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TRIAL BEGINS IN MARIJUANA-GROWING CASE

No one disputes that 125 tall and robust marijuana plants were found growing on the Orchard Park property where John Chapman Jr. operates a stable facility for racehorses.

But Chapman, 50, maintains he has no idea how the plants got there.

A federal court jury trial began this week for Chapman, who faces two felony drug counts that could result in a mandatory minimum prison term of five years.

Under drug laws, a prosecutor must prove that Chapman knowingly and intentionally grew the marijuana. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas S. Duszkiewicz told jurors that the plants were carefully cultivated, fertilized and surrounded by chicken fence, indications that the property owner had cared for them.

Chapman's defense attorney said the plants were in a secluded area and were never noticed by Chapman on his 66-acre property until after Erie County sheriff's deputies saw them while flying overhead in a helicopter.

"Whoever was growing the marijuana on this property was trying to make sure that no one, including John Chapman, would find it," said federal public defender Marianne Mariano. "There is no evidence he even knew it was there."

Deputies spotted the plants in August 2001, while flying over Chapman's South Abbott Road stables on their way to a refueling facility in Hamburg. They harvested the plants with the help of Orchard Park police, but Chapman was not charged until 14 months later.

The three patches of land where the plants were found were not visible from Chapman's house, and the property was easily accessable to hikers, users of a snowmobile path and people who keep their racehorses in Chapman's stables, Mariano said.

Duszkiewicz said police found potting soil, fertilizer and gardening tools in a shed on the property. He said there were also irrigation lines running from the shed to the marijuana plants, many of which had grown as tall as 6 to 8 feet.

Chapman is the son of the late John Chapman Sr., a legendary harness driver who is in the U.S. Harness Racing Writers Hall of Fame.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews,com

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