PLACERVILLE, Calif. -- Sitting in a courtroom in El Dorado Superior Court, Byron Theodore Stamate, 73, was a long way from the life he and his common-law wife once had in their Sierra home.
Surrounded by towering pine trees, their simple mountain home overlooked a ravine. Except for a few deer wandering on their property, they were undisturbed. When Mr. Stamate's wife, Shirley Dorsey, complained of a persistent back pain, the couple found that marijuana eased her discomfort.
But three years ago, authorities discovered the couple's marijuana-growing and their lives began to unravel. One year later, Ms. Dorsey committed suicide in what a defense attorney believes was an effort to escape having to testify against Mr. Stamate.
Now, Mr. Stamate, who pleaded guilty in November to cultivating marijuana, is fighting for his home, his savings and his freedom during a sentencing hearing before Superior Court Judge Eddie T. Keller.
Mr. Stamate's lawyer, William E. Bonham, is hoping a drug diversion program will be assigned to take his client, a retired electronics engineer who worked on federal aviation equipment at McClellan Air Force Base.
Deputy District Attorney Erik Schlueter is arguing that Mr. Stamate was growing pot for profit and deserves punishment. The maximum punishment is 3 years and 8 months in prison.
Whatever penalty the judge decides, it will weigh heavily in coming forfeiture proceedings in which El Dorado County is seeking to confiscate Mr. Stamate's assets, including his $90,000 home in Georgetown north of here, mutual funds worth $177,000 and $30,000 in savings.
Mr. Schlueter alleges that nearly $200,000 of Mr. Stamate's assets were not gained legitimately. When local and federal
agents raided Mr. Stamate's home on April 5, 1990, they found $26,000 in a small lock box.
Prosecution witnesses have testified that they found 160 foot-high marijuana plants on Mr. Stamate's property and also found confusing handwritten notes thought to be records of drug sale transactions.
From the witness stand yesterday, an animated Mr. Stamate told the judge that he learned to grow pot during his childhood in the Ozarks in Missouri. His father grew hemp, a non-intoxicating form of marijuana,to sell the seeds as bird food. There was also a family garden where female plants, which are intoxicating, were grown for medicinal purposes, he said.
Squinting through thick eyeglasses, the nearsighted Mr. Stamate said he was growing pot at home while living in Sacramento County with a former wife who was dying of lung cancer. He regularly gave her marijuana to ease her pain before her death in 1980, he said.
Shortly after, he met Ms. Dorsey, an artist, and the two moved to Georgetown. Ms. Dorsey's daughter, Brenda Costello of Tracy, testified that her mother had an automobile accident and suffered nerve damage to her spinal column resulting in severe back pain. She said her mother ate cookies laced with marijuana daily.
"She didn't like to smoke it," Mr. Stamate said about Ms. Dorsey's use of pot. "She did use it in cooking to make butter. She made cookies and I ate some."
Mr. Stamate has insisted he never grew marijuana to sell and says he kept large amounts of money at home because he distrusts banks. He said his assets come largely from personal loans and real estate deals.
During a break in yesterday's session, he showed courtroom spectators a note found April 1, 1990, when Ms. Dorsey committed suicide with a .38-caliber gun in the back yard of their Georgetown home.
"It's time to leave now. May everything you want come to you," read the note left on the dining table next to subpoenas demanding that Ms. Dorsey testify against Mr. Stamate.
Mr. Stamate said that Ms. Dorsey often told him that she would never testify against him.
"It all added up," he said.
Mr. Schlueter isn't so sure.
"The only person who knows why she committed suicide is Shirley Dorsey," Mr. Schlueter said.
The prosecutor believes that the defense is using Ms. Dorsey's suicide as a "ploy to make the prosecution look bad."
"How do you refute it? It's the hardest thing a prosecutor can come up against," he said.
Mr. Bonham has filed a motion to have his client's case dismissed based on several grounds, including alleged "intimidation and harassment" of witnesses to testify against Mr. Stamate, including Ms. Dorsey.
"Deputy District Attorney Schlueter and his agents directly or indirectly caused Shirley to commit suicide to avoid another subpoena for her to testify against Byron," Mr. Bonham said in papers filed with the court.
Mr. Stamate, meanwhile, said from his Georgetown home that if he had it to do over, he still would grow pot.
"What I've done is provided my wife and Shirley things that improved the quality of their lives," he said. "I would do it again."