5 Plead Guilty in Pot Scheme 

5 Plead Guilty in Pot Scheme 
Posted by FoM on February 23, 2000 at 15:57:10 PT
By Michael Hemphill, The Roanoke Times
Source: Roanoke Times
The group grew a particularly potent brand of marijuana, using grow lights, indoor watering systems and rented middle-class homes that drew little suspicion.  The decade-old investigation into a multimillion dollar indoor marijuana-growing network in Roanoke County, dubbed the "Phototron" operation, neared an end Tuesday when five conspirators pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court. 
  Under their plea agreements, alleged ring-leader Russell R. "Sam" Coles of Danville and his cousins Martin D. Coles and Frank C. Carroll, both of Roanoke, will be held responsible for no more than 30,000 pot plants or 6,600 pounds when they are sentenced in May.   Wallace L. "Chip" Mayhew, 41, of Roanoke, who began cooperating with authorities in 1997, will be held responsible for 6,900 marijuana plants. Sybil Barrett-Alderman, 25, of Roanoke, who had a minor role in the conspiracy, will be liable for 902 plants.   Tuesday's defendants stem from Roanoke County's latest strain of Phototron growers -- so named for the high-powered lights used to cultivate the pot plants.   In 1995, Victor Layman, a real estate broker and horticulturist, and Joseph "Jay" Smith III were convicted along with six others of operating various grow houses in the Roanoke Valley starting in the late 1980s. Smith's stepbrother, Russell Coles, was among those indicted, but he escaped with only a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana. Layman was sentenced to 57 months in prison, Smith to 62 months.   Their scheme had been sophisticated, involving a particularly potent brand of pot, grow lights, indoor watering systems and rented middle-class homes that drew little suspicion. And it didn't end with the 1995 convictions.   In May 1997, Roanoke County police got a tip about suspicious activity going on at a Castle Rock Road house, Detective Michael Warner testified Tuesday. Over the next few months, Warner said, investigators would use some sophisticated techniques of their own to crack the case -- DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, handwriting comparisons and thermal imaging.   "We kind of pulled out the stops for this case," Warner said.   A surveillance squad spotted Mayhew visiting that home and another on Merriman Road, both of which used a huge amount of power, according to electricity bills subpoenaed by police. A high-tech device called a "thermal imager'' revealed that the houses were producing a lot of heat -- further proof of the use of grow lights.   That June, police got search warrants for the homes and busted Mayhew, who led them to another grow house on Airview Road.   Police searched that home after checking more power bills and seeing Russell Coles visit the place. There, they collected fingerprints and DNA off cigarette butts, which were determined to be Russell Coles'.   "That's only the second time I've had DNA evidence in a drug case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Mott said after Tuesday's hearing. "It's further proof that smoking is bad for your health."   Police also found a postcard written to "Sassy" reminding her to water the plants. Sassy was later determined to be Alderman. The handwriting was that of Russell Coles.   A search of Russell Coles' home in Danville uncovered phone records that led to Carroll and a home he was leasing on Electric Road for another grow house. Police also found money orders for $600 going to a federal prison in Beckley, W.Va., where Jay Smith was incarcerated. A review of Smith's tape-recorded phone calls linked Martin Coles to the conspiracy, Warner testified.   Last February, Smith was indicted on a charge of conspiring to manufacture marijuana. He was accused of receiving monthly payments as "franchise fees" for sharing his marijuana know-how with his step-brother.   Facing a minimum mandatory 20 years in prison, Smith entered into a plea agreement in July that would give him leniency at sentencing in exchange for helping the U.S. Attorney's Office.   Two months later, the other five were charged in a six-count indictment.   "Smith's willingness to testify against his relatives opened up the case for the government," Martin Coles' attorney, David Damico, said Tuesday. "They [prosecutors] felt like they were in a position to threaten him effectively with a large amount of time served, and the only way he could get around that was to testify against his relatives."   "It's hard to blame somebody who's already been incarcerated five years and facing 20," said Russell Coles' half-brother, Joseph Lee Evans, who emphasized Tuesday that marijuana should be legal. "Only reason it's not is that the government's making too much money off it being illegal."   Smith is currently in Roanoke City Jail, awaiting his sentencing next week.   For the others' May sentencing, attorneys for the 39-year-old Coleses and Carroll will argue they should be held responsible for a far smaller amount than 30,000 plants. Authorities reached that figure based on the number of plants found at the houses at the time of the searches, Damico said. Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2000 All material copyright  2000 and partners.CannabisNews Articles On Pot Growing:
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