Oroville >> A judge ruled Thursday that an Oroville couple is not guilty of possessing marijuana for sale in a case arising from the search for Neal King, who disappeared a year ago March 26.
Butte County Superior Court Judge James Reilley acquitted Donald Edward Cheatham Jr. of the sales-related charge which included a weapons allegation. Earlier during Thursday”s court trial, the judge dismissed a similar charge against Cheatham”s wife, Jennifer, due to a lack of evidence.
The judge said there appeared to be strong evidence that Donald Cheatham previously participated in marijuana cultivation and sales, but there was insufficient evidence from an April 2, 2013, search of the Cheathams” residence for the sales-related charge.
Judge Reilley did find Donald Cheatham guilty of misdemeanor possession of more than one ounce of marijuana. He said the amount of marijuana found at the property on the 4000 block of Hildale Avenue exceeded the amount on the defendant”s medical marijuana recommendation.
After the trial, Donald Cheatham”s attorney, Anthony Cardoza, said the judge did a good job of looking at the evidence.
“We”re really happy it”s over,” he said.
Deputy district attorney David Garner disagreed with the outcome.
“I think the verdict fell against the overwhelming weight of the evidence,” he said.
Connection with missing man
King”s girlfriend, Jeanette Tully, testified about her encounters with Donald Cheatham, including when King disappeared. She said she saw previous marijuana transactions between the two men, including trading for a truck about four years ago.
Tully has previously told police that King was selling a property on Old Olive Highway to Cheatham for 160 pounds of marijuana. She reportedly last saw King at 11 a.m. on March 26, when he went alone to the Hildale residence to finalize the transaction.
On Thursday under questioning by Garner, Tully said she believed Donald Cheatham was to give King bins of marijuana before going their separate ways. She recounted going to the Hildale property the following day and speaking with Donald Cheatham through the door of a motor home.
Donald Cheatham reportedly later wanted her to return alone late at night to discuss what to tell police. Tully didn”t go because she was afraid.
Tully reported King missing on March 29. She said she waited because she thought King might have been in custody. On cross-examination, Cardoza asked Tully about destroying marijuana plants at the Forbestown Road property where King was allegedly growing plants with a business partner. She said she was trying to protect King.
Butte County sheriff”s detectives searched the Hildale residence and a recreational vehicle on the property April 2. The RV, where Donald Cheatham reportedly slept, contained 2.84 pounds of processed marijuana in addition to related paraphernalia.
Investigators contacted Jennifer Cheatham at the house. She said there was money, marijuana and a weapon inside the house.
Jennifer Cheatham had said there was one tub of marijuana in the house. When the search revealed several tubs of the plant, she wasn”t sure where it came from.
A search of several unkempt rooms revealed many large and deep tubs. Some contained marijuana in various states. Some were empty but appeared to have pot residue.
During a search of a van in the driveway, sheriff”s detective Matt Rackley discovered tubs of marijuana stems with partially processed marijuana in addition to two buckets of mostly trimmed bud.
Officers also found a handgun in Jennifer Cheatham”s room and another firearm in the trunk of her vehicle. An officer said Jennifer Cheatham was surprised about the gun in the car.
A total of 124 pounds of marijuana plants were found in addition to $59,000 in cash. Jennifer Cheatham had told officers the money was partly an emergency fund and she was hiding some from Donald Cheatham, as the couple was estranged. An officer also acknowledged some of the money could be proceeds from the Cheathams” business, Amazon Garden Supply.
Jennifer Cheatham was arrested following the search. Donald Cheatham surrendered April 4, after allegedly trying to give his pickup away to strangers in Shasta County.
Defense expert Jason Browne testified he examined the seized marijuana last August. Of the 124 pounds of plant material, he estimated 7.4 pounds of it was potentially usable, although it would require extensive trimming and be of dubious quality.
”Connect the buds”
During closing arguments, Garner urged the judge to “connect the buds in this case.” He said the judge could rely on testimony from Tully and another witness, who had testified about tending a grow for Donald Cheatham in 2011 and participated in trimming operations at the Hildale house with 10 others.
Garner said Donald Cheatham was moving marijuana by the tubload and using his business” large cash transactions to cover any illicit operations.
Cardoza said the past grow may have been part of a collective. He said the marijuana found in the house may have been the largely unusable remnants of a legitimate collective grow from the 2012 growing season.
Cardoza said any amount of usable marijuana was covered by Donald Cheatham”s recommendation, which allowed for the equivalent of about 11 pounds per year.
Sentencing set April 16
Following the misdemeanor conviction, Cardoza asked the judge to sentence Donald Cheatham for time served and fees. He argued the five months in custody and six months on alternative custody supervision far exceed the maximum six-month punishment for the misdemeanor.
Garner sought to have Donald Cheatham placed on probation, although the defendant would reject it. He asked for time to brief the court on the matter.
Judge Reilley set an April 16 hearing for sentencing.
The Cheathams are out of custody.
Reach reporter Ryan Olson at 896-7763.