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St. George businessmen sent to prison in marijuana smuggling case

Published August 21, 2013 11:48 am

Courts • Two admitted to flying drug to Florida for sale to distributors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

A federal judge has sentenced two St. George businessmen to prison for flying marijuana to Florida to sell to distributors there.

U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday of Florida sentenced Chad Christopher Sunyich, 37, to five years in prison on his guilty pleas to possession of marijuana and conspiracy to distribute it. Jason Thomas Vowell, 38, was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in the operation, including providing the plane.

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

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

The two were arrested in March in St. George. Vowell agreed in May to plead guilty to one of two charges and Sunyich to both charges filed against him.

In a memo to the court, Vowell's attorney wrote that he was on numerous medications for various medical conditions that may have impaired his decision-making and he also was being treated for anxiety and depression.

The presentence report characterized Sunyich as leader of a marijuana distribution scheme. But his attorney said in court papers that Sunyich began to sell marijuana to others after unsuccessfully trying to market medical marijuana in California where it is legal.

In asking for a reduced sentence, Sunyich cited his degree from Brigham Young University and his Mormon mission to New Zealand as examples of his character and fitness to live in society without committing further offenses.

The Piper Aerostar plane used to fly the marijuana was forfeited by Vowell, a friend, neighbor and business associate of Jeremy Johnson, another St. George businessman facing a federal lawsuit and criminal charges in a separate case involving his online mass sales company called I Works.

The plane was allegedly paid for by Johnson before being transferred to the ownership of a company controlled by Vowell, 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 consumers.

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