A scorned woman, wads of cash, a fight over the state’s medical marijuana law, a key witness who died before testifying and, at the bottom of it all, rock ’n’ roll.
The Pierce County Superior Court trial of Stephen Wesley Ungerbuehler, former bassist for rock band Metal Church, has all the makings of an MTV reality show.
“You just can’t make this stuff up!” Ungerbuehler’s attorney, Jay Berneburg, wrote in a recent court pleading.
Prosecutors allege the cold reality is Ungerbuehler ran a marijuana-growing operation that raked in profits he laundered through his personal bank accounts.
Deputy prosecutor Karen Platt said during opening statements that Ungerbuehler’s career as a rock musician had begun to fade, but his appetite for the high life remained.
“The money was running dry, so what to do, what to do?” Platt asked. “In this case, it was to manufacture and sell marijuana.”
She contended that Ungerbuehler, 43, recruited friends and others, including his ex-wife, to help in the operation.
“He was the leader,” Platt told jurors.
Prosecutors have charged Ungerbuehler with leading organized crime, unlawfully manufacturing a controlled substance and money laundering.
Ungerbuehler has pleaded not guilty.
He says money he deposited – more than $96,000 in cash from May 2008 to June 2010 – was legitimately earned through his music businesses and that any marijuana detectives seized during multiple raids was to benefit a terminally ill friend who qualified as a medical-marijuana patient.
Berneburg told a jury of 10 women and four men – two of the jurors will serve as alternates – that the case against his client was instigated by an ex-girlfriend mad at being dumped and investigated by overzealous cops and prosecutors.
“This is a case about the war on drugs run amok,” he said.
The trial kicked off Tuesday, and Platt continued to call witnesses Wednesday, including the sheriff’s deputy who led the investigation.
Ungerbuehler was arrested and charged in August 2010 after an investigation that spanned three counties.
He makes money these days by renting time in his home studio to other bands, selling audio equipment, producing music and giving lessons, Berneburg said.
Ungerbuehler has done nothing to hide his rock-star persona for trial. His dark hair remains long and he showed up in court Tuesday wearing cowboy boots, faded jeans and a waist-length black leather jacket over a white T-shirt.
Detectives received a tip through Crime Stoppers that Ungerbuehler, who made a name for himself playing with Metal Church, had left music behind and was concentrating on illegally growing marijuana.
Investigators set up surveillance on Ungerbuehler and several homes and businesses he was known to frequent. They also used a GPS device to track his movements, court records show.
“The information revealed that Ungerbuehler uses businesses to distribute his marijuana …” prosecutors wrote in court papers. “Search warrants for seven locations tied to the defendant uncovered 182 marijuana plants.”
Detectives found 10 pounds of drying marijuana at another location connected to Ungerbuehler, court records show.
“This is a case about money,” Platt told jurors. “Follow the money. Where does the money come from? Pot.”
Berneburg told jurors prosecutors have it all wrong. Yes, deposits of nearly $100,000 in cash would be considered unusual for a work-a-day person, but in Ungerbuehler’s world it is the norm, the attorney said. Metal Church was a successful band that opened for the likes of Twisted Sister and the Scorpions during Ungerbuehler’s run with the group, Berneburg said.
“A lot of his money came from Metal Church,” he said.
The defense attorney said he would call former Steppenwolf guitarist Glen Bui as an expert witness to discuss how bands are paid – mostly in cash – and how the business of rock ’n’ roll gets done.
“It’s legitimate money,” Berneburg said of his client’s deposits.
The defense attorney wrote in court papers that the case against his client originated with an oversexed band groupie who got mad at Ungerbuehler when he decided to break it off with her and return to his longtime girlfriend. Berneburg didn’t go on at great length about the relationship in his opening statement – he called it a bad breakup – but there were mentions of sex tapes and other tawdry details in a trial brief he filed with the court.
He also scoffed at the notion of Ungerbuehler – who performed with Metal Church under the name Steve Unger – as a criminal mastermind.
Ungerbuehler began cultivating marijuana after longtime friend Janet James contracted cancer, Berneburg said. James received a doctor’s approval to use medical marijuana to treat her symptoms and designated Ungerbuehler as her sole provider, the attorney said.
“Janet was like family. She had Christmas dinner with him and his family, Thanksgiving, Easter,” Berneburg said. “He wanted to help her.”
Busy with his music business and raising two sons, he recruited friends and others to help him grow the pot, Berneburg said of his client.
“Leading organized crime? Puppet master? No,” the attorney said.
Platt pointed out in court pleadings that James died before testifying that she had in fact appointed Ungerbuehler to be her sole provider of medicinal cannabis.
The deputy prosecutor also wrote the marijuana seized by authorities far exceeded the 60-day supply allowed by law – 15 plants and 24 ounces of usable marijuana.
Authorities also found evidence Ungerbuehler used some of the marijuana himself, Platt said. As such, he can’t fall back on the “sole provider” defense, she wrote.
“He far exceeded the presumptive plant and usable marijuana limits, he failed to present the documentation to law enforcement and he failed to refrain from personal use and profit of Janet James’ marijuana,” Platt said.
The trial is expected to extend into next week.