The Hawaii U.S. Attorney on Friday outlined grand jury indictments against 14 people in connection with a marijuana case on the Big Island.
The defendants face charges of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana.
The federal grand jury returned the indictment on June 24, but it remained sealed until Friday.
The feds said this was a huge pot-growing and selling organization masquerading as a religious group. Agents seized about 3 thousand plants with a street value of nearly $5 million.
Federal prosecutors said Roger Christie, 61, was the leader of a marijuana operation based in the Hilo offices of the THC Ministry. THC is the abbreviation for the active ingredient in marijuana.
Christie claimed he had a religious right to grow and distribute marijuana.
"This was a large-scale business," said Florence Nakakuni, U.S. Attorney for Hawaii.
The feds tapped three of Christie's phone lines, including his cellular phone during the two-year investigation.
"Mr. Christie indicated in intercepted telephone calls that the ministry went through more than half a pound of marijuana a day and served about 60 to 70 customers a day," Nakakuni told reporters at a news conference in Honolulu Friday.
After federal agents raided his offices and his home in March, Christie spoke to the website Big Island Video News.
"I was very compliant with the search warrant, happy to be cooperative. Because I feel like I have nothing to hide," Christie told Big Island Video News.
Federal investigators said Christie suggested a donation of $400 in exchange for an ounce of marijuana from customers, which is the approximate street value of pot.
"We provide cannabis sacraments and we're happy to do so. And it's a sacred thing to us. I think that I am a legitimate, exempt ministry," Christie said. "We're standing for religious freedom, using cannabis in private, at home or church. And it's a blessed, beautiful thing.?
But federal authorities said religious freedom does not apply to drug cases.
"It's still a violation of the federal controlled-substance act, and is therefore a violation of federal drug laws, which DEA enforces," said Robin Dinlocker, who heads Honolulu?s office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"There is a state medical marijuana law. There is no law that protects his allegations of using marijuana religiously," Nakakuni said.
Trials for the 14 defendants are set for September 8. Six of the 14 defendants have been released on bond. Eight of them, including Christie, remain in the federal detention center pending detention hearings next week. If convicted, they face terms of five to 40 years in prison.
Others Arrested In Marijuana Bust: Sherryanne L. St. Cyr, 58 Susanne Lenore Friend, 46 Timothy M. Mann, 58 Richard Bruce Turpen, 59 Wesley Mark Sudbury, 32 Donald James Gibson, 40 Roland Gregory Ignacio, 49 Perry Emilio Policicchio, 50 John Debaptist Bouey III, 51 Michael B. "Dewey" Shapiro, 61 Aaron George Zeeman, 42 Victoria C. Fiore, 28 Jessica r. Walsh, also known as Jessica Hackman, 32
Nakakuni said the government will seek to seize several of the defendants' properties and $21,494 in cash.
The investigation was conducted by a joint team of Drug Enforcement Agency, the Hawaii County Police Department, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Postal Inspection Service, and Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Service, the Coast Guard, the State of Hawaii Narcotics Enforcement Division, the State Department of Public Safety and the Hawaii National Guard Counter Drug Unit.