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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Arizona man says he’s trapped in Coeur d’Alene fighting an illegal search that landed him in prison for marijuana trafficking

Wylie Hunter lives in a cramped Coeur d’Alene basement apartment, telling his story of a decade-long incarceration on marijuana trafficking charges through teeth mangled by chattering from an untreated staph infection.

“This has been a 12-year battle,” the Scottsdale, Arizona, man said. “This is all I think about.”

In a room full of banker’s boxes brimming with court records dating to 2007, some of which prosecutors insisted for years were destroyed, sit a leg brace and bottles of nutritional supplements, a small computer monitor and a bed barely large enough to hold the frame of the former body builder. Here, and at public computers in the nearby downtown library, is where Hunter works to overturn a conviction for a crime he admits he committed and pleaded guilty to, but argues is tainted by the tactics law enforcement and court officials used to put him in prison.

In his legal battle, Hunter’s goal is to prove the search that led to the drug trafficking charge had been illegal, get his sentence adjusted and get back to the family he’d left behind in Arizona.

Despite a desire to return to Arizona, Hunter must stay in Kootenai County per the terms of his parole.

The case dates to September 2007 when Idaho State Police officers arrested Hunter outside of Coeur d’Alene. In the back of a rented Chevy sedan Hunter was driving that afternoon, officers discovered 75 pounds of British Columbia-grown weed, worth $225,000 on the street, according to arresting officers.

The arrest launched the legal battle that the former gym owner is now taking back to the state police officers and prosecutors who put him behind bars.

“This is a case of corruption,” Hunter said last month, from a meeting room in the downtown Coeur d’Alene Public Library where he makes legal copies with the pocket change left over from Social Security payments and the $200 monthly rent he pays for the basement apartment in a halfway house that he says used to be referred to as “the dungeon.”

Last week, Hunter filed in federal court in Idaho on his own behalf fraud claims against the Idaho attorney general’s office, the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office and the Idaho State Police.

Along with his claims are signed letters from records custodians, attorneys and law enforcement officials claiming that reports and evidence from that 2007 traffic stop, including dash camera video, were destroyed and thus unavailable to defense attorneys.

But Hunter got his hands on those paper records shortly after his release on parole two years ago, and rules of procedure and state laws should prohibit police in Idaho from destroying video evidence related to felony cases.

Representatives from the attorney general’s office, prosecutor’s office and Idaho State Police all declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation. So far, trial and appeals courts have sided with law enforcement, ruling that even if a video recording of the traffic stop existed, it’s not certain the evidence contained on it would prove an illegal search.

Hunter is hoping a local attorney will agree to take up his fraud case, now that he’s filed the case and completed most of the legwork himself.

“Now it’s filed in court and they can see the evidence,” Hunter said. “It’s a very rare case.”

‘We’d hike it with hockey bags’

Hunter says there’s no way he would have been speeding and driving erratically that Labor Day weekend afternoon on U.S. Highway 95.

“It’s not like we were smoking marijuana, eating cheeseburgers and weaving in and out of traffic,” said Hunter, who was driving that day with then-23-year-old Chase Storlie, a friend of his son. “It’s one lane up there, all the way.”

But that’s precisely what ISP Detective Terry Morgan radioed to Trooper Ronald Sutton just before 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2007.

“He said the vehicle was traveling at 75 miles per hour, in a posted 65 mile per speed zone,” Sutton wrote in his report of the arrest. “Detective Morgan also advised the vehicle made two lane changes without signaling.”

Hunter would later discover that the Idaho State Police had searched his motel room earlier that summer, part of a yearslong investigation of suspected drug trafficking that included testimony from Storlie’s romantic partner, whom he’d told about the smuggling. Morgan had left his card and contact information with the Avis car rental location in Coeur d’Alene that Hunter used to rent Chevy Impalas for his trips to the border and back, advising the agents to call him if Hunter rented a car.

Hunter says now that the ISP was on his tail because they didn’t like what he called a legitimate business importing Harley-Davidson motorcycles across the border. He’d pick up overnight titles and sell the bikes and some cars to dealers throughout the country.

