Fla. fugitive won't serve extra time in prison

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 1:02 PM
Fla. fugitive won't serve extra time in prison

A man who spent more than 30 years on the lam after fleeing during his marijuana smuggling trial won't serve any additional time in prison beyond his current sentence in another case, a judge decided Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King sentenced Mark Steven Phillips to five years in prison. But that sentence will run concurrently with the sentence Phillips was previously given for a related case in North Carolina.

Defense lawyers argued Phillips, now 62, was a relatively minor player in the so-called Black Tuna Gang, which smuggled tons of marijuana into the U.S, in some cases using boats supplied by Phillips.

Phillips skipped bail during his 1979 trial. He spent years in Chile, where he married, had a son and built a successful business. Investigators say he adopted an alias, Marcus Steffan, and obtained a German passport. He then used his alias to avoid detection while he traveled to the United States, flying into the country from Chile, London, and Vancouver, according to court records.

He was caught in January at a West Palm Beach retirement community.

Defense lawyers asked for the five-year concurrent sentence. They say Phillips has bipolar disorder and noted that while he lived in luxury for many years on the run, he was destitute in recent years, living on the street and checking in and out of mental hospitals.

"If there is ever a case that has come full circle, this is that case," defense attorney Edward Shohat told the judge.

He said his client should not be punished more harshly than some of the other players in the conspiracy who were sentenced to less time in prison.

In the North Carolina case, Phillips was convicted of conspiracy to import marijuana. He was also convicted of charges related to drug smuggling in the Florida case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Wood said Phillips deserved a 15-year sentence in the Florida case. She noted his lengthy time as a fugitive and his assistance in a failed effort to recover a drug shipment bound for the U.S. that had run aground in the Bahamas. Wood also said that Phillips was present at a meeting in 1977 where other associates discussed a plan to murder a witness. She even suggested that the seafood import-export business he ran while on the lam may have been a front for further illegal activity. Wood said that in 1994, Phillips used cash to rent two penthouse apartments in New York for $10,000 a month.

"I don't think his being a successful fugitive for so long he should be rewarded," Wood said.

Shohat countered that Phillips was an honest businessman while on the run and that he used cash for the apartments because other methods of payment may have tipped off authorities to his whereabouts.

Phillips declined to make a statement when offered a chance by the judge. Dressed in tan prison garb, the balding, bespectacled gray-haired man was led from the courtroom by federal marshals.