California Pot Delivery Lands Probation for City Man; Forfeiture Hearing Scheduled
The cops discovered 30 pounds of marijuana in Smith’s home after postal authorities found a damaged package of pot mailed to him from a California source. The former Jake’s owner, who lives across the street from an elementary school, faced a minimum of two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Instead, he cut a deal for three years’ probation. Assistant DA Jeremy Bucci and defense lawyer Mike Ryan say it was a fair sentence.
By DAVID REID
NORTHAMPTON — It was shortly after 3 p.m. on Oct. 31 last fall when there was a knock at the front door of 137 Bridge St. here. The man doing the knocking was State Trooper Michael Andrews, assigned to the Northwestern District Attorney’s office here, and he was there on a mission.
Answering the door was the homeowner, John J. Smith, 57, a well-known personality in the city for decades, perhaps best known as the former owner of Jake’s restaurant on King Street and TJ’s bar at 1 Bridge St. Nowadays, Smith runs an antique store, Birdstone, at 25 Market St. a few blocks from his home.
Even if the Trooper Andrews hadn’t yelled “State Police warrant search” while knocking, Smith knew what awaited him on his front stoop.
According to the police report Andrews filed later, Smith opened the door and stated, “I know why you’re here . . . the box is over there.”
The box he pointed to had been delivered a half-hour beforehand by U.S. Postal Service Inspector Richard Tracy, and it was packed with five vacuum-packed, clear plastic bags full of marijuana. Records show the package was mailed from a business in Concord, California on Oct. 25 for $37.30.
Addressed to “Jonathan J. Smith,” the package had caught the attention of a postal inspector in Springfield because it had been poorly taped and had come apart on its trip from a postal distribution center in Hartford, Conn. The State Police were called and a sting operation arranged.
Before the package (measuring 20 inches by 14 inches by 10 inches) was delivered to Smith, Trooper Andrews sought a search warrant from a Northampton District Court Clerk-Magistrate.
In that search warrant application, Andrews made his case, documenting that Smith did indeed live at that address, and describing how the package of pot was found. “The illegal distribution of marijuana is a high-profit, generally cash business,” wrote Andrews, adding that pot dealers usually keep records, packaging material and cash on the premises, all of which he wanted to look for.
Andrews suggested the warrant should be “triggered” by the delivery of the marijuana package. The magistrate agreed, and signed off.
Smith’s life would change forever.
John Smith: Businessman and Property Owner
John Joseph Smith always cut a distinctive figure around town. And he was definitely a player in the downtown commercial real estate market.
County records show Smith and a partner bought 17 King St. in 1979 for $35,000 from James and Eleanor Farnham. In that building, across the street from the Hampshire County Courthouse, Smith started Jake’s, which would become an iconic and popular breakfast and lunch joint.
The gregarious Smith ran the eatery for the next seven years, working long hours, and schmoozing with the cream of Northampton’s legal community, their clientele, and a cross-section of city residents and tourists. Smith – who hired several of his sisters to waitress there – built up a vibrant business.
In 1986 (after buying out his partner, Jeremy Hewat), he sold Jake’s and the building to city resident Daniel Workman and his No Frills Inc. for $305,000, Hampshire County records show.
The same year, Smith bought a rough-and-tumble biker bar around the corner at 1 Bridge St., paying only $49,423 to the Boston & Maine Corporation. He turned it into TJ’s, a popular townie bar that over the years would have its own problems with the city’s License Commission and tax collector.
Although the violations were minor, they were numerous, with allegations of fights, underage alcohol service and intoxicated customers.
Also in 1986, Smith began obtaining properties on nearby Market Street. One was 9 Market St., which he bought for $150,000 from Christopher and Denise Kennedy of Northampton. One year later, he sold an interest in that building to ex-wife Dale Torrey for $25,000, county records show.
City tax records indicate Smith still owns two buildings listed at 9 Market St., which together are valued at $664,000.
In 1987, Smith bought a property at 40 Market St. from Torrey for $1; two years later, Smith sold the parcel to Roger and Cherie Lemonde of Ludlow for $238,000.
