Denver Police officers stay out in front of VIP Cannabis, located at 2949 W. Alameda Ave., after DEA officials raided it in the morning, April 30, 2014. The marijuana dispensary was previously raided in November 2013. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Man gets probation in alleged far-flung illegal pot enterprise

A man once facing the possibility of spending decades in a federal prison after he was tied to an international marijuana-trafficking operation was instead sentenced Tuesday to probation in federal court after felony charges against him were dismissed.

As a condition of probation, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn also sentenced Luis Fernand Uribe to 45 days in jail. The probationary deal was offered after the defendant’s original felony charges were dismissed and he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of marijuana possession.

Uribe, who lives in Florida and is engaged to be married, was originally charged with felony money laundering. He wore a black suit at the sentencing hearing Tuesday morning.

“I accept responsibility for my actions,” Uribe told Blackburn Tuesday.

In doing so he acknowledged that what he did was “not completely proper.”

His attorney, Richard Kornfeld, argued that he deserved a probationary sentence in large part due to disparity between Colorado and federal laws affecting the marijuana business.

“Nothing about this case has been — quote — normal,” Kornfeld said. “The landscape of this case has changed significantly in the 2 1/2 years since Luis was arrested.”

He noted that charges were recently dismissed against one of Uribe’s three co-defendants.

On Friday, a federal prosecutor filed a motion asking Blackburn to dismiss all drug and money laundering charges against Denver attorney David Furtado. The other co-defendants in the case, his brother Gerardo Uribe, and Hector Diaz, also entered plea deals in the case.

The case began in 2013 with what was heralded as one of the biggest criminal pot raids in Colorado’s legal-marijuana era.

Uribe and co-defendants were accused of being involved in a drug operation tied to Colombia with roots in the VIP Cannabis dispensary in Denver. Federal documents indicated close to 30 people were involved and spanned multiple licensed marijuana businesses and unlicensed residential grows. But only Uribe and three others were ever charged with federal crimes connected to VIP Cannabis in Denver.

Charges were dismissed against Furtado after he argued that all his activities were legal under Colorado law after the legalization of marijuana use.

Prosecutor Bradley Giles explained at the hearing that the case was very unique, often affected by changing Colorado laws governing marijuana.

“State laws changed over and over. Unfortunately this organization did not abide the law,” he said. But VIP always seemed to be one step ahead of the law, in violation of not only federal but state law, Giles said. Part of the concern was the weapons VIP employees used. He referred to a photograph of one co-defendant brandishing guns in both hands.

“It started to look a lot like the wild, wild West,” Giles said.

Gerardo Uribe entered a plea in which drug manufacturing and distribution charges were reduced to a marijuana possession charge. His plea calls for a probationary sentence with 90 days in prison as a condition of probation. U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn sentenced Diaz on July 9 to “time served,” meaning that he would not serve any more time in prison than he already spent in pre-sentence detention. Blackburn also sentenced Diaz to three years of supervised release and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.

The dismissal of charges against Furtado does not change the status of his co-defendants, Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has said.

Furtado will not get back $450,000 investigators found in the trunk of his car and confiscated through federal asset forfeiture laws, Dorschner said.

Furtado did contest the seizure of the VIP Cannabis warehouse, he said. A judge will now decide whether Furtado can reclaim the warehouse, Dorschner said. Hearings about the fate of the warehouse have been on hold pending the outcome of court proceedings, he said.

Giles said federal agents and prosecutors have continued to go after illegal marijuana operations and will continue to do so.

“There is a need, an absolute need for strong regulation and that was circumvented in this case,” he said.

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