“When I moved up here to Coeur d’Alene in ’89, they didn’t like me,” Hunter said. “They thought, in order to be able to do that, that I was doing something illegal.”

The work dried up in the early 2000s as Harley-Davidson dealerships were built in the area, Hunter said. He began smuggling Canadian-grown, medical-grade cannabis across the border that he sold in Arizona. As a gym owner, Hunter said he was speaking with sports medicine doctors who were extolling the pain-easing and appetite-increasing virtues of marijuana.

Hunter had watched a brother waste away while receiving cancer treatments; he says now that his actions were vindicated because of the legalization of medical marijuana in more than two dozen states.

“Sports doctors were telling me how cancer patients were getting through their cancer treatments because they had an appetite,” Hunter said. But in Arizona that drug was not legalized for medicinal use until three years after Hunter’s arrest.

Medical marijuana was legal in Canada at the time, as well as in Washington, but remained a controlled substance in Idaho. And even though the U.S. Justice Department released a memo in 2013, six years after Hunter’s arrest, indicating it would prioritize certain marijuana prosecutions over others, the memo also stated it would continue federal prosecutions in cases that included the movement of marijuana from states where it was legal to those where it wasn’t.

The Idaho State Police continues to report large seizures of marijuana on the interstates through the Gem State, including a 7,000-pound seizure of plants in January, believed to be the largest in the agency’s history.

In those moments as Hunter, Storlie and the state trooper waited for a drug-sniffing dog in Coeur d’Alene, there was no mention of marijuana. And for good reason, Hunter said – he packed the drug in hockey duffel bags, double vacuum-sealed and lined with wheel grease.

“We’d hike it with the hockey bags, you know, the goalie bags,” Hunter said. “Shorten the straps up, have them re-stitched and use them like backpacks.”

An agent at the Avis car rental firm where Hunter picked up the sedan would later swear in court that the smell was so bad in the car that it had to be detailed in Spokane, using Hunter’s credit card to cover the costs. A mechanic testified that the air filtration system in the Chevy would have shot air from the trunk directly toward where troopers stood outside Hunter’s window.

Hunter said that evidence, along with the dash cam video and testimony from his own expert witness who never got a chance to testify, would show the smell wasn’t overpowering and the ventilation system on the Chevy wouldn’t have shot air to where Trooper Sutton was standing and said he noticed “the extremely faint odor of raw Marijuana coming from the vehicle.”

Thus there was no probable cause to search the Chevy, Hunter insists. But even in states that have legalized the drug, like Washington, courts often give wide leeway to investigators citing the smell of pot as a reason to search.

“When he got in the car, that was illegal,” Hunter said of the trooper. “They hadn’t even mentioned on the audio that they’d smelled marijuana.”

But officers opened the trunk and discovered the drugs, a search that the courts and prosecutors have said was warranted not only by the smell of marijuana but also their previous investigation into the case. For Hunter, who was on probation at the time after pleading guilty to smuggling cash across the border, significant jail time loomed.

The long-lost records

Just a few days after being booked into Kootenai County Jail on the drug charge, Hunter said, he noticed what he believed was a small spider bite on his left shoulder. That was after spending a night in a small cell with two drug users after his arrest, Hunter said.

“I stood up in the corner all night, and just watched them throw up and puke,” Hunter said.

The wound swelled, and eventually Hunter lost hearing in his left ear and the left side of his face became swollen. The bite was actually a staph infection, doctors would later tell Hunter, and a separate federal lawsuit he filed in 2010 alleges the worst symptoms occurred just as he was pleading guilty in court to the drug charge. Hunter said he cut his sores open with a razor in an effort to get rid of the infection.

“I had porcelain-capped teeth,” Hunter said. “My teeth were chattering so much with infection, day and night, that I started spitting out the porcelain.”

James Siebe, a defense attorney who took up Hunter’s post-conviction proceedings in which he alleged ineffective assistance of counsel, described a client scarred by the effects of the untreated infection.

“He had decaying parts of his face and his teeth were noticeably ground,” Siebe said in a deposition filed in June 2013.

Hunter asked to have the lawsuit dismissed soon after he filed it in 2010, according to federal court records, citing an inability to adequately prepare for the case while imprisoned.

As his marijuana trafficking criminal case continued in the Idaho courts, Hunter said prosecutors threatened to charge his wife with crimes. Sentencing paperwork shows that prosecutors intended to charge him with racketeering, and Hunter said his family was threatened with prosecution as well.

Siebe, who earlier worked with Hunter to obtain evidence after a request was made to toss a prior guilty plea in the case, said in sworn testimony it appeared that the ISP and the prosecutor in charge of the case, Ann Wick, appeared to take it “quite personal” and that they were dead-set on imprisoning him. Siebe noted that Wick wrote comments in the margins of sentencing paperwork that appeared to be mocking Hunter, things like “too bad” or “I feel sorry for you.”

“This case had a feel of exceptional emphasis like a point had to be made,” Siebe wrote in a court record. “That’s kind of where I come from. With (Wick), especially with Terry Morgan.”

Hunter and his wife divorced while he was behind bars, and Hunter said he missed seeing his four children grow up as he spent 10 years of a 15-year sentence in an Idaho prison.

“This ruins your family,” Hunter said. “When you’re gone 10 years, your kids get 10 years older. Their lives change. They get married. They have babies. They go through things. I wasn’t there for anything.”

Hunter served his time at the Idaho State Correctional Center, where he was assigned to the gang wing and spent his days researching the law with other inmates hoping to get his conviction overturned. Upon his release on parole in 2017, he worked with multiple attorneys in an attempt to get case files he knew existed, but which prosecutors and investigators legally swore had been destroyed, either in 2013 or 2015.

After a decade of insisting video evidence and a case file existed that Hunter believed would throw doubt on the smell basis for a search, a parole hearing for his cash smuggling case in Seattle finally divulged that the case files existed and were being held in Meridian, Idaho, at ISP headquarters. A prosecutor who’d been hoping to prove Hunter had been violating his parole when he traveled to Canada to pick up the drugs inadvertently revealed in court the existence of the records Hunter had been told over and over again were destroyed.

“When I got the case files, they were never destroyed,” Hunter said, chuckling. “This is huge.”

The dash camera video, however, appears to have been destroyed in what police and prosecutors are calling a labeling error. The Idaho State Police are required to retain records for felony cases and those related to deaths permanently, while those of other cases are destroyed every five years. The paper reports of Hunter’s arrests exist, but a copy of the dash cam video was apparently erased in February 2013 in routine purging.

Hunter believes the video recording does exist, based on records that indicate a copy was made for local prosecutors during his initial criminal trial. He’s demanding a copy of the video be provided now, 12 years later.

Attorneys for the state are now insisting in court that the erasure of the original video was a bureaucratic error, not a willful one.

“The destruction of the evidence was because of an erroneous log entry that the video did not relate to a felony,” state attorneys argued in an appellant briefing on Hunter’s marijuana trafficking case that is now before Idaho appellate courts.

But the fight still isn’t over.

An unlikely fight

Hunter’s legal complaint against the courts in Idaho reads like a who’s who of law enforcement. He’s named Gov. Brad Little, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, several civilian employees of the Idaho State Patrol and the head of the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office.

All of them, he says, have some culpability in denying him the ability to mount an effective legal defense for himself. He’s struggled to find an attorney to represent him, he said, because the lawyers he talks to fear an inability to practice after accusing those in the legal system of lying to keep him incarcerated.

“They’re going to just blackball you, if you go against the prosecutors, the judges and police,” Hunter said.

Hunter brought an action to vacate his sentence in state court, based on the revelation of the new records. His attorney didn’t file the records until the hours before the hearing last spring, and the judge hearing the case declined to consider the evidence and tossed his claims. That question is now before appellate courts in Idaho.

Hunter said he’s continuing the fight for himself so he can return to Arizona and get the medical attention he needs for the lingering effects of the staph infection and injuries sustained in a prison van crash in Western Washington. He said he would get better faster if he could be closer to his family in Arizona.

But he said he’s also fighting to uphold the protections that should be afforded to criminal defendants, especially considering the sea change in support for medicinal marijuana that’s occurred since he was first sent to prison a decade ago.

“We have constitutional rights, this is not a Third World country,” Hunter said. “This is America.”

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