Bangor head shop owner pleads guilty to pot-growing scheme
BANGOR (BDN) -- The owner of a head shop and former medical marijuana smoking lounge in downtown Bangor pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to a marijuana conspiracy charge and admitted trying to hide cash proceeds from bank regulators.
Christopher Ruhlin, 49, of Holden, owner of Herbal Tea & Tobacco and the former 13 Owls Club smoking lounge, located at 44 Main St., and his associate, Terrence Sawtelle, 49, of Bangor, were indicted on Sept. 14 by a federal grand jury on one count each of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana.
Sawtelle is scheduled to plead guilty on June 28 in Bangor.
Both men remain free on $5,000 unsecured bail.
Ruhlin, who has owned the shop since late 1997, also was indicted on two counts of maintaining a drug-involved place and seven counts of structuring bank transactions to avoid reporting deposits of $10,000 or more to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
On Monday, Ruhlin admitted to structuring three deposits of $9,000 cash each on May 28, 2013, according to court documents. In exchange for his guilty pleas, federal prosecutors will drop the other charges when Ruhlin is sentenced.
A sentencing date has not been set.
The plea agreement calls for Ruhlin to forfeit the government $115,000 instead of forfeiting real estate or other assets, which is standard practice in drug cases.
Ruhlin was not a licensed medical marijuana provider but Sawtelle was, according to Ruhlin. Sawtelle and others rented space for the smoking lounge, where Sawtelle’s patients could smoke pot obtained legally, Ruhlin said earlier this month in an email.
Jeffrey Silverstein, the Bangor attorney representing Ruhlin, said his client believed he was following “the spirit” of Maine’s medical marijuana laws.
“Mr. Ruhlin engaged in activity which is much the same as other individuals have been and continue to do throughout the state in dealing with medicinal marijuana … Any marijuana that was provided to others was limited to medicinal patients only and Mr. Ruhlin and those with whom he was involved made sure that every individual presented a medicinal patient card,” Silverstein said Monday outside the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building after his client changed his pleas from not guilty to guilty.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on Ruhlin’s plea changes. It is the practice of the U.S. attorney’s office not to comment on pending cases.
While legal under state law, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Maine voters first approved marijuana for medical use in 1999 but three years passed before the rules implementing the law took effect. Voters expanded the law in 2009 and additional rules went into effect the following year, when prosecutors alleged Ruhlin and Sawtelle began growing marijuana in a leased facility on North Searsport Road in Frankfort.
By pleading guilty, Ruhlin admitted that between December 2010 and November 2013 he leased a facility in Frankfort where marijuana was grown. Ruhlin left the conspiracy in 2014, but marijuana continued to be grown there by others to be sold at the smoking lounge between May 2014 and Aug. 25, 2016, when agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided the building on Main Street in Bangor.
DEA agents seized 23 containers of processed marijuana from the 13 Owls Club smoking lounge, adjacent to Herbal Tea & Tobacco, court documents said.
The U.S. attorney’s office alleged that is more than allowed under Maine’s medical marijuana statute.
In an earlier raid, on May 12, 2016, at the Frankfort facility, agents with the DEA seized about 400 marijuana plants, 295 marijuana root bulbs, processed marijuana, receipts from a garden center totaling about $25,000 and other items, according to court documents.
In November 2016, Maine voters approved a referendum legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The rules about distribution of recreational pot still are pending.
Ruhlin still owns the shop and has locations on both Main Street and Hogan Road, according to his attorney. He no longer runs the lounge but has rented out that space to raise funds, Silverstein said.
Three other men, Jeremy Duguay, 35, Nicholas Reynolds, 33, both of Bangor, and James Mansfield, 33, of Etna, have pleaded guilty to the marijuana growing and distribution charges. All are free on bail while awaiting sentencing.
All five men face up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million on the drug charges. Ruhlin faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the structuring bank transactions count.
Silverstein said Monday that he expected Ruhlin would face far less than the the maximum sentences due to the circumstances in the case.