A West Virginia man arrested in June as he arrived at the Rainbow Family Gathering in Cherokee National Forest — allegedly toting $90,000 worth of methamphetamine, liquid THC and other drugs — has now been cleared of all charges.
On Nov. 27, a Sullivan County grand jury returned no true bills in the case of Michael Sullivan, 60, deeming there was no probable cause to issue an indictment. Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Lesley Foglia said nine different substances police seized from Sullivan’s vehicle were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab for testing. None proved positive for a controlled substance.
"It was just basic things you would buy every day in health food stores," said Sullivan, who described himself to the Times-News as a devout naturalist, herbalist and vegan.
"I guess I feel relieved (to be cleared of the charges) but at the same time I’m a little disappointed because it should never have happened in the first place."
At approximately 2 p.m. on June 24, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office was called to Flatwoods Road along South Holston Lake, where members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light were holding their national gathering for prayer and world peace. An estimated 7,000 people attended the event at its peak on the Fourth of July.
The U.S. Forest Service contacted the sheriff’s office after allegedly observing Sullivan commit a seat belt violation while behind the wheel of his Ford Explorer. Sullivan claims he had pulled to the side of the road to speak with a Forest Service law enforcement officer and was exiting his car to ask where the trail head was to the main gathering area.
The seat belt charge placed by the Forest Service has also been dropped, according to Sullivan, because the officer didn’t address the violation while speaking with him. He ordered Sullivan to pull to the side of the gravel road so a search could be conducted.
"They were just pulling anyone over for anything then bringing in a dog," Sullivan said.
Leslie Earhart, public information officer for the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, said several plastic bags and a jar containing a white powdery substance were located in Sullivan’s vehicle. They were field tested and showed positive for methamphetamine, according to Earhart, while liquid in a glass vial field tested positive for THC.
Sullivan said those substances were simply cornstarch and an "aromatic oil" he had mixed to serve as insect repellant. Foglia said the TBI lab test did not specifically identify the materials, only that they were not a controlled substance.
The sheriff’s office reported a bag containing a "plant type substance" was also located in Sullivan’s possession, with him telling officers on scene that it was peyote. TBI lab testing revealed it was also clean.
"That is definitely not true," Sullivan said of his alleged admission to police, adding the material was actually psyllium husks used for medicinal purposes.
"I clearly explained to them what everything was, and they were labeled, too," said Sullivan.
While Sullivan attributes the incident to overzealous police action — which ultimately left him jailed for three weeks and unable to secure a bond from a local agency due to a perceived flight risk — prosecutors and police stand by the value of the field testing method that resulted in his arrest.
"Field testing is an essential tool for our law enforcement officers to handle cases efficiently in the field," said Foglia. "In my experience, in an overwhelming majority of cases the field test is accurate. This is the only case that I have personally handled where it was not right."
Sullivan is still in the process of getting his seized Ford Explorer out of police impound. He laments a guitar that was allegedly broken while forestry officers conducted their search, saying it was given to him by legendary bluegrass musician Bill Monroe.
And he’s frustrated that the entire incident even occurred, repeatedly stating that none of his actions merited a search — much less an arrest.
"I’m going through a lot of paranoia and anxiety right now," said Sullivan, who resides on an environmental co-op farm in Stumptown, W.Va. "I don’t know what to do. I’ve always felt like (police) are the good guys. And we know the kids need some good guys to go to."