BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — PEABODY — He claimed not to know there was $1.1 million worth of cocaine in the duffel bag he was caught carrying to a minivan with Canadian plates.
And yesterday, a Salem Superior Court jury decided to believe Jason Grilli, 40, clearing him of a cocaine trafficking charge that could have sent him to prison for 20 years.
Instead, the jury took about 31/2 hours to convict Grilli, who is from Laval, Quebec, of a single count of conspiracy to violate the controlled substance laws.
Judge David Lowy sentenced Grilli to four to five years in state prison.
Prosecutor Greg Friedholm had urged a longer term, eight to 10 years, citing the significant amount of evidence in the case; Grilli’s lawyer, Michael Farrell, asked for a three-year term.
Farrell, a Philadelphia attorney who was practicing in Massachusetts with permission from the judge, argued to jurors that Grilli was a “two-bit gofer” who had no idea what was in the large black duffel bag he was paid $2,500 to pick up at the Peabody Holiday Inn in December 2011.
Grilli, on the stand, admitted that he knew something “shady” was taking place but denied knowing that the bag was packed with 11 kilograms (25 pounds) of cocaine bound for Canada. He told jurors that he was an unemployed waiter “desperate” for cash.
Friedholm argued to jurors that it made no sense that major drug traffickers in Canada would have entrusted such a large amount of drugs to a waiter and noted that intercepted text messages among those organized crime figures included the fake name Grilli was using during the transaction.
As the jury was announcing its verdicts, Farrell grabbed Grilli around the chest and then hugged him, at one point rubbing his hand on Grilli’s head, as Lowy looked on with a stern expression.
Two other men pleaded guilty earlier this year: Gerardo Flores, a now-former Arizona National Guard staff sergeant hired to drive money back to Texas, who received three years; and Valentine Munoz-Torres, a Mexican citizen who received 12 years in prison for trafficking cocaine.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.