Known as "Santa Bob" to the children who flock to his Harford County farm to buy Christmas trees, Robert C. Chance cuts a genial figure.
Dressed in bright red with white trim and sporting a fake white beard, he jovially greets customers this time of year with hot cider and cookies as his six "reindogs" - actually yellow Labradors - play around him, a tobacco pipe clenched in his teeth.
But prosecutors say Chance had been smoking something stronger earlier this year and recommended yesterday to a judge that Chance serve no less than six months in jail for growing marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms on his 7-acre Environmental Evergreens Tree Farm.
Standing before Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John G. Turnbull II - to whose courtroom in Towson the case was transferred after Harford County judges recused themselves because they are acquainted with the defendant - Chance pleaded guilty to two counts of growing and possessing the drugs.
A 62-year-old ecologist and former high school teacher who served as a Bel Air town commissioner in the 1970s, Chance had been charged in May with five counts, including possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Had he been convicted of all five charges, Chance would have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Turnbull postponed sentencing until March 9 so that he can consider a pre-sentencing report and statements from character witnesses.
"We are free to argue and try to convince the judge that he shouldn't serve any time in jail," Augustus F. Brown, Chance's lawyer, said after the hearing.
Earlier, in a trim goatee, reading glasses and black blazer, Chance firmly answered "Yes, sir," to a series of questions from Turnbull as to whether he understood, among other things, that by pleading guilty to the two charges he was waiving his right to a trial by jury.
On May 12, Harford County detectives and investigators from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided Chance's farm in Darlington and found 19 growing marijuana plants, more than a pound and a half of packaged marijuana in freezers, and about 33 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
After the raid, federal officials said they would seize Chance's farm, which he has owned since 1978, under a law that allows such forfeitures if drugs are found on the premises - regardless of whether convictions result. Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard C. Kay said by phone that his office was still negotiating the fate of the property and that the issue was unresolved.
Kay would not comment on the possibility that Chance - like some defendants in similar cases in the past - might be given the option of "buying back" his farm, a procedure under which he would pay the federal government for the value of the property, in effect paying a large fine.
Chance's lawyer said federal officials "have been very patient with us," and Brown said he hopes "for a relatively favorable outcome."