Christopher Bartkowicz, 37, heads to the federal courthouse in Denver on Thursday. The Highlands Ranch man had shown his growing operation on 9News in February. ( John Prieto, The Denver Post )
Christopher Bartkowicz walked out of a federal courtroom in handcuffs Thursday after pleading guilty to drug charges stemming from a raid on his medical-marijuana-growing operation.
In what is believed to be the first federal conviction of a medical-marijuana grower in Colorado, Bartkowicz, 37, pleaded guilty to three counts related to the operation, which he ran from his Highlands Ranch home and showed to a television news crew just before his arrest.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, Bartkowicz is expected to receive five years in prison and a fine when he is sentenced. If the judge does not accept that sentence, Bartkowicz can change his plea again and go to trial.
"That sentence is appropriate and proportionate given the circumstances of this specific crime," U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement following the hearing.
Bartkowicz did not comment when entering the federal courthouse before the hearing but said he would make a statement once the hearing was over. However, Judge Philip Brimmer, at the prosecution's urging, ordered Bartkowicz to be detained at the end of the hearing.
Bartkowicz's attorney, Joseph Saint-Veltri, protested, saying immediate detention wasn't part of the agreement and suggesting the prosecution had ulterior motives for Bartkowicz's detention. Afterward, Saint-Veltri declined to comment other than to hint that Bartkowicz's statement to the media wouldn't have been kind to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The plea capped a trip through the federal justice system for Bartkowicz that began in February on the day 9News was to air an interview it conducted with him in which he talked about the sizeable marijuana-growing operation. DEA agents saw a story about the interview posted on 9News' website and swooped in on his house, arresting Bartkowicz and seizing hundreds of plants.
Bartkowicz has maintained that his plants were legal under state law because he was a caregiver to several medical-marijuana patients and planned to sell any excess to dispensaries. Federal officials have said Bartkowicz had more plants than state law allowed and noted that his house was less than 1,000 feet from a school.
Brimmer ruled Bartkowicz would not be able to raise a medical defense at his trial. Because he had two prior marijuana convictions at the state level, he faced a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison if convicted of the charges facing him.
During the plea hearing Thursday, Bartkowicz three times spoke the word "guilty" when asked how he pleaded to the charges facing him.
No medical-marijuana advocates, who have often attended his court proceedings or protested outside, were in the courtroom.
A competing hearing on new state rules for the medical-marijuana industry apparently kept many away.
John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or email@example.com