Orchid Kingpin? Mistake Lands Elderly Gardener in Prison

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HOUSTON -- Congress's proclivity to create laws has put ordinary, everyday Americans at jeopardy of being on the wrong side of the law for criminalized acts or simple mistakes.

In the latest installment of Nation of Criminals, CBN News explains how one man's passion for plants ultimately landed him in prison.

Kingpin Orchid Smuggler

George and Kathy Norris enjoy a quiet life at home just outside of Houston.

A typical day involves the couple working in their backyard garden getaway, where George puts his "green thumb" to use.

What started out as a hobby eventually turned into a business. After retirement, George began a nursery from his home, picking up customers from around the country.

However, their lives changed in October 2003 when three pickup trucks filled with armed federal agents pulled into his driveway.

"They were wearing flack vests and they had guns," George recounted. "So I thought I better open the door for these people. So, I went and opened the door and the first guy in took his elbow under my neck and pinned me against the wall."

According to George, they searched the house without giving a clue what they were looking for.

The Fish and Wildlife agents left with nearly 40 boxes of the couple's personal belongings and business records, including his computer, customer list, and plant inventory.

"They put me out of business," George insisted.

He said it took several months and the unsealing of an indictment for him to learn why he was the target of a federal investigation.

In his mid-60s at the time, the Texas grandfather found himself facing hard time and heavy fines for selling flowers, specifically a then newly discovered species from the Amazon in Peru called Phragmipedium Kovachii, more commonly known as the Peruvian Ladyslipper orchid.

The indictment charged George with multiple counts of violating international wildlife law, alleging he knowingly imported a protected plant and concocted an elaborate scheme to conceal it from authorities.

The government pointed to a series of letters between George and his Peruvian supplier.

"They'd tell how bad I was. I was a kingpin smuggler, and I was selling my illegal orchids at exorbitant prices to high-end buyers," George recounted. "There wasn't a thing that I ever sold that was more than $30."

Forced to Plead Guilty

To this day, George describes his legal trouble as a simple "paperwork" violation, in which his friend and Peruvian supplier simply filled out the wrong permits.

Also, he still maintains that the flowers were legally grown in a greenhouse, not taken from the wild.

The following summer, however, he pleaded guilty to seven counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

If he were innocent, why give up his right to trial? George and Kathy say they ran out of money after re-mortgaging the house and spending nearly their entire life savings on lawyers.

"That was the worst part of it," George said. "Just to stand there and say: 'Yeah I did that, and I'm guilty.' I was telling them that I was guilty of things that I wasn't guilty of, but I didn't have any choice."

The U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Florida, which prosecuted George, provided CBN News with a response to Norris's case.

"The prosecution included evidence of the defendant's knowing participation in multiple shipments over a period of time (not a single, isolated event)," they said.

Unlike similar stories, the Norris case wasn't a strict liability case, meaning it required showing intent.

"The smuggling and false statement statutes under which Norris was convicted are not at all new, and require evidence of knowledge and intent," the U.S. Attorney's Office statement read.

"In this regard, Norris voluntarily entered a plea of guilty to seven felony counts, each count requiring knowledge of what he was doing," they said. "Accordingly, as to each count, Norris admitted his personal knowledge during the plea colloquy in open court."

Imprisoned at 67

He served his sentence at a federal facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where every weekend Kathy drove to see him. Over the course of his 17-month sentence, Kathy logged 45,000 miles on the family car.

Meanwhile, her husband's health, physically and emotionally, were on the decline. George's diabetes, eyesight, and heart condition worsened in prison where he lacked the proper medical care.

George talked more about going to prison as a senior citizen. He was 67 when he reported to the Federal Correctional Institute in Forth Worth. Click play for his comments below:

"The husband that went in there didn't come back the husband that I started with," Kathy said. "Not only did he lose himself, but I lost him, too."

Prison reform advocate Craig DeRoche, with Justice Fellowship, said George's age and crime should've been factors against his doing time.

"To whatever measure that individual did something wrong with their paperwork, whether it was deliberate, whether it caused confusion, whether he profited from it, he's not a threat to society to where I need to be spending my tax dollars to invest in his food and air conditioning and a television and his removal from society," DeRoche said.

Legal experts point to cases like George's to highlight a growing body of law they say is making America a nation of criminals.

Raising Awareness

Critics believe Congress has created so many federalized criminal laws that it becomes too easy to violate one and never know it.

"Things that routinely would be considered civil action are suddenly criminal action," said Edwin Feulner, president of Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

As a former convict, George's criminal record bars him from voting. But that hasn't stopped him from exercising his right to speak out: the couple traveled to Washington, D.C., in July 2009 to testify about their ordeal.

Kathy believes the more they share their story, the more they can raise public awareness, "so maybe it will stop happening to other people."

Kathy said she feels as though she lost a part of her husband when he went to prison, but she believes their situation shows how they lost much more.

"The country that I grew up in was not like this," she said, fighting back tears. "I've lost that country, and I don't know how to help get it back."

They have tried to move on. After he was released and overcame a depressive slump, the couple got rid of two-thirds of the original greenhouse and left the orchid business altogether.

Click below to hear more about George and Kathy's life changes.

While George still feeds his passion for planting, he also carries a feeling that his nightmare could happen again.

"I stopped driving because I was worried I'd have an accident or something that would lead to a trail back to prison," George said. "It cost us $110,000 the first time. And we don't have that kind of money anymore."

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John Jessup

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John Jessup serves as the main news anchor for CBN, a position he assumed after 10 years reporting for the network in Washington, D.C. His work in broadcast news has earned him several awards in reporting, producing, and coordinating elections coverage. Follow John on Twitter @JohnCBNNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/John.V.Jessup.