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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ill elderly couple allowed pot operation

It was a unique reason for growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants in a barn in northeastern Washington: The elderly couple, both in poor health, desperately needed to pay their medical bills.

“They were facing impending financial ruin,” defense attorney Beth Bollinger told U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle at a sentencing hearing Friday for William and Mary Shinners.

The judge sentenced William Shinners to a year of home confinement and ordered his wife to spend one day in jail, which was accomplished Friday when she was processed for identification at the U.S. Marshal’s Office.

The Shinners said they were grateful for the court’s leniency.

When Shinners, 72, and his 64-year-old wife were indicted early last year, they faced the prospect of serving mandatory 10-year terms in federal prison because of the amount of marijuana involved.

Since then, mandatory sentencing guidelines for federal judges have become advisory.

The Shinners also both immediately began cooperating with federal drug investigators and were given credit at sentencing for providing substantial assistance to the government.

Shinners, a former firefighter and casino employee, suffers from diabetes and a heart condition. He is confined to a wheelchair and must constantly use oxygen. His wife uses a cane and suffers from arthritis.

After moving to Stevens County from Reno, Nev., they agreed to have a large barn on their property modified and turned into an indoor marijuana growing operation, authorities said.

Mary Shinners’ son, Chris Allen Cummins, was involved in building and equipping the pot farm and cultivating the crop, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington told the court.

Cummins, who has a long-standing addiction to cocaine and methamphetamine, got involved after meeting George R. Velikanje. He was convicted in Alaska in 1998 of conspiracy to import marijuana, court records show.

Velikanje has pleaded guilty to involvement in the Shinners’ marijuana growing operation and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Bollinger said Mary Shinners knew the marijuana operation started by her son and Velikanje was illegal, but thought it could bring in as much as $3,000 a month to help pay the medical bills she and her husband faced.

“She was stuck between committing a crime and staying by her husband’s side,” Bollinger told the court. “She believed there was a higher purpose.”

The prosecutor asked the court for a sentence of six to 12 months in prison for Mary Shinners and 24 to 30 months for her husband.

Harrington said other people facing staggering medical bills don’t resort to growing marijuana, but find lawful means, such as bankruptcy, to resolve those issues.

Assistant Federal Defender Tina Hunt said William Shinners should be given probation because of his deteriorating health and low likelihood of ever again breaking the law.

The judge said William and Mary Shinners both had been responsible, law-abiding citizens their entire lives.

“Given the circumstances, it seems to me there will not be a recurrence on the part of either one of them,” Van Sickle said.

Later, the judge sentenced Mary Shinners’ son to six months in custody, which will include mandatory drug treatment.

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