said Smith split off from Layman’s operation several years ago and lived off the proceeds of two grow houses for a couple of years, but it wasn’t a huge money-maker for him. “He was small-time,” Rogers said.

“They’re making a mountain out of a pot hill,” he said. “This is silly – this is marijuana. Get real.”

All the defendants faced at least 10 years to life in prison if they had been found guilty by a jury.

Majid Khoshghad, whose property at 8181 Poor Mountain Road was the only one where live plants were found, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy. The 39-year-old Rocky Mount contractor will be held responsible for 75 kilograms, representing the 750 plants found inside.

Khoshghad now faces up to 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine, although he is eligible for a reduced sentence because he cooperated with the government. He must forfeit his property on Poor Mountain Road as well as $500 that Layman gave him after he was arrested.

Khoshghad has said he worked as a property manager for Layman and rented his Poor Mountain Road house to Layman. He said he went there only to do yard work or fix grow lights, a story others in the conspiracy dispute.

His attorney, Jeff Rudd, defended his version of events, saying that no evidence the government found disputes him.

Robert Christenson, 44, who works at a Roanoke County car care business, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and will be held responsible for between five and 40 kilograms, facing up to 20 years and a $1 million fine. His home at 5418 Gieser Road, where a small amount of marijuana and growing equipment was found, also will be forfeited to the government.

One defendant had the felony charges against him dismissed in exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana. Russell Coles, a 35-year-old Danville teacher, was pulled over in a moving van as he left one of the grow houses with two other defendants last December.

Police said the three smelled strongly of marijuana, but all they found in the back of the van was potting soil and a single marijuana leaf. Latex gloves and receipts from the landfill also were found in the van.

Asked by Judge Turk why he was pleading guilty, Coles said, “I was in a truck with a leaf in the back of it, a le af of marijuana.”

“You didn’t think it was hay for livestock, did you?” Turk asked.

Coles, who is Smith’s stepbrother, told police when they pulled him over that he guessed he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that he was just helping a friend. It will cost him a $1,000 fine, 10 days in prison and 50 hours of community service.

Layman and his wife, Dayna, were scheduled to plead guilty as well, but had not finished negotiations with the government by Thursday.

The case of the last defendant, Darrell Gordon, has been continued indefinitely because he is critically ill with a brain tumor.