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Montana man sentenced to 4 years in federal prison for growing at least 1,000 marijuana plants

MISSOULA, Mont. — A Montana man was sentenced Thursday to four years in federal prison following his guilty plea to growing marijuana, announced U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter, District of Montana.

Dan James Nichols, 47, from Belgrade, Mont., was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen. Nichols will also forfeit $288,000 and will be on supervised release after he completes his 48-month prison sentence.

Nichols was sentenced in connection with his guilty plea to conspiracy to maintain drug-involved premises.

In an Offer of Proof filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joseph E. Thaggard, Paulette L. Stewart, and Jessica T. Fehr, the government stated it would have proved the following at trial:

  • Richard Flor, Sherry Flor and Justin Flor manufactured marijuana at an annual outdoor grow operation maintained on the premises of the Flor residence in Miles City between 2006 and 2010.
  • In early 2009, several individuals, including Thomas Daubert and Christopher Lindsey, decided to join the Flors in manufacturing and distributing marijuana in Montana. Ultimately, commencing about April 2009, those involved in the conspiracy grew marijuana at various Montana locations, including: at the Flor residence in Miles City, at least one location near Three Forks, and at a series of large greenhouses comprising the former State Nursery in Helena. Once manufactured, the marijuana was distributed from various Montana points, including locations in Helena, Missoula, Billings, and the Flor residence in Miles City. The process operated under the name Montana Cannabis."
  • Around the summer of 2010, Nichols moved to the premises on which the State Nursery is located. Witnesses would have testified that Nichols assisted in various operations at the facility, including acting as an armed security guard.
  • In 2010, law enforcement began investigating the drug trafficking crimes. A cooperating witness would have testified that he/she assisted members of the conspiracy to manage money generated by selling the marijuana. Members of the conspiracy deposited money into bank accounts that was generated from selling the manufactured marijuana. The witness would have testified that, once in the bank accounts, the money was used to promote the conspiracy by providing compensation to the co-conspirators, or providing funds to finance the continued production and distribution of marijuana.
  • Bank records related to the conspiracy showed that in excess of $1 million was deposited in the various bank accounts used to promote the conspiracy.
  • On March 14, 2011, law enforcement searched the Flor residence in Miles City and the greenhouses located in Helena, as well as locations in Billings, Helena, and Missoula from which marijuana was distributed.
  • Law enforcement seized about 950 marijuana plants from the greenhouses located at the former State Nursery in Helena. Agents encountered Nichols while searching the premises at the State Nursery. Nichols emerged from a camp trailer and was wearing an empty holster. Agents recovered firearms, including at least one pistol, from the camp trailer. Agents also seized other firearms from other locations on the premises of the State Nursery.
  • Law enforcement also seized marijuana ready for sale from distribution points maintained by the conspirators in Helena, Missoula and Billings, as well as the Flor residence in Miles City. A number of firearms were also seized from the Flor residence.
  • The conspiracy involved growing at least 1,000 marijuana plants and at least 100 kilograms of a substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana.
  • On Aug. 12, 2011, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office deputies patrolled the grounds of "Rockin' The Rivers" concert in Jefferson County. They smelled marijuana and observed an apparent drug deal taking place among several males. They would have testified Nichols had two clear bags of a substance he was preparing to distribute to another male.
  • The deputies would have testified they approached Nichols, who they told to sit down. Instead, Nichols began throwing away plastic bags containing suspected marijuana, as well as a brown material. Nichols began to run away, refused to heed their directions to stop, and was ultimately subdued with the assistance of a bystander.
  • The plastic bags Nichols discarded were recovered and a forensic chemist for the Montana Division of Forensic Sciences would have testified the brown material contained 0.70 grams of a substance containing a detectable amount of opium, a Schedule II controlled substance.

Because there is no parole in the federal system, the "truth in sentencing" guidelines mandate that Nichols will likely serve all of the time imposed by the court. In the federal system, Nichols does have the opportunity to earn a sentence reduction for "good behavior." However, this reduction will not exceed 15 percent of the overall sentence.

The investigation was conducted by the following federal, state and local law enforcement agencies: the Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI; the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division; U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These federal agencies were assisted by the following agencies: the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces, the Northwest Drug Task Force, the Kalispell Police Department, the Flathead County Sheriff's Office, the Missoula Police Department, the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force, the Great Falls Police Department, the Cascade County Sheriff's Office, the Central Montana Drug Task Force, the Billings Police Department, the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, the Eastern Montana High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force, the Dillon Police Department, the Beaverhead County Sheriff's Office, the Park County Sheriff's Office, the Bozeman Police Department, the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, the Belgrade Police Department, the Missouri River Drug Task Force, the Helena Police Department, the Lewis & Clark Sheriff's Office, and the Eastern Montana Drug Task Force – Miles City.