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The Haymaker: How Prohibition Aided a Pennsylvania Murder Spree

July 17, 2017
(Matt Rourke/AP)

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s weekly column on cannabis politics and culture.

Mark Sturgis and Thomas Meo would be alive today if they lived in Nevada. They would be enjoying the summer sunshine if Oregon were their home. Or Washington. Or Colorado. Or Alaska.

Had they lived in a legal state, Mark Sturgis and Thomas Meo would still be alive today.

But Sturgis and Meo had the misfortune to reside in Pennsylvania, where marijuana remains illegal. So today their families are grieving and law enforcement officials are investigating their gruesome murders in Solebury Township, a small town in rural Bucks County, north of Philadelphia.

Sturgis and Meo were two of the four young men who went missing in Bucks County shortly after the July 4 holiday. After a statewide search, their remains were found last week in a deep grave dug by a backhoe on a farm belonging to the parents of 20-year-old Cosmo DiNardo. DiNardo and his friend Sean Kratz were arrested and charged with murder last Thursday. Later that day DiNardo confessed to participating in all four killings in a plea deal that spared him the death penalty.

 

The outlines of the crime, as alleged by state law enforcement officials, are appalling in their cruelty and stupidity.

As Joel Achenbach and Mark Berman reported in the Washington Post:

Authorities described a scenario that was repeated three times in early July: The young men were lured to the farm with the promise of marijuana deals, they were shot — one was also run over with a backhoe — and then they were buried on the private property in holes dug with the backhoe. Three of the bodies were put in a large tank, set ablaze, and then dumped into a deep grave, authorities said.

The first to die, according to authorities, was Jimi Patrick, a 19-year-old Loyola University student. Two days later Dean Finocchiaro, also 19, was allegedly killed on the farm. Later that night DiNardo met up with Mark Sturgis, 22, and Thomas Meo, 21. Sturgis and Meo were seeking cannabis, which DiNardo offered to sell. They followed DiNardo to the farm and met the same fate as Patrick and Finocchiaro.

These are horrifying and senseless crimes.

They’re all the more outrageous because they didn’t have to happen.

DiNardo and Kratz, if the police reports are true, were clearly looking to kill. But if not for prohibition, at least two of their victims never would’ve fallen for their ploy.

Mark Sturgis, 22 years old.

Patrick and Finocchiaro were both under 21. But Sturgis and Meo were of age. In any of America’s five fully legal states, they could have parked Meo’s Nissan Maxima in front of a state-licensed cannabis store, browsed a wide selection of products, and driven home with their purchase. End of story.

But there are no cannabis stores in Pennsylvania, where prohibition remains in effect for everyone except medical marijuana patients (who as yet have no way to access medicine or register their status with the state; meaning they’re left to buy from illegal dealers, too). In fact, as Philadelphia reform advocate Chris Goldstein has reported, marijuana arrests actually spiked last year in Bucks County. From 2010 to 2015, local authorities averaged about 900 small-time cannabis arrests per year. In 2016, that number jumped to more than 1,250.

 This chart, prepared by Chris Goldstein, originally appeared on Philly.com.

 

 A Convenient Lure

Without a legal option, Sturgis and Meo sought their cannabis the old-fashioned way: By connecting with a sketchy local dealer, whom they agreed to follow to a creepy old farm out in Solebury Township.

 

Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, according to the Post, “emphasized that law enforcement officials were not making any moral judgments about the slain men in outlining the marijuana deals police say were used to draw them in.”

Funny. When a man is horribly murdered while on his way to the Stop ‘N Shop to pick up a half-rack of Pabst, we generally don’t go out of our way to announce forgiveness for his errand of wicked intent. What does it say about law enforcement officials’ attitude toward marijuana that police have to explicitly state that they don’t blame the victim of a gruesome murder?

Residents and visitors to Colorado spend more than $100 million a month on cannabis products. During the first four days of retail cannabis sales in Nevada, consumers there laid down more than $3 million. Would the law enforcement officials of Pennsylvania care to make any moral judgments about them? Of course not.

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Legality and the Illicit Market

Two of the victims in this case were under 21, so an adult-use law might not have prevented them from making a black-market buy. But it would have made it more unlikely. Adult-use legalization doesn’t eliminate the illicit market overnight. It starves and winnows back-alley sales channels slowly, over time. I know some consumers in Colorado and Washington who held on to “their guy” for months after legal stores opened. But that relationship usually ended after the customer’s first trip to a state-regulated shop, where the quality and choice make the dealer’s cheap baggie of shake seem like a ripoff. Most of those who held out ultimately abandoned the illicit market for state-licensed shops as market prices invariably fell.

