The leader of what authorities allege was a "vast" conspiracy to sell marijuana in Southern California--a ring of marijuana dispensaries that stretched from LA County's South Bay to Long Beach and Orange County--has been sentenced to 262 months in federal prison.
John Melvin Walker, 56, whom police say went by the nickname "Pops," sat silently as U.S. District Judge James V. Selna read the unusually harsh sentence, which came after Walker pleaded guilty earlier this year to selling approximately $25 million in marijuana while failing to pay $4 million in taxes, as well as illegally (since he was already a convicted drug dealer) possessing several firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle.
Three character witnesses, including a wheelchair-bound neighbor who recounted how Walker took great pains to help him in his recovery, failed to sway Selna by portraying Walker as a compassionate father. Calling Walker a "sophisticated" drug trafficker in charge of an "extensive" illegal network, Selna argued that the public "deserved to be protected" with a lengthy sentence that would also serve as a "deterrent" to other would-be pot-club ringleaders. "If you are going to engage in widespread drug activity, you will be punished," Selna warned.
Part of the severity for Walker's sentence is obvious: Since the federal government began cracking down on California's medical-marijuana industry in late 2011, it has initiated criminal actions and asset-forfeiture proceedings against targets as puny as a husband and wife who own an Anaheim building where a $37 medical-cannabis sale took place. This couple stands to lose property despite a mountain of evidence showing the two had good reason to believe the tenant was obeying state law.
Walker, on the other hand, allegedly lived in a large mansion in San Clemente and also owned several properties in Mammoth Lakes and Long Beach, including an interest in two strip clubs. He allegedly took pains to conceal his ownership of the nine dispensaries and continued to cover up his activities after Orange County Sheriff's deputies conducted raids in 2010, even, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Bautista told Selna, "hiring an IT consultant who could destroy emails." Bautista argued, and Selna agreed, that anything less than 22 years would be unfair to smaller-scale marijuana defendants who have already been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
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Walker did not contest the fact that he supervised an operation that sold $25 million worth of marijuana at nine locations staffed with more than 30 people, that he possessed several firearms including an AK-47 assault rifle, or that he failed to pay more than $4 million in taxes.
Instead, in a prepared statement read by his attorney, Kate Corrigan, Walker took full responsibility for his crimes and apologized to the court and his family. "I look back at it and wish I could turn back the hands of time," he said.
In an interview after the hearing, Corrigan stated that her client was steeling himself for the future. "I think he recognizes that he's probably going to die in prison," she said.