Beaufort News

Former state trooper faces drug charges

A former state trooper facing drug charges is accused of conspiring to deal marijuana while still wearing a badge and owning a Dorchester County property where hundreds of pot plants were found last year.

Those details emerged Monday during a detention hearing for the ex-Highway Patrolman, 29-year-old Kurt Steffen, in U.S. District Court in Charleston.

Steffen worked as a state trooper from July 2007 until his resignation on Dec. 23, 2009. A month after he left the Highway Patrol, Dorchester County narcotics investigators seized about 310 pot plants from property Steffen owns in Ridgeville, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Bianchi told a judge.

The operation had been under way for some time and led to multiple harvests of marijuana on Steffen's property, Bianchi said.

Steffen was not arrested at the time of the January 2010 raid, but two of his co-defendants in the federal case were taken into custody. A federal indictment accuses him of conspiring with those men and three others to distribute at least 1,000 marijuana plants. The indictment spans his time as a state trooper.

Steffen has been in the Charleston County jail since his arrest last week, and prosecutors argued that he should remain there. Bianchi said Steffen is a flight risk and represents a danger to the community. Steffen was reportedly seen with an AK-47 rifle and allegedly threatened to kill an associate if that man cooperated with federal authorities, Bianchi told a judge.

Steffen's public defender, Mary Gordon Baker, countered that Steffen has no prior criminal record and the land where the plants were found had been leased to others. She said Steffen has strong families ties to the area, including a wife and a young child. He has been working as a security guard at the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston and studying airplane maintenance at Trident Technical College, she said.

Several family members showed up to Monday's hearing and others wrote letters of support. Shackled and wearing a striped jail jumpsuit, Steffen smiled at the group and attempted a wave as he was led into the courtroom.

Baker said Steffen is in danger in the jail because other inmates have learned he worked in law enforcement. He is being kept under 23-hour lockdown for his own protection, she said.

"Your honor, this man has led a blameless life up until this point," Baker said.

After much deliberation, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce H. Hendricks set bail at $75,000, but she warned Steffen that he will go straight back to jail if he has even the slightest slip-up. If he posts bail, he will be subject to electronic monitoring, house arrest, regular drug testing and a variety of other conditions. Federal authorities will also check his home to make sure all weapons have been removed.

The initial indictments in this case were handed down earlier this year against Edward Ross Atkins, 30, owner of GreenSpirit Hydrogardens in North Charleston; and Horry County brothers Ryan Ashley Harris, 35, and Christopher Harris, 31. Armando Verdugo, 23, of Charleston was added to the case in April, and authorities are still searching for one remaining suspect.

The indictment charges Steffen with conspiracy and possession. If convicted on both counts, he faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years in federal prison, authorities said.