MARQUETTE - A federal jury on Thursday convicted a Sault Ste. Marie man on six charges related to the possession and transportation of more than 4,000 pounds of explosives, while acquitting his codefendant.
John Francis Lechner, 65, was convicted on two counts of transporting explosive materials without a permit, two counts of improperly storing explosive materials, one count of possessing explosives while under indictment and one count of making materially false statements to law enforcement.
The jury also acquitted Lechner on two counts related to the distribution of explosive materials.
The jury - which comprised six men and six women and included a nurse, a trucker, a retired teacher, a machinist, a printing press operator and a staff member at a college - returned the verdict shortly after 12:30 p.m. Thursday following about two hours of deliberation.
Most of Lechner's charges stemmed from two separate incidents, in which he moved and stored more than 4,000 pounds of ammonium-nitrate fuel oil, a recognized blasting agent. Lechner did not possess the required permits at the times of the moves, but told the jury during testimony Wednesday that he believed he was acting within the scope of the law.
He said he was planning to use the material in one of the rock quarries he operated.
When confronted by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Lechner told them he had used all the ANFO, a statement he classified Wednesday as a "white lie."
At the time, Lechner was under indictment in Chippewa County on charges of larceny, resisting a police officer and false report of a felony. Those charges are still pending.
The government's case against Lechner was based largely on a conversation recorded by an informant, who helped Lechner move the ANFO in September of 2011, and on photos of Lechner and codefendant Kenneth Ageed Kassab moving the material in November of 2010.
An employee of Lechner's, Kassab, 53, was acquitted on the only two charges he faced. Kassab, of Brimley, had been charged with one count of transporting explosive materials and one count of possessing explosives as a convicted felon.
During the 2010 incident, Kassab and Lechner went to one of Lechner's rental properties, loaded the ANFO onto a truck and transported it to another of Lechner's properties before unloading all of the bags into a garage. Lechner's tenant at the time took photos of the pair and turned them over to law enforcement.
According to his attorney, Karl Numinen, Kassab was simply an employee doing his job. Kassab testified that he had no reason to question Lechner, who told him the ANFO was a fertilizer.
"I says, 'John, why - if this is fertilizer - why does it say "blasting" on here?' He says, 'It can be used for that, but you need different components for that,'" Kassab testified Wednesday.
Numinen said his client was used by the government to leverage the case against Lechner, who withdrew a guilty plea in the case prior to Kassab's indictment.
"The government wields a tremendous amount of power and they used that power, in this case, to bring my client in as a pawn in their conflict with Mr. Lechner," Numinen said. "He survived, but it was an ordeal for him. I truly believe that had Mr. Lechner not withdrawn his guilty plea, Mr. Kassab never would have been charged."
Kassab had also reached a plea agreement with the government, but withdrew his plea just four days before trial.
"The two of us spent a fair amount of time having real heart-to-heart discussions about his role in this situation and whether that constituted criminal liability," Numinen said. "Mr. Kassab came to the conclusion that he did nothing wrong. ... He was right."
Numinen said that, following the trial, one of the jurors had indicated to him that the jury agreed to acquit Kassab within about 20 minutes of convening for deliberations. The group then turned its attention to the charges against Lechner.
Lechner is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 18 at 9 a.m.
Calls for comment to Paul Peterson, who served as Lechner's attorney, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Maarten Vermaat were not returned.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.