A federal judge on Friday handed down a six-year prison term and $20,000 fine to a woman who helped transport thousands of pounds of marijuana hidden in suitcases on flights from California to Ohio.
U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley acknowledged that Lisette Lee appeared to understand the seriousness of what she got involved with when she began coordinating flights on her family's private jet in 2009.
But Marbley said the impact of so much marijuana on the streets of Columbus was "immeasurable," and he questioned how someone who came from such a privileged background could have participated in such a far-reaching conspiracy.
"I don't want you to take this as a slap on the wrist," said Marbley. "Six years in prison is hard time. It's not inconsequential."
He called her "a glorified courier with some responsibility."
Because Lee has already been in jail nearly a year, she'll serve closer to five years.
In a short statement, Lee said there was no way to describe the regret and shame she felt for her involvement and the effect on her family.
"It makes me sick to my stomach that I turned my back on the integrity they raised me with," Lee said. She also said she didn't want this to become a distant experience.
"I want this to be a life-long anchor so I'll never engage in anything so foolish and dangerous again," she said.
Earlier this week, Lee, originally from Los Angeles, wrote Marbley saying she regrets getting involved in drugs and asking that her sentence be no more than the year she has already spent in jail.
Lee's attorney, Joseph Reed, tried to downplay Lee's involvement on the Ohio end of the scheme. He said Lee often just stayed in a hotel and went shopping at a nearby upscale mall until the marijuana distribution was done.
The sentence was eight months short of what the government asked for, but assistant U.S. attorney Tim Pritchard said prosecutors were satisfied.
The government said Lee was recruited as the "face" of the operation because of her personal wealth and access to a private plane and pilot.
Pritchard said Lee apparently received money from her Japanese father who is in the casino business in Japan.
Earlier, Pritchard reminded Marbley that Lee brought people close to her into the conspiracy, including her bodyguard and her hotel doorman, and was earning at least $20,000 per trip.
Had investigators not stopped the scheme, "Who knows how long it would have gone on?" Pritchard said.
Lee pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana
Marbley agreed to request Lee serve her time in a low-security California prison for female inmates with a rehabilitation program that could reduce her sentence if she completes it successfully. He rejected a request Lee be released from jail and allowed to travel on her own to the prison.
Federal authorities say Lee was the primary courier for a scheme that distributed about 7,000 pounds of marijuana and made more than $3 million from November 2009 through April 2010.
After her arrest in in June 2010, Lee told investigators she planned to visit a boyfriend and transport equipment to a horse farm. She also said a friend paid her $60,000 to take suitcases from Los Angeles to an unattended hotel room in Columbus, stay for a few days and return with fewer pieces of luggage, the government said.
Lee later told investigators that she and her entourage knew the horse story was phony and that they were likely involved with "weapons and money laundering or something," authorities wrote in court papers.
Lee's lawyers argue that the year she has spent in custody is enough time behind bars and a long period of supervision would deter her from future crimes. They also said she was approached by a co-defendant, David Garrett, because of her naivety and her access to her family's private jet.
Garrett, accused of supplying the marijuana for Lee to transport, was sentenced in April to 10 years and one month in prison after pleading guilty last year to distributing more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana.
Six people have either pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty since prosecutors announced their indictment last year. Pritchard said prosecutors have also filed criminal complaints against two additional defendants from Arizona.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.