SEOUL — A South Korean prosecutor wants a 12-year prison sentence for a U.S. soldier accused of selling synthetic marijuana, saying the harsh punishment would prove the country does not treat U.S. military crime lightly.
“There needs to be some kind of restraint on the military in the future,” prosecutor Park Hye-young said through a translator during closing arguments before Seoul Central District Court on Thursday for Pvt. Michael Lehmkuhl.
The 2nd Infantry Division soldier is one of several current or former American troops implicated in what South Korean officials have called the largest drug-smuggling ring involving U.S. Forces Korea personnel. According to previous court testimony and court officials, it involved at least a half-dozen people who helped import or sell Spice between August 2011 and January 2012.
The case has sparked widespread criticism of the U.S. military in South Korea, with one lawmaker calling USFK’s Joint Military Mail Terminal “a new drug smuggling route.” At least one package of Spice was delivered through USFK’s mail system, and several were delivered through the South Korean postal system to the Dongducheon Post Office.
Authorities announced earlier this fall they had confiscated a record amount of drugs shipped through the U.S. military mail system in the first nine months of 2012; most appeared to be connected to the Lehmkuhl smuggling ring.
Details about the ring remain unclear, though Park cited publicity about the “scandal” as a reason for his sentence recommendation. A court spokeswoman declined Friday to say how much Spice was imported, saying the case was “too long and too complicated.”
She said at least eight people were involved in the ring, though only three have been indicted – Lehmkuhl, his best friend and former USFK soldier Arin Bergquist, who is also being tried and a third individual whose full identity was unavailable.
Uijeongbu District Court sentencing documents show a fourth person was convicted Aug. 24 for helping Bergquist smuggle 1,331.98 grams of Spice and sentenced to two years and six months in prison, though his sentence was suspended for three years. He was only identified in the documents as a U.S. soldier.
The military has declined requests to provide information about troops involved in the ring.
Park’s recommendation would be the most severe prison sentence levied against a U.S. servicemember in South Korea in recent memory. Pvt. Kevin Lee Flippin was given 10 years last fall for brutally raping a South Korean teenager, the longest sentence imposed in nearly 20 years.
Lehmkuhl, who has admitted to selling Spice, said in Thursday’s hearing that Bergquist told him that selling certain blends of the drug was legal in South Korea, and he was never involved in purchasing the drug.
He apologized to judges and told them he would lose his military career and benefits if convicted, and that his family was dependent on him.
“I did what I did and I know I have to accept the consequences,” he said.
Park recommended Thursday that Bergquist be sentenced to seven years because he provided information about the smuggling ring to investigators.
Park also recommended that Lehmkuhl and Bergquist be fined roughly $12,400 and $11,900, respectively. Both will be sentenced Dec. 18.