U.S. attorneys say an operation disguised as a religion was a major drug-trafficking group
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 10, 2010
Marijuana advocate Roger Christie ran a major drug trafficking organization on Hawaii island under the guise of religious freedom through the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry in downtown Hilo, said U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni.
"This was a large-scale business. Marijuana is big, and this group was heavily involved in it," Nakakuni said.
County and federal law enforcement officers arrested Christie, 61, and 13 other Big Island residents Thursday on federal conspiracy and marijuana manufacturing, possession and distribution charges. All 14 pleaded not guilty in federal court yesterday.
U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright ordered Christie; Sherryanne L. St. Cyr, 58; Richard Bruce Turpen, 59; Wesley Mark Sudbury, 32; Donald James Gibson, 40; John DeBaptist Bouey III, 51; Michael Shapiro, 61; and Aaron George Zeeman, 42, to remain in custody until next week when a federal magistrate determines whether to release them on bail pending trial.
Seabright ordered Susanne Lenore Friend, 46; Timothy M. Mann, 58; Roland Gregory Ignacio, 49; Perry Emilio Policicchio, 50; Victoria C. Fiore, 28; and Jessica R. Walsh, 32, released on $25,000 unsecured signature bond.
Christie has maintained that he is a minister who administers marijuana as part of sacrament.
"There is no law that protects his allegations of using marijuana religiously," Nakakuni said.
However, Hawaii's medical marijuana law does allow persons, certified by a physician, to possess up to a certain amount to treat a debilitating condition.
"Irrespective of state laws, it is DEA's job to enforce federal drug law violations, and that is what was accomplished in this investigation," said Robin Dinlocker, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Hawaii.
Thursday's arrests culminate a two-year investigation by federal and county law enforcement during which they seized 2,296 marijuana plants, nine weapons, 33 pounds of processed marijuana, more than $21,000 cash and four properties.
In intercepted telephone conversations, Christie indicated he went through more than half a pound of marijuana serving 60 to 70 customers per day at his ministry, Nakakuni said. He also identified some of the other defendants as his suppliers, she said.
Customers paid suggested donations for membership to the ministry, then paid a suggested donation of $400 per ounce for marijuana, said Michael Kawahara, assistant U.S. attorney.
Investigators said they seized 284 marijuana plants in a raid of a home in Honokaa maintained by Friend and Mann on July 22.
They raided Christie's Hilo apartment March 10 and seized about two pounds of processed marijuana, Kawahara said. They also seized $21,494 cash from the home and a safe deposit box, he said.
During and leading up to Thursday's arrests, investigators also seized 1,108 marijuana plants from Turpen's Keaau residence, 856 plants from Sudbury's Ocean View residence and smaller number of plants from other defendants. The plants were growing outdoors and in indoor facilities, Kawahara said.
After the March raids on his home and ministry, Christie said he took a break from providing sacrament but continued counseling and other services at the ministry.
Kawahara said investigators raided his home again Thursday "because we believed he had gotten back into business."
He said investigators seized about a pound of processed marijuana and additional cash.