As a rock ’n’ roll bassist, Stephen Wesley Ungerbuehler has performed in shows across the globe, but he might have played his most important gig ever this week in downtown Tacoma.
Ungerbuehler, 43, spent nearly four hours Tuesday and Wednesday on the witness stand in Pierce County Superior Court, answering questions about his personal finances, marijuana use and integrity.
It wasn’t an easy gig for Ungerbuehler, who at one point called the criminal case against him “this nightmare.”
He’s charged with leading organized crime, money laundering and unlawfully growing marijuana.
Deputy prosecutor Karen Platt says Ungerbuehler, who played with the hard rock band Metal Church from 2003 to 2009, ran an illegal marijuana-growing operation that raked in profits he laundered through his personal bank accounts. Platt also told jurors Ungerbuehler recruited friends and acquaintances to help him.
Ungerbuehler testified that the money he deposited – more than $96,000 in cash from May 2008 to June 2010 – was legitimately earned through his music businesses and sales of personal property. He also told jurors, under questioning from his attorney, Jay Berneburg, that any marijuana he grew was to benefit a friend sick with cancer and authorized to use cannabis as medicine.
The trial kicked off July 31 and has been contentious, with Judge Frank Cuthbertson reminding both sides on more than one occasion to remember they’re involved in a serious court case and not a back-alley donnybrook.
There have been allegations of intimidation on both sides stemming from a near collision between Platt and Ungerbuehler in a County-City Building hallway last week, and Cuthbertson reminded Berneburg more than once not to lead his client during questioning.
The judge on Wednesday stopped court to admonish Platt for a statement she made in front of jurors that disparaged Ungerbuehler and Berneburg.
Platt had just begun her cross-examination of Ungerbuehler when she commented that it was her understanding that the defendant and his lawyer got together to “drink beer and watch midgets be thrown.”
Cuthbertson immediately told jurors to disregard Platt’s comment and to go into the jury room. Once the jury room door closed, Cuthbertson, who appeared to struggle to maintain his composure, laid into Platt.
“So counsel, I’m going to formally admonish you about what I would consider prosecutorial misconduct,” the judge said. “That comment was inappropriate, it was prejudicial, and it was unnecessary.”
Cuthbertson went on to say that Platt knew better and, as a deputy prosecutor, had a duty to ensure the defendant received a fair trial.
“It’s not to win at all costs,” said the judge, adding he intended to speak with Platt’s supervisor after the trial.
The deputy prosecutor said nothing during Cuthbertson’s lecture.
When the jury returned to the box, Platt resumed her cross-examination, pressing Ungerbuehler for precise details about his finances over the past few years – where he got his money, into which accounts he deposited it.
At one point, she implied his having large amounts of cash around the house was unusual.
“I didn’t know I had to run to the bank every time I got some cash,” Ungerbuehler retorted.
Platt also pounded away at Ungerbuehler regarding the marijuana he says he helped grow for his friend, Janet James, who contracted cancer and died recently.
State law allows a person designated as a sole provider of medicinal cannabis for an approved patient to have 15 plants and 24 ounces of usable marijuana in his or her possession. Sheriff’s deputies seized 10 pounds of drying marijuana and 182 plants when they raided seven locations tied to Ungerbuehler in August 2010.
He admitted he moved more than 15 plants from James’ residence in 2010 when she no longer could tend the crop – maybe as many as 50 – but denied ownership of the 182. He said those must have belonged to a young man he entrusted to take over James’ crop.
That admission and another elicited by Platt that he might have smoked some of that marijuana himself could bode ill for Ungerbuehler on the manufacturing marijuana charge.
Closing arguments could come as soon as Thursday afternoon.