BANGOR, Maine — A jury Wednesday found a Millinocket man guilty of conspiring to sell marijuana but decided the government had not proven he was a major player in the operation.
William “Billy” L. Bernier did not react to the verdict when it was read in U.S. District Court.
U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal allowed Bernier to remain free on personal recognizance bail until he is sentenced. A sentencing date has not been set.
Bernier was charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute marijuana.
He denied selling drugs for Chad Marquis, 34, the St. John Valley man who admitted smuggling hundreds of pounds of marijuana into the U.S from Canada from May 2003 until his arrest on May 23, 2007.
In addition to deciding whether Bernier was guilty of conspiracy, jurors were asked to find if the Millinocket man was responsible for distributing more than 220 pounds of marijuana. If they found he was not responsible for that amount, they were asked to decide if he had distributed more than 110 pounds.
Because the jury, which deliberated for about six hours, answered no to both those amounts, Bernier is facing a maximum sentence of five years in prison. If he’d been found responsible for distributing 220 pounds, he would have faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of life. For 110 pounds, Bernier would have faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Three men, who have pleaded guilty to being part of the conspiracy, including Marquis, testified against Bernier during the three-day trial.
“It’s clear the jury worked very hard in this case,” defense attorney Richard Hartley of Bangor said after the jury was dismissed. “We felt the inconsistency in the statements of the cooperating witnesses presented reasonable doubt, but we must respect their verdict.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Nichols, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the jury’s verdict. It is the practice of federal prosecutors in Maine not to comment on cases until after defendants have been sentenced.
Marquis waived indictment in March and pleaded guilty to smuggling hundreds of pounds of marijuana into the U.S. hidden in his pickup truck. When he was arrested, Marquis had 37½ pounds of green bud marijuana with him. All of it was in the courtroom during the trial.
Marquis testified Monday that he knew Bernier because both of them worked in the woods in northern Maine. The Fort Kent man testified that he began smuggling in 2000 or 2001 and that Bernier initially purchased an ounce or so from him, and then later took a pound at a time.
Because of the five-year statute of limitations for federal crimes, Marquis and his co-conspirators could only be prosecuted for crimes that occurred up to five years before Marquis’ arrest.
Marquis has been serving his sentence at a federal prison camp in Devens, Mass. Marquis agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for a sentence that was less than the mandatory five-year minimum, he said Monday when he testified against Bernier. Marquis also told the jury that by testifying he hoped his sentence would be reduced further.
He also testified that Bernier introduced him to Michael Donato, 50, of Medway in 2003. Donato became a major distributor for Marquis, according to court documents.
Donato pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to distribute 290 pounds of marijuana and failing to report income from drug sales to Social Security. He was on disability due to injuries suffered in the mid-1990s, he testified Monday. Donato is being held without bail pending his sentencing on Feb. 2.
Steve A. Nadeau, 34, of Fort Kent testified Tuesday that he took over delivering marijuana to Bernier, Donato and others for Marquis in 2006. Nadeau testified that he and Marquis had been best friends since the age of five.
He told the jury Tuesday that he had delivered between 1 and 3 pounds of marijuana to Bernier and another man, who has not been charged, on at least two occasions.
Nadeau pleaded guilty in November to the same conspiracy charge Bernier denied. The Fort Kent man admitted he distributed less than 220 pounds of marijuana for Marquis. Nadeau, who is on bail, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 1.
Donato and Nadeau both told the jury that they are hoping they will receive shorter prison terms because of their cooperation.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Hartley told the jury that Marquis and the other co-conspirators “did not finger” Bernier until after several meetings with federal prosecutors.
“They caught the big fish and they threw him back,” he said referring to Marquis. “He’s hoping for reduction of his sentence because they decided to keep fishing.”
Nichols argued that by introducing Marquis to Donato, Bernier put himself at the heart of the conspiracy.