Community in shock over Harford man's drug charges

The Baltimore Sun

For many, Bob Chance has been the face of ecology in Harford County.

He taught earth science during a three-decade run in the public schools - and was named to the school system's Hall of Fame. He promoted recycling long before the government got involved. He wrote a nature column for the local paper, won election to public office, and showed countless youngsters the wonders of the great outdoors as Ranger Bob.

And now he is, at 62, a defendant in a drug case.

Authorities say he has been growing marijuana at the farm where he raises and sells Christmas trees. And they say they found enough of the drug, either in plant form or packaged in freezers, to roll thousands of joints - so they are taking steps to seize his farm.

Some who know Chance think that's going too far. He is an "old hippie," but is no drug dealer, said Terence O. Hanley, a Bel Air town commissioner and former mayor who has known him for 30 years.

"Everybody, quite frankly, that I have run into thinks it's absurd that he's being charged with the intent to distribute," Hanley said. "Here's a guy who has really done a lot of great things for our town, our community, our kids. I'm shocked that he's in this predicament, and I only wish the best for him. I would hate to see this man lose his farm."

But Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said police and prosecutors have a duty to treat Chance the same as everyone else.

"I don't think there's two standards in the community - that there's one standard for regular people who go around and don't do all the things this guy does and then there's another standard for people who have done all the things this guy does," Cassilly said.

Chance has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which also include allegations that he had hallucinogenic mushrooms at his farm. He declined to discuss his case, on the advice of his lawyer.

But he gave a tour of his property, Environmental Evergreens Tree Farm.

"I always try to bring nature into a place," he said.

The farm is down a rural road off Route 1 in Darlington, not far from the Susquehanna River. Plants thrive there, and ponds harbor rare species of turtles and fish. Frogs rest on lily pads, and dragonflies buzz about. His six yellow Labradors run free.

His home, which he says dates to 1888, is full of artifacts and fossils from his jaunts to Africa, the South Pacific Islands, Costa Rica and New Zealand. Walls are covered with awards and pictures of him with kids who attended his nature camps and with customers who bought their Christmas trees from him.

"He's just a great, community-minded guy," Hanley said. "His volunteerism here in Harford County has been invaluable."

An Evening Sun editorial described him in 1992 as an "ecological visionary."

Chance grew up in Carney and received bachelor's degrees in geology and geography from what is now Towson University before moving to Harford County in 1968 to teach earth science and ecology at Bel Air High School.

In 1972, he started the Susquehannock Environmental Center, believed to be one of the country's first recycling centers. In 1974, he won a spot on the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners, serving until 1978.

In 2001, after teaching for more than 30 years at Bel Air and C. Milton Wright high schools and the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, Chance was inducted into the Harford County Public Schools Educators Hall of Fame.

For decades, Chance has written an environmental column for local newspapers called Earth Line. In 2006, he was featured in the book Weird Maryland as "the region's Bigfoot expert."

Since retiring from teaching in 1999, Chance has run nature camps for children as Ranger Bob, a name he also used years ago in appearances on the children's television show Romper Room. He has sold evergreen trees from his farm since the early 1980s, growing out his beard and dressing as Santa each holiday season.

The drug charges are not Chance's first. In 2004, he received probation before judgment on a marijuana possession charge that stemmed from a 2003 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. According to court documents, officers searching Chance's pickup truck after pulling him over found a glass cylinder containing a burnt joint in the glove compartment. He was given two years' probation for the charges.

In May, Harford County detectives and investigators from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, acting on a tip, raided his farm, court records show.

According to a statement by Harford County Deputy Sheriff Sean Marston in federal court documents, detectives found 12 marijuana plants growing outdoors, seven plants growing indoors, more than a pound and a half of packaged marijuana in freezers in outbuildings, and about 33 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Marston wrote that the number of plants growing on the property indicated to him that the marijuana was not just for personal use. And he did some math. He wrote that an average plant produces about one pound of processed marijuana and that each pound of marijuana yields about 908 joints. If Chance smoked one joint every two hours, it would take him about four years to smoke all the marijuana on his property, Marston calculated.

Detectives also found multiple marijuana joints, one of which Chance was believed to be smoking when the raid began, Marston wrote.

The details provided by Marston are under dispute, said Augustus Brown, Chance's attorney, but he declined to elaborate. Chance has filed a motion to suppress the evidence taken from his home, contending that it was obtained without probable cause and without a necessary warrant.

Chance is charged with possession of marijuana; possession of marijuana with intent to manufacture or distribute it; manufacturing or distributing marijuana; possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms; and common nuisance, which is a charge for allegedly using his property to orchestrate drug activities.

Cassilly said that the charge for manufacturing or distributing the marijuana stems from the quantity of marijuana found on Chance's property and that it is "more of a manufacturing case" than one of distribution. Other than quantity, there is no mention of evidence suggesting distribution in federal court documents.

Chance's trial is scheduled for Oct. 22. If convicted of all five counts, he will face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

In addition, the federal government has filed a civil complaint to seize his house and farm under a law that allows the taking of land used for illegal drug dealing.

According to land records, the value of Chance's property, including his home, was $267,390 as of last year. He and his ex-wife bought the property in 1978 for $88,000, records show.

The property represents his entire life savings, Chance said.

Susan Burdette, programs specialist for the Harford County Public Library, where Chance has long taught educational nature programs featuring live snakes and turtles, said she was surprised by the charges.

"He's a natural teacher," Burdette said. "A lot of the kids are scared of the snakes at first, but always by the end of the program, everyone wants to touch them."

Chance is "a party guy, and he likes to have his fun, but I never pictured him as a drug dealer or a kingpin or anything like that," said Todd Holden, who served on the board of the Susquehannock recycling center with Chance before it closed in 2004. "I've never heard anybody bad-mouth him." Chance says he isn't as robust as he used to be, having fought prostate cancer in the early 1990s and with skin cancer now. But he still plays tennis on his property's clay court. He has continued running his summer nature camps for children and recently took them kayaking, he said.

In a 1995 article about him in The Sun not long after his prostate cancer had gone into remission, Chance called tending to the property his "therapy."

"I put all the energy I have left onto this little piece of land," he said. "I come here to search for peace."

Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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