There is no magic wand. Legalization doesn’t make every illegal cannabis seller disappear—but it does dry up demand to the point where the occupation of “weed dealer” becomes almost as rare as “booze dealer.”

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Time to Rethink Prohibition

Back in January, reform advocate Goldstein asked incoming Bucks County Attorney General Matthew Weintraub how his office planned to handle the 1,000+ cannabis cases expected in 2017.

56% of Pennsylvanians now support full adult legalization.

“I think we’re going to handle it on a case-by-case basis,” Weintraub said. “There are occasions where we would seek to prosecute to the full extent, but a majority are negotiated to some sort of guilty plea.”

Goldstein pointed out that simple marijuana possession was the most-arrested drug related crime in Bucks County.

“It brings to bear a great question whether we are getting the best value for our prosecution and law enforcement manpower efforts in focusing on this or more serious crimes,” Weintraub replied. “Right now this is the law on the books and we will enforce it,” he said, though he promised to “look at this issue critically going forward.”

According to the latest poll published in May, 56% of Pennsylvanians believe cannabis should be legalized for all adults. Now might be a good time for that critical look.

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Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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  • FlunkedAgain

    Uh, this was Robbery. Were the victims found with their money on the bodies? Did they steal or burn the money along with the victims?

    It could have been drugs, or stolen goods, or basically anything the victims were willing to pay for.

    There is still the potential of Federal Charges, unless the Plea Deal was carefully crafted.

    • Gary Craig

      This is unfortunate for the four men. Just another instance where prohibition rears its ugly head. This unjust law can’t be repealed soon enough!

  • Snoflax

    I live in Washington state. Despite what is claimed in this article, most people, especially patients, either grow or go through the black market. The rec shops do not carry the products patients need and the cost is way too high for what you get. A OZ at a rec store here can cost over $300, while the black market rate runs between $100-$250 an OZ. That is a big price difference. As far as quality, the black market is just as good or better than what is sold in the shops. I do not think legalization would have prevented these murders. Unless legal price and quality can match the black market and until the limits on the amount of cannabis one can buy and possess are done away with there will still be people going to the illegal market to buy what the legal market can’t give them.

  • Kristofor Gullickson

    Due Process violaters and NO politics within our entire criminal justice system…….Past, Present, and Future…….Hearings, Tribunals, anywhere Due Process should be afforded every American……..
    Anywhere and Anybody that are abusing and exploiting people like me……..

    Oh yeah, anyone who looks past the senseless murders in this article has got to be horse whipped……..In California there is some sort of law that requires that certain Charges to be filed against anybody’s death that was the result of any crime involving drugs……..One such case was dubbed the “Reckless Indifference Boys”………Look it up………California has had the legal Marijuana Business dialed in for some time now, challenging and correcting, and challenging again……..It is no easy thing to do trying to incorporate some of the blurry lines when we are speaking of law, order, and justice……..There is nothing that can justify the premature loss of life in any way, I can see the argument here and believe in it……..BUT, let’s consider that despite its legal status within a given state, there are still many, many hurdles that must be climbed before we as the people, can call the movement a victory that puts the Fed to shame……..For example, in Colorado many, many Pioneers, some of the most gracious and loving people were murdered as well………Why???? What exactly were these 4 kids promised???? A simple sampling, a cigarette or was it bulk bushels or whatever???? Marijuana, when it comes down to it, is a “Cash Crop”………Money, Money, Money………Do you think that when someone actually dies from Cancer, that smoking Marijuana as a Carcenogenic cannot or will not be ruled out as the culprite???? The is NO Surgeon General’s Warning………Could Murder charges be brought up on the countless people who have died by inhaling the mostly filterless smoke???? We must realize and respect what people have already been through…….The businesses that were so scrutinized, taxed, and sued are probably NOT going to just forget about all of it…….AND how could we???? Exploitation and Abuse of someone’s death in ANY way is NOT the way to go here people………We must be vigil, articulate, and respectful of ALL life if we are going to speak about anyone’s death……..Especially if you want to justify living and Loving Life……..I cannot understand how in death, that Life can be Exploited and Abused so much as well, but it is!!!!! Lets not play politics with Marijuana……..Educate, do not legislate……..Hell, my Grandmother, a direct descendant of such tragedy dating as far back as Immigrants who had to fight for the Union in the Civil War, was a patient in the 1980’s………Do you realize how long this stuff has really been around, please, I understand the logic and I understand the reasoning, really I do……….Life and Death is NOT a Game, and we do not need to be pulled in all directions about these issues……….Someone who is not as strong as you, or me, someone who may not have been able to hang on long enough, right or wrong………Someone, like you or me, who is certain to already be gone in some way because of it………Peace