A federal judge sentenced internationally known e-mail spammer Christopher William Smith on Wednesday to 30 years in prison for running an illegal Internet pharmacy that sold about $24 million in prescription drugs.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis called Smith, 27, a "drug kingpin" as he meted out the sentence requested by federal prosecutors. Though Davis expressed some misgivings about the length of the prison term recommended by sentencing guidelines, he said it was nonetheless reasonable.
The government argued for a long sentence because of Smith's flagrant defiance of judicial orders and his death threat against a witness in the case. Just days after a federal judge shut down the Burnsville pharmacy in May 2005 and ordered Smith to refrain from selling drugs, Smith traveled to the Dominican Republic using a false passport and took steps to open a new online pharmacy. He even withdrew money that had been frozen by a previous court order.
Smith was convicted in November of nine charges of conspiracy, illegal distribution of drugs, money laundering and operating a "continuing criminal enterprise."
Smith's appearance Wednesday followed three other sentencings related to Smith's online drugstore, which he called Xpress Pharmacy.
Darrell Arden Griepp, 46, of Burnsville got three years of probation and 80 hours of community service after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of distributing controlled substances. He played a minor role as a telephone marketer and deserved leniency, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Engisch.
Next came Bernadette Hollis of the Kansas City area. Hollis, who pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the acquisition of hydrocodone for Smith's pharmacy operation, was a critical witness for the government. Hollis helped set up the operation's databases and stepped forward first to help the government, Engisch said.
As an informant Hollis put herself at risk, Engisch said. On March 4, 2006, Smith called a colleague in the Philippines and discussed ways to shut her up by threatening her children's lives.
In the phone call, Smith told Roanna Cleofe that he wanted her to arrange to have someone take photos of Hollis' children. If Hollis wants to testify, she can, he said. "We're going to give her the option of which one of her kids she's going to sacrifice for doing so."
Cleofe, who has been charged in connection with the alleged threat, told an FBI agent that she didn't believe Smith was serious.
But in the phone call, which was played at a hearing Tuesday, Smith told her that he was not joking. "It's a kill-or-be-killed world," Smith said.
Smith went on to ask Cleofe about hiring a hit man.
Smith later told the judge that he was not serious in the phone call and blamed his comments on his bipolar disorder.
Davis sentenced Hollis to a year of probation and 40 hours of community service. "I'm sure I won't be seeing you again," Davis said. "You take care of yourself now."
Alton Scott Poe, Smith's second-in-command at the pharmacy, came next. Engisch told Davis that Poe had been "one of the most significant and important cooperators in this matter." Poe pleaded guilty in February 2006 to conspiracy and unlawful distribution of a controlled substance. Davis sentenced him to 6 months in prison and 6 months of home detention, plus 3 years of supervised release.
Davis questioned Smith extensively Tuesday to determine whether the government had substantiated its reasons for seeking enhanced penalties. With each answer, Smith tightened his own noose.
Smith admitted that he got his wife, his father, his mother and stepfather to help conceal cash from the government, having them wrap $100,000 bundles in plastic and hide them in cereal boxes. Smith admitted concealing about $1.1 million this way.
Smith said he didn't intend to become "the drug lord of Internet pharmacy," but admitted that most of his businesses "have been on the edge of what the government liked and didn't like."
The pharmacy was very lucrative: the government seized 17 of Smith's automobiles and sold them at auction in 2006 for more than $1.6 million.
Joe Friedberg, Smith's attorney, told Davis on Wednesday that no other Internet pharmacy conviction has resulted in sentences exceeding 20 years.
Engisch said the government had been willing to cut Smith a deal early on. But Smith changed that forever when he threatened Hollis, she said.
"Mr. Smith is nothing but a drug dealer," she said. "He's a high-tech drug dealer."
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