(Editor: The Sopris Sun will continue reporting on this story as it develops).
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Kelly Harding, one of two Carbondale residents arrested while driving through Ohio last January and charged with possession of 128 pounds of marijuana, said this week that he is fighting the charges and believes he was set up by the Ohio State Patrol.
The other man involved in the case, Craig Voigt, concurs with Harding’s assessment of their situation, and believes the alleged set-up was actually part of a federal drug agency’s scheme to entrap Voigt, and that Harding was unfortunate enough to get caught in the net.
Voigt freely admitted he had been a pot dealer earlier in his life and had been busted in 1996 in San Diego, Calif., and served about four years in prison in Pennsylvania. But he said he had retired from the business after that and there was no marijuana in the car when it was stopped by state police.
Harding, 47, and Voigt, 46, say they were driving on Interstate 70 through Ohio on Jan. 13, in a borrowed 2014 Subaru bearing Colorado plates that belongs to Harding’s mother, to deliver Voigt to his mother’s house in New York City, when they were pulled over by three Ohio state patrol cruisers with drug-sniffing dogs in the back of each cruiser.
Within minutes the two were under arrest, in handcuffs and in the back seats of one or another patrol vehicle, while one of the arresting officers “jumped into the car (the Subaru) and drove off.”
Harding has said repeatedly that there was no pot in the Subaru when it was stopped, and that he suspected the state patrol had the marijuana stored in a police facility to which they drove his mom’s car.
It was after the Subaru went into the facility, a state patrol car barn, both men said, that the marijuana was revealed, piled on the hood of a police vehicle in sealed plastic bags, and photographed. The photos were published by newspapers across the country, within days of the arrests.
“There’s only one way that can be done, and that’s by the feds,” said Voigt in a telephone conversation on Wednesday with The Sopris Sun, referring to the rapid way the story was spread across the U.S.
Voigt also said he believes federal drug agents learned that he and Harding were driving across the country, alerted the Ohio State Patrol, and picked the area of Ohio just west of Columbus, which Voigt said is known for drug-interdiction police activity.
As evidence, he points to the fact that the Subaru was stopped by a trio of K-9 units who were parked together in the median of I-70.
“My dad was a cop, and he said that never happens,” Voigt said of the positioning of the three police cars on a stretch of interstate highway.
Both Voigt and Harding view the fact that three police cruisers were parked together, watching traffic, as suspicious.
Also suspicious, in the eyes of the two men, was the alleged presence of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent at the state patrol car barn. Harding said he was interrogated by the agent, a woman, for about two hours while Voigt was left in the back seat of a patrol car outside the facility.
Voigt, who firmly believes the Ohio State Patrol is working with the federal agency, said the timing of the traffic stop also is cause for concern, in line with his belief that federal agents were tracking the progress of the Subaru across six states, from Colorado to Ohio.
“They waited until Ohio to pop us, I’m certain of that,” he said.
Both men said adamantly that the pot was not theirs, was not in the Subaru when they were stopped, and had appeared only after police took custody of the Subaru.
“The cops put it there,” Voigt said simply.
Both men also are convinced the state illegally raised Harding’s bond, which initially was set by a judge at $5,000, to an amount 10 times that without a hearing.
According to Harding and his wife, Kristie, she showed up in Ohio with a bail bondsman on Friday, Jan. 22, ready to bail out her husband at the $5,000 level. But confusion about the records prevented that from happening.
The following Monday, when Kristie again tried to bond Kelly out of jail, authorities kept them waiting until 10 a.m. and then informed them that the bond had been raised to $50,000, with no explanation and no hearing.
She ultimately got together more than $5,000 and Harding was released on Feb. 10.
After a month in jail, Voigt also was released and the charges against him were dropped, though court records indicated the charges were dropped “without prejudice,” meaning they could be reinstated later.
Harding, who is married with several children, said this week that he has pleaded not-guilty to the charges against him — possession of more than 40 kilograms of marijuana and “possession of criminal tools,” meaning a seal-a-meal machine police say was used to package the marijuana.
Harding has denied owning the seal-a-meal or having it in the wheel well of the back seat, which is where police say they found it.
In addition, Harding said he has found numerous discrepancies in the police and court documents sent to him under the court’s “discovery” requirements, and has determined that a police “dash-cam” videotape being used as evidence in the case has been tampered with.
He also pointed out that, at one point, an Ohio judge ruled that the state had met its “burden of proof” in finding that Voigt was the suspect most responsible for the alleged pot smuggling. But it was not long after that ruling that Voigt was released from jail and the charges dropped.
“The reason they released me and dropped the charges,” Voigt said on Wednesday, “is that the feds put pressure on the state.”
He believes federal authorities think he is still a dealer and want to put him back in prison.
“I think the feds are coming after me, and that’s the truth,” he declared, adding, “Once you get a number on your back, they want to keep you in the system for as long as possible.”
Voigt’s suspicions were supported by statements from state prosecutor Nick Adkins who, according to a May 7 news story, admitted to a judge that the DEA was behind Voigt’s release, and that the federal agency was investigating Voigt for drug related activities.
Harding was scheduled to go on trial in July, but that trial has been postponed because one of the arresting officers could not attend. It is now tentatively set for a date in August.
Harding told The Sopris Sun that fighting the charges has cost him nearly $15,000 so far, including payment of surety against a $50,000 bond, paying $900 to get his mother’s car out of the police impound lot, and driving back and forth to Ohio several times for court hearings and procedures.
The sporadic but unavoidable travel, he said, has interfered with his ability to find and keep a job as a drywall mechanic.
As a result, he said, he has been unable to pay his bills, his water and gas utilities have been cut off, and he is in danger of losing the townhouse he and his wife own.
Both Harding and Voigt currently are living back in Carbondale and awaiting developments in the case.
Harding, however, has spent considerable time pouring over the records, both paper and video, and believes he has a chance to get the case thrown out.
He already has fired one public defender (he can’t afford a private attorney) for what Harding said was incompetent representation, and is hoping he will do better with the attorney he has now.
Published in The Sopris Sun on June 30, 2016.