Robert C. Chance, a pioneering Harford County ecologist and retired high school teacher, received a two-year suspended sentence and was placed on 18 months of supervised probation yesterday for growing marijuana and possessing psychedelic mushrooms last year on his Darlington farm.
"This is a 62-year-old man who showed poor judgment," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II as he announced the ruling. "I certainly don't think he's a threat to the community. If anything, he is a threat to himself."
Chance, known as "Santa Bob" to the children who have flocked to his 7-acre farm to buy Christmas trees every year since the early 1980s, pleaded guilty in December to two drug charges. He had been charged with five counts, including possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and had faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors and Chance's attorney, Augustus Brown, later agreed that he would serve no more than six months in jail.
The case came to the Baltimore County system from Harford County, where judges recused themselves because they are well acquainted with Chance, a member of the Harford school system's Educator Hall of Fame who had served as a Bel Air town commissioner in the 1970s.
Dressed in a blue blazer and khaki trousers, and wearing a neatly trimmed goatee rather than the full beard he sports in his yearly guise as Santa Claus, Chance appeared chastened as he addressed the court.
"I have been broken," he said. "My body of work has been stained. I've embarrassed my family and friends, and I've taken this deeply within my soul." He vowed to "maintain abstinence and to work hard on my farm," and he said he hoped to continue to be "a spokesman for the planet."
After his arrest, the federal government filed a civil complaint to seize Chance's house and farm under a law that allows the taking of land used for illegal drug dealing. Chance was allowed to keep the property and to continue living there, his attorney said, after paying a $35,000 settlement in December.
"That amounts to nearly all his life savings," Brown told the court.
Since retiring from teaching in 1999, Chance has run nature camps for children as Ranger Bob. He was an early advocate of recycling, wrote a nature column for the local press and taught children's courses on nature through the Harford County Public Library.
Harford County detectives and investigators from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided Chance's Environmental Evergreens Tree Farm in May 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.
According to a statement by a Harford County deputy sheriff in federal court documents, that quantity of marijuana suggested an intent to distribute.
Chance told The Baltimore Sun in an e-mail he had used the marijuana to relieve pain that stemmed from chronic arthritis and a bout with prostate cancer.
"I have always been the independent, self-sufficient type," he wrote, and "just didn't want to deal with buying from anyone."
Brown argued for leniency, saying that his client had "faithfully completed" a 26-week outpatient recovery program at Father Martin's Ashley treatment center in Aberdeen. A fellow patient, Michelle Short of Perryville, testified to Chance's "substantial character" and called him "a grandfather of good advice" whose presence was "instrumental" to other patients trying to recover.
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly called the verdict disappointing.
"This sets an example for youth that if you don't like the laws on the books, you can write your own," Cassilly said.
With tears forming in his eyes as he left the chamber, Chance chose not to comment until he could discuss the sentence in more detail with attorneys.
Brown, standing beside his client, called the ruling "fair and understanding."
As part of his probation, Chance will perform as-yet-unspecified community service and continue in the treatment program.