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Coptics convicted of pot smuggling

MIAMI -- A six-man, six-woman federal jury deliberated five hours before convicting nine members of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic church on charges of running a large-scale marijuana smuggling ring under the guise of their pot-smoking religion.

Church leader Thomas 'Brother Louv' Reilly, who faces a later trial on similar charges, called the jury decision Friday 'a verdict against the entire church. It's not just against each brother anymore, it's against the whole church.'

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The Coptics, all dressed in flowing robes, remained silent and showed no emotion when the verdict was read. As they left the courtroom, the mother of defendant Jacob Shnurman collapsed and her son had to assist her to a bench. He wiped her brow and held her in his arms.

While the jury deliberated, the defendants went to their mansion headquarters on Miami Beach's Star Island for what they called a 'last supper.'

Each of the nine men was convicted on five counts of conspiracy, importation possession and distribution of marijuana in connection with separate seizures that netted federal agents 95 tons of the drug in the past three years. They each face a maximum of 25 years in prison and $75,000 in fines.

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U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler agreed to allow seven of the nine to remain free on bonds ranging from $50,000 to $350,000 while awaiting sentencing in 30 to 45 days.

The other two, Jeffrey Brown and Clifton Ray Middleton, are already serving prison terms for previous drug convictions. Brown is serving five years and Middleton began serving a 30-month-term earlier Friday when he surrendered to the court before the jury returned.

The government maintained that the members of the Jamaica-based sect, who smoke marijuana as a religious sacrament, were operating a massive smuggling ring that used a fleet of at least 70 vessels, numerous trucks and vans and the church's property at Miami Beach and Dunnellon, Fla., and Deer Isle, Maine.

In addition to Middleton, Brown and Shnurman, others convicted were Michael Booth, Randall Collins, Irving Imoberstag, Larry Lancelotti, Robert Lawler and Bradford Rush.

Still awaiting trial along with Reilly are Coptic 'Sister' Mary Morrison and Tony Darwin, a pilot, who was the only non-Coptic among those indicted.

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