Cannabis couple: Martyrs or drug dealers?

05/01/2011 12:00 AM

03/19/2012 8:39 PM

Dr. Marion P. "Mollie" Fry packs for federal prison in her red "Marijuana Medic" T-shirt.

She is an activist who wears her cause, who clutches a medical cross with a cannabis leaf, who points animatedly at her chest hollowed by radical breast cancer surgery. Her emotional account has stirred rallies demanding acceptance for the "medicine" that alleviated her suffering.

Now, in a widely followed saga, Fry, 54, and her husband, Dale Schafer, 56, are to surrender Monday to serve five years in federal prison for conspiring to produce and distribute marijuana.

They are headed to prison after spurning a plea deal that would have spared Fry any time behind bars and given her husband 1 1/2 years. They are losing their freedom, said federal Judge Frank Damrell, due to their own "self-aggrandizement" as "missionaries for marijuana" that left them feeling impervious to the law.

To California medical marijuana advocates, Fry and Schafer are martyrs for the cause. They portray the El Dorado County couple, a physician who recommended pot and an attorney who counseled patients on marijuana law, as compassionate servants who believed in the healing properties of cannabis.

"It's a sad statement that we're going to witness a cancer survivor who recommended marijuana for lawful patients going to prison," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana users.

Prosecutors say the case of Fry, 54, and Schafer, 56, might have started as a sympathetic story of a husband growing some marijuana for his ill wife – until it ballooned into a lucrative criminal conspiracy.

They say the couple raked in up to $1 million or more selling medicinal pot recommendations and luring medical clients by illegally distributing marijuana through couriers and even packages sent via United Parcel Service.

"They became very aggressive in their pursuit of this business model and they made a lot of money doing it," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento. "Unfortunately, they tried to milk the tragic side of her medical condition to develop this heroic narrative, which doesn't square with the facts."

It has been three years since Shafer and Fry were sentenced. Ten years have passed since they were raided and 12 since authorities began investigating Fry's medical clinic along Highway 49 in rural Cool and the marijuana gardens at their home on Waterfall Trail in Greenwood.

Their story chronicles the evolution of medical marijuana in California. It offers conflicting accounts about Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer, as crusaders for healing or profiteering conspirators.

Based on testimonials for them and testimony against them, both versions may be true.

Pot eased the pain

Mollie Fry grew up as the daughter of Dr. Caroline Fry, a sixth-generation family doctor, practicing Malibu nudist and notable free spirit.

Fry said her mother raised her "with fire in my belly" and a passion for medicine. She also passed down a history of breast cancer. At 10, Fry saw her mother succumb to the disease "in the worst, most frightening thing in my life."

In late 1997, Mollie Fry, having earned a medical degree from the University of California, Irvine, was home-schooling her children in a faded blue ranch house amid Ponderosa pines when she was diagnosed with fast-advancing cancer. Surgeons removed both her breasts – cutting "down to the chest wall and the circulation," she says – to save her life.

Terrified and deeply depressed, she said she endured five months of chemotherapy, during which "I threw up and threw up and threw up."

A doctor told her marijuana might ease her nausea. It worked. Fry says she "went from losing half a pound a day to maintaining a stable weight." She says pot "made my mood better. It made me want to live."

California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, legalizing the use of marijuana for medical conditions. But the rules were ill-defined. Marijuana medicine was in its infancy and legal pot wasn't easy to obtain.

Dale Schafer, a workers' compensation lawyer who represented police officers in injury cases, drove his wife to San Francisco and the Cannabis Buyers Club of Dennis Peron, an advocate who championed Proposition 215.

The cannabis club doled out an eighth of an ounce of pot at a time. The couple said Fry, sick from chemo and tormented by shooting pains, found the journey intolerable. So her husband read up on pot growing and planted marijuana behind their home near the mountaintop hamlet of Georgetown. They found their medicine and their calling.

Clinic draws a following

It wasn't long before Fry's suffering offered a public face for medicinal marijuana use.

In 1999, she appeared at the state Capitol, lighting glow sticks "for the patients who were sick and dying because they couldn't have medical marijuana."

The same year, Fry and Schafer opened the Whole Health Medical Marijuana Research Center in Cool, including a physician's clinic and legal office. They soon hosted the media in their pot garden.

Despite passage of Proposition 19, marijuana use remained a crime under federal law. But courts affirmed physicians could recommend pot without fear of prosecution – as long as they didn't aid patients in obtaining it.

Fry and Schafer charged $150 to $200 per person for medical marijuana recommendations plus legal consultations as hundreds, eventually thousands, of people came to the rural clinic.

They ran radio ads for a medicinal alternative to pills. "There is a choice," the spots said. "Medical marijuana."

Fry said she started out seeing people with "diabetes and cancer and rheumatoid arthritis." Soon her patients more often claimed sleeping problems or chronic pain.

Fry felt she had a gift of understanding. "I could touch people," she said, "where they were hurting."

Having perfected growing marijuana for his wife, Dale Schafer made a fateful decision to provide pot – for free, he insists – to other patients.

"He was looking to solve the problem of people having to pay black market prices," said Cool resident Mitch Fadel, who heads a medical marijuana advocacy group founded by Fry and Schafer. "He was disgusted with what patients were being forced to pay while driving all the way to the Bay Area."

A probe in plain sight

Convinced of the nobility of their mission, the couple invited El Dorado County narcotics officers to their garden. When Detective Robert Ashworth and a partner came in 1999, he said, he was greeted by Fry, "a very emotional and very passionate person," and Schafer, "a very likable person" who solicited his advice.

Schafer asked officers if the marijuana was an issue for federal agents. "They told us the feds had no problem with what we were doing. And when I told him I was going to give the medicine to sick people, they said they had no problem with that," he said.

