A convicted marijuana smuggler from Aroostook County serving life in federal prison is asking to be released early because of his declining health.
Michael J. Pelletier, 64, of St. David has been paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair since he was injured in a farm accident at age 11. He received disability benefits for decades because of that injury.
The motion seeking his release claims that a lack of medical care and physical therapy at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Pelletier is incarcerated, has caused his health to deteriorate dramatically over the past year. Pelletier also claims that he is at a greater risk than other inmates for being infected with COVID-19, which has caused at least one death at the prison, according to the motion filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bangor by Pelletier’s attorney, Scott Hess of Augusta.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet filed its response to the motion. It is the practice of the office not to comment on pending cases.
Pelletier was convicted of operating a multimillion dollar drug smuggling ring, money laundering, Social Security fraud and other crimes in July 2007 after a weeklong jury trial in federal court in Bangor. The jury of four men and eight women deliberated for about 5½ hours on the criminal charges and a forfeiture order before announcing its verdict.
Jurors found that Pelletier ran an international marijuana smuggling ring that between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 31, 2006, operated throughout the state. Pelletier did not handle the marijuana himself, but had others bring it across the border and distribute it.
In addition to prison time, Pelletier was ordered to repay the nearly $84,000 in Social Security payments he had received over a 30-year period and to forfeit the more than $4.8 million he earned from trafficking in marijuana. He also was ordered to forfeit three residential properties, two cars, a tractor and more than $20,000 in cash.
Hess is asking U.S. District Judge John Woodcock, who presided over Pelletier’s trial and sentenced him to life in prison, to reduce Pelletier’s sentence to 10 years and order him to be supervised by U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services for a period of time. If released, Pelletier plans to live with his brother in Florida and continue painting, which he took up while incarcerated.
Pelletier was indicted in 2006 by a federal grand jury along with five others in connection with the drug smuggling ring that stretched from Canada to southern Maine. His former girlfriend, Kendra Cyr, then 44, of Madawaska, and Adam Hafford, now 40, of Westfield, who was one of two men who swam the St. John River with more than 60 pounds of marijuana in duffel bags on his back, testified against Pelletier.
Both were granted immunity from prosecution on drug charges. Hafford was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on a gun charge but released in December 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Pelletier’s attorney is arguing that at the time of his crime, the mandatory minimum sentence for the amount of marijuana trafficked was life in prison. Two years ago, Congress changed the law to make the mandatory minimum 25 years in prison, according to the motion for release.
To qualify for compassionate release, the prisoner must be at least 65 and experiencing a serious deterioration in physical or mental health because of the aging process. The prisoner must also have served at least 10 years or 75 percent of his or her term of imprisonment, whichever is less. Pelletier will meet all of those requirements when he turns 65 in January, according to Hess.
In addition to his paralysis, Pelletier has severe osteoporosis and diabetes, is at high risk for bladder cancer and suffers from esophageal reflux, according to the motion arguing for his release. He has become sedentary and is experiencing a serious deterioration in his physical health because of the aging process, the motion argued.