The owner of “Best Buds Smoke Shop” in St. Johnsbury was facing five criminal charges and a possible 20-year prison sentence when he showed up for his arraignment in Caledonia Superior Court on Monday.
But when the hearing ended, Barry Joel McKee, 46, walked out of the courtroom with only one misdemeanor charge still pending against him.
McKee was investigated by the state Department of Liquor and Lottery (DLL) for allegedly selling illegal substances to minors and other crimes at his store located at 148 Eastern Avenue.
According to a DLL press release, the investigation was driven by complaints from local residents.
“Those complaints included allegations of illegal drug sales to minors and within proximity to a school,” reads the release.
The DLL searched the store on Sept. 23 and forwarded its investigator report to the Caledonia County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors then filed criminal charges against McKee including felony sale of drugs to minors and felony sale of hallucinogens. The state also charged McKee with misdemeanor possession of hallucinogens, dispensing marijuana to a person under 21 years of age and prohibited possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a violent crime.
But after reading the report from the DLL, Judge Justin P. Jiron dismissed three of the charges for lack of probable cause.
Then, McKee’s defense attorney, Corby A. Gary of St. Johnsbury, argued that the prohibited possession of a firearm charge should also be dismissed despite McKee’s criminal record in the state of Georgia.
The charge was based on the statements of two state investigators who said they saw two guns in the shop during a visit on Jan. 3. However, no guns were found during the Sept. 23 search of the store.
Attorney Gary then presented evidence that McKee had not been convicted of a violent crime in January.
“The question becomes when was his conviction date?” said Attorney Gary. “I’ve got a plea offer from the state of Georgia, dated February 28, 2022. This offer expires on March 1, 2022. If there’s a plea offer on February 28, 2022 for an aggravated assault, etc., then he could not have been convicted on January 3 when person one and person two showed up at Best Buds and said ‘Jeez, we saw some hand-cannons there in the shop.’”
Judge Jiron agreed and dismissed the firearms charge leaving only the possession of hallucinogens charge which carries a maximum possible sentence of up to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.
McKee was then released by the court on conditions.
Investigators say the Sept. 23 search of the store led to the seizure of felony amounts of what the DLL suspects are hallucinogenic mushrooms, prepackaged marijuana, hashish/hash oils, cannabis edibles and approximately $3,000 in alleged illegal cash proceeds.
The DLL says the store was licensed by the state to sell only tobacco, tobacco products, tobacco substitutes and tobacco paraphernalia.