Also in 1987, the year after he sold Jake’s, Smith bought his home on Bridge St., a concrete and stucco three-floor house with a patio, finished attic and basement. He paid $155,000 and made improvements over the years. Later that year, he obtained a $240,000 mortgage from the Bank of New England-West for his home and for TJ’s bar.
On May 1, 1997, the city tax collector Joanne Lobdell would certify the 1 Bridge St. property was in tax title, with Smith owing more than $27,000 in mostly delinquent property taxes, water and sewer charges, county records show.
The same day, Smith got out of the bar-owning business altogether here, selling the 1 Bridge St. building and business to Spoleto Restaurant owner Claudio Guerra for $198,500, with Smith financing some of the purchase with a $60,000 note. [Guerra would turn the place into the upscale Del Raye Lounge, which is now his Paradise City Tavern.]
Along the way, Smith took out numerous mortgages for his commercial properties, buying and selling properties in the neighborhood.
The Search of Smith’s Bridge Street Home
Besides Andrews, other law enforcement officials searched Smith’s Bridge Street home that day, including Postal Inspector Tracy, Northampton and State police.
Among the items they discovered were 30 pounds of marijuana packed for distribution, two high-accuracy digital scales, packaging material, two cell phones, bank books and other records. Smith also had $3,385 cash in his pants pockets, and a Deni Freshlock Turbo Vac heat-sealing machine. There was also a Florence Savings Bank statement in Smith’s name doing business as Birdstone Antiques.
(To see the list of items seized at the scene, click here.)
According to Trooper Andrews, Smith was read his Miranda rights but decided to talk to the police, providing a number of statements, including:
- Smith knew the package had been tampered with because it was missing a blue Plexiglass shield, which he told police prevented postal authorities from probing it. He told police he knew he’d been caught and, “in another 10 minutes” would not have been home.
- Smith said he’d bought 10 pounds of pot from a California source, paying $2,500 a pound and selling them at $3,500 a pound. His customers, he said, were about 10 regular customers, whom he referred to as “professional.” He said he kept no records with their names and refused to identify any of them, adding, “I’m not going to hurt their reputations.”
- Smith said he had been selling pot for about three or four years, and that the intercepted shipment was the last in a purchase of 10 pounds of pot. He said his customers owed him “several hundreds or thousands of dollars” from previous marijuana sales.
Smith was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and violations of a drug-free school zone, the latter a charge whose penalty is a mandatory minimum of two years in the House of Correction.
The drug possession charge, first offense, is a misdemeanor that could bring a sentence of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. A drug conviction within 1,000 feet of a school (Smith’s house is across the street from the Bridge Street Elementary School) calls for a mandatory two-year jail sentence and a fine of from $1,000 to $10,000.
At the arraignment, Smith pleaded not guilty and Northampton District Court Presiding Judge Michael Goggins ordered him released on $1,000 bail with a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Jan. 20. Goggins, who has known Smith for years, then recused himself from any further involvement in the case.
The arrest made the pages of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and created ripples among many people who knew Smith, or had done business with him.
A Deal with Prosecutors and a Surprise Pleading
Behind the scenes, Smith’s lawyers, former judge and DA W. Michael Ryan and his partner Barbara-Jean “B. J.” Plante, were in negotiations with prosecutors at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office.
The pre-trial hearing had been scheduled for 9 a.m. on Friday the 20th but, at the last minute, Smith’s case was rescheduled to 2 p.m. — the first indication that a plea might be entered on that day.
The deal, accepted by Northampton District Court Judge Michael Mulcahey, allowed Smith to plead guilty to the drug possession and distribution charge in return for probation, with the prosecutor invoking nolle prosequi on the school zone charge. In this case, the nolle filing meant the DA will not prosecute on that charge now, but could raise it if Smith violates his probation.
Along with Smith and his lawyers, several members of his family and close friends appeared in court to lend moral support. Northampton Media was the only news outlet at the hearing, where Assistant DA Jeremy C. Bucci, the chief trial counsel, handled the case.
During his court presentation to Mulcahy, Bucci outlined the basics of the investigation and described what was seized from Smith’s home.
In his remarks, Ryan said his client admitted the possession with intent to distribute, and Smith told the judge that was correct.
