Jerry Carlson rose quickly through the ranks of the insurance industry, opening his own office as a young man and attracting some of the biggest accounts in Kootenai County.
His prominence brought wealth – wealth he shared with local charities and used to support his beloved alma mater, Coeur d’Alene High School.
But he also used that money to feed a cocaine addiction he described as “outrageous” Monday in front of a federal courtroom packed with supporters, many of them prominent North Idaho business owners.
The 48-year-old father of three and former Coeur d’Alene High booster of the year cried as he asked a federal judge to spare him from prison and find that probation would be satisfactory punishment for being caught in an undercover drug sting that dismantled his business and exposed what he says was a 20-year addiction to cocaine and alcohol.
U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush firmly declined, instead sentencing Carlson to 27 months in federal prison, followed by four years of probation.
He said probation alone “would not be appropriate in a case of this volume and of this time.”
“What message would such a sentence send to the people of this community both young and old who have been misled by Mr. Carlson?” Quackenbush asked.
Quackenbush also ordered Carlson, who said he’s been clean since his arrest in February 2009, to participate in a drug treatment program in prison. An Alcoholics Anonymous member who’s helped six people through the program, including one who testified Monday, Carlson could be a tremendous help to addicts in prison, Quackenbush said.
Successful completion of the program reduces a prison sentence by a year.
That, coupled with expected credit for good time, could mean Carlson serves about 13 months, said his lawyer, Jim Siebe. He’s to report to prison at a yet-to-be-determined date.
In weighing the request for leniency, Quackenbush compared Carlson, noting his college education and successful career, to an uneducated young Mexican man caught trying to smuggle drugs into the United States in exchange for money to feed his family.
“Who is the most culpable?” Quackenbush asked. “Without having a consumer, there would be no market for drugs.”
The judge noted that, “This isn’t an isolated matter; this is an ongoing illegal acquisition of cocaine.”
Carlson faced a standard sentence of 37 to 46 months in prison, but Quackenbush reduced the sentence by 10 months, saying that though Carlson admitting to buying cocaine with a known dealer, he doesn’t appear to have distributed the drug for profit, only for social use.
Quackenbush sentenced Carlson after a 2 1/2-hour court hearing that included testimony from a personal trainer who helped Carlson lose 100 pounds after his arrest.
Several prominent Coeur d’Alene residents submitted letters of support on Carlson’s behalf, including Lola Hagadone, wife of North Idaho millionaire developer Duane Hagadone. She joined more than 60 supporters in the courtroom.
Carlson pleaded guilty in January to attempted possession of more than 500 grams of cocaine with intent to deliver. He said Monday he only consumed drugs, never sold them, though he did admit to sharing a kilo with a known dealer.
Carlson’s arrest on Feb. 13, 2009, came after a Theodore L. Bruck, 54, a former Bayview contractor now serving time in federal prison for selling marijuana, arranged to deliver a kilogram of cocaine – which turned out to be fake – to Carlson at his insurance office on Government Way in Hayden.
Idaho State Police raided the office and found 11 grams of cocaine in three baggies, along with several tubes used to snort the drug. Employees found another 3 grams with Carlson while booking him into Kootenai County Jail, where he spent the weekend.
Carlson was such a well-known figure at Coeur d’Alene High School sporting events that administrators noticed his absence at a basketball game the night of his arrest and were nearly speechless when they learned of his charges from a reporter.
Documents show Farmers Insurance agency is paying Carlson a “substantial” amount for his business, Quackenbush said. Carlson said his independent insurance business will likely fail while he’s in prison.
Carlson said he never intended to sell the drug and said his addiction spiraled out of control when Bruck sold him the first kilo – or 2.2 pounds. Carlson said Bruck approached him about the purchase, but federal prosecutors say Carlson approached Bruck.
Carlson said the first purchase fueled his addiction to a near-lethal level.
“My life was totally consumed with (worries of) running out, or not having enough,” and he didn’t like sharing, Carlson said. “I was doing it 24 hours a day with 2-hour rest stops.”
In passionate testimony Monday, Carlson directed one comment at his prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Cook.
“If Ted Bruck wasn’t in my life I never would have bought those large quantities, and that’s the honest-to-God truth, Nancy,” Carlson said.
Cook said Carlson has not accepted full responsibility for his role in the case.
She emphasized that Carlson bought the first kilo with a known cocaine dealer who took about half of the shipment and “had quite a bit of impact in the community.”
And she said the $2,000 Carlson claims to have paid for the kilo that led to his arrest was only a final payment – he’d already paid Bruck about $19,000, Cook said.
“As you can see from this packed courtroom, he’s done a lot of good in this community,” Cook said. “Yet his own behavior with the cocaine and illegal drugs – he needs to be punished.”