In about 2001, Martin Davies—a former Utah radio personality who was once named Best Talk Radio Host by City Weekly readers—found that his pension, unemployment insurance and other safety nets had evaporated in a company bankruptcy, reducing the 61-year-old’s income to just a $432 monthly Social Security check. Unemployed and uncertain of his future, Davies went hiking near Ogden, where he made a surprising discovery that would open an entirely new career path for him. He stumbled into a garden of marijuana.
The English-born Davies then saw an elderly gentleman appear from the woods.
“You’re not going to hurt my plants, are you?” the mysterious man said.
The old man explained he was sick and grew the plants for his own medicinal use. Davies has arthritis in his hip, which he soon learned was greatly alleviated by the use of marijuana.
Shortly thereafter, Davies grew a small amount of marijuana for his personal use, but his small operation didn’t stay that way. “A brother-in-law happened on to [Davies’ marijuana] and indicated that he would like to buy it. [Davies] let him do that, and that began the trip that got us here,” said defense attorney Bernie Allen during a speech in court that was also the source for the old-man-in-the-woods story above.
“Here” was the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City in 2008, where Davies was facing 10 years to life in prison after police discovered three houses and a storage unit stuffed with hydroponic marijuana growing operations. More than 1,000 plants were found in various stages of development at the four locations. According to warrants, “The Martin David Davies Marijuana Trafficking Organization” had been pegged by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a multi-state marijuana source.
A lot had happened since Davies met the old man. Davies had disappeared from public life before expanding his operations throughout the Ogden area. Rumors of his death were even reported, and debunked, in a 2003 Deseret News article. Years passed before he was arrested, booked, jailed, bailed out, released, indicted and defended.
Now it was time to face U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, where Davies pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture marijuana.
“Was it pretty good marijuana?” Benson asked Davies after he entered the guilty plea.
“It was extremely high-quality, I am told,” Davies replied.
“Well, they say since we started growing it in the states, it is a lot better quality than the stuff that [defense attorney John Caine’s] friends used to smoke in high school,” Benson said.
A record 44 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, according to an October 2009 Gallup poll, so perhaps a little friendly pot-talk between judge and defendant shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not like the judge was chit-chatting about “pretty good” heroin.
But everything else about Davies’ case surprises Weldon Angelos, a 29-year-old father of three, who lived in Salt Lake City before the same U.S. Attorneys who would eventually prosecute Davies came after him. Charged in 2002 with marijuana and firearms possesion, Angelos is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence. His judge, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Cassell, now a University of Utah law professor, called the sentence “unjust, cruel and irrational” during the sentencing hearing.
Angelos received a stiffer punishment than most convicts of child rape or second-degree murder, yet the judge was powerless to reduce the sentence any less than 55 years. He wrote in the sentencing report that “the system has malfunctioned” and Angelos’ sentence was “demeaning to victims of actual criminal violence.” Angelos will not have his first opportunity for release until 2052, even with good behavior.
Davies, on the other hand, was sentenced to three months in prison and three months’ house arrest for operating three houses and having a storage unit full of weed. His sentences have already been completed.
How did their cases diverge so drastically? Both were treated as first-time offenders, though Angelos had juvenile convictions and Davies had a British conviction from the 1970s. Both were accused by prosecutors of being big-time marijuana dealers, though prosecutors seized a lot more marijuana from Davies. Neither Davies nor Angelos, whose family is Greek, belong to a racial class that is disproportionately prosecuted or incarcerated. Both were subject to mandatory-minimum sentences. Both had guns seized in addition to marijuana.
Angelos believes he was unfairly targeted by prosecutors. “My case goes to show you how much discretion the prosecutors have. I felt my prosecutor [Robert Lund] was out to get me.” While they phrase it differently, several legal scholars agree and say Angelos’, who has become a poster boy for groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, isn’t the only case of injustice.
UP IN SMOKE: ANGELOS
Still in his early 20s, Angelos’ music career was budding. He owned his own record label, Salt Lake City-based Extravagant Records, and released several albums, one of which contained a track by legendary rapper and marijuana enthusiast Snoop Dogg. Angelos hung-out with gang members, and pictures shown at his trial show him flashing the gang sign of Varrio Loco Town, a local gang the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office says is unaligned with any larger gangs. Angelos maintains he wasn’t in a gang, but the community he lived in was steeped in gang culture.
His sister, Lisa Angelos, agrees. “In the apartment we grew up in [in Midvale], there were gangs and wannabe gang members. That’s pretty much the people we knew. You can either shun them and get beat up every day, or just be friends with them.”
Angelos was also a gun fanatic, a trait he inherited from his father. “They put into evidence that even at 15 I had guns,” Angelos said from within the Davis County Jail, where he’s been held for much of 2009 while his appeal is heard at the federal court in Salt Lake City. His “home” prison is in Lompoc, Calif., where he will return if this—perhaps his last— appeal fails.
Then, “good friend” and VLT gang member Ronnie Lazalde enters the story. According to court testimony, Lazalde asked Angelos for a drug hook-up, and Angelos obliged. On three occasions between May 21 and June 18, 2002, Angelos sold Lazalde 8 ounces of marijuana for $350. He refused to sell to Lazalde a fourth time, but it was too late. Lazalde, allegedly facing his own weapons and drugs charges, was cooperating with federal investigators.
Investigators searched Angelos’ home and found three pounds of marijuana, $20,000 cash and three firearms. They found another pound of marijuana and a revolver in the trunk of his car. They found more marijuana and more guns at an apartment he rented on Fort Union Boulevard. But despite all that evidence, Angelos’ major crime was the sale of small amounts of marijuana to Lazalde while carrying a gun.