ASPEN - Former Snowmass Village resident Vaughn Barnett said he once lived life in a marijuana-induced haze until he discovered the benefits of yoga at Pitkin County Jail. The jail-time yoga classes helped him clear his mind and also helped influence a judge on Monday to sentence him to four years of probation for having 11 pounds of marijuana mailed to a post-office box in Snowmass Village.
"I am really giving you a huge break," Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols told Barnett at the sentencing hearing. Nichols also sentenced Barnett, 28, who has served about 130 days in custody, to an additional 30 days in county jail.
Snowmass Village police arrested Barnett in December 2010 after he and his then-roommate, Drew Kirvida, were suspected of having 11 pounds of pot mailed to the Snowmass post office. Barnett, in an interview with The Aspen Times last year, said he was a licensed medical-marijuana distributor and the contents within the package sent to the post-office box were "all trim from a legal marijuana grow in California."
But in a statement made to the court Monday, Barnett said he erred by tapping the medical pot trade.
"I have walked away from the medical marijuana industry," Barnett said, noting that he lived an "institutionalized" life that included a six-year stint in a Virginia facility for troubled juveniles as well as time with abusive foster parents. His biological mother, speaking via telephone at the sentencing hearing, said that she and her son recently reunited, and she spoke highly of his progress.
Barnett also said he has undergone a personal transformation through the power of yoga.
"I feel yoga classes in jail are an absolute genius," he said.
His point was supported by public defender Tina Fang, who said the Aspen jail has been the butt of a few jokes about its yoga sessions for inmates. But they paid off for Barnett, she told the judge.
"(Barnett) said to me that after taking yoga for three months, he had never felt this clear in the head," she said, adding, "I think he feels so much better that he has purged his mind through the use of yoga."
Barnett's probation officer had suggested that he be sentenced to two years in a community-corrections program in Rifle. Prosecutor Arnold Mordkin lobbied for an unspecified amount of state jail time on the basis that Barnett had two marijuana-related felony convictions in Colorado in 2003.
He also said Barnett violated his bond condition of the marijuana arrest by failing to show up for a court hearing last year. That infraction, a felony, was dismissed as part of the deal mandating his guilty plea to the charge of intent to distribute marijuana.
Nichols leaned toward sending Barnett to Rifle, but he and Fang said Barnett was the victim of a racially motivated attack there, and he did not feel safe returning to the Interstate 70 town. Barnett is black.
Nichols said she was encouraged that Barnett is making progress. But the judge also told Barnett that life will be different when he's out of custody. Barnett told the judge he plans to return to New Jersey and live with his mother for a short term until he gets on his financial feet by working as a bus-tour guide in New York City.
"I look forward to (planting) the garden of good seeds and getting away form this dark period of my life," said Barnett, who also performs publicly as a musician.
He also told Nichols, "I will not let you down, and more importantly I will not let myself down."
While on probation, Barnett is not allowed to drink alcohol or use marijuana. The judge ordered him to report to a probation officer in Essex County, N.J. Nichols said she believed that Barnett's pending return to his home-state offers him the best chance to succeed and lead a productive life.
"Mr. Barnett, don't disappoint me," Nichols told him.
"I won't," he replied.
Last year Kirvida, Barnett's roommate, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of criminal attempt to possess more than 12 ounces of marijuana. In exchange, Mordkin dropped felony charges of possession of more than 5 pounds of marijuana and conspiracy.
Kirvida, unlike Barnett, had no prior criminal record.
Snowmass police arrested Barnett and Kirvida after authorities found the marijuana in a package that was addressed to Kirvida.
A week before their arrests, a postal official became suspicion of the package, which was sent through the U.S. Postal Service, authorities said. The package was slightly damaged, revealing some of its content.
The postal employee contacted the postal service inspector from Denver, and a sting was set up at the Snowmass post office when the two were expected to pick up the package. As the two left the post office with the package in hand, they were approached by postal inspectors in the parking lot and subsequently arrested by police.