Charles P. "Charlie the Tuna" Chapman, a marathon swimmer whose accomplishments made him a role model to young people in Buffalo, was sentenced to two years and nine months in federal prison late Thursday for his role in a 1991 drug deal.
Chapman, 39, of Hamlin Road looked confused, his eyes darting around the courtroom, as U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara pronounced the sentence. After the sentencing, he said he feels "great" because the judge is allowing him to remain free on bail while his lawyer appeals his drug conspiracy conviction.
"Mr. Chapman appears to be a likable person," the judge said. "He has accomplished great athletic feats through hard work and energy. It's too bad that some of that energy took him in other directions."
In June, a jury convicted Chapman of conspiracy to sell cocaine after a New York City drug dealer turned government witness to testify against the former swimmer. The prison term was the minimum under sentencing guidelines. He could have been sentenced to up to 41 months in prison.
In July 1991, FBI agents and Erie County sheriff's deputies charged Chapman and the New York City dealer, Leonard Sutton, with trying to sell 5 ounces of cocaine to an undercover agent at a Cheektowaga motel.
Sutton, acknowledged by federal prosecutors as the main man in the drug deal, pleaded guilty in May to felony possession of cocaine.
Under his plea deal, Sutton testified against Chapman and, as a result, may receive a lighter sentence than Chapman when he is sentenced later this month.
Chapman's attorney, Philip B. Abramowitz, called his client a tragic figure and blamed federal sentencing guidelines for what he considers an unfairly stiff sentence.
"I think it's sad that someone like Charles, with so minor a role in this drug case, and no previous criminal record, could be winding up going to jail," Abramowitz said. "If not for the guidelines, he'd be an excellent candidate for probation."
While acknowledging that Chapman was only assisting Sutton in the drug deal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Campana said Chapman, too, could have gotten off with a much lighter sentence. But Chapman refused a plea deal and insisted on going to trial.
In 1981, Chapman became the first black to swim the English Channel. He also set other marathon swim records, including a 1988 butterfly record for the 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan, 9 hours and 25 minutes. He also swam to raise money for charities and worked with troubled youth.