A longtime Chester teacher and combat veteran who spent his days teaching teens about patriotism, the military, honor and respect grew dozens of pounds of marijuana in a shed next to his house in Chester and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison Monday after admitting that he not only grew the pot, but smoked it as well.
Master Sgt. James Melvin Banks Sr., 52, took a plea deal and avoided a mandatory 25 years in prison. He admitted that he spent more than $4,000 on what drug agents called a “sophisticated growing house” used to grow a high-potency weed that was far stronger than “junk weed” marijuana sold on the street.
When state and local police busted Banks in July 2013, agents found almost 200 marijuana plants and almost 10 pounds of drying pot at Banks’ home on Pineview Lakes Road.
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Banks, a 22-year member of the Army with no prior criminal record who taught kids as young as kindergarten when not in special forces in combat or teaching ROTC at Chester High School, tearfully claimed the pot was for the use of himself, family and friends. Banks claimed that injuries from combat forced him to medicate himself with marijuana, saying he “started smoking at bedtime to help with pain and insomnia.”
Yet claims of sleeplessness and a bad back and shoulder turned into financial trouble and a grow house with special lights and an irrigation system.
“I couldn’t be more sorry or ashamed,” Banks told Judge Brian Gibbons. “I am a hollow shadow of the proud man I once was.”
Gibbons, the judge, was not swayed by claims that so much pot was for recreation and pain.
“That’s a lotta marijuana for personal use,” Gibbons said plainly.
Facing money troubles Banks ordered pot seeds through the mail and started the grow operation before police busted him. Police said the plants could yield almost two pounds of pot per plant – although Banks said it is far less.
Brandon Moss, a State Law Enforcement Division drug agent, testified that that super-weed that Banks was producing was “something you don’t want out in your community.”
Moss said that Banks, as a teacher, “should have kept himself to a higher standard, being involved with children.”
Banks lost his teaching job, went bankrupt and lost his home. He continues to have serious health problems that he and his lawyer say are combat-related. Banks claims he is 70 percent disabled.
Prosecutors agreed to a cap of five years in prison with a minimum of one year. Gibbons, the judge, split the difference at 3 1/2 years.
While lauding Banks’ military service and calling Banks a “patriot” for combat duty, Gibbons said that almost 200 marijuana plants that could have dumped hundreds of pounds of pot onto the streets of Chester was intolerable.
Banks also said he was solely responsible for all the marijuana and equipment that was found, saving his wife a potentially long prison term. Alison Banks, 35, his wife, pleaded guilty Monday to marijuana possession, although she too had been charged with trafficking. Evidence presented showed she was solely a daily marijuana user, and she was sentenced to time served.
Prosecutors agreed to the deals that dropped Banks’ sentence down from a mandatory minimum of 25 years for drug trafficking to a lesser punishment because Banks took responsibility and there was no evidence he sold any marijuana or that any children Banks was in contact with ever were exposed to the drugs, said Karen Fryar, 6th Circuit assistant solicitor.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065