MARQUETTE - A Sault Ste. Marie man who last year illegally possessed and transported more than 4,000 pounds of explosives was sentenced Thursday to more than four years in federal prison.
John Francis Lechner, 65, was convicted by a jury in June of 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.
At Thursday's sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Marquette, Judge R. Allan Edgar sentenced Lechner to 51 months in prison and ordered him to pay $6,450 in fines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maarten Vermaat painted Lechner as a man with a bad temper and a disrespect for the law.
"What we've seen here is someone with a short fuse and a temper," Vermaat said. "Someone who completely ignores the law, does whatever he wants."
Vermaat said that, despite more than two hours of testimony during his June trial, Lechner had offered only "endless excuses" for his actions.
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 have the permits required to possess the ANFO, which he has said he was planning to use 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 during his trial as a "white lie."
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 then-codefendant Kenneth Ageed Kassab moving the material in November of 2010.
An employee of Lechner's, Kassab had been charged with one count of transporting explosive materials and one count of possessing explosives as a convicted felon. He was acquitted on both charges in June and was in the courtroom to watch Lechner's sentencing Thursday.
During the sentencing hearing, defense attorney Paul Peterson asked Edgar for some measure of leniency for his client, who had very seldom been in trouble with the law prior to a few years ago.
"We recognize this was an extraordinarily dangerous situation," he said, before describing Lechner as a self-employed contractor stuck in his ways. His client, Peterson said, never intended to hurt anyone.
An animated Lechner - clad in an orange jumpsuit from the Chippewa County Jail, where he has resided since last fall - stood at his attorney's side and addressed the court for more than 30 minutes. He argued that his storage and transportation of the explosives was not outside the law and insisted he had never lied to authorities.
"They say I lied. I didn't lie," Lechner said. "If I lied, I don't know where I lied.
"I don't have nothing to be ashamed of. If you say, 'John. you've got to go to jail for the rest of your life,' then so be it."
In addition to federal sentencing guidelines, Edgar considered Lechner's criminal history and voiced an interest in issuing a sentence that would serve as a deterrent to others.
"A paramount factor to consider here is the need for public protection," Edgar said. "We do not want people running around with ANFO."
Edgar described Lechner's disregard for the law and his attempts to keep the ANFO from authorities as "disturbing" and voiced concern over a recent "general slide into erratic and violent behavior" by Lechner.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.