Ryan also referred to statements from Smith’s sister and his psychotherapist documenting not only Smith’s brutal childhood and adolescence, but his mother’s death last year, a stroke suffered recently by his mentor (Harry McColgan), and his female partner’s years-long struggle with cancer. Smith is a kind and caring man finally coming to terms with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, wrote his therapist; his sister referred to Smith as considerate and generous to a fault; a man beloved by family and friends.
“We need him,” she wrote.
[Smith is the son of John Francis and Helen C. “Nellie” (Farren) Smith; his father died in 1992, and his mother died in February 2011.]
Ryan, a private-practice lawyer who served as DA here in the 1980s and as district court judge from 1990 to 2008, said Smith began buying marijuana to help his partner and other cancer patients deal with the pain; later, though, Smith made some bad decisions, and undertook risky and illegal activities.
Ryan mentioned that Smith had agreed to forfeitures he described as “significant,” and referred to provisions of his three years’ probation that requires Smith to pay $50 a month in court fees and lose his driver’s license for five years. If he violates any number of state or federal laws, the two-year sentence for school-zone drug violation would be imposed.
There will be a forfeiture hearing sometime next month. It is unclear what prosecutors are seeking, besides what they already confiscated, but the DA could look to seize Smith’s Bridge Street house. (To see the state law governing drug forfeitures, click here.)
Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer Discuss the Sentencing Deal
Northampton Media submitted written questions to both Assistant DA Bucci and defense counsel Ryan.
In answer to a question about the agreed-upon sentence, prosecutor Bucci said there were reasons for a lighter than maximum sentence.
Factors Bucci considered, in his own words, were:
- The defendant’s criminal history (very limited – with only misdemeanor convictions).
- Dispositions in past criminal prosecutions of other people with similar offenses in the area (there was another case with over 20 pounds of marijuana that was disposed of within the past two years where the defendant received a two-year suspended sentence with one year of probation).
- The length of the police investigation and expense of the investigation (this entire case consumed only a few hours of police time because it was discovered by accident by a USPS employee – the comparable case took much more time and investigation – and this required a relatively low number of police officers to execute successfully).
- The fact that the defendant was both completely cooperative with police and honest during his post-arrest interview.
- The defendant’s willingness to save the taxpayers the time and expense of pretrial motions, a trial and if he was convicted subsequent appeals (the defendant pleaded guilty without filing any pretrial motions including discovery motions).
- The defendant’s personal history and family situation (extreme abuse/tragedy as a child, plus a wife with terminal cancer who smoked marijuana to ease the pain of the treatments she was receiving).
- There was absolutely no evidence that this defendant ever sold within that school zone and more importantly our only information was that his clientele were professional adults in the Northampton area and not youth.
“It is also important to note,” Bucci added, “that although the defendant has been given a conditional grant of liberty, probation, for the next three years – should he violate his probation, he still faces up to two years in the Hampshire County House of Correction and would not be entitled to a trial or an appeal of his conviction.”
“I would describe it as appropriate and fair,” Ryan told Northampton Media.” The charge of possession of (under 50 pounds of) marijuana with intent to distribute is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of two years in the [House of Correction].
“John has no prior drug charges. His record contains four prior misdemeanor convictions spread over 20 years and none in the last twelve. The sentence he received – three years probation with statutory fees and payment of $3,500 plus in forfeited funds – is consistent with what others charged with marijuana offenses have received in the Northampton District Court. . . .
“The Judge was given and read a relative’s description of John’s childhood and a letter from his therapist. It was an agreed recommendation (and) the Judge obviously was satisfied that it was an appropriate disposition of the single misdemeanor before him.”
Also, Ryan added, “John will lose his right to drive for five years but he will be entitled to apply for a hardship license after a year. Because it is a misdemeanor, there are no other collateral punishments I am aware of.”
Before he left court on Friday, Smith got his $1,000 bail back from a clerk, and then applied it to his monthly probation costs, which will total $1,800 over three years.
And next month, he’ll be back in Hampshire Superior Court to resolve whatever forfeiture issues his lawyers and the DA’s office can agree to.
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at email@example.com