Ashworth, who noted in his report there were 21 pot plants on the property that day, confirms he told them the feds weren't looking at them – because it was true at the time.

That changed after U.S. authorities contacted the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department, saying marijuana was being sent out in UPS packages under Schafer's name.

Ashworth continued visiting Fry and Schafer, now assisting the U.S. government. He said he was under no obligation to tell them of the federal drug probe.

"This was the best undercover operation I ever had," he said. "I never had to hide the fact I was a policeman."

He made small talk with Schafer about the attorney's Little League baseball team, even as he counted 43 marijuana plants in 2000, adding them to the 1999 total. Under federal law, marijuana prosecutions can be based on the number of plants observed over time. By 2001, that total would edge past 100, making the couple vulnerable to extended time in federal prison.

By then, authorities were probing a conspiracy larger than a backyard garden.

In early 2001, a real estate appraiser came to the house for an inspection for a home refinance loan. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Flynn said the appraiser found a concrete and cinder block bunker filled "with so many marijuana plants he was frightened."

The appraiser drove to the first pay phone. He called police. "He realized that he had come upon the property of drug dealers," Flynn said.

Federal authorities said Shafer and Fry were offering a marijuana service, with the doctor recommending it and the lawyer providing it.

They said Schafer formed a business – Cool Madness – that sold $400 kits, including marijuana seedlings, lights and growing materials. They alleged that he distributed marijuana from his office at his wife's practice and had couriers shuttle or mail it to paying customers.

In February 2001, federal prosecutors convicted two employees at the medical clinic of growing marijuana. They offered them leniency in exchange for cooperating in the probe of the doctor and lawyer.

Two turn informant

Mollie Fry was soon on guard for narcs posing as patients.

When a man looking like a cop came to her clinic, she guided him through range of motion exercises and said: "OK, lift up your shirt and let me see your wire."

Fry says she gave thorough exams and required medical records and a lengthy questionnaire on patients' health histories before writing marijuana recommendations.

But Ashworth said two undetected narcotics officers got them with no records and little or no exam.

Authorities alleged that Fry and Schafer took in $750,000 to $1 million from 5,000 medical pot clients from Aug. 1, 1999 to September 28, 2001, when agents served warrants on their home and business.

Paul Maggy, one of two ex-clinic employees convicted of growing marijuana, testified that it was a volume business – as Fry urged staff to bring in "a hundred patients a week." He said Schafer handed out baggies of marijuana at the office and gave a pound of pot to a South Lake Tahoe man, telling him to charge $45 per eighth of an ounce sold.

Michael Harvey, who tended the couple's marijuana gardens, said the lawyer sent him to deliver pot and collect payments from customers from Vallejo to the High Sierra. Harvey said he also mailed seven UPS packages of marijuana at Shafer's behest.

Schafer said he only permitted charging $10 for gas and never approved any mailings. He depicted Harvey and Maggy as rogue employees who sold pot on their own and testified to save themselves.

But marijuana patient Jody Ann Bollinger recalls Schafer's oldest daughter, Heather, now 35, calling to offer medicinal deliveries. She said she bought pot from an employee who had her write a check to Schafer and said, "If there were any questions, I could say it was legal fees."

Couple reject plea deal

The investigation took off as California was still trying to sort out its hazy rules for medical marijuana. And, in a conservative Mother Lode county, it targeted two people who drew attention to themselves.

Fry shared her cancer story, touting the benefits of cannabis. Schafer hosted a workshop on making pot cookies and – even after the couple's home was raided – ran for district attorney as a medical marijuana candidate.

They were indicted in June 2005 based on 110 marijuana plants – 98 counted by Detective Ashworth and 12 others seized in 2001. Prosecutors said they could have gone after the couple for 1,000 plants and seedlings.

The couple refused a plea deal of freedom for Fry and reduced time for Schafer. "I married my husband for better or worse," Fry said, sobbing in a recent interview. "I was not going to send him to prison."

Schafer's lawyer, Tony Serra, said an "ulterior motive to destroy the state medical marijuana movement" lay behind their federal trial in 2007. Prosecutor Flynn said it was about a couple enriching themselves, recommending pot and providing it "like pizza delivery."

After 10 days of trial, a jury convicted Fry and Schafer in less than three hours.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bid to void their convictions on grounds they were denied a medical marijuana defense under state law and entrapped by officers who failed to inform them their conduct was illegal.

Fry sold her practice in 2008 to another physician specializing in marijuana medicine. In 2009, the state Medical Board put her license on three-year probationary status and ordered her to get training and a psychiatric exam. Schafer is now ineligible to practice law.

Marijuana advocates, who plan to mass Monday at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, filed a clemency petition – and sent it to President Barack Obama – on behalf of the couple and their five children, the youngest now 18.

"They were not judged by an informed jury," said Jon Moore, a Garden Valley nature photographer who got a marijuana referral from Fry for pain from a broken neck. "I liken them to people found guilty for stealing a boat to save a man from drowning."

Federal prosecutor Anne Pings scoffed at tributes for a couple who broke the law and spurned a deal that could have spared them a required five years in prison. "If they are martyrs, it is because they have chosen to be martyrs," she said at their sentencing.

Long after their case began, medical marijuana in California exploded into a massive industry of pot doctors and marijuana dispensaries.

Schafer suggests that he and his wife were "10 years ahead of our time," and acted legally under state medical marijuana law. Fry likened the couple's plight to that of Galileo, the 17th-century astronomer sentenced to house arrest for defending the idea that the sun is the center of the solar system.

Ashworth says they aren't seers. They were just a couple, he said, "who went from a doctor and lawyer to drug dealers."

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