For two years a high-profile felony marijuana cultivation case against a veteran Ukiah High School teacher has hung in legal limbo while the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office debated its merits.
But now an unexplained decision by DA Meredith Lintott to suddenly forge ahead with felony prosecution of teacher Jeff Burrell has shocked his family and friends and cast his teaching career in doubt. Burrell after his 2008 arrest was placed on paid administrative leave, but when no charges were filed he was allowed to resume teaching in the Ukiah Unified School District.
Neither Lintott nor prosecutor Daniel McConnell returned telephone calls Wednesday from www.theava.com seeking comment on the unexpected turn in the Burrell case.
Lintott’s move quickly shook up a three-way race in the June election for district attorney.
Challenger David Eyster, Burrell’s attorney, accused Lintott of making an “extreme” decision for potential political gain. Eyster during his campaign has criticized the DA’s office for confusing and ineffective marijuana prosecution policies.
Eyster said he can’t help but wonder if Lintott isn’t seeking to draw political attention to his legal defense of a defendant accused in a commercial marijuana growing operation.
“At the very least taking two years on something like this is simply cruel,” said Eyster, a former prosecutor in the DA’s office.
Eyster said he wasn’t personally notified of the DA’s decision to charge Burrell as is typical in criminal cases.
Instead Burrell learned of the pending felony charges after reading a three-paragraph letter dated Feb. 25 from Lintott under the signature of prosecutor McConnell.
The letter stated Burrell is being charged with felony cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale, and ordered him to appear for an arraignment at 1:30 p.m. April 20.
A similar letter was received by Burrell friend Steve Laino, who was arrested at the same time. Their cases, however, are being treated independent of each other, according to Eyster.
Eyster said he’s mystified by the DA’s action, and the rationale behind it.
“They sat on the case for two years, and ignored our requests for information, investigative reports and other related documents,” said Eyster.
Eyster said he’s unaware of any new evidence in the case.
“I'll be really interested to see what investigation, if any, was done by the cops or the DA's office in the intervening two years to push this from a no file to a file (case),” Eyster said.
For Burrell the DA’s action returns him to the public spotlight he has avoided since his arrest, and his return to teaching last year.
The arrests of Burrell and a contractor friend in April, 2008 on suspicion of operating a commercial marijuana growing operation inside a rented warehouse rocked the school district, students and parents. It came at a time when county voters were pondering whether to repeal the county’s liberal medical marijuana guidelines.
Burrell’s most recent teaching assignment was working with students who needed extra academic help. A Humboldt State University graduate, Burrell is a former girls’ basketball coach at the high school. Burrell is a former standout athlete at Mendocino College and Humboldt State. He was inducted into the Mendocino College Hall of Fame in 2006.
Burrell’s case attracted statewide media coverage after Ukiah police and members of the county’s Major Crimes Task Force raided a commercial-style marijuana growing operation inside a rented warehouse in Ukiah.
Ukiah police contended then that Laino told investigators that he and Burrell were in “deep financial debt,” and that they had agreed to set up the indoor pot operation, sell the crops and split any proceeds “50-50.”
But Eyster said at the time that police and prosecutors were aware within 48 hours of the arrest that Laino had signed a statement clearing Burrell of any involvement.
In a signed statement, Laino said the teacher was not involved in the marijuana operation and did not have any financial interest in it. The two men shared the warehouse space and the rent, he said.
“Jeff was aware that I was trying to grow marijuana in my part of the warehouse, but he was not part of it at all,” wrote Laino.
Laino said he alone hired two men to construct what police described as self-contained marijuana growing rooms, and a processing area.
At the time, Eyster said Burrell was outraged that police portrayed him as a partner in the operation.
“I can think of no good reason for Jeff Burrell and his family to again be subjected to this sort of gamesmanship," Eyster said.
Eyster said Burrell is still teaching, “But we’ll see how long that lasts after his arraignment.”
Eyster said school district officials, given the DA’s earlier inaction, are wary of removing Burrell from the classroom until then.