By Jessica Prokop / The Columbian
SAN DIEGO — Former Living Hope Church pastor John Bishop sat shocked at the defendant’s table as a judge late Friday afternoon ordered that his bail bond be revoked in his drug smuggling case and he be taken into federal custody. After spending the weekend in jail, he is now to learn his fate Monday morning.
Bishop stood and turned to embrace his estranged wife, Michelle, giving her a quick kiss and whispering in her ear. As he was escorted out of the courtroom, he said “I love you.”
Heavyset, with short gray hair, the 55-year-old former Vancouver pastor showed up on schedule Friday morning at a San Diego federal courthouse to hear his sentence, after attempting to smuggle nearly 300 pounds of marijuana into the United States from Mexico in December.
He pleaded guilty Feb. 8 to a federal charge of unlawful importation of a controlled substance-marijuana, a felony that carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. Bishop was hopeful about receiving a reduced sentence through the so-called Safety Valve provision, which allows for a sentence below the statutory minimum for certain nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history.
However, his plea deal collapsed when new evidence showed he repeatedly had been untruthful with prosecutors and the FBI.
And on Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Oleksandra Y. Johnson said she received new evidence of his untruthfulness that morning — a Columbian article in which Bishop made statements last week that were inconsistent with what he said during his Safety Valve interview with authorities.
Bishop’s public defender, Matthew C. Binninger, claimed Bishop was tricked into giving the Columbian an interview. The interview took place after The Columbian received a call from a friend of Bishop’s who patched him through to a reporter. Binninger further argued that his client has been honest throughout and has satisfied the requirements for the sentencing reduction.
But the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum filed Sept. 14 details new evidence showing Bishop had made many trips across the border running marijuana, and had even contemplated transporting Mexican heroin to Vancouver.
Court filings further allege Michelle Bishop and their son David were involved in the drug-running and that the Bishops spent the proceeds on things such as cruises and a trip to a Disney theme park. None of his family members have been charged with a federal crime.
The rest of the story came out after the FBI obtained Bishop’s cellphone records in June, and reviewed more than 6,000 text messages he sent and received between April 1, 2016, and Dec. 11, 2017, the day he was arrested by federal officials.
“Specifically, Bishop’s messages with his wife show that Michelle Bishop was not only aware of his involvement with drug cartel and smuggling, but encouraged Bishop to ‘work.’ (John) Bishop also had communicated with his son, David Bishop, about cartels and starting their own drug trafficking business,” according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.
“Additionally, Bishop’s phone messages demonstrated that he lied about how much money he was making by crossing drugs,” court documents state.
Much of John Bishop’s hearing was closed to the public Friday while he testified about the information contained in the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum. Chief U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz ordered the sentencing memorandum and hearing be sealed after Bishop and his attorney expressed concerns for his safety. At the end of the day, he ordered Bishop into custody, after the prosecution argued he was a flight risk now that he realizes he is facing significant time in prison and that his wife has been implicated.
Ties to cartels
Federal investigators say they first encountered Bishop on Jan. 4, 2017, when he initiated a meeting with the Safe Streets Task Force in Vancouver. At that time, he admitted to having ties to Mexican drug cartels.
According to court documents, Bishop claimed a man — whom he later said was his son’s friend and roommate in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — approached him about smuggling heroin into the U.S. The man reportedly wanted Bishop to smuggle two kilograms, or about 4 1/2 pounds, of heroin up “north” in November 2016. He offered to pay Bishop $10,000 to transport the drugs. Bishop said they discussed it for two months but said he decided not to do it, according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.
He also admitted to concocting another plan with a Vancouver resident where Bishop would bring the heroin into the U.S. and sell it to him for $20,000, the memorandum states.
Meanwhile, Bishop repeatedly smuggled marijuana from Mexico to California until his arrest.
At 5:25 a.m. Dec. 11, Bishop was stopped by federal officials at the border crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, to the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro, Calif. He was driving a gray 2014 Volkswagen Passat, which contained 105 packages of marijuana concealed in the car’s bumpers, rear seat, dashboard and at least one wheel well. (Court records previously stated that the car was a Volkswagen Jetta.) He told investigators the sedan didn’t belong to him. However, the Volkswagen was registered in his name, according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.
Bishop later told law enforcement that he had transported marijuana across the border 15 times since April 2016. But a review of Bishop’s border crossing records shows he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the Volkswagen more than 57 times between Jan. 24, 2017 and his arrest in December.
There were other inconsistencies in statements Bishop made to the government.
In a May interview to see if he could qualify for a reduced prison term, Bishop denied ever previously speaking to law enforcement about drugs and cartels or making statements about his son’s friend. Bishop then submitted a written statement May 16, apologizing for not being truthful and admitted to reaching out to law enforcement in January 2017 in hopes of becoming an informant, the memorandum states.
Bishop submitted a second letter following up on his earlier statements in which he maintained his son’s friend was not involved with the marijuana smuggling and had been killed in spring 2017 before the scheme was concocted, according to the memorandum.
On Sept. 6, Bishop submitted a third letter after being presented with the cellphone evidence, attempting to explain his earlier omissions and inconsistent statements. He maintained that he participated in the drug smuggling voluntarily, and had actually smuggled marijuana into the country 18 to 20 times since April 2016. Bishop said he earned $50,000 smuggling the drugs, the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum states.
The defense’s sentencing memorandum states that Bishop did not deliberately lie to the government. Instead, he initially “under-approximated the number of times that he crossed marijuana.”
Bishop also stated that while he and his son had discussed starting their own drug trafficking business, his son was not involved in this crime, according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum. He changed his statement about his wife, however, and said it’s possible she knew about the drug trafficking but that they never discussed it. Bishop said he told his wife he crossed vehicles into the U.S. to sell them.
However, according to the same memorandum, text messages obtained from Bishop’s cellphone show he frequently communicated with Michelle Bishop about his whereabouts and activities with cartels. On Oct. 30, 2017, Bishop texted, “I am for the first time in my life not afraid to die. Michelle. I have done nothing wrong. I am a good person. And I don’t need any cartel to protect me.”
The memorandum states there were also numerous text messages in which he asked his wife (the Bishops are now legally separated) to pick him up after border crossings and told her that “cleaning money” was her job. John Bishop later told law enforcement that his wife was not involved in money laundering and that his reference to “cleaning money” was about where they keep their cash — in a detergent box.
In its sentencing memorandum, the prosecution wrote, “This claim is utterly absurd.”
The Bishops reportedly used the drug money to book cruises; pay for schooling, medical bills, a $3,000 heat pump and a trip to a Disney theme park; to purchase a second trailer that they planned to rent out, and a better car for Michelle; to save for a house; and to share with their three adult children. John Bishop wrote in text messages to his wife that the couple were “debt free completely,” according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.
On Nov. 27, the memorandum states, he texted Michelle Bishop with his plans for the money and said, “Would you have imagined we would be in this place? What a blessing.”
Text messages exchanged with David Bishop revealed that both father and son were involved with a Mexican drug cartel, and the younger Bishop held a position in the cartel, the prosecution’s memorandum states.
The defense said in its sentencing memorandum that the “government’s interpretations of the text messages do not demonstrate these peoples’ involvement in the offense” and that John Bishop implicated all of the individuals he could recall were involved in the drug trafficking. Additionally, the defense said, Bishop played a minor role as a drug courier and provided the government with information unrelated to the crime that was then used against him.
“Bishop touched the lives of thousands by preaching the word of God and helping several families through difficult times,” the defense wrote, giving examples from his followers.
“This experience put the fear of God into him, catapulting him back into a law-abiding life,” the defense’s sentencing memorandum concluded. “Mr. Bishop is a good man who has lived a life of service: service to his country, service to the Lord, and service to the local and international communities. …He understands that what he did is wrong and he is sorry for the crime he committed.”
Monday’s sentencing hearing is set for 10:30 a.m.