Community in shock over Harford man's drug charges

Ecologist, decades-long teacher revered by residents

August 10, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,Sun reporter

For many, Bob Chance has been the face of ecology in Harford County.

He taught earth science during a three-decade run in the public schools - and was named to the school system's Hall of Fame. He promoted recycling long before the government got involved. He wrote a nature column for the local paper, won election to public office, and showed countless youngsters the wonders of the great outdoors as Ranger Bob.

And now he is, at 62, a defendant in a drug case.

Authorities say he has been growing marijuana at the farm where he raises and sells Christmas trees. And they say they found enough of the drug, either in plant form or packaged in freezers, to roll thousands of joints - so they are taking steps to seize his farm.

Some who know Chance think that's going too far. He is an "old hippie," but is no drug dealer, said Terence O. Hanley, a Bel Air town commissioner and former mayor who has known him for 30 years.

"Everybody, quite frankly, that I have run into thinks it's absurd that he's being charged with the intent to distribute," Hanley said. "Here's a guy who has really done a lot of great things for our town, our community, our kids. I'm shocked that he's in this predicament, and I only wish the best for him. I would hate to see this man lose his farm."

But Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said police and prosecutors have a duty to treat Chance the same as everyone else.

"I don't think there's two standards in the community - that there's one standard for regular people who go around and don't do all the things this guy does and then there's another standard for people who have done all the things this guy does," Cassilly said.

Chance has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which also include allegations that he had hallucinogenic mushrooms at his farm. He declined to discuss his case, on the advice of his lawyer.

But he gave a tour of his property, Environmental Evergreens Tree Farm.

"I always try to bring nature into a place," he said.

The farm is down a rural road off Route 1 in Darlington, not far from the Susquehanna River. Plants thrive there, and ponds harbor rare species of turtles and fish. Frogs rest on lily pads, and dragonflies buzz about. His six yellow Labradors run free.

His home, which he says dates to 1888, is full of artifacts and fossils from his jaunts to Africa, the South Pacific Islands, Costa Rica and New Zealand. Walls are covered with awards and pictures of him with kids who attended his nature camps and with customers who bought their Christmas trees from him.

"He's just a great, community-minded guy," Hanley said. "His volunteerism here in Harford County has been invaluable."

An Evening Sun editorial described him in 1992 as an "ecological visionary."

Chance grew up in Carney and received bachelor's degrees in geology and geography from what is now Towson University before moving to Harford County in 1968 to teach earth science and ecology at Bel Air High School.

In 1972, he started the Susquehannock Environmental Center, believed to be one of the country's first recycling centers. In 1974, he won a spot on the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners, serving until 1978.

In 2001, after teaching for more than 30 years at Bel Air and C. Milton Wright high schools and the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, Chance was inducted into the Harford County Public Schools Educators Hall of Fame.

For decades, Chance has written an environmental column for local newspapers called Earth Line. In 2006, he was featured in the book Weird Maryland as "the region's Bigfoot expert."

Since retiring from teaching in 1999, Chance has run nature camps for children as Ranger Bob, a name he also used years ago in appearances on the children's television show Romper Room. He has sold evergreen trees from his farm since the early 1980s, growing out his beard and dressing as Santa each holiday season.

The drug charges are not Chance's first. In 2004, he received probation before judgment on a marijuana possession charge that stemmed from a 2003 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. According to court documents, officers searching Chance's pickup truck after pulling him over found a glass cylinder containing a burnt joint in the glove compartment. He was given two years' probation for the charges.

In May, Harford County detectives and investigators from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, acting on a tip, raided his farm, court records show.

According to a statement by Harford County Deputy Sheriff Sean Marston in federal court documents, detectives found 12 marijuana plants growing outdoors, seven plants growing indoors, more than a pound and a half of packaged marijuana in freezers in outbuildings, and about 33 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

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