A former state trooper is accused of conspiring with a gardening shop owner and four other men to distribute the harvest from at least 1,000 marijuana plants in the Charleston area.
Former trooper Kurt Steffen was arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charleston. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf and a judge ordered Steffen to remain in custody until a detention hearing on Monday, according to court records.
Steffen worked as a trooper for the S.C. Highway Patrol from July 2007 until his resignation on Dec. 23, 2009, said Sid Gaulden, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. He was assigned to Charleston and Dorchester counties. Gaulden said he didn't know why Steffen resigned.
Steffen, 29, is the latest figure to be named in a case targeting a marijuana ring reportedly operating in the greater Charleston area. The indictment describes various activities that allegedly took place in 2010. Authorities would not discuss whether Steffen's alleged dealings with the illicit weed extended to his time as a law enforcement officer. He has no prior criminal record.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Bianchi, who is prosecuting the case, declined to discuss specifics of the allegations against Steffen, as did Mary Gordon Baker, the federal public defender appointed to represent the former trooper.
The initial indictments in this case were handed down earlier this year against Edward Ross Atkins, 30, owner of GreenSpirit Hydrogardens in North Charleston; and Horry County brothers Ryan Ashley Harris, 35, and Christopher Harris, 31. Armando Verdugo, 23, of Charleston was added to the case in April, and authorities are still searching for one remaining suspect, court records show.
A seven-count indictment accuses the men of conspiring to move 1,000 or more pot plants and growing at least 100 of the plants. Atkins allegedly maintained a home at 31 Yeadon Ave. in West Ashley's Byrnes Down neighborhood for the purpose of cultivating the weed, the indictment stated.
It is unclear if Atkins lived in the house, as a police report lists his home address as another location in West Ashley.
Atkins' business sells hydroponic gardening supplies, which allow plants to be cultivated without placing them in soil. The shop sells a variety of gear for indoor growing, including lamps and climate-control devices, according to its website, which features photos of hydroponically grown tomatoes, broccoli and wheat grass.
The federal case against Atkins stems from his arrest by Charleston police in October on charges of manufacturing and trafficking marijuana. Trafficking charges kick in when 10 or more pounds of marijuana are involved.
Police were called to the Yeadon Avenue house on Oct. 8 after neighbors witnessed two suspicious men enter the home through a side door. Police found the men, along with about 90 marijuana plants located under heat lamps in a rear bedroom, a police report stated.
The Harris brothers have faced marijuana trafficking charges as well. Ryan Harris was caught up in a large marijuana bust last year in Dorchester County. He was one of four people arrested in January 2010 after a month-long investigation by the Dorchester County Sheriff's-Summerville Police Metro Narcotics unit culminated in the seizure of more than 300 marijuana plants and thousands of dollars worth of cultivating equipment at a Ridgeville property, authorities said.
Harris was charged with manufacturing marijuana in that case, but court records show the charge was dismissed a month later at a preliminary hearing.
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