An Upper Makefield man who accidentally chose a retired police chief's property to sow a secret marijuana garden faces at least a year behind bars.
Ryan M. Steel, 27, of Windy Bush Road pleaded guilty in Bucks County court in Doylestown on Thursday to possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture, criminal trespass and agricultural vandalism.
He admitted planting more than 29 marijuana plants last summer on the Springfield Township, Upper Bucks County, property of Robert Bell, the township's former chief of police.
Bell's son, Hilltown Township narcotics officer Louis Bell, found the illicit garden of 6- to 10-foot plants while hunting for small game on his dad's rural 10-acre property in September.
Police cut down the plants, then set up a surveillance camera that recorded Steel's reaction when he returned a few days later and found his crop destroyed.
"He was basically throwing a temper tantrum," the officer said.
Police also tracked Steel through credit card purchases of garden supplies at a nearby store. Confronted at his home, Steel "immediately lost his breath and broke out in beads of sweat," Louis Bell said.
According to police reports, Steel told officers that he chose the plot because he thought the area was deserted.
Steel's attorney, John Kerrigan, said his client was growing the plants for his own use and did not plan to sell the marijuana.
In court Thursday, Steel answered "yes" when county Judge Rea Boylan asked him if he understood the charges against him but did not testify. He will be sentenced in June and remains free on bail.
Steel could have faced a mandatory minimum three-year sentence, but prosecutors sought only a one-year minimum - based on the weight of the drugs - in exchange for his guilty plea. The penalty for growing 29 marijuana plants is three years.
Prosecutor Dan Keane said it was impossible to say how much the marijuana was worth on the street because it was uncultivated when police seized it and the amount weighed included the plants' stalks.
Steel is a graduate of George School and Temple University. Before his hearing began, he assisted Kerrigan by acting as interpreter for a Spanish-speaking drunken driving defendant.
Boylan said she will speak with prison officials to see if Steel's bilingual talents can be of use at the jail during his sentence.
After the hearing, Robert Bell said Steel's crime, while somewhat funny, still caused people pain.
"It's the typical heartbreak that goes with drugs. The real victim is that lady who's crying in there," he said of Steel's mother.
Louis Bell said he didn't know what to think at first when he came upon the drug garden near his dad's home.
"My first thought was that he was trying to supplement his retirement," he said, laughing.