Conviction: conspiracy to manufacture and attempt to manufacture marijuana in and around the Chattahoochee National Forest
Sentence: Life without parole
Prison: United States Penitentiary, a federal facility in Pollock, Louisiana
It started with an irate neighbor, who called the National Forest Service to complain about the deep tracks of an all-terrain vehicle crossing their land and running into Cattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. The caller also told agents they'd seen "strange plants." NFS agents who went to investigate found dead and dying plants on forest land. Hiking further up to Cox's dad's house, they found more plants in trays.
In the spring of 2004, 41-year-old Andy Cox and three other men had planted cannabis seedlings in the forest and on the property of Cox's father, Harry Cox. Andy, a former firefighter and small business owner, says the plan was to "grow some really good buds" and "to sell and smoke the weed after harvesting." (Cox also contends that another man actually ran the operation).
Because the operation involved more than one person, Cox and the other men were indicted in a conspiracy to manufacture and attempt to manufacture marijuana. When he realized he might have to go to prison for five to 10 years, he ran away instead of facing the charges. While in hiding, he realized that the sentence awaiting him if he were ever caught was life without parole.
He lived underground for three years. "It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life," he writes from Pollock, Louisiana. "Being a fugitive is very lonely. The Holidays were the worst... I never contacted any of my family. I missed my children so, so much." Captured in 2008, he decided to take his case to trial. It was a risky move – defendants who exercise their right to trial are far more likely to get long sentences – and it ended in disaster.
Cox was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2009, the same year Barack Obama – who'd freely admitted to smoking marijuana – started his presidency. Even though it was a nonviolent crime, U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias boasted about locking him up for life. "He will have no more chances to poison our communities with illegal drugs, and his sentence should send a message that our national forests are not a safe haven for crime," Nahmias declared in an official press release.
Almost a decade later, as legal pot has swept the country, it's even harder for Cox to make sense of his life sentence. "It is crazy that in eight states they are growing so much more marijuana that I have ever been accused of," Cox says. He'd hoped to get clemency from President Obama, but his petition was denied. "There was no violence or victims in my case, except for my family," Cox says. "I have let them down, and that is not me." Cox has three kids – the youngest, who was five when he left, just graduated high school.
Cox is still working on overturning his sentence, but also accepts the harsh reality. "I do see where I could very well die in prison," he writes.