"Suburban Seven" Defendant Skips Bail

IN WHAT LOOKS to be yet another politically embarrassing snafu for the local U.S. Attorney's Office, Michael D. Jones--one of nine men, including seven suburban Twin Cities residents, who were snagged last fall in a multimillion-dollar drug bust--has apparently skipped town.

On Monday, Karen Bailey of the U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed that Jones has been considered a federal fugitive since January 17, when he failed to appear in federal court in Minneapolis. His family hasn't heard from him; his lawyer won't guess his whereabouts; and neither the U.S. Marshal's Office nor the Minnesota Fugitives Task Force, assigned to track him down, know if he's still in the country.

After the early October bust, U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug told the Star Tribune that "we've become a little blasé about drug cases these days, but even by federal standards, I can tell you this is a darn big drug case." And it was: The sting operation netted more than $300,000 in cash, 41 pounds of cocaine, 27 pounds of marijuana,
37 weapons (including a hand grenade), several vehicles, and a parcel of prime Wisconsin land owned by Jones and known as the Mother Jones Lakeview Resort.

Within the week, authorities were calling the sweep the second-largest in state history. But the alleged traffickers they'd rounded up weren't the usual suspects: One was a former flight attendant, one a golf instructor; Jones himself was a glassblower by trade whom a neighbor, after hearing news of his arrest, called "an awesome, talented artist... a Picasso at work."

Two of the men lived in Florida, but the others were from St. Paul and the suburbs--Maplewood, Woodbury, Orono. All seven were quickly charged with conspiracy to possess and/or distribute cocaine. (A conservative estimate put the ring's annual take at $6 million.) All of them were middle-aged. All were white. And all of those charged, including Jones, walked out free after entering not guilty pleas in court without posting cash bails. Instead, they were obliged only to sign so-called signature bonds in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Jones was also required to surrender his passport.

At the time, the U.S. Attorney's Office defended the bonds by saying that none of those indicted had serious criminal records and all had strong ties to the community--in other words, no cash bails were necessary since the odds figured in favor of them sticking around. The deferential treatment of drug defendants brought howls from many onlookers, particularly African-Americans. The same day the seven were released, the St. Paul branch of the NAACP announced that it would ask U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to revoke the signature bonds on the grounds that white defendants are granted treatment preferential to that accorded black defendants. Since then a number of local politicians and civil rights spokespersons have followed suit in criticizing the handling of the "Suburban Seven" case, including Ron Edwards, Minneapolis City Council member Brian Herron, Spike Moss of The City, Inc., Minneapolis Urban League President Gary Sudduth, Urban Coalition President Yusef Mgeni, and Lester Collins of the Council on Black Minnesotans.

Lillehaug's office has scrambled to douse the fire by forming a select committee to study the disparity accusations. This week Karen Bailey refused to comment on the signature bond issue or, for that matter, any negotiations that occurred between the U.S. Attorney's Office, Jones, and his attorney. Some sources have claimed that Jones was hoping to reduce the charges he faced--Count one of which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years--and perhaps earn leniency by testifying against the other defendants. When those hopes appeared to be running out, the story goes, Jones ran out right after them. Another man charged in the case, David Mathisen, recently committed suicide; by mid-January, all but two others had pled guilty to conspiracy and distribution charges and are now awaiting sentencing, which in some cases could run up to life in prison.

Attorneys for Andres Romero and Robert Cory, the two men who pleaded not guilty, began their defense on Tuesday and expect a jury verdict sometime in February. Had he not slipped away, Jones likewise would have gone on trial this week.

Jones's lawyer, Michael Colich, suggested on Monday that Lillehaug's office may be partly to blame for his client's fugitive status. As a defense attorney in similar cases, he said, "You'd expect to walk in and get this thing resolved. But there were barriers here: There was a lot of publicity, and an uproar in the community about the bail. I can say that it was extraordinarily difficult to get the U.S. Attorney's office to discuss any type of settlement, which is pretty much status quo. Frankly, the feeling is that there were political pressures, unfortunately for Mr. Jones, against making a deal." That being the case, he added, "I think it's fair to say my client was scared about what the future might hold."

 
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