Oak Park Heights prison volunteer goes to jail for attempted cocaine smuggling

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2014 - 8:16 PM

Leaning from the bench, District Judge John Hoffman told Joseph William Bigbear Friday that attempting to smuggle cocaine to Oak Park Heights prisoners violated a sacred trust conferred on him as an American Indian spiritual leader and longtime volunteer.

“It’s such a significant breach of your responsibility. All of us know that inmates can be very conniving and exploitative of outside interests in the prison,” said Hoffman, clearly distressed at the case before him. “They have chemical issues that have littered their history and contributed to why they’re in Oak Park Heights. Holy cow.”

With that, Hoffman sentenced Bigbear, 60, to a year in the Washington County jail after he was caught with 74.9 grams of cocaine in the prison parking lot. On a conviction of first-degree drug possession, Bigbear, of Stacy, Minn., also received a stayed seven-year prison sentence, meaning he’ll serve probation unless he commits another crime.

Bigbear had a clean record before the July 3, 2013, incident, however, and had spent much of his time working with less fortunate people by running a sober house, helping the homeless, feeding the hungry and volunteering for street safety patrols and the Red Cross.

“I hope somehow my years and years as a volunteer account for something,” Bigbear said before his sentencing. “It was wrong what I did.”

His attorney, Rebecca Waxie, said Bigbear suffered a stroke in 2009 and has early onset dementia. He had been volunteering with religious study groups in the Oak Park Heights maximum security prison when he disclosed to some inmates that he was broke and needed money, leading to an apparent arrangement to sneak drugs into the prison.

“They sought him out, as many prisoners do, and they took advantage of him,” Waxie said in court. “He knew it was wrong but the desperation he felt not being able to support his family led him to it.”

Prosecutor Imran Ali argued that Bigbear should spend time in prison because of the large amount of drugs involved.

“Cocaine is probably one of the worst drugs to introduce to a correctional facility,” he said. “The people in Oak Park Heights are there for extreme serious crimes.”

The judge, over Waxie’s objections, also allowed a statement by Warden Kent Granlienard, who said the prison holds 473 inmates, most dependent on drugs, and gangs that thrive on buying and selling them.

“I cannot overemphasize the potential danger this represents,” the warden said of Bigbear’s intention of smuggling the cocaine into the prison.

Hoffman said Bigbear was fortunate he was caught before he took the cocaine inside. Bigbear’s otherwise crime-free past and his devotion to helping others weighed in favor of probation, the judge said, but despite his accomplishments “the defendant in one day destroyed all that trust.”

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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