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St. George duo plead guilty to smuggling marijuana

Published June 26, 2013 10:43 pm

Courts • They used airplane tied to indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Two businessmen have pleaded guilty to charges in a Florida court in a marijuana trafficking case involving an airplane and cash seized at the St. George airport.

The plane has shown up in court documents in a lawsuit as the property Jeremy Johnson, another St. George businessman facing a federal lawsuit and criminal charges.

Jason Vowell and Chad Christopher Sunyich both changed their pleas to guilty and agreed to forfeit money and the aircraft.

The two were arrested in March on warrants issued in Tampa, Fla., related to charges that they conspired to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana.

Vowell agreed in May to plead guilty to one of two charges in return for cooperating with investigators. Prosecutors recommended a sentence on the low side of federal guidelines of 5 to 40 years in prison. And they won't oppose a request for a sentence of less than 5 years.

Sunyich pleaded guilty to both charges in the federal grand jury indictment. A third man, Florida resident Timothy Oneal Long, also changed his plea to guilty on Wednesday to both counts.

Vowell and Sunyich were questioned by Drug Enforcement Administration agents on Jan. 19 after they returned to St. George from Tampa with $166,288 in cash on Vowell's plane.

Agents said both had used a hotel room in Florida to drop off about 100 pounds of marijuana for a Florida resident who turned out to be cooperating with DEA agents.

Sentencing is set for Aug. 20.

The Piper Aerostar plane later forfeited by Vowell, a friend, neighbor and business associate of Johnson, was allegedly paid for by Johnson, according to court-appointed receiver who took over Johnson's companies after he was sued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 for allegedly defrauding online consumers.

The receiver claims Vowell and Johnson were linked in a plot to hide assets, including the plane, from the court.

Johnson also faces 86 criminal charges for allegedly creating a series of shell companies in order to deceive banks into continuing to process credit and debit cards after banks began to cut off his accounts because of a large number of consumer chargebacks. Johnson denies the charges.

Sunyich, his father, Steve, and siblings earlier this year also were sued by the FTC for an alleged scheme in which they bought consumers' information — including credit card numbers from payday-loan companies — and then began charging monthly fees without authorization.

tharvey@sltrib.com

Twitter: @TomHarveySltrib