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Army veteran from Virgin Islands fights for treatment over prison after marijuana conviction

By SUZANNE CARLSON | The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas | Published: February 7, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — A St. Croix combat veteran who pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute should be granted access to services similar to those offered in a Veteran's Treatment Court, according to a memorandum filed by his defense attorney.

The veteran, Sgt. Gibbs Bully, 52, served in the Army for a decade, including nine months of combat in the Gulf War on the front lines in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, according to the memo written by his federal public defender, Kia Sears.

He was introduced to marijuana in the military in 1987 at age 20 and "increased his marijuana usage during the Gulf War, smoking it as a way to escape the atrocities he witnessed daily as a soldier in combat," Sears wrote. "Sgt. Bully used marijuana to self-medicate his headaches, leg pain, and undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD") when he was honorably discharged in 1995 and continued to do so until his arrest in this case."

Bully's case highlights the complexities of the current climate surrounding marijuana use, as states and territories grapple with how to handle marijuana's rapidly evolving legal status and advocates tout the drug's usefulness in treating conditions like PTSD.

Following his service, Bully raised two daughters while working for 13 years in the restaurant industry before becoming manager at Club Comanche Hotel from 2008 to 2014.

He relocated to be closer to his daughters but "soon found himself unemployed in Virginia with his savings dwindling," Sears wrote.

Bully was offered an opportunity to "make money fast," Sears wrote, and "unfortunately agreed to transport marijuana" from California into Nebraska. "And, while the marijuana he agreed to transport was legal in the state where he was provided it, it was illegal in the state where he was stopped. As a result, Sgt. Bully, a decorated soldier, found himself a convicted felon."

Bully was self-medicating with marijuana when he was arrested in Nebraska and underwent a mental and physical evaluation at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That evaluation led to a formal diagnosis of PTSD in 2016, and he was awarded a greater disability package than he had been previously receiving, Sears wrote.

Upon his separation from the military, Bully had been awarded a disability package that included 10 percent of the wages and benefits he'd been receiving as an active member – which remained in effect for 20 years. Following his evaluation at the Nebraska VA, that figure was boosted to 60 percent, and "he learned he was entitled to PTSD rehabilitation, drug rehabilitation, as well as four years of a college education, all at the expense of the VA," Sears wrote.

He began receiving psychological counseling and drug treatment in Nebraska, but returned to St. Croix to be closer to family, where such services were not available, Sears wrote.

In an effort to help fund a daughter's college study-abroad program, Bully again agreed to help transport marijuana, Sears wrote.

In February 2017, Bully was caught picking up a box that contained about 12 pounds of marijuana at Rohlsen Airport, and federal agents determined that Bully was retrieving the package from Nathalie Lopez, who is headed to trial on similar charges, according to court records.

In the sentencing memorandum, Sears argued that Bully's crimes were essentially non-violent, selfless acts, and he should not be made to serve time in prison.

Instead, Sears said Bully should be granted access to a Veteran's Treatment Court – a diversion system designed to help veterans facing criminal charges receive the treatment and rehabilitation they need.

"PTSD and substance abuse are both common among veterans. Recent studies show the effects war can have on mental health: one out of five veterans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTSD and one in six has a substance abuse problem," Sears wrote.

A study conducted by the Veterans Administration found the most common offense among veterans in federal prisons was a drug offense.

"His prior incarceration demonstrates that prison is not effective at addressing the root of the problem. Given his status as a combat veteran, addressing his PTSD, substance abuse, and potential moral injury has a much greater chance of ensuring that Sgt. Bully does not return to the criminal justice system."

While some states and federal district courts have established court systems specific to veterans, no such Veterans Treatment Court exists in the District of the Virgin Islands.

But, Sears wrote, there is a Veteran Justice Outreach coordinator in Puerto Rico who could refer Bully to appropriate services.

"Since his arrest, Sgt. Bully has followed all of his release conditions. He resumed working as a manager at Club Comanche Hotel. Always a man of service, Sgt. Bully volunteered his time to the Red Cross after Hurricane Maria and also worked with the Blue Roof Project as a crew lead. Sgt. Bully's actions while on pretrial release demonstrate that he would be an excellent candidate for probation," Sears wrote.

Prosecutors filed their own sentencing memorandum, saying that due to Bully's prior felony drug conviction, he faces a possible 10-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $500,000.

Under the sentencing guidelines, which include a defendant's acceptance of responsibility and other factors, prosecutors argued that Bully should be made to serve between 15 and 21 months in prison.

Prosecutors also specifically opposed the notion of Bully receiving rehabilitation services similar to that of a Veterans Treatment Court, and said his criminal history makes him ineligible for probation.

"For the foregoing reasons, the Government urges this court to reject the defendant's variance request and urges the imposition of a prison sentence within the applicable guideline range of 15-21 months," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Huston wrote in prosecutors' sentencing memorandum.

Bully is scheduled to be sentenced on March 8.

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(c)2019 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)
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