In federal ginseng case: Theodosia couple relieved after felony charge results in probation and fine, but no prison term
Before Theodosia-area residents Sandy and Kermit Schofield stepped into the federal courtroom last week in Springfield to learn how their future would be decided, they paused at the door and reached out to hold each other’s hand – and found 60 more pairs of hands ready to grasp theirs.
“The prosecution was asking for us to spend a year in prison,” Sandy said Sunday, recalling the moment, “and we didn’t know how the judge would rule. We drove up there Tuesday morning, and then when we got to the courthouse and saw all the people who had come to support us. ... They just kept getting off those elevators, and I was standing there in shock. It was the most precious feeling I’ve ever had.”
Friends, neighbors and family members from Ozark County and beyond had come to Springfield to be with the Schofields as they stood before Judge Brian Wimes Aug. 7 for sentencing after they pleaded guilty last December to charges of improperly purchasing and transporting wild ginseng.
A long-time family business
For more than three decades, the Schofields have operated a successful root and herb business from their Ozark County farm, which Kermit’s ancestors homesteaded in the 1800s. They’re known throughout the area as hard-working people, devoted to each other and to their faith. Their son, Dale, a former Ozark County sheriff’s deputy and now a pastor, helped them on their farm and in their business.
Sandy told the Times Sunday that the episode that led them to face felony charges in federal court began on a Friday in September 2015 when she and Kermit went to Mountain View, Arkansas, as they did every Friday, to buy roots, including wild ginseng. They are licensed to buy and sell the roots in both Missouri and Arkansas, and “every Friday at 2:15 for years and years, we have met our inspector at a health food store and had our roots certified,” she said. “But on that day, we got a message from him saying his wife was in the ambulance going to the hospital. He said, ‘I can’t be there. I’ll see you next week.’ That’s what got us in trouble.”
They took the uninspected roots they had bought in Arkansas home with them to Missouri, thinking they would bring them back the next week to meet with the inspector. Instead, five days later, on the following Wednesday, federal agents appeared at their farm to arrest them for illegally trafficking the ginseng because they had taken it from Arkansas to Missouri without the necessary inspection and paperwork.
As the case proceeded, they were also accused of buying ginseng outside of the legal buying period – a charge that Sandy is careful to clarify as being “about buying outside the legal time frame for buying – not for digging illegally.”
They bought from some “young people” they knew who “needed money,” she said. “We’d bought from their dad and their grandpa through the years. We knew them. But we knew it was wrong, and we shouldn’t have done it.” When the young sellers said they needed money and asked the Schofields to buy their ginseng, Sandy and Kermit agreed to buy it, even though it was outside the legal season for buying.
A December news release from the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri announcing the Schofields’ guilty plea, cited by the Springfield News-Leader in a story about the case, said Sandy, 73, and Kermit, 78, could face up to five years in federal prison. But by the time the couple got to the sentencing portion of their case last week, the biggest part of the charges – that of “trafficking,” or transporting ginseng across state lines without inspection or proper paperwork – had been dropped, and the ginseng that had been confiscated due to that charge had been returned to them.
So the only charge remaining was purchasing ginseng outside the legal buying period. It was a small part of the original case. Still, the charge carried a possible prison sentence, and that’s what the prosecutors were asking for.
A story by Harrison Keegan in last week’s News-Leader said Sandy described “the idea of being away from her husband of 58 years” as “unthinkable. That was my greatest dread, being away from him,” she told the reporter. “He couldn’t make it without me.”
‘No empty seats’ in the courtroom
With that heavy sense of dread enveloping them, they drove to Springfield last Tuesday with their friend Bobby Terry. Their son Dale and his wife Karen followed – and, unknown to Sandy and Kermit, so did a caravan of friends.
The Schofields and their lawyer were allowed to cut to the head of the line going through the metal detectors in the courthouse’s secure entrance, and then they met privately with their attorney, who “took us through what would happen. Of course, we didn’t have a clue what to expect, so she led us through it,” said Sandy, who added that they’d “never even had a traffic ticket before this.”
Then they stepped into the hallway, walked toward the courtroom and found their angel-band of friends – more than 60 of them. “It was an awesome thing to see them there,” Sandy said.
“We stood outside the courtroom and joined hands and prayed together. I would give anything for a picture of it,” she said. “It was such a calming, peaceful feeling that came over us, with everyone hugging us and encouraging us. It made it so much easier to walk into that courtroom.”
The News-Leader reported, “There were no empty seats” as the Schofields’ case was called. Some people even had to stand outside in the hallway, Sandy said.
The News-Leader also reported that, even though the couple had cooperated with investigators and apologized for their actions, “prosecutors wanted to send a message to others” by sentencing the couple to prison and imposing a hefty fine.
But the judge countered that argument by saying, “I don’t think they’re going to be much of a deterrent, because if someone else does this, they won’t have the back-up of their community that these two have,” Sandy recalled.
The judge told the court that he had read the letters that had been sent to the Schofields’ lawyer on their behalf. (When the attorney had told them about the letters, she held her hand up off the desk and said, “I have a foot-high stack of letters,” Sandy said.) The judge said, “I did read them all.”
And then, as Sandy recalls the moment, he said, “From the stack of letters ... and from the look of the friends, family and community in this courtroom, I can see the chapters of your life. And I think you need to go home to your community.”
When he asked if they wanted to say anything, Sandy stood up. “So many of these young people here, I’ve had in my Sunday school,” she said. “I taught them to do the right thing and then I did the wrong thing, and I’m sorry.”
The judge handed down their sentence: one year on probation plus a $5,000 fine and $65,000 in restitution. Sandy wrote the checks, and they headed home.
As part of their year on probation, they’re not allowed to deal in ginseng – although they’re free to continue with their business that includes more than 50 other types of roots, Sandy said. Their son, Dale, will be licensed to take over the ginseng part of the business until their probation term is completed.
“I told Kermit, not that I’m glad it happened, but this whole thing almost made it worth it,” Sandy said. “To know people care. To know there are still so many good people in our area – not only the ones who came to the courthouse but so many who sent notes on Facebook and said they were praying for us and to keep our chin up and saying it was going to be all right. Hundreds of them. I’m so appreciative of all those who wrote and prayed.”
Sandy said that throughout their ordeal, she prayed, “Oh, Lord, please don’t let us have to sell the farm and our cattle.”
“And God took care of us,” she said. “Now that dreadful feeling we’ve had for three years has lifted, and we’re healthy and strong. We’ll be OK.”