Former UM pharmacologist avoids jail time on drug charges

McCracken pleads guilty to growing marijuana in case marked by death of fiancee

March 25, 2010|By Scott Calvert | scott.calvert@baltsun.com

A pharmacologist whose fiancee died last fall after injecting phony drugs pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony charge of growing marijuana, which will likely lead to his deportation along with the chance to donate a kidney to his ailing father in Canada.

Under a plea deal, Clinton B. McCracken was given a suspended five-year sentence that will spare him further jail time but force him to return to his home country. His lawyer said McCracken hopes the removal happens "as soon as possible" because of his father's medical condition.

"He's lost everything," lawyer David B. Irwin said in Baltimore Circuit Court. "It's been a nightmare." He made no excuses for McCracken's drug activity, calling it "stupidity."

McCracken, 33, said little in court and declined to be interviewed. Having lost his fiancee through their shared drug use, he now sees a chance to help save his father -- who lives in Alberta -- through a transplant.

He nearly missed that opportunity. If he had spent even three days in jail, doctors in Canada would have deemed him an unfit donor because of concerns about disease, Irwin said. As it happened, after his arrest in September, he was jailed for two days.

McCracken's case and the Sept. 27 death of his fiancee, Carrie John, shocked the University of Maryland, where both worked as lab researchers. The case also highlighted the shady world of online pharmaceutical sales, where narcotics are sold by overseas drug marts with minimal regulation.

John died after injecting what she and McCracken thought was the narcotic buprenorphine during a September drug-shooting session inside their Baltimore home. An autopsy revealed that she had no drugs in her system and was killed instead by an allergic reaction exacerbated by her asthma. The finding suggested that, at least in that instance, McCracken was duped by an online drug mart in the Philippines.

McCracken knew the danger of drugs better than most. He once studied how cocaine and heroin affected rat brains. John, who was 29, knew the risks, too. She was a drug abuse researcher in a different lab at Maryland. Both were postdoctoral fellows.

By effectively ending the state's case against him, McCracken's guilty plea frees him of an emotional "sandbag," Irwin said after court. "One weight is off his shoulders but by no means the whole weight," he said. "He's still grieving the death of Carrie."

In addition, Irwin said that McCracken, who has been seeing a psychologist, hopes to salvage his once-promising career "so all his work isn't wasted."

Since he cannot avoid deportation, McCracken hopes to work out arrangements soon with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, given the poor health of his father, Dr. Peter McCracken, a geriatrics specialist.

So far, tests show that the son is a good donor match for his father, but doctors have yet to sign off on the transplant. The elder McCracken has declined past opportunities to comment, and a request for comment e-mailed to his secretary Thursday was not answered.

One added wrinkle for McCracken is that his Canadian passport expired in October, raising questions about how he might be received trying to re-enter his home country. Irwin told the judge his client "could be considered a man without a country."

Irwin has denied that McCracken and John were drug addicts, calling their use a "recreational, relaxation thing." McCracken told police he had placed online drug orders for two or three years. In one case, a shipment from the Philippines came in an envelope bearing a return address for Tweetums Potpourri Corner and the words "wedding souvenir (sample)."

In another instance, shortly before John's death, customs agents in Memphis intercepted a package for McCracken containing four morphine pills, three OxyContin pills, a wooden box and a key ring.

Police officers who responded Sept. 27 to the couple's cramped home in Ridgely's Delight found extensive marijuana cultivation. The rowhouse resembled a grow house with 30 pot plants. Two Mason jars held 103 grams of marijuana.

At his arraignment in December, McCracken was prepared to plead guilty to growing marijuana. But a deal fell apart when he turned down a judge's offer of six months of jail time.

On Thursday, Assistant State's Attorney Timothy Lake joined defense lawyer Irwin in asking Judge Sylvester B. Cox to give McCracken five years, with all time suspended but the two days served. Cox also ordered two years of probation, though the deportation will make that practically moot.

"It just seemed like a fair thing to do," Lake said later of the deal, noting McCracken's lack of prior criminal record, the trauma of John's death and his father's health.

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