The key figure in a ring that imported more than $150 million worth of marijuana to the Mid-Atlantic region over 15 years avoided trial yesterday by pleading guilty to a drug charge.
Christopher Joseph Ecker, 43, of Rockville entered his plea in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Under a plea agreement, he could be sent to prison for 63 months to 78 months.
"I felt this was a reasonable agreement," Ecker said outside the courtroom as family members awaited him.
Ecker was to stand trial with Michael A. Lieberman, an attorney who has been indicted on a money-laundering charge in connection with the drug ring. His jury trial is to begin today.
Ecker originally was charged in an indictment with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, operating a continuing criminal enterprise and money laundering. The criminal enterprise charge was dropped earlier, and yesterday the money-laundering charge was dismissed after Chief District Judge Walter E. Black Jr. ruled that key evidence could not be admitted.
Prosecutors then made a motion to have separate trials for Mr. Lieberman and Ecker. Judge Black granted the motion. After a brief recess, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Alsup and Ecker's attorney, Jeffrey S. Jacobovitz, meeting in the judge's chambers, agreed to a plea deal in Ecker's case.
Under the agreement, prosecutors will recommend to the judge that Ecker receive a sentence that is closer to the minimum of 63 months rather than the maximum 78 months. Prosecutors also agreed to recommend that he serve his penalty at a federal prison close to his home.
Also, Ecker will not be required to testify against Mr. Lieberman, the only defendant who will go to trial in the case.
"We ended up with a sentence in the plea agreement in the same place where we would have been had the case gone to trial," Mr. Alsup said.
Federal prosecutors indicted 11 people in the case in May 1994, calling it the largest marijuana case prosecuted in the district. Ecker was the ninth to plead guilty. Charges were dismissed against one defendant.
Five of those indicted lived in Maryland. Others lived in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. They imported more than 300,000 pounds of marijuana, mostly by sailboats from South America, Mexico, Jamaica and Thailand between 1978 and 1993, officials said.
They brought the drugs into the country through the Chesapeake Bay, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Oregon, and distributed most of it in the Washington area and Virginia